Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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PTSD: Roadblocks to recovery

April 9, 2012

The San Francisco Chronicle published three commentaries on PTSD on Sunday, April 8, 2012, including mine titled “PTSD: Roadblocks to recovery.” Links to the two other commentaries are at the bottom of this page.


PTSD: Roadblocks to recovery

Home Front: Needing treatment, GIs face stigma, backlog of cases

By Jackie Speier

The long dark shadow of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of murdering 17 Afghans, hangs over our country, threatening to do more harm to our military troops and veterans.
While justice awaits him, a horrible injustice now confronts men and women grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or both. They need timely treatment, not the stigma of being labeled "ticking time bombs" by those who don't understand the manifestations of stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
The sergeant's legal defense team most likely will use stress and brain trauma in arguing that he wasn't mentally responsible for his actions, that he should be institutionalized. But medical research has defused the ticking-time-bomb link with traumatic stress and brain injuries. Yes, suffering, anxiety and anger are associated with these disorders, but not the violence that rivals the atrocities alleged against one soldier in Afghanistan. The Bales trial should be viewed as a stand-alone case and should be countered with increased national support for veterans with brain trauma and stress disorder issues.
The Department of Veterans Affairs says it is treating 400,000 veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder this year - 250,000 of them with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the VA suspects that tens of thousands of veterans who have engaged in combat over the past 10 years have chosen not to seek treatment. Overall, 2.5 million troops have been cycled through Iraq and Afghanistan. When some of these veterans finally seek help, they have complicated their recovery by engaging in alcohol abuse and drug addiction. If they would get help early, says the VA, stress therapy would be more effective.
Additionally, researchers say traumatic brain injuries, which can include a diagnosis of PTSD, can lead to heart problems and dementia. Clearly, the issue goes beyond a return to sound mental health.
But stress disorder treatment is complicated by various factors that prevent our troops and veterans from seeking help. First, the military gives troops a mental health screening exam. If a soldier answers that he has problems sleeping, for example, he knows he will be asked to take more exams that will pull him away from his unit - his home. So some troops don't answer truthfully. Instead, they follow an unwritten code that, loosely translated, means, "suck it up and move on."
Second, stress disorder treatment will be noted in a soldier's medical records, which could jeopardize a future promotion. And despite promises of confidentiality by the military, medical files could be accessed by agencies checking on a veteran's fitness to work in law enforcement.
Military leaders, while acknowledging the importance of protecting medical records, state that the mission comes first. So if five people are required to do the job, every step must be taken to ensure that each person is emotionally and physically sound enough to do the mission, confidentiality be damned. But we also have a mission at home: the successful transition from active duty to an employed veteran.
On a much smaller scale, I know post-traumatic stress disorder first-hand - I was shot five times in Jonestown, Guyana, 33 years ago. When a car backfires, I still go back in time with chills. I had the benefit of extensive therapy right after being wounded. I certainly want the same therapy for anyone who has been injured or seen death up close. What I don't want is for the Bales trial to go on without people standing up to support our troops or veterans in their journey to come home. And I don't want them to wait for help.
Many veterans distrust the VA, and for good reason. Nationally, there is a backlog of some 897,000 claims for help filed by men and women who served in the military. In March of this year, I met with Douglas Bragg, the director of the Oakland VA, to hear what he would do to erase the backlog of 34,100 claims at his office - 80 percent of which have been languishing for more than 125 days, the VA's self-imposed deadline to clear a claim - including 3,774 PTSD cases. The director promised to close all cases that were a year old within the next 12 months. I will hold him to that promise.

If this trust between the veteran and the VA is to be regained, we must stop the endless waits for approval of disability benefits during the time many veterans face unemployment and homelessness. If medical research shows us that PTSD can be treated most effectively if done promptly, don't subject our veterans to a bureaucratic mazes designed to disillusion, not heal.
To get help for PTSD

-- Veterans may file a claim with a Department of Veterans Affairs facility (a clinic, a hospital, a claims office) and state that he or she wants to file a claim for PTSD. In 2010, the VA adopted new rules to make it easier to prove PTSD. If the claim is unresolved, the veteran may be asked to pay a $15 co-pay at a VA clinic and receive treatment.

-- For urgent help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, call the Department of Veterans Affairs Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255. Push #1.

-- For information, visit the VA's website, or

-- For one-stop shopping for information, advocacy and services, visit

-- Need assistance? Call Swords to Plowshares, a veterans assistance nonprofit, (415) 252-4788

-- Having trouble with a claim? Call Rep. Jackie Speier's district office (650) 342-0300
Claims backlog

In the Department of Veterans Affairs' Oakland regional office there are:

26,290 claims pending for longer than 125 days

3,774 (14.4 percent) of those include at least one PTSD issue.

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

Rep. Jackie Speier represents San Francisco and San Mateo counties in the House of Representatives.

Click here to read the original article.

 Please read the other two commentaries:

Helping a veteran to seek aid

VA offers spectrum of services to vets with PTSD