By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Official policy prevents VA officials from speaking about individual cases, but officials do acknowledge that PTSD was a likely factor in Needham’s allegedly alcohol-fueled crime. “After World War II, the veterans came home, and everybody slapped them on the back and gave them a drink,” says Guy Lamunyon, who oversees the mental-health-outreach unit at the Long Beach VA Hospital. “Many of them became alcoholics and died. The same thing happened after Vietnam. We call it self-medication. The body is built to deal with a certain amount of stress, but not on a daily basis.”
After a prolonged exposure to combat, Lamunyon says, some veterans simply run out of the ability to deal with stress. “Some of the severe cases from the Vietnam War stay in a darkened room, watching TV, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer,” he says. “Every time they go out, they argue with somebody because they have such poor stress tolerance. At least two of my patients would yell at cars driving by.”
A reserve officer with the California National Guard, Lamunyon is also a Vietnam veteran who served as a medic with the 101st Airborne Division. He now runs a support group for other medics at the VA hospital and does outreach work with homeless veterans, who make up a quarter of the nation’s entire homeless population. He also screens returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and estimates that 13 percent to 20 percent of recent veterans are being treated for PTSD
“Some veterans quickly readjust to society while others are diagnosed as so severely disabled that they will never work again,” Lamunyon says.
Three years ago, the Pentagon ordered the VA to re-examine PTSD claims by older veterans. But the volume of new cases has overwhelmed the system. “They’re so backlogged with the new guys they don’t have time to go after the old guys,” Lamunyon says. “They will never get around to it, to tell you the truth.”
Because of the high number of soldiers wounded in Iraq by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the VA also screens all returning soldiers for post-concussive syndrome. Although many soldiers are happy to comply with the tests, some veterans don’t want to jeopardize their job prospects with a brain-injury diagnosis, says Dr. Patricia Nance, a physician at the Long Beach VA Hospital.
“We call and call and call and make an appointment, and they don’t show up,” Nance said. “The diagnosis here is based on how a person reports they are feeling, so all they have to do is minimize their symptoms. They don’t want that documented because they have their hearts set on a career in law enforcement. Police don’t want people being armed if they are irritable or have anger issues.”
Jose Barahona is an outreach worker at the Orange County Veterans Center in Garden Grove; he also suffers from PTSD. In Iraq, Barahona was a tank gunner in the First Armored Division. After rotating home four years ago, he tried to avoid the VA system. “Unfortunately, it was the wrong attitude,” he says. He was plagued with combat-related nightmares, sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate at work. “It still affects me every day,” he says.
Barahona estimates that 30 to 40 veterans come to the center for individual counseling each week, with an equal number of group-therapy sessions also taking place. Several years ago, when the center was located in Anaheim, one of its PTSD groups grew so large that members had to relocate to the Garden Grove Elks Lodge. The Weekly received permission to attend several meetings last year in return for promising not to write about anything the veterans discussed. A sign hanging on the wall dictated the policy: “What is spoken inside these walls stays inside these walls.”
Nevertheless, three members of the group—a Persian Gulf War Veteran and two Vietnam veterans—shared their stories in a series of interviews, speaking to a reporter for the first time about the worst experiences of their lives. They did so because they hope to encourage younger veterans, especially men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, to seek treatment far earlier than they did. They feel the VA system is reluctant to let them interact with Iraq war veterans. “There are no Iraq vets in any of the groups I go to at the hospital,” one of the veterans explained. “They are keeping them separate. Contamination—that’s the word. We want to help them but they are just not in any of our groups. It’s just too weird. It doesn’t make any sense.”
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Fortney remembers little more than drinking heavily, fighting and “horsing around” during the summer of 1986, the year he graduated from high school in Buena Park. He enlisted in the Marine Corps out of boredom and a vague sense that he was going nowhere and needed discipline. As an athlete who excelled in track and cross-country running, Fortney says he thrived on the physical training he received in boot camp.