Saturday, January 17, 2015

The War at Home

It has become a cliché that “18 veterans a day”—and then “22 veterans a day”—die of suicide in America. These appalling figures of the VA’s estimated daily average of military veterans who kill themselves have been reported in the news media for years. Telling the story of one of those veterans, and how his family battled the US government to change how it treats returning soldiers, will hopefully shake up enough people to truly make a difference.
That’s the aim of the authors, editors and publisher of The Wounds Within: A Veteran, a PTSD Therapist, and a Nation Unprepared.  It focuses on Jeff Lucey’s death at home after serving with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq. This is a still startling tragedy, which has been widely told before in news accounts, his parents’ testimony to various government entities, and in previous books, notably The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, published in 2009.

The new element in The Wounds Within are the insights of co-author Mark I. Nickerson, a private psychotherapist who was trying to help Lucey navigate the VA treatment maze when the 23-year-old Marine reservist hung himself in his parents’ basement. 

“Never before has a client of mine taken his or her own life while working with me,” writes Nickerson, whose faith in his professional training and skills was shaken. “In hindsight, I was learning about a higher level of risk that can exist for veterans in the aftermath of war.” He was assisted in writing this book by author Joshua S. Goldstein.
Nickerson stayed in close touch with the Lucey family and worked at learning and teaching others how to better assist military veterans beset by nightmares, grief, depression and other symptoms of a mysterious malady that government agencies bureaucratically labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to churn out, over the next decade, a generation of “lost” soldiers who killed themselves in greater numbers than died on the battlefields. Lawsuits by the Luceys and by veterans groups helped uncover a hidden crisis of VA mismanagement of treatment programs for veterans of all ages, with Vietnam veterans accounting for the vast majority of reported suicides.
The Wounds Within also tells the story of Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s campaign to change the system that they felt killed their son. I first heard them speak, in Boston in 2004, when they joined with Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in challenging the war policy that harmed so many of our own troops as well as terrified Iraqis. They challenged the VA health care system with numerous allied groups. They continued raising these concerns for the next decade, including a meeting with White House officials last summer. 

“After ten years, the reforms still don’t go far enough, but they are extensive,” Nickerson writes. “Quite possibly, if today’s systems had been in place when Jeff returned from Iraq, he would be alive.”
Among the treatments for PTSD that Nickerson feels the VA is getting right are stress management and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which he specializes in. Yet he acknowledges that many veterans were turned off by how they were treated in seeking VA care.

“An important advancement in treatment over the last ten years is the realization that the old model of deferring trauma treatment until a person is clean and sober is misguided,” he notes. This is one of the VA policies in 2004 that added to Jeff Lucey’s despair that no one could or would help him, as he tried to self-medicate with booze.
Another program the VA is getting right are the Vet Centers, which provide stress management, anger management, and various other treatment programs to vets of all eras in community settings. This is a program, which Nickerson writes the Luceys were not aware of until too late, that deserves a book of its own.

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