I returned from Iraq just a few days past Christmas at the end of 2006. My wife had the flu, the kids were tired, and I was worn out. My last mission was about a week and a half before, followed by doing absolutely nothing in Kuwait, followed by demob station on Christmas eve, when those who would out-process us were at home with their families. As everyone should know but rarely follows, one should never skip medical during out-processing, but we had the choice to stay two more days or skip medical and go home. We made our choices.
A few weeks later, I received word from the VA that my blood work had a peculiarity in it. It took several months to determine, but they discovered I have a rare blood disorder where my spleen eats my platelets. Of course, none of this can be related to war because I skipped medical during demob. What we do know is that by the time I got blood drawn, my platelets were very low, but not deathly low. Soon, weekly blood draws determined that my platelets were on the rise, and they eventually peaked right above the lowest normal range. What would have happened if I had caught some shrapnel in combat? What were those random nose bleeds about? Is this why I was so tired?
I say all of that simply to share what all other veterans already know: the military has no idea what it’s doing when paperwork is involved. Clearing CIF? They didn’t have the paperwork. Clearing medical? They didn’t have a doctor. Admitting that my rare blood disorder existed a few weeks before? Nah. There is no evidence.
It was no wonder that it took me about ten years before I trusted them with the fact that I was struggling mentally. Honestly, it wasn’t until I was at my wit’s end that I reached out.
Unfortunately for me, I was leaving the country for a week, so after pushing and pushing to get an appointment with mental health at the VA, I was only able to see them once before leaving. When I got back, the therapist had quit, and it would be several months before finally getting back in to see someone.
I really struggled. I was able to see my primary care physician, and she gave me Ativan (a benzodiazepine), but she warned me that they are addictive, and so I used them sparingly. They got me through.
After about a year of trying to get disability, being rejected, and having to contact my House representative (who happened to be Speaker of the House at the time), I finally got on disability and was seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. We went through the different medicines. Prozac, Lexapro, Celexa, and Paxil—these did little for me. Finally, Zoloft gave some relief, but not enough.
I lived as a recluse, and I would forget to refill my Zoloft regularly, which means at least a few days and at most a month or two of no medicine in between refills. For sleep? Trazodone gave me nightmares, and Ambien made me a zombie. (I actually found a McDonald’s salad container on my coffee table one morning, with absolutely no memory of getting it.)
After a successful suicide in which I was revived, my medications became limited as my heart was now weaker after a heart attack during the suicide. Overall, there was only one medication that actually ever worked: Ativan.
Why am I not taking Ativan today? The easy answer is that the VA won’t allow it. Remember when I said that my primary care physician gave me Ativan? Well, I used it so sparingly that when I went to refill it the third time, the VA said that it would be counted as a third brand-new prescription rather than a refill, and by that time, the Cincinnati VA had one of the highest prescription rates of benzodiazepines and narcotics, so “new” prescriptions of benzos had been halted. Does this have anything to do with my medical needs? Of course not. It’s a bureaucratic issue.
Where does this leave the veteran? We can’t trust that paperwork always goes through. We can’t trust that medical decisions are based on medical needs rather than bureaucratic lists. While I have seen many wonderful VA physicians and nurses, I have also seen terrible ones who simply don’t seem to care, so we can’t trust that we will even get a good doctor in the first place.
Again, where does this leave the veteran? Trying to find any other possible way. Allow me to introduce to you the use of THC in the treatment of PTSD.