Family seeks changes to VA treatment rules following soldier's death
Published: Monday, May 09, 2011, 9:00 AM Updated: Monday, May 09, 2011, 10:12 AM
By Holly Setter | Booth Mid-Michigan The Bay City Times
BAY CITY — U.S. Army Pfc. Kyle Brooks didn’t die while serving his country in Iraq, but his family says the experience is what ultimately killed him.
Now, family members are taking action and speaking out about the soldier’s death, hoping to prevent further loss of life.
Brooks, a 23-year-old Bay City native, served in Iraq from November 2008 to June 2009. He returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of anxiety that can occur after a person has seen or experienced a traumatic event.
In February, Brooks committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and 2-year-old son. His family buried him April 25 in St. Patrick Cemetery in Bay City.
Family members say Brooks still would be alive had he received the care and support he needed.
“They were treating him for PTSD while he was still over there (in Iraq),” said Mark Charters of Midland, Brooks’ uncle. “They gave him an honorable discharge, a month’s worth of pills and then told him that he wasn’t eligible for help at the VA hospital because he hadn’t served 24 months of active duty.”
Brooks had sought help at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Athens, Ga., near the home of his mother and stepfather, Barb and Steve Charters, with whom Brooks was living after separating from his wife.
Repeated attempts by The Times to contact officials from the Georgia medical center were unsuccessful.
The law regarding benefits for veterans does say that a member of the military “must have 24 months continuous active duty military service,” although there are a number of exceptions, including treatment for service-related conditions.
Brooks enlisted in 2008 and was discharged just months before reaching the 24-month requirement.
Art Schupback, veteran services coordinator for the Bay County Veterans Office, said because Brooks saw combat, he should have been eligible for PTSD treatment.
“Some person made a mistake over there and it cost somebody his life,” Schupback said.
He added, however, that the rules surrounding eligibility can be confusing, even to VA staff members.
CourtesyBrooks, shown here in an armored vehicle, committed suicide a year and a half after being honorably discharged from the Army. Despite being treated for PTSD while in Iraq, staff members said he did not qualify for VA care once he was discharged.
And that’s what members of Brooks’ family hope to change. They want to work with lawmakers to make the rules more clear.
“On one of the rejections, they highlighted a sentence that said (Brooks) did not complete his first full tour,” Mark Charters said. “The line right above that says he served in a designated imminent danger zone in Iraq, but that obviously means nothing.
“That’s the part that really bothers me the most: Kyle didn’t have to die, and I wonder how many other people across the country are in the same position?”
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects roughly 35 to 45 percent of combat veterans, with 40 of every 100,000 committing suicide, said Dave Gaffney, a clinical social worker at the Aleda E. Lutz VA Medical Center in Saginaw.
He said treatment of PTSD and the underlying trauma is crucial for coping with it.
“Therapy drastically increases the likelihood that sufferers of PTSD won’t develop suicidal thoughts, and if they do, they won’t act on them,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, said that his staff has been working with the House Veterans Committee to review eligibility rules related to veterans benefits.
He said there is room for improvement.
“I think we should be as helpful as possible, and in as many areas as we can be,” Kildee said. “I feel that as they’re over there doing their duty, we should be doing ours over here.”
Mark Charters said he’s also hoping to contact U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, and U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, to talk about the issue.
Brooks’ family members have spoken to officials at the Saginaw VA, who have communicated the story to the national office, said Carrie Seward, chief public affairs officer for the Saginaw VA.
Brooks’ death followed a rough year, during which his sister and grandfather died. Barb Charters says he repeatedly asked, “Why can’t somebody help me?”
Steve Charters, who raised Brooks from the time he was 3 months old, said his stepson was a different person after returning from Iraq.
“The thing that I noticed was almost anger,” Steve Charters said. “Actually, I’m not so sure it was anger as much as despair. I don’t know that there is even a word for it … he internalized a lot, focused on his son … he just kept repeatedly saying he didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
Barb Charters said her son suffered through many uneasy nights.
“He just couldn’t live, I know he couldn’t. He came home and kept telling me, ‘You don’t know, nobody knows.’ ”
Gaffney said the internalization reported by family members is typical of combat veterans because of their military training.
“The military doesn’t want soldiers sharing their feelings on the battlefield,” he said. “They bring that training home with them and it doesn’t help them become happy, productive family members.”
He said part of the VA mental health assistance is helping soldiers become comfortable with sharing their feelings again, adding the most effective treatment is counseling, not medication.
“We have found that people suffering from PTSD are just as likely to commit suicide while on medication while not undergoing counseling as they are with no treatment at all,” Gaffney said. “There are no medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of PTSD, but there are about 16 different therapies that have been proven effective in 60 percent of cases.”
Mark Charters says Brooks’ family did help him connect with a private psychologist, but the therapy was fruitless.
“ ‘I like her, she’s nice,’ he’d say, ‘but she doesn’t get the PTSD,’ ” Charters said. “There’s a reason the VA has doctors who specialize in the military aspect to PTSD.”
Gaffney agreed, noting a specific therapy method has been designed for those suffering from PTSD.
“If you have a therapist who specializes in say, depression, the therapy probably wouldn’t help someone with PTSD,” he said. “In fact, it might even make it worse. Doing the kind of talk-through where you go over what happened again an
d again isn’t helpful for someone with PTSD.”