Michael Jon Pelkey
November 5, 2004
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 27, 2005
Contact: DeeAnn Thigpen
SPRING RESIDENT TESTIFIES BEFORE CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE TODAY
Will address the Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Congressman Ted Poe today welcomed one of his Southeast Texas constituents, Mrs. Stefanie Pelkey of Spring, to testify before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the military.
A problem affecting many soldiers returning from Iraq and those who served during the Gulf War, Mrs. Pelkey hopes to shed some insight on PTSD and what her husband, Captain Michael Jon Pelkey, suffered upon his return from the War in Iraq.
“I am proud that one of my constituents will testify before the Veteran’s Affairs Committee hearing this morning. Mrs. Pelkey is courageous to tell her husband’s story to Congress and I am honored that I will publicly introduce her at the hearing. We must stand with our military and afford them every opportunity at home and abroad in both fighting for our country and fighting for their recovery when they return to their families,” Rep. Poe said.
Mrs. Pelkey’s husband, Captain Michael Jon Pelkey, died on November 5, 2004 from a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the chest after being diagnosed with PTSD. Pelkey wants to tell her story to help the many soldiers who are suffering from this disorder, and to request that her husband be declared a casualty of war.
She has been featured on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" and "World News Tonight,” and was scheduled to appear on "Good Morning America" this morning.
In a statement, Pelkey said she wants her testimony to be helpful and to reflect well upon the military and her husband. She said she does not want her testimony used as a political tool for those opposed to the war.
Mrs. Pelkey lives in Spring, Texas. She is a member of the Bammel Church of Christ where she is a Grief Facilitator. Like her husband, Mrs. Pelkey served in the Army and expected to go to Iraq upon her husband's return. The Army permitted her to resign her commission following her husband's death. Mrs. Pelkey held the rank of captain.
|Statement of Stefanie E. Pelkey
“Blood!” That was the only word he would say as he touched his body for fear that he had been shot. Blood. Finally, he awoke with a scream so loud; I too believed that there was blood. He ran to flip on the light switch as he covered his face with those big hands. I was so startled I began to cry. “What happened,” I asked? He looked over with a glazed stare and then finally cracked that smile, that same smile that reassured me that everything was going to be okay. “Just a dream,” he would say. He climbed into bed again and I would cradle him like a baby. I could feel his heart pounding. Just a dream he would say a few more times. But, he knew better. I didn’t.
This testimony is on behalf of my husband, CPT Michael Jon Pelkey, who can no longer tell his story. Although he was a brave veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he did not die in battle, at least not in Iraq. He died in a battle of his heart and mind. He passed away in our home at Fort Sill, Oklahoma from a gunshot wound to the chest. My Michael was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only one week before his death.
The Department of Defense, which has ruled Michael’s death a suicide, has failed to “connect the dots” and acknowledge that PTSD was the underlying cause of his death. Had I not experienced the harsh reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the toll that war costs a family long after a soldier returns, I might believe he was just tired of living. But, I knew my husband and he was my best friend.
When I met my husband, we were both officers in a Field Artillery unit in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. Michael was working as the assistant Operations Officer for the unit. He was responsible and hard-working. He loved life, traveling, and having fun. When I say he loved life, I mean he loved it! His laugh was contagious. He was known for his corny jokes and his animated stories. He
didn’t care who was around when he laughed so hard that he would snort and then laugh some more.
He received his commission as a Field Artillery 2nd lieutenant from the University of Connecticut in 1999 and was the first in his family to graduate from college. Being a soldier was Michael’s childhood dream.
We were married in November 2001 and, as fellow officers in the Army, our journey as a military family began. Michael deployed for Iraq with the 1st Armored Division in March 2003, three weeks after our son, Benjamin, was born. He left a happy and proud father. Michael returned in late July 2003. It seemed upon his return that our family was complete and we had made it through our first real world deployment. Aside from his lack of appetite and a brief adjustment period, he seemed so happy to be home.
He noted several concerns on his DoD post-deployment health assessment form, to include diarrhea, frequent indigestion, ringing in the ears, feeling tired after sleeping, headaches, and strange rashes. He also noted on this form that he had felt that he was in great danger of being killed while in Iraq and he witnessed the killings or dead coalition and civilians during this time. However, the most worrisome notation on this form was the admission of feeling down, depressed, and sometimes hopeless. He also noted that he was constantly on guard, and easily startled after returning from his deployment
A few days after returning to Germany, he reported to his primary care physician on July 28, 2003, as a part of a post-deployment health assessment. He expressed concerns to his primary care physician that he was worried about having serious conflicts with his spouse and close friends. The physician referred him to see a counselor, however, the mental health staff on our post was severely understaffed with only one or two psychiatrists. Michael was unable to
get an appointment before we moved from our post in Germany to Fort Sill, Oklahoma only five days later.
There was no time for therapy and doctors’ visits, as we were packing our home and taking care of our then six-month-old son. It was time to settle back into family life and our son became the primary focus aside from work. When we got to Fort Sill, we both settled into our assignments. Everything seemed normal for a while. Michael was in the Officers Advanced Course for Field Artillery and I was a Chemical Officer for a Brigade. We settled into our home and about six months later, the symptoms of PTSD started to surface, only, we did not know enough about PTSD to connect the dots.
When my husband returned from Iraq, there were no debriefings for family members, service members, or required evaluations from Army Mental Health in Germany. As a soldier and wife, I never received any preparation on what to expect upon my husband’s return. If only the military community had reached out to family members in some manner to prepare them for and make them aware of the symptoms of PTSD, my family's tragedy could have been averted. I believe that it is crucial that spouses be informed about the symptoms and make a point in telling them that PTSD can happen long after what psychiatrists call an adjustment period. Spouses are sometimes the only ones who will encourage a soldier to seek help. Most soldiers I know will not willingly seek help at any military mental facility for fear of repercussions from commanders and even jibes from fellow soldiers. My husband worked around many high ranking officers and was most likely embarrassed about seeking help. What would they think of an officer having nightmares, being forgetful, and having to take anti-depressants?
Months after arriving in Oklahoma, there were several instances in which I found a fully loaded 9mm pistol under Michael’s pillow or under his side of the bed. We had numerous arguments about the safety of our son and having a
weapon in our home. Michael was adamant about keeping the pistol as he was convinced that someone would try to break in our home. I found the pistol under our mattress or in his nightstand. I could not seem to get through to him that having this weapon was not necessary and it posed a danger. These episodes alone started to cause marital tension. Finally, after about two months of arguing over the issue of this weapon, Michael finally agreed to put his pistols away. In my mind the situation was resolved. As a soldier myself, I could understand that having a weapon after being in a war might be somewhat habitual for him.
However, other symptoms started to arise, including forgetfulness. Michael would forget simple things. He would forget to mail bills, pick-up prescriptions, and even skip physical training in the morning because he was so tired. This became a great problem for him. How could a Captain in the US Army forget to mail bills and miss appointments? He was not like this before his deployment. One of the greatest tests PTSD posed to our marriage was that Michael began to suffer from erectile dysfunction, which would cause him to break into tears. Neither of us understood what was happening. But imagine enduring the suggestions some have made that I was somehow responsible for my husband’s death. “How,” I was asked, “could a fellow Captain in the Army not know that her husband was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?” So, I’ve asked questions of my own. Why did Michael’s chain of command fail to question him about missing physical training on a weekly basis? Did they not notice the lack of concentration, the lack of interest in his work? I am not placing blame but, simply noting that we were all consumed in our work and were not trained in identifying a mental disorder. I was a mother, a military wife, an officer, and most important too close to my husband to see what was happening.
In hindsight, it is easier to see this for what it was. On occasions, for example, Michael would over-react to simple things. One night, we heard something in the garage. It was still fairly light outside and it could have simply been a child or an animal. We lived in a small town with very little crime. Michael proceeded to run outside with a fully loaded weapon and almost fired at a neighbor’s cat. These over-reactions occurred on several occasions.
The symptoms would come and go to a point that they didn’t seem like a problem at the time. We would later laugh about them and make jokes about the little scares we had. He would always make excuses and tell me that we needed to be careful, so unfortunately I let it go. There were times that everything seemed just right in our home and he seemed capable enough. He was succeeding in his career as the only Captain in a research and development unit at Fort Sill. It was a job in which he was entrusted with researching and contributing to the Army’s latest in targeting developments.
We soon bought a new house and he was so proud of it. We were finally getting settled. Then he developed other health issues: high-blood pressure and severe chest pains surfaced along with erectile dysfunction. Finally, the nightmares began. This would be the last symptom of PTSD to arise and it was the one symptom that I feel ultimately contributed to my husband’s death. These nightmares were so disturbing that Michael would sometimes kick me in his sleep or wake up running to turn on the lights. He would wake up covered in sweat and I would hold him until he went back to sleep. He was almost child-like in these moments. In the morning, he would joke around about the nightmares and sadly, we both laughed them off.
However, Michael was seeking help for all of the symptoms I have discussed. He was put on high blood pressure medication. He also complained of chest pains and was seen on three occasions in the month preceding his
death. He even sought a prescription for Viagra to ease marital tensions. However, no military physician Michael ever saw could give him any answers. No doctor ever asked him about depression or linked his symptoms to the war! Something must be done to bridge the gap between the primary care physicians and the mental health professionals. If any of the primary care physicians who saw Michael had taken a thorough medical history and taken account of ALL the symptoms he had or was experiencing, rather than simply focusing on a specific physical complaint like chest pain, it would surely at least have led the clinician to refer Michael for a mental health evaluation. Primary care physicians should certainly be aware of common post-deployment mental health problems like PTSD. They should also be alert to the possibility that such problems may lie below the surface of the physical complaints experienced by an individual who has served in a combat theater. Michael's tragedy should at least lead one to question whether there isn't a need for much more education and training for primary care physicians, especially in the military, regarding mental health issues. I can't help but think that an effective program to help alert primary care physicians to the symptoms of PTSD could have saved Michael’s life.
Michael tried to seek help from the Fort Sill Mental Health facility but, was discouraged that the appointments he was given were sometimes a month away. So, he called Tricare, a DoD-sponsored health-program that provides coverage for military dependents, and was told that he could receive outside therapy, if it was “Family Therapy” so, we took it. Family therapy, marital counseling, or whatever they wanted to call it, we were desperate to save our marriage. After all, the symptoms of PTSD were causing most of our heartaches. In the two weeks prior to his death, we saw a therapist authorized by Tricare as a couple and individually. This therapist told Michael that he had PTSD and that she
would recommend to his primary care physician that he be put on medication. She also told him that she had a method of treating PTSD and she felt she could help him because he was open to receiving help. He was so excited and finally expressed to me that he could see a light at the end of the tunnel. He finally had an answer to all of his problems and some of our marital troubles. It was an exciting day for us. Not to mention, two weeks before his death, he interviewed for a position in which he would be running the staff of a General Officer. He was so proud that he was given the job after speaking with the General for only fifteen minutes. He was beaming with pride and so excited about his new job. Things were looking up for him.
He met with the therapist on a Monday. Tuesday, we celebrated our third wedding anniversary. It was a happy time. I felt hope and relief with the recent positive events. Michael must have felt something else. Friday my parents were visiting. I was at a church function and my father returned from playing golf to find Michael. He looked as if he were sleeping peacefully, except for the wet spot on his chest. His pain was finally over. Michael had lost his battle with PTSD. Just as some soldiers perish from bullet wounds or other trauma of war, Michael perished from the psychic wounds of war. No, his death didn’t occur in Iraq but, in his mind, he was there day in and day out. Although Michael would never discuss the details of his experiences in Iraq, I know he saw casualties, children suffering, dead civilians, and soldiers perish. For my soft-hearted Michael, that was enough. Every man’s heart is different. For my Michael it may not have taken much, but, it changed his heart and mind forever.
There were no indications of suicidality but, plenty of signs to indicate PTSD. He suffered greatly from the classic symptoms of PTSD. It’s plain to see in retrospect. His weapon became a great source of comfort for him. He endured
sleepless nights due to nightmares and images of suffering that only Michael knew.
My husband served the Army and his country with honor. He was a hard worker, wonderful husband and father. He leaves behind a now three-year-old son, Benjamin. One day I would like to tell my son what a hero his father was. He went to war and came back with an illness. Although PTSD is evident in his medical records and in my experiences with Michael, the Army has chosen to rule Michael’s death a suicide without documenting this serious illness. I have been told by the investigator that any PTSD diagnosis must be documented by an Army Mental Health Psychiatrist to be considered valid. At the time Michael sought help, he knew it was an urgent matter and was not willing to wait a month or even a few days. He knew it was time. Michael sought the help Tricare offered us and took it. Due to the fact that we were in family therapy and the fact that it was coded as family therapy, Michael is not going to get the credit he deserves. He is a casualty of war. The Army's unwillingness to acknowledge the role that this brave soldier's psychic wounds played in his death,and thus its refusal to list him as a casualty of this war, is deeply troubling to me. An official mindset that would so easily dismiss a well-documented profound mental-health problem also diminishes my late husband’s fine service record, and diminishes the experience of the many other service-members and veterans who bear these psychic scars of war.
My family’s tragedy raises an even broader question. Given the number of servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with readjustment problems or early evidence of PTSD, what steps are the service departments taking to make them, and especially their family members aware of these problems, and of avenues for evaluation and treatment, if indicated. There have
been some changes in the period since Michael’s homecoming. But my travels have made it apparent that the lessons have not been fully learned, and that there is wide variability from base to base in how military commanders have implemented (or fail to fully undertake) these important education efforts. For example, the mental health department at Fort Sill, Oklahoma is supporting several programs to encourage treatment for PTSD, where soldiers gather in groups to talk about their experiences; and follow-up with a mental health professional. The mental health staff also supports several brigades with care teams which in turn aid families when a soldier returns or a death occurs. However, there are other programs that are working at Fort Benning, Georgia but, the programs differ greatly. Some posts have very little to offer service members, especially those in the National Guard and Reserves. My point being, find out what works for these soldiers and centralize a program so that all soldiers can benefit from these successful programs. ….
It is clear that there are so many soldiers suffering from PTSD and other mental health effects of their combat experience and so many families suffering the aftermath. I don't want my Michael to have died in vain. He had a purpose in this life and that was to watch over his soldiers. I intend to keep helping him do so by spreading our story.
My husband died of wounds sustained in battle. That is the bottom line. The war does not end when they come home.
Stefanie Ellen Pelkey
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