Sergeant William Davidson had been struggling with mental health problems since his deployment to Afghanistan. When he didn’t attend at least one of his Connecticut National Guard drill weekends, the Guard declared him AWOL (absent without leave) and discharged him with a “bad paper” separation. Four months after his discharge, Davidson, 24, fatally shot himself. Davidson, who had two younger sisters, is one among thousands of veterans who die by suicide each year. Despite national goals to prevent veteran suicides, they occur at disproportionately higher rates than in the general population.
After being rejected twice, a Connecticut Army veteran has been awarded federal disability benefits for terminal brain cancer he contends was caused by exposure to open burn pits in Afghanistan. Peter Antioho, 33, of Berlin, had to walk daily through heavy smoke emanating from burn pits as he performed his job as second in command on his base in 2012. A variety of items, including human and animal waste, plastic, ammunition and batteries were burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day in open pits. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer two years ago. (The Conn.
Every day for 10 months in 2012, Peter Antioho walked through dense, black smoke from an open burn pit on his Army base in Afghanistan. Human and medical waste, plastic water bottles, ammunition and chemicals were among the materials burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day. Five years later, Antioho was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. The West Point graduate and Berlin resident was 31 when he was diagnosed, young for this cancer. He was second in command at his base, but now, with symptoms that include memory loss and impaired vision, speech and motor function, he can’t work.
Since serving in the military post 9/11, veterans Michael Thomas, Tiara Boehm and Jay Murray have endured losses they attribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including destroyed marriages, friendships and careers. PTSD, a debilitating mental health condition, afflicts between 5 and 23 percent of the 3 million veterans who have served since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It costs the federal government more than $2 billion just in the first year of PTSD care for veterans, according to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office study. But, 17 years into the current conflicts, the link between PTSD and life consequences in this cohort of veterans is still unproven because there haven’t been longitudinal studies on it. Veterans’ advocates say this is a symptom of national indifference to the ongoing wars.
A Connecticut Navy veteran who was sexually assaulted while serving in Japan has been awarded an honorable discharge after she challenged the “bad paper” discharge status she had been given. Bianca Cruz successfully defended her Navy record in an appeal to the Naval Discharge Review Board, which concluded that “she served honorably as evidenced by no punitive items in her record.” She was separated from the Navy in 2015 with a general (under honorable conditions) discharge, started the appeal process the next year and filed her appeal in November 2017. The board ruled Aug. 7 and notified her by email Sept. 17.
Growing up, Mary Louise Montini, 13, has often been angry, upset and on edge, just like her father, a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her experience isn’t unique. Children can develop their own mental illnesses as a result of their parents’ struggles with PTSD and other mental health disorders associated with their military service, professionals say. And there are few resources and programs targeted to veterans’ children, compared to children of active military. Experts say the treatment needs of veterans’ children will continue as their parents continue to rotate through deployments to conflicts around the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Connecticut veterans’ leader and decorated soldier Stephen Kennedy has won his eight-year battle to have his Army discharge status upgraded to honorable. Kennedy, of Fairfield, president of the Connecticut branch of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA-CT), will continue his federal class action lawsuit on behalf of Army veterans nationwide who received less than honorable discharges for behavior later attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Kennedy said in an interview that his Army service “was really central to my identity. I was really proud of that. To have them say it was less than honorable, to have that kind of stamp on it…has been a cloud over the memory of my service.”
“It’s hard not to really take that to heart,” he said, adding that having the upgrade “really feels great.”
The Army Discharge Review Board reversed Kennedy’s previous status called “general under honorable,” which deprived him of veterans’ education benefits and the pride and respect connected to an honorable discharge. Kennedy, 31, served in Iraq for 13 months. In the Army, he was given leadership positions, fast-tracked to become a sergeant and honored with several awards including the Combat Infantry Badge, Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. His discharge status was based on his going Absent Without Leave (AWOL) for his wedding and honeymoon, a behavior he later said was uncharacteristic for him and based on PTSD, which had resulted from his military service. He had become suicidal and self-destructive, cutting himself and drinking and smoking heavily.
A new federal law will allow hundreds of Connecticut veterans with “bad paper” discharges to be eligible for long-term mental health care for the first time, and thus reduce their suicide risk. U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the law, said it will “change the lives of veterans.” The legislation was included in the federal budget signed last Friday by President Trump. The new law affects veterans with an “other than honorable (OTH)” discharge, a status increasingly given for minor offenses. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually denies benefits to veterans with OTH discharges, even though Congress stipulated in 1944 that only severe conduct that would lead to court martial and dishonorable discharges should disqualify veterans from basic VA care. Many veterans have maintained that their minor offenses were triggered by service-related mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Under the new law, veterans with OTH discharges who either served in combat areas, were victims of military sexual trauma, or operated drones are eligible for VA mental health and behavioral health care.
Marriage and struggles with religion and spirituality significantly raise the suicide risk for veterans, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Transitioning back into a domestic home environment may prove exceedingly difficult,” resulting in an increased suicide risk for veterans who are married or living with a partner, the study states. In addition, suicide risk rises substantially for veterans undergoing strains in their religious and spiritual lives, the study shows. Such strains include beliefs expressed by veterans that they have been abandoned by God, that God doesn’t love them or is punishing them. On the other hand, no effect on suicide risk was seen when veterans reported positive religious and spiritual connections.
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.