Thursday, December 22, 2005

#2 | Returning Vet PTSD: One Wife's Story

Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in a variety of online communities, including Daily Kos. -- Ilona Meagher

In November, Senate Amendment #2634 was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-CA].

An amendment to the Tax Relief Act of 2005, it aimed to allocate an additional $500 million for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and substance abuse counseling for returning Vets. The American Legion, AMVETS, and Disabled American Veterans backed it. The vets needed it.

Senate Republicans killed it.

[Sen. Boxer] closed her floor argument by quoting an e-mail from the wife of an Iraq War Veteran. "I got an e-mail from a woman who was married to Captain Michael Jon Pelkey, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for over a year. He sought help on several occasions but was discouraged by the wait time and the stigma," said Boxer.

Boxer then read directly from the e-mail which said "Michael passed away in our home at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on November 5, 2004. I feel that my husband is a casualty of this war and to date the Army has not done enough for post-traumatic stress."

This is Stefanie Pelkey's story...

The Dream Realized

Growing up in Texas, Stefanie Pelkey dreamed of being part of the military from a young age.

For those who knew her well, it wasn't much of a surprise that this former Civil Air Patrol member, graduate and commissioned 2nd Lieutenant from New Mexico State University, would grow up to be the first female to serve in the 94th Field Artillery Battalion in Idar-Oberstien, Germany. Captain Stefanie Pelkey would also be among the first three women in Germany to be a member of an all-male combat arms unit.

Stefanie was a dreamer. And an achiever. One of our nation's finest.

On November 2, 2001, she married a fellow officer of the 94th Field Artillery: Captain Michael Jon Pelkey. And in March of 2003, they celebrated the birth of their son, Benjamin, in Germany.

Personally and professionally, they had much to be joyful for and proud of.

Michael is Deployed

Capt. [Michael] Pelkey deployed for Iraq with the 1st Armored Division in late March 2003, leaving his wife, Stefanie -- herself then a Captain in the U.S. Army -- and three-week old son, Benjamin, at home at their post in Germany. He returned to Germany in late July and, according to Stefanie, "It seemed upon his return that our family was complete and we had made it through our first real-world deployment."

Michael noted on his DD Form 2796 -- his post-deployment health assessment -- a range of minor physical problems including diarrhea, frequent indigestion, headaches and tiredness. He also noted that he had felt in great danger of being killed while in Iraq and that he witnessed the killings and bodies of many coalition members and civilians. He also made a notation that he was feeling down, depressed, and sometimes hopeless.

On July 27, 2005, Stefanie testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in hearings assessing the effectiveness of PTSD treatment offered to returning veterans. From her testimony, we learn more about her husband's life and Army career.

My name is Stefanie Pelkey and I am a former Captain in the U.S. Army. This testimony is on behalf of my husband, CPT Michael Jon Pelkey, who died on November 5, 2004. Although he was a brave veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he did not die in battle, at least not in Iraq. He died in a battle of his heart and mind. He passed away in our home at Fort Sill, Oklahoma from a gunshot wound to the chest. My Michael was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only one week before his death by a licensed therapist authorized by Tricare. ...

When I met my husband, we were both officers in a Field Artillery unit in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. Michael was working as the assistant Operations Officer for the unit. He was responsible and hard-working. He loved life, traveling, and having fun. He hailed from Wolcott, Connecticut and was one of six siblings. He received his commission from the University of Connecticut. Being a soldier was a childhood dream.

We were married in November 2001 and our journey as a military family began. Michael deployed for Iraq with the 1st Armored Division in March 2003, three weeks after our son, Benjamin, was born. He left a happy and proud father. He returned in late July of 2003. It seemed upon his return that our family was complete and we had made it through our first real world deployment. Aside from his lack of appetite and a brief adjustment period, he seemed so happy to be home.

In Germany, Michael's physician told him to seek counseling; unfortunately, due to staff shortages, he was unable to get the help he needed before returning to Fort Sill, OK. Once they'd returned stateside, the Pelkeys fell into the busy routine of work and child-rearing.

"We settled into our home and about six months later, the symptoms for PTSD started to surface, only we did not know enough about PTSD to connect the dots," Stefanie told committee members. "When my husband returned from Iraq, there were no debriefings for family members, servicemembers, or forced evaluations from Army Mental Health in Germany. As a soldier and wife, I never received any preparation on what to expect upon my husband's return."

Months after arriving home in Oklahoma, Stefanie began finding Michael's fully loaded nine millimeter pistol under his pillow, or under his side of the bed. If she confronted him, telling him the baby could get hurt if loaded weapons were kept around the house, he would move it under the mattress or into the nightstand. "I could not seem to get through to him that having this weapon was not necessary and it posed a danger to our family," she explained.

After two months of haggling over the pistols, her husband finally agreed to put them away. However, similar incidents followed. On one occasion, after hearing a noise in the garage around 8 p.m., while it was still light outside, Michael ran outside with a fully-loaded weapon, almost firing on a neighbor's cat. "Little by little, other symptoms started to arise, including forgetfulness, chest pain, high blood pressure and trouble sleeping," Stefanie said. "Michael would not even remember to mail a bill or pick up his own prescriptions.

"One of the greatest tests PTSD posed to our marriage was that Michael began to suffer from erectile dysfunction, which would cause him to break into tears. He did not understand what was happening. I did not know what was happening to my husband," she said.

The Nightmare Begins

Unbelievably, the worst was still yet to come. Stefanie believes Michael's nightmares most contributed to her husband's ultimate suicide.

"These nightmares were so disturbing that Michael would sometimes kick me in his sleep or wake up running to turn on the lights. He would wake up covered in sweat and I would hold him until he went back to sleep."

During this whole ordeal, Michael was seeking help for all of his symptoms. He was put on high blood pressure medication. He was seen three times during the month preceding his death for complaints from chest pains. He even sought a prescription for Viagra to alleviate the erectile dysfunction. "However, no military physician Michael ever saw could give him any answers," Stefanie said. "No doctor ever asked him about depression or linked his symptoms to the war."

Michael tried to seek help from the Fort Sill Mental Health facility but was discouraged that the appointments he was given were sometimes a month away. So, he called TRICARE and was told that he could receive outside therapy if it was categorized as "Family Therapy. Family therapy, marital counseling, or whatever they wanted to call it, we were desperate to save our marriage," Stefanie said.

In the two weeks prior to his death, the two saw an outside therapist authorized by TRICARE, as a couple, and individually. The therapist told Michael that he had PTSD and that she would recommend to his primary care physician that he be put on medication. "He was so excited and finally expressed to me that he could see a light at the end of the tunnel," Stefanie explained. "He finally had an answer to all of his problems and some of our marital troubles. It was an exciting day for us."

One week later, Michael committed suicide. On July 24th, Stefanie told ABC's This Week:

The last conversation I had with him was "Hey, when are you getting home? I'm hungry. I'm waiting for you guys to come home." And my father walked into the house, completely passed Michael. He was sitting in an overstuffed armchair. And he looked down at him and thought he was sleeping, and ... turned around and he said, "There's something not right." Michael was completely pale and there was a wet spot on his chest. And then my father saw the pistol on the floor of the living room. And he knew. He said he just went over and he touched him on his head and asked him, "What happened Michael?"

To me, he gave his life just like anyone else gave their life over there. I want my son to know he died of wounds of war -- not your typical wounds, or I should say typical wounds, but they're not recognized as typical wounds.

Stefanie testified that she believes that the Army is doing a better job treating those who've returned with PTSD since Michael's death.

"After my husband's death, the Army became very proactive," Stefanie explained. Group therapies that bring together soldiers or the families of soldiers are particularly helpful, she said. "Very low-budget programs are working wonderfully for soldiers-the group therapies. There are things out there working that don't cost a lot of money," she said. "Fort Sill has done an excellent job trying to reform their program," Stefanie added.

That includes additional education to soldiers and families about just what PTSD is and what symptoms to look for. "If I had spoken to a therapist or with other spouses about [PTSD], not only would I have understood what was going on, but I would have urged my husband to get help more quickly," she said.

However, she said at the hearing that she believes DoD to be under-resourced as far as mental health care is concerned. "I believe that the military and their medical facilities are not receiving the funding they need to make these [PTSD] diagnoses with any consistency," she said.

Stefanie's battles aren't over.

She's hoping to see Michael's death listed as an official casualty of war - not a mere suicide.

One day I would like to tell my son what a hero his father was. He went to war and came back with an illness. Although PTSD is evident in his medical records and in my experiences with Michael, the Army has chosen to rule Michael's death a suicide without documenting this serious illness. I have been told by the investigator that any PTSD diagnosis must be documented by an Army Mental Health Psychiatrist to be considered valid.

At the time Michael sought help, he knew it was an urgent matter and was not willing to wait a month or even a few days. He knew it was time. Michael sought the help Tricare offered us and took it. Due to the fact that we were in family therapy and the fact that it was coded as family therapy, Michael is not going to get the credit he deserves. He is a casualty of war. I have heard this spoken from the mouth's of two Generals.

He came home from war with an injured mind and to let him become just a "suicide" is an injustice to someone who served their country so bravely.


This is the second installment in a series aiming to bring you closer to the realities of those suffering with combat-related PTSD. Unfortunately, there is no end to the number of these tragic tales.

For but a partial glimpse on the scope of this national tragedy, please visit ePluribus Media's PTSD Timeline.

Additional PTSD information and resources:

-- #1 | Returning Vet PTSD - One Soldier's Story

-- 16,000+ Returning Combat Vets Need Our Help

-- Take That, PTSD! Rep. Lane Evans Rocks

-- Doonesbury this Week: One Vet's PTSD Struggle

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Doonesbury this Week: One Vet's PTSD Struggle

One of this award-winning strip's returning characters, B.D. (a hard-nosed guy who never needs anyone's help), is an injured Iraq combat vet and amputee. He's also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

(Click here or on image to enlarge)

One of the significant obstacles in successful PTSD treatment is the reluctance of the sufferer to reach out for help. For a variety of reasons (military indoctrination, avoidance, `toughing it out', fear of appearing weak or `crazy'), many vets suffer alone. The decision to get help is one that is often made gradually. Often with a lot of hesitation. And a lot of agony.

Doonesbury is portraying this with aplomb this week.

Since this diary is for educational purposes only, I'm including copies of this week's Doonesbury strips for these purposes.

12/12 | In Monday's intro, we find B.D. entering his local Vet Center:

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

(Click here or on image to enlarge)

He says `hi' in a less than confident manner. The friendly receptionist greets his arrival and asks if he has an appointment. B.D. scoffs at that a bit. "I don't need one....I'm just looking, okay?" A quiet pause...and then he tells her he's got to get to an important meeting...


12/13 | Tuesday we find B.D. returning to the Vet Center again:

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

(Click here or on image to enlarge)

He's just looking around again, he says. The friendly receptionist tells him to take his time. As B.D. begins to glance at some magazines, he tells her he doesn't have much time today either...he better get going. She says, "Okay, catch you next time." But, B.D. stays anyway. He's not ready to leave the center; he asks her a question about the magazines, and she invites him to take a look at them.


12/14 | Today's strip continues in the Vet Center:

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau

(Click here or on image to enlarge)

B.D.'s still intensely focused on the magazines. He compliments their selection. Meanwhile, one of the Center's counselors has entered the reception area and observes B.D. He asks the receptionist if she's gotten a name out of him, yet. "Not yet. He's still reconnoitering." Meanwhile, B.D.'s still apparently consumed with the magazines and asks why Jennifer Aniston's on all of the covers. The counselor tells the receptionist, "I'll leave my door open." Be sure to follow B.D.'s progress at the Vet Center here.


If you're a vet suffering with PTSD, please know that you are not alone. Please take your symptoms seriously, and seek out any or all of the resources available to you.

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