Tuesday, March 4, 2008

For Palisades Native, War Trauma Ends in Suicide

For Palisades Native, War Trauma Ends in Suicide

By Hannan Adely

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Palisades, New York - After two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserve, Steven Vickerman tried to resume a normal life at home with his wife, but he could not shake a feeling of despair.

His parents, Richard and Carole Vickerman of Palisades, went to visit him at a veterans hospital after he suffered a mental breakdown; they were in disbelief. The funny and adventurous baby brother had become sullen, withdrawn and full of anxiety. Vickerman, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed himself Feb. 19.

"We're still in shock. Our son was a proud Marine. He served his country honorably, and we don't know what happened to him," said Carole Vickerman, who buried her son Tuesday at Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill.

As soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are unprepared to deal with the anxiety and depression stemming from their experiences in war. Some seek help from the Veterans Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but become frustrated by paperwork and long waits for counseling and care. Others feel too proud or embarrassed to seek help at all, or believe they can tough it out with time. Despair drives many to take their own lives, according to reports and experts.

The Veterans Health Administration estimated in a May 2007 report that 1,000 suicides occurred per year among veterans who received care within the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all veterans. At the same time, the number of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is surging, according to studies and veterans advocacy groups.

Families like the Vickermans often feel overwhelmed by the guilt and helplessness that surrounds post-traumatic stress disorder. The Vickermans wanted to help their son but did not know where to look for support services or how to deal with the effects of the illness.

The VA, they believed, had failed their son. The services available, they said, were insufficient, and the government should do more to address the issue for returning war vets.

"There should be something that can be done, not only for the proud soldiers but also for their families," Carole Vickerman said. "When you hear the word 'stress,' it sounds so innocuous. It's not stress; it's a killer."

Steven Vickerman, a Tappan Zee High School graduate, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. A whiz at technical jobs and an electrician by trade, the staff sergeant served as a small arms technician with Marine Aircraft Group 49, Detachment B, at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

His first tour in Iraq was interrupted when he returned home to be with his older brother, who was dying of a brain tumor. Robert died at age 35. Vickerman served a second tour and was honorably discharged in 2005.

He returned to Pittsburgh, where his parents thought he was doing fine readjusting to civilian life. He graduated from a gunsmithing school and then went to Kansas to continue his education to become a small-arms engraver.

But in January 2007, he was taken to a hospital after suffering a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He stayed in a veterans hospital in Kansas City for five days. Afterward, his wife, Karen, brought him to his parents' Palisades home so he could be close to the VA hospital in Montrose.

During the two months he stayed in Palisades, he had trouble sleeping and would sit and stare into space or at the television, his father recalled. He stuttered and his speech was broken, and he always looked on edge, as if he were looking out for enemy gunfire. Steven said nothing about his service - not what he did, what he saw or where he was stationed.

One night during dinner, he nearly hit the ground after he heard a truck slam into a pothole outside the family's home. The once take-charge soldier was unable to make decisions, his father said. He told his parents he did not know what was happening to him and that he did not think he would recover.

"Steve was a 6-foot, 200-pound guy, all muscle," Richard Vickerman said. "I can't believe that he went over and came back in the condition he came back."

Though he sought help in veterans hospitals in Kansas City and in Montrose, Vickerman was not happy with the care he received and did not want to continue, his parents said. He told them he believed the service was impersonal and that he did not connect with the older Vietnam veterans treated alongside him. One hospital staffer made him feel as if he was just out to get disability benefits from the government, he told his family.

With support from his wife, Vickerman continued to get help from a private therapist.

About two weeks ago, Vickerman's wife went on a business trip in New York City and could not reach her husband by phone. The Vickermans also could not reach him.

They called his therapist, who was scheduled to see him on a Wednesday, but Vickerman missed his appointment. The therapist called police, who found Vickerman dead at his home, where he had hanged himself.

Carole Vickerman thinks her son gave up hope after he became unable to work, go to school or get his mind and life back on track.

"All his dreams were gone, and he had to reinvent himself all over again," she said. "He was trying to find a new Steven, and he wasn't able to do that. I think the struggle got so hard for him at the end that he felt he was no longer a person, so what was the use."

The Vickermans said they wished they could have done more. They think there should be more support services for families whose children and spouses are returning from war, more specialists who deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome in the VA system, and more research done in the field to help returning soldiers. Richard Vickerman also said he believed the government should explore ways veterans could receive mental health benefits at private medical facilities.

Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland Veterans Service Agency, said it had been difficult for organizations like his to reach out to veterans and their families because the VA would not release information about returning service members, citing privacy issues. Rockland County has tried to get that information through the Freedom of Information Law, but that request was denied.

Donnellan has tried to get the word out to veterans through the media and community groups. Like other veterans advocates, he thinks the need is dire because repeat tours and long deployments are driving a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The issue of PTSD is worse than I have ever seen it, and I have been doing this for 20 years now," Donnellan said.

After a series of high-profile suicides and news reports about suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, the federal government has taken steps to improve mental health care. Congress held hearings on the topic last year, and President Bush signed the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill into law Nov. 25.

The bill, named for a soldier who committed suicide after returning from Iraq, requires suicide prevention counselors to be on staff at each VA facility and mental health training for all VA staff, and it supports education and outreach programs for veterans and families.

Richard Vickerman thinks that, with so many cases of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, Americans should continue to demand action for the soldiers who sacrificed so much to protect freedoms in the United States.

"Why the American people aren't hearing about this and raising the roof - that flag over there, the flag behind you, is the price that's being paid all over this country by families," he said, tearfully looking over at the folded flag that the Marines presented to him at his son's funeral. "It's not right."

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