Help from Congress for Veterans with PTSD

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By U.S. Representative Tom Allen 1st Congressional District of Maine, photo by Ramona du Houx

When my father returned from the South Pacific after World War II, he rarely talked about the terrifying nightly bombings that blasted the Navy air base where he served as a control tower operator. Nor did he often speak of the pilots he had befriended who never returned from their missions. He was a quiet and determined man, who gave enormously to his country, community and family, but I now believe that when he came home, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that skillful treatment might have eased his pain.

In 1945, however, the symptoms that constitute PTSD were rarely acknowledged. Even today, as Maine veterans have shown me, it remains under-diagnosed, under-treated, and misunderstood. That is why I have introduced the Full Faith in Veterans Act, H.R. 5448.

Scott Whittier, from Washington, Maine, served as an active duty Army Reserve soldier and National Guard Member during the Gulf War in 1991. U.S. forces had relentlessly bombed and strafed Iraqi military convoys fleeing Kuwait on Route 8, Iraq’s "Highway of Death." As he recently recalled, "The sights were of nothing I’d ever seen before ... Death littered the highway."

Later, these sights began to take their toll. Back in the States, Scott was diagnosed by Togus Veterans Administration (VA) medical personnel as suffering from PTSD, made worse when he watched 9/11 and the current war in Iraq unfold. "I almost totally shut down. I began isolating myself ... started drinking even more. Lost all interest ... could not remember simple tasks, names, where I was going ... Memories came crashing down ... of all those bodies, smells, hands, legs, heads, blood, burnt gruesome, odorsome bodies."

Although his physician was confident that his PTSD was service-connected, the VA demanded proof that he was on Route 8 during the invasion. One would think that the military itself could easily provide this evidence, but it took the Army years to do so. Only this month did Scott get word that his government would accept his doctor’s diagnosis.

Terry Belanger of Biddeford was rapidly driving a troop-filled truck in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive when he accidentally ran over a small girl. Ordered not to stop because of the danger lurking in the village, the accident has haunted him for decades. He is plagued by flashbacks and nightmares, anxiety, migraines, and insomnia. As his loving wife wrote, "this wonderful man ... left part of his soul in Vietnam."

Terry’s PTSD disability claim was denied because "there was no evidence of a qualifying stressor and his evidentiary assertions regarding his post-traumatic stress disorder were found to be not credible." In other words, this soldier’s medical history and the conclusions of his private and VA physicians — all of whom believe he has service-connected PTSD — are dismissed by VA bureaucrats.

These cases and others have a common theme: a self-serving governmental skepticism of our men and women in uniform and the medical professionals who care for them. Current law and regulations put the burden of proof on veterans to produce evidence of traumatic events from long ago. They must either submit verifying military documents that may have been lost or never created, or locate former comrades to provide "buddy statements." The military itself often provides little or no assistance to the claimant in finding these witnesses or securing documentary evidence.

Under H.R. 5448, a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD can be based upon a mental health care provider’s professional conclusion that there is a logical relationship between the veteran’s exposure to military stressors (combat or non-combat) and current PTSD symptoms. This common-sense approach is already recognized as appropriate by the VA in its new rules concerning diagnosis of service-connected PTSD while the claimant is on active duty. Often, however, PTSD symptoms do not appear until months or even years later, making the rule change of limited usefulness.

My bill would also require the VA to review, update and improve its diagnosis and treatment procedures for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other mental health disorders. VA employees and contractors responsible for rating PTSD disability compensation claims must successfully complete a certification program that incorporates best practices.

Most soldiers who are exposed to trauma while in the service do not suffer PTSD. But we owe a duty to the many men and women who are scarred by their experiences, particularly now as so many soldiers and marines return battle weary from Iraq and Afghanistan. H.R. 5448, along with the substantial increase of VA funding for PTSD diagnosis and treatment, enacted by Congress last year, would be an important step in the direction of providing help for all veterans struggling with PTSD.