Many state veterans struggle with mental health care

Southern Arizona VA Health Care System on March 8, 2015
Southern Arizona VA Health Care System on March 8, 2015. (Photo by Rachel Leinson/Arizona Sonora News Service)

 Tucson’s Fernando Galvan served two tours in Iraq for the Special Services Unit in 2007 and 2008. Once he returned home the nightmares began. Next came the paranoia and anxiety in large crowds, common symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“In Iraq they used to hide bombs in dead animals on the side of the road,” said Galvan. “So when I was back in the United States I noticed myself often pulling over to the side of the road to inspect dead animals or even trash, that’s how paranoid I was.”

PTSD affects almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In recent years, the VA has faced criticism for failing to provide adequate care for its patients. There are continuous discussions on whether the standards for mental health care for veterans are being met and what improvements are necessary.

 “More veterans have committed suicide since 2001 than we have lost on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Secretary of Veteran Affairs Erik Shinseki. 

Approximately 22 veterans kill themselves each day, according to a 2012 study by the VA. That is more than 8,000 suicides a year.          

The veteran suicide and PTSD epidemic has, suitably, become a politically recognized issue. On February 12, 2015 President Barack Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act or SAV act.

 The bill was named after a 28-year-old Marine veteran, Clay Hunt, who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hunt killed himself in 2011.

The bill improves veterans access to mental healthcare by making information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans, requiring annual third-party evaluations of VA’s mental-healthcare and suicide-prevention programs and creating peer support and community outreach programs to assist transitioning service members.     

“I want to be informed when we are doing something well or if there are things we should improve on because that’s the type of care the veteran deserves,” said Dan Cook, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System.  

Dan Cook, liscenced clinical social worker and suicide prevetion coordinator att the Southern Arizona VA Health Care Systems, says that the VA system works to improve veterans’ access to mental health care. (Photo by Rachel Leinson/Arizona Sonora News Service).

 There were approximately 21.8 million military veterans in the United States in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau. However, only 1.3 million veterans received specialized mental health treatment from VA for mental health related issues in 2011, according to the VA . 

 Many factors can interfere with veterans getting mental health care and veterans willingness to seek help, said Dr. Liza Zwiebach, Clinical Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow in the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at Emory University School of Medicine.

Historically there is stigma associated with seeking help for mental health reasons, said Zwiebach. But, there are certain values that accompany being a member of the military that are not consistent with help seeking, said Zwiebach.

Galvan, for instance, was hesitant to start receiving therapy for PTSD because he didn’t want to be perceived as “crazy” or “weak.”

“Veterans are some of the bravest men and women who have been trained to handle things on their own and they want to rely on that training,” said Zwiebach.

 The VA must approve a veteran’s eligibility for VA’s comprehensive medical benefits package. Some veterans complain that it can take more than a year before the VA approves their eligibility for the Medical Benefits Package.

 “The VA makes it so difficult for veterans to get help,” said Galvan. “So at that point most veterans just give up and try to deal with their mental health problems on their own.”

 Some people try to cope with their PTSD symptoms by drinking heavily, using drugs, or smoking too much, said Vicki Pippin, readjustment counselor for the Tucson Veterans Center. It is crucial that treatment be given for both PTSD and substance use disorder to lead to a successful recovery, according to the VA.

The most common treatment for PTSD includes cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and pharmaceutical therapy, according to Zwiebach. 

Galvan, along with many others, feels treatment is not effective. Also he refuses to take the prescribed PTSD medications because they make him feel like a “zombie.”

“Once you’ve been exposed to that military culture and possibly exposed to war there’s a lot of differences,” said Pippin. “It’s important for veterans to receive mental health care to assist with integration back into civilian society.”

  The Southern Arizona VA Health Care System works to improve veteran’s access to mental health care, said Cook. There is a 24/7-crisis line, said Cook. “My job is to seek help for veterans having suicidal thoughts and provide resources to prevent suicides from happening,” said Cook.

Since it first launched in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has responded to more than 1.6 million calls and made more than 45,000 lifesaving rescues, according to the Veterans Crisis Line website.

Galvan believes he is lucky because he was qualified to enroll in the VA system after he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012. Galvan enrolled himself in therapy and has been seeing a counselor weekly for three years. Galvan doesn’t believe the medical professionals who claim that it is possible to recover from PTSD.

“I have just accepted the fact that I am never going to be cured from PTSD,” said Galvan. “I will never forget the things I saw and the noises I heard, they will haunt me forever.”

Rachel Leinson is a reporter for Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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