Veterans’ mental health and housing improved when they accessed free legal services in a Veterans Affairs facility, according to a study of veterans in Connecticut and New York City. The more legal services they had, the better they fared, experiencing reduced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and psychosis, spending less money on abused substances and having better housing situations, the study found. In addition, the study concluded that mental health was improved even if veterans lost their legal battles. The study analyzed the legal/medical partnerships between the nonprofit Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) and VA Connecticut Healthcare and between New York Legal Assistance and two VA hospitals. It looked at free legal help given to 950 veterans from 2014 through 2016 and its effects on the mental health, housing, and income of 148 of those veterans followed closely for a year.
Last winter, a veteran was revived with Narcan after he overdosed on heroin and collapsed just outside the doors of the VA hospital in West Haven. In 2016, another veteran at the West Haven facility was not so lucky. He died of an overdose in a public restroom. To battle this growing scourge, Connecticut’s VA Healthcare has implemented initiatives to care for more than 1,000 veterans addicted to opioids and the federal government has awarded Yale University School of Medicine $9.7 million to research nondrug treatment for pain in veterans and military personnel, and provide national leadership in the effort. VA initiatives include: equipping nonmedical staff and veterans with medication that reverses overdoses; requiring psychiatric emergency room physicians to be licensed to prescribe drugs that reduce opioid cravings; and offering alternatives to opioids for pain treatment.
Arnold Giammarco, the Army and National Guard veteran deported to Italy nearly five years ago, is back home in Connecticut with his wife and daughter. On May 14, 2011, federal immigration officials stormed Giammarco’s porch as he talked on the phone, ordered him to lie face down, handcuffed him and placed him in detention. The action was long after he had served time, many years earlier, for two 1997 larceny convictions and a 2004 drug conviction. He was detained without bond for 18 months, and sent to Italy on Nov. 26, 2012.
A federal report has found that 62 percent of military personnel discharged for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed with mental illnesses that could have caused their behaviors. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that the military failed to follow policies designed to prevent inappropriate discharge of service members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The result is many veterans received less than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for health care, disability benefits, or education aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The GAO said 57,141 service members discharged for misconduct had been diagnosed up to two years before their release with conditions that included: PTSD, TBI, adjustment disorders, alcohol-related and substance abuse disorders, depression and anxiety. The conditions, which the GAO called “signature wounds” of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, can affect moods, thoughts and behaviors and may trigger activities such as drug use, insubordination, absence from the military without permission, and crimes, the report states.
A Connecticut veterans’ leader Monday filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Army veterans nationwide who, like him, were given less than honorable discharges for behaviors later attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, a lead plaintiff, is a decorated Army veteran and a founder of the state chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In the suit, he claims the Army isn’t following a Pentagon policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, is asking the court to order the Army to properly apply the policy. Issued by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the policy directs military review boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans whose service-connected PTSD is diagnosed after discharge. A second plaintiff, Alicia J. Carson, a former Connecticut resident who was in the Army and the National Guard and now lives in Alaska, is also named in the lawsuit.
The top diagnosis of women veterans treated in the VA Connecticut Healthcare System is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it is usually accompanied by other mental health illnesses, according to VA officials. Most women veterans suffer from a mental illness, studies show, and the VA is taking steps to focus more on female-specific mental health care. A national study commissioned by the VA, Barriers to Care for Women Veterans, found that 52 percent of women veterans said they needed mental health care, but only 24 percent sought treatment. A survey by the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) showed that women veterans consider mental health to be their biggest challenge. At Connecticut VA facilities, 1,404 women had at least one mental health visit last year, representing 45 percent of women who use the VA.
Robert Hunter was raped in the Navy when he was 19, a memory he repressed for 32 years. When the memory returned, he drank heavily and endured mental health problems.
After receiving help from the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, he decided to build “something good from something horrible” and bring attention to men who are sexually assaulted in the military. The Connecticut veteran co-founded a national advocacy group called Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma (Mr. MST) because, he said, “male victims aren’t taken seriously.”
Hunter’s organization has spent the last three years raising awareness and lobbying for health care for military victims of sexual assault, meeting with top government decision makers, participating in White House policy discussions, speaking at events for military sexual assault victims and joining women survivors in advocating for removing the prosecution of military sexual assault from the chain of command. In the military, where men comprise 85 percent of the population, more men than women are sexually assaulted. The most recent Pentagon estimates show 10,600 men and 9,600 women were assaulted in 2014, representing 1 percent of active duty men and 4.9 percent of women.
Frustrated by Pentagon efforts, Connecticut groups that work with veterans have informed some 1,500 veterans that they can apply for upgrades of “bad paper” military discharge statuses if they have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although tens of thousands of veterans nationwide are eligible to apply for PTSD-related upgrades, just 1,180 have done so, according to figures provided by the Pentagon to the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. In 2014, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses and become eligible for veterans’ benefits. “Most people don’t know about it,” said Olivia Horton, a Yale law student, working on the project to contact Connecticut veterans by mail. She said frustration with the Pentagon’s public outreach “was the impetus” to contact veterans directly.
Bianca Cruz’s Navy career started with a job she loved on a ship in Japan, but after she was sexually assaulted by a sailor, her military life spiraled downward, ending with a “bad paper” discharge after serving 20 months. “If it weren’t for the sexual assault, I would still be in Japan,” said Cruz, 22, a Navy hospital corpsman, who returned home in November 2015. Cruz is among the thousands of sexual assault victims who have been pushed out of the military with a less than honorable discharge, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in May, Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors. The Navy diagnosed Cruz with a “personality disorder,” which the Rights Watch report said the military regularly uses to trigger quick dismissals of sexual assault victims.
Cruz is appealing to the Navy Discharge Review Board, requesting that her discharge status be upgraded from general (under honorable conditions) to honorable. Her current discharge status prevents her from receiving G.I. education benefits and re-enlisting in the military.
From his kitchen table in Italy via Skype, deported U.S. Army veteran Arnold Giammarco said the years apart from his family have been “devastating.”
“It’s tough,” said Giammarco, a legal non-citizen veteran of the Army and National Guard, during a Skype interview with C-HIT. He was deported in November 2012 for nonviolent drug and larceny convictions for which he had previously served jail time. “You can’t hold your wife,” he said, dabbing tears from his eyes. “You can’t hold your daughter.”
Giammarco, 60, had lived in the United States since he was 4, but never became a citizen. In 2011 federal immigration officers arrested him at his home in Groton and detained him for 11 months, then deported him. He has been fighting to return to Connecticut ever since, with the help of free legal representation from Yale Law School clinics.