Former Army Reservist and Iraq veteran Joe Collins sits in his mother's living room in Edmond and describes his daily struggle to forget the horrors of war.
“I'll do anything not to think about it,” Collins said. “I don't even have a cable box in my room.”
The 28-year-old veteran speaks with a lisp because of his dentures. In the eight years since his return from combat, Collins not only has lost his teeth and gall bladder to drug addiction, he's also lost his job, his home and his self-sufficiency, all to post-traumatic stress disorder.
A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that veterans with PTSD are prescribed opium-based painkillers at a higher rate and dosage than those without mental health disorders, and they often are taking them along with other painkillers or sedatives. These soldiers, primarily veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have a higher rate of overdoses and self-inflicted and violence-related injuries.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, responding to concerns about its handling of soldiers with PTSD, announced in April the addition of 1,900 mental health professionals to its staff. But within days, the good news was overshadowed by revelations that the VA had been manipulating inpatient treatment statistics.
According to VA policy, when veterans ask for mental health care, they are supposed to receive a full evaluation within 14 days. But a report by the VA inspector general's office concluded that while the department was claiming to hit that mark 95 percent of the time, in reality more than half of the veterans studied waited an average of 50 days.
Sarah Green's son, Cody Green, served in Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard in 2004. After his return to Norman, it was evident to those close to him that his drug use was becoming a serious problem.
Green struggled with PTSD for years. Last summer, after a series of suicide attempts, his mother sought help from the VA. She was told her son was on a waiting list to receive treatment, but would not be admitted for a couple of months.
“I just said he needs it, and he needs it now; he's in trouble,” she recalled.
After pressing her case, she was able to arrange an initial treatment session a couple of weeks away. But the appointment didn't arrive soon enough.
“A week before that, he committed suicide,” she said.
During the past few months, more than 3,000 soldiers in the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade returned from Afghanistan and Kuwait. VA program manager Edwina Luker is part of a task force looking at how to deal with the influx.
“My bigger concern is not how we're going to handle them, but getting them here at all,” Luker said. “Typically, this age group does not want to have anything wrong with them. And they certainly don't want to have mental health things wrong with them or traumatic brain injuries.”