Moines Register May 21, 2006
PTSD: Soldiers in distress
Critics say Iowa lacks help for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The military says it begs soldiers to sign up for the many services provided.
By JENNIFER JACOBS
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
May 21, 2006
It's a jarring image: A U.S. flag flies upside-down outside Terri Jones's home.
It's a distress signal she took straight from the federal flag code - and it's her way of calling Iowans' attention to what she believes is an unfolding crisis of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
One of its victims, she said, was her son, Jason Cooper, 23, who took off his dog tags, fastened a noose, and stepped off a chair.
"Our soldiers are being failed," said Jones, who lives outside Russell. "I'm extremely proud of our soldiers. They responded to the call to duty. They're willing to do anything for that American flag, but what that American flag stands for is not willing to do anything back for them."
Aid for returning veterans has become a hot-button issue across the country, with Democratic politicians and veterans' advocates crying for better detection and treatment of combat-related mental health problems.
But military and Veterans Affairs officials in Washington, D.C., and in Iowa say they have to practically beg troops to take advantage of the unprecedented help that's already offered.
"We're out there in their faces. We insist. We give them examples. We're all there for them," said Victor Tate, a VA outreach specialist in Iowa. "At no time in the history of America has more attention been paid to veterans."
Iowa's newest veterans number more than 9,125, but only 1,956 have enrolled for VA benefits. That's about 21 percent; nationally 25 to 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are accessing mental health care.
No one knows exactly how many Iowa service members suffer from combat-related mental health issues.
But when the family of 22-year-old Grundy Center resident Joshua Omvig, another Iraq veteran who committed suicide in Iowa, created a Web site (http://joshua-omvig.memory-of.com) with a clearinghouse of PTSD information, it had more than 14,430 hits in four months. And the e-mails and message posts from service members about failing relationships, job troubles, assaults and thoughts of suicide led Ellen and Randy Omvig to believe problems with untreated PTSD run deeper than Iowans might have guessed.
Studies show that between 12 percent and 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That could mean that as many as 2,000 Iowans - with more than 9,000 Iraq or Afghanistan veterans living here, and at least 1,249 more currently serving in the Middle East - are suffering now or could develop symptoms.
Families like Ellen and Randy Omvig and Terri Jones are asking: If the psychological trauma of combat has ruined soldiers' lives following every war, why haven't military and Veterans Affairs officials learned how to treat it yet?
"We can treat it," said Paula Schnurr, deputy executive director of the VA's National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which opened 17 years ago in response to a Congressional mandate to address military-related PTSD. "We don't have all the answers, but we can help a number of people substantially. The earlier the treatment, the better."
There's been an explosion in the science surrounding the disorder, she said, and two top treatments have emerged: cognitive behavior therapy with a specially-trained PTSD therapist, and anti-depressant medication, such as prescriptions Paxil and Zoloft.
Military officials admit more needs to be done to help service members' overcome their reluctance to get treatment.
When returning reservists report after 90 days for their first post-combat drill, they have to fill out an anonymous risk assessment survey. There's a space where they can reveal their names and request help, but so far, no one has done that, said Travis Bartholomew, director of the U.S. Army Reserve's family programs in Iowa.
Both of Iowa's post-combat suicide victims were soldiers in the Army Reserve.
"It's on us to keep up the marketing," Bartholomew said. "We have to get to the families. Families, please, please, if you see something going on, call."
Therapists are available for Iowa's veterans - and some are underused, VA officials said.
Group therapy exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is offered weekly at the Des Moines VA Medical Center. Only one person has shown up."Their opinion is they're doing fine. They don't need any help," said Patrick Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Reserve realized it wasn't doing enough for unmarried soldiers, so it now holds weekend retreats to talk about everything from emotions to job skills, Bartholomew said. And it sends staff members called "soldier and family life consultants" to mingle with the soldiers as they do their duties and to ask how they're doing.
Meanwhile, one of the Iowa Army National Guard's tools for dealing with combat stress is a one-day workshop called Enduring Families. It used to be optional any time during soldiers' first three months back; it's now required at 90 days.
Iowa is one of only 15 states where the National Guard offers an after-deployment program - and the Pentagon liked it enough to ask organizers to share it with other states, said Cathy Luther, director of the National Guard's Iowa family programs.
The workshop offers peer-to-peer discussions, briefings on health care, and sessions on anger management, parenting skills, couples therapy and unmarried soldier issues. "You can kind of see them coming in saying, 'Oooh, we have to go to this?' and by the end of the day you practically have to kick them out," Luther said.
About 250 mental health professionals volunteer their time; the 2,481 soldiers who have attended in the last two years were paid
The Iowa National Guard is so serious about soldiers' well-being that the staff even does interventions, said Becky Coady, a family programs assistant. They've done at least 50 in two years, gathering with families to convince the soldier to get help "before everybody is hurt, emotionally and physically," she said.
There are no repercussions for getting help with PTSD, said Lt. Col. Todd Jacobus, commander of the 224th Engineer Battalion.
"To say, 'It'll affect my career,' that's a cop out," he said. "There are people hungry to help them.
"Our soldiers' failure to pursue assistance is something they've made a decision to do on their own. It's the wrong decision."
July 18, 2006
Mother of Suicide Vet Flies Old Glory Upside Down
By Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive. Posted July 18, 2006.
Four months after returning home from Iraq, Army reservist Jason Cooper hanged himself. And not even 'patriotic' entreaties or vandalism will stop his mother from flying the flag upside down.
Who's in Charge?
Terri Jones lost her son Jason Cooper just over a year ago.
He was an Army Reservist in the Iraq War.
On July 14, 2005, four months after returning home to Iowa, he hanged himself.
He was 23.
Since then, Jones has been flying her American flag upside down, though someone came on her property once and turned it right side up, and another person stole it.
“We had a flag out the whole time Jason was in Iraq,” she says. “Once he died, my boyfriend Vince turned it upside down to protest everything that’s happening with our government, especially our soldiers being failed when they come home.”
Jones says Jason wasn’t the same when he got back from Iraq.
“He was a really upbeat, happy, funny kid” before he left, she says. “You could tell his smile was gone when he came home.”
He also had a hard time paying attention.
“We did notice right away that he’d space off while you were trying to talk to him,” she says. “His thoughts were floating off somewhere else.”
And the reaction of some of his friends caught him by surprise.
“He was excited to see them,” she says, “and he thought they would be, ‘Hey, Coop, good to see you.’ But instead, the first thing that would come out was, ‘Jas, you shoot anybody?’ He was so taken aback he didn’t know how to answer. He’d just say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
Jones tells me her son was hit by enemy fire. “His flack jacket took 37 pieces of shrapnel,” she says. “He didn’t even get a bruise.”
Jones also told Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register of one haunting memory he had about an insurgent who executed an Iraqi child in full view of Cooper and other members of his unit.
Jason was having a lot of nightmares and flashbacks, his mother says. “His girlfriend said he’d wake up in night sweats, and she had to take him out for a walk at three in the morning.”
Jones says she really got worried three days before her son died.
“He called me at work towards the end of the day,” she says. “He was at the mall. He was crying. He was really disoriented. He didn’t know what was happening. He was afraid. He told me a friend of his had just died. I asked what his name was. And he said Jeremy Ridlen, who had died a year before.” (Ridlen, an Army National Guard Specialist, died in East Fallujah on May 23, 2004.)
Jones says her son “knew he needed help, but he didn’t want to go the VA.” She says he’d gone there the month before, after he hurt his wrist in a motorcycle fall. “When he went to the VA, they didn’t have room to treat him that day,” she says.
Plus, she says, he was worried about the stigma he might get if he appeared to be weak.
“He was still active duty,” she says, and “he knew he would have to go back” to Iraq.
Jones says the military isn’t doing enough for soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “They are not being take care of,” she says.
The VA denies this.
“We’re out there in their faces. . . . We’re all there for them,” Victor Tate, a VA outreach specialist in Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. “At no time in the history of America has more attention been paid to veterans.”
Now a member of Gold Star Families for Peace, Jones says she’s “forming a subchapter support group to help with military families who’ve had a suicide” after their loved one returned home.
“So far we know of about 70” such tragedies, she says.
Recently, Jones wrote a letter to Jason, which she posted on his memorial website.
“Jas, Mother’s Day came and went, and it was so hard not to hear from you. You always had something that you were so proud to give me. I still have petals from the pink roses you sent while still in training or all the drawings you loved to make. I carried your military boots in a Mother’s Day march in Washington, DC, to bring our troops home now. . . . I realized then that I did spend time with you on Mother’s Day and even though it wasn’t in a way that I would prefer, you will never be gone from me. You will always be in my mind and heart. . . . I hope you are in a sea of flowers now honey. No worries, no pain, just happy and enjoying the beauty of heaven. I miss you, buddy! I still wait for a phone call, I still long to hear ‘love you, Mama.’ . . . I am so grateful that you were my son to leave life-long memories. Love you the mostest, Mama.”
In that letter, she talked about the upside down flag. “I must admit that I never really liked the idea of the flag hanging upside down,” she wrote, “but it did represent a signal of distress so I agreed to keep it that way.”
One day early this March, Jones says someone turned their flag rightside up. “It happened between the time we went to the grocery store and came back. We were gone only half an hour,” she says. “I was kind of shocked. We live on a five-acre piece of land on a really long driveway, and the flag is on the house. They had to be watching us leave. That’s kind of weird, someone sitting out in a corner watching us somewhere.”
About a week later, she got an unsigned letter, postmarked March 13.
“I’ve noticed for quite some time now that you fly your American flag upside down. . . . Please don’t disrespect those who have fought and died on our soil preserving your very freedom and mine. . . . Let’s rally behind our troops and if they don’t believe in what they’re doing, let them voice it. Every single person in the armed forces today signed on the dotted line. . . . I know your flag is sending out a message that you might not have though it was sending. So I felt compelled to tell you what I thought.”
It was signed, “An extremely sincere fellow American citizen and proud of it.”
And in the P.S., the person added: “If it truly is that you hate living in this country and are ashamed of our freedom, then by all means, sir, why do you live here?”
In response, Jones wrote a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, the Chariton Leader.
“To the Person Who Didn’t Sign Their Letter,” Jones began. She explained that “flying our flag upside down in no way shows disrespect for our country. Flying the flag upside down is a sign of distress as stated in the United States Code of Flag Rules and Regulation.” She told of how her son was proud to be an American soldier, and even wanted to go back to Iraq. “But somehow, in four short months after returning home, his belief, pride, and willingness was eroded away by the invisible wounds of war.”
She discussed his suicide: “On July 14, after weeks of flashbacks and nightmares and having no medical help (yes, the VA turns them away) he took off his dog tags, walked to the basement of his home and wrapped a rope around his neck. And at 5 pm my precious son and proud warrior stepped off the chair.”
She asked for some understanding.
“Try explaining to Jason’s 13-year-old brother who planned on following Jason’s footsteps what went wrong,” she wrote. “Try explaining to the 8th Grade Confirmation Class who Jason had just personally thanked for their support during his deployment what went wrong. And mot of all, try seeing the fear in Jason’s Brother in Arms eyes as their trembling hands pull the American flag from his coffin and neatly fold it and present it to his family. Fearing their own future. So you ask why our flag is flying upside down. Because our soldiers are in distress and because of that very contract you talked about that they signed, they are not allowed to voice their opinion, so they rely on us to do so.”
She went on to say that “our country is in distress” for the way it has failed its vets. And she concluded: “When you drive by my house and see my flag flying I challenge you to help me turn it right side up. Show me that you are willing to do what it takes to help those that protect our rights and freedoms. And when I see that no soldier has been left behind, then that will be a day of joy for me to fly her right side up.”
Shortly after her letter appeared in the paper, her flag was stolen in the middle of the night. “They took the whole flagpole and everything right out of the holder,” she says.
“I just went and got another one and put it back up.”
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.