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.”
Collins fit that description. Even though he knew he had serious problems, he declined to disclose them when he filled out the paperwork needed to process his return.
“When I came back I tried so hard to fit back in,” Collins said.
Collins said he experienced severe depression and anxiety and was even considering suicide. He soon found himself in a series of troubling incidents. One night, while leaving a casino, he got into an argument after he backed into another man's truck. According to Collins, both men had been drinking.
“He shot at me; he had a revolver. I got out of the truck and started screaming at him. I told him to pull it out and called him a coward. That was my moment where I thought, ‘This is going to happen. I'm finally going to get my way out.' I was just egging him on to do it.”
When Collins finally did seek help, it wasn't through the VA.
Collins paid out-of-pocket for his care, eventually exhausting all the money he had saved from his time in the Army. Primary care doctors prescribed him higher and higher doses of prescription drugs, which left him with a severe addiction and even deeper withdrawal.
The VA recognizes the mounting problem that PTSD and drug addiction pose. In an effort to accommodate the new generation of young soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is trying out some new tactics.
“We see a lot of younger veterans who want to communicate electronically. So we do text messaging and social media,” said Stacy Rine, a public affairs officer at the VA facility in Oklahoma City. “Another example is appointments. A lot of these vets have day jobs. So we have appointments early in the morning, as well as late at night to accommodate their needs.”
The VA is also is looking more into alternative and complementary medicines such as meditation and relaxation therapy.
At a time when “supporting the troops” is a highly idealized notion, Collins wonders why the United States spends a disproportionately small amount of its military budget on veteran care. “That is a mistake that our government is making, and it's morally wrong,” he said.
That sentiment is shared by Sarah Green. She said she believes her son, Cody, would be alive today if the government had adequate resources in place to help soldiers in need.
It was the National Guard's lack of compassion that she thinks did the most damage to her son. She recalled how Green's fight with PTSD kept him bedridden, causing him to miss drill.
“When he finally did make it to drill, they stood him up in front of everyone and tore off his stripes,” she said tearfully.
“The war broke his spirit, but the Army broke his heart.”