Veterans commission hears about struggle with PTSD and stigma

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Soldiers returning to the United States from overseas are facing mental health problems that could lead to drug-dependency and suicide, veterans told a task force Aug. 14.

Veterans, advocates and executives of mental health organizations spoke about the emotional issues facing military service members at the Joint Taskforce for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’s second meeting.

The purpose of the meeting was to gather information to help fix mental health service problems facing the military by the end of the year.

Ralph Bozella, past president of the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, said veterans are frequently given prescription drugs for their mental health problems, which can lead to problems.

“The VA system is drug-oriented,” he said. “That is creating dependency issues and other psychological issues for these patients.

Bozella said veterans continue to pay for wars long after they return.

“PTSD and (traumatic brain injury) has become the signature injury of this war,” he said.

The two-hour meeting turned several times to the high number of military suicides. More than 20 veterans kill themselves every day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in a February report based on data through 2010. About 350 active members of the military killed themselves in 2012, according to officials.

“The suicide rate is completely unacceptable,” said Richard Stewart, a veterans service officer for Arapahoe County.

Stewart said there needs to be a quicker way for mentally ill veterans to receive benefits from the federal government. Benefits could include higher disability pay, affordable mental health care, job help and other services.

Many claims get backlogged because veterans have to prove they were emotionally traumatized during their time in service, which takes months and years of investigation by the VA and paper filings by veterans, he said.

“On the other side of the coin, men and women are intentionally diagnosed with personality disorders to block them from getting benefits,” Stewart said.

PTSD is common among veterans, especially those who serve in overseas wars. According to the VA, up to 11 percent of Afghanistan war veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, and up to 20 percent of Iraq war veterans have PTSD.

Aurora resident Jim Blane, a World War II veteran, told the task force he was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD several years after the war ended in 1945. “World War II has been over for a long time, but it’s never been over for me,” he said.

Several veterans talked about the stigma of PTSD, which often deters veterans from seeking mental health help and causes civilians to perceive them as being different.

“Soldiers suffering form PTSD aren’t dangerous,” said Curtis Bean, a U.S. Army veteran. “They’re not people that should be avoided.”

Members of the PTSD Task Force include Aurora lawmakers U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen, who was recently appointed chairman of the task force. Also on the task force are veterans including disabled U.S. Army veteran Wayne Brady, and health care professionals including Dr. Michael Allen, director of research at the Colorado Depression Center.

Coffman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, started the task force with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in hopes of addressing issues related to PTSD in the military.

“The invisible wounds coming out of war are post-traumatic stress,” he said at the meeting. “The issue before the task force is how do we deal with it effectively.”

Holen said the meeting was productive.

“Our goal is to provide substantive recommendations on how to improve our service and not be critical and point fingers,” he said. “Clearly, today, it’s been shown that we need a whole community involvement to address these issues.”

The task force’s recommendations could have a significant impact on Aurora, since estimates show the city has about 32,000 veterans.

The meeting comes as veterans in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region deal with frustrations over the construction of the new Veterans Affairs Hospital in Aurora. A spat between the VA and the builder is threatening to delay the completion of the project past 2015.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]