A Soldier’s Last Mission, A Medic’s Battle For Survival….and Sharon Helman’s Albatross

  Note: Much of this blog posting was taken directly from an article written by Dennis Wagner that was published in the Arizona Republic Sunday August 14, 2014.

The following incidents directly involved former Chief Administrator at the Carl T Hayden VA Medical Center Sharon Helman as she was made aware of the difficulties that veterans were having accessing mental health care they needed to help them with their PTSD and other mental health care concerns.

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Sharon Helman was fired from her post as the VA scandal continued to evolve throughout 2014. She is currently trying to get her job back at the VA Medical Center and her legal team is petitioning the court to be able to do so.

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Brian Mancini served 13 years as a U.S. Army medic and was on a 2nd combat tour when a roadside bomb blew up his military career in 2007.

Mancini says he spent more than 3 ½ years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “Getting my face rebuilt” and undergoing therapy. He returned to Arizona with 2 purple hearts, posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, a missing eye, chronic pain, and a titanium plate in his head.

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As Mancini sees it now, America is afflicted by a delayed casualty syndrome. During the Vietnam War, the ratio of combat fatalities to nonfatal wounds was 1 to 2.6. In Iraq and Afghanistan due to improved armaments and medical technology, just one of 17 casualties is fatal. But many survivors are haunted for life by PTSD and concussive brain injuries from improvised explosive devices.

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In Phoenix, Mancini says he turned to the VA Medical Center and immediately learned that his cocktail of medications, which took years to perfect that the Army hospital, was not on the official formulary, so he would have to start over. He found himself waiting interminably for appointments, unable to get approval of outside acupuncture and chiropractic treatments for agonizing headaches and other pain.

“There was a really dark time in my life when I literally just lay on the floor in my house crying,” Mancini recalls. “I just was really frustrated with the lack of care. I felt betrayed. All they wanted to do was throw a lot of drugs at me, and those drugs were having an adverse effect. They had me on 12 medications. At one point I finally said, you know what I’m done.”

Mancini says he decided to use his medical background to develop an alternative treatment regimen with therapies available in the community: from brain training, to yoga, to fly-fishing. He wrote up a handbook and founded an Arizona nonprofit known as Honor House, then arranged a presentation to Phoenix VA Healthcare Systems Director Sharon Helman 2 years ago. The session did not go well. He recalls. “She was more appeasing me than anything.”

Mancini turned next to Terros, Inc., a community health care organization that focuses on inspirational life changes. Terros adopted the treatment program and lost a pilot effort, then joined in the 2nd attempt to get Phoenix VA involved.

This time, Mancini says, Helman who now faced termination in connection with alleged mismanagement at the Phoenix VA reacted defensively.

“I emphasized the need to go out of network to get veterans the services they so desperately needed regarding PTSD. He wrote in an email, “I specifically commented on the ridiculous wait times and presented a solution with very little interest on her part.”

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Later that same year, Helman would find herself intertwined with the death of another soldier who had been desperately trying to get mental health care. His name: Daniel Somers. He took his own life the summer of June 2013 after losing the battle of his life against PTSD.

Jean and Howard Somers said their son Daniel went to the Phoenix VA Emergency Room seeking hospital admission, where he was told there were no beds available. He lay on the floor weeping and pleading for help. “There was no effort made to see if he could be admitted to another facility,” his father recalled. “But he was told: you can stay here and when you feel better. You can drive yourself home.”

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(I wonder was this possibly an ER nurse who told him he could just lay there and go home when he felt better??? Who had the authority, audacity, and lack of human compassion to watch a soldier curled up on the floor in a tortuous state suffer, weep, and beg for help, and then advise him to go home whenever he felt ok? No one ever identified the staffer who allowed him to go….)

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Daniel Somer’s parents said they had met with Sharon Helman after their son’s death and were informed that wait times for mental health care had dramatically improved. They have since learned that VA patient access records were a fiction. They don’t even know if Daniel’s final act was counted in the Phoenix to be a suicide tally. “It’s like with any statistics out of the VA,” Howard Summers said. “What data are they using? Where did they get the numbers? All we can think is, we were being lied to, like everyone else.” The couple testified before Congress last month and created a reform plan for VA suicide prevention. They also have done the math: if 22 veterans kill themselves daily, and the number has been constant for years, more than 100,000 men and women who served America have taken their own lives since 2001. That’s roughly 15 times the number of US military personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period.”

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Daniel Somers was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was part of Task Force Lightning, an intelligence unit. In 2004-2005, he was mainly assigned to a Tactical Human-Intelligence Team (THT) in Baghdad, Iraq, where he ran more than 400 combat missions as a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee, interviewed countless Iraqis ranging from concerned citizens to community leaders and government officials, and interrogated dozens of insurgents and terrorist suspects. In 2006-2007, Daniel worked with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) through his former unit in Mosul where he ran the Northern Iraq Intelligence Center. His official role was as a senior analyst for the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and part of Turkey). Daniel suffered greatly from PTSD and had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and several other war-related conditions. On June 10, 2013, Daniel wrote the following letter to his family before taking his life. Daniel was 30 years old. His wife and family have given permission to publish it:

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“I am sorry that it has come to this.”

….The fact is, for as long as I can remember my motivation for getting up every day has been so that you would not have to bury me. As things have continued to get worse, it has become clear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to carry on. The fact is, I am not getting better, I am not going to get better, and I will most certainly deteriorate further as time goes on. From a logical standpoint, it is better to simply end things quickly and let any repercussions from that play out in the short term than to drag things out into the long term.

You will perhaps be sad for a time, but over time you will forget and begin to carry on. Far better that than to inflict my growing misery upon you for years and decades to come, dragging you down with me. It is because I love you that I cannot do this to you. You will come to see that it is a far better thing as one day after another passes during which you do not have to worry about me or even give me a second thought. You will find that your world is better without me in it.

I really have been trying to hang on, for more than a decade now. Each day has been a testament to the extent to which I cared, suffering unspeakable horror as quietly as possible so that you could feel as though I was still here for you. In truth, I was nothing more than a prop, filling space so that my absence would not be noted. In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time.

My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure. All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety, even with all of the medications the doctors dare give. Simple things that everyone else takes for granted are nearly impossible for me. I cannot laugh or cry. I can barely leave the house. I derive no pleasure from any activity. Everything simply comes down to passing time until I can sleep again.

Now, to sleep forever seems to be the most merciful thing.

You must not blame yourself. The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply cannot come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of.

To force me to do these things and then participate in the ensuing cover-up is more than any government has the right to demand. Then, the same government has turned around and abandoned me. They offer no help, and actively block the pursuit of gaining outside help via their corrupt agents at the DEA. Any blame rests with them.

Beyond that, there are the host of physical illnesses that have struck me down again and again, for which they also offer no help. There might be some progress by now if they had not spent nearly twenty years denying the illness that I and so many others were exposed to. Further complicating matters is the repeated and severe brain injuries to which I was subjected, which they also seem to be expending no effort into understanding. What is known is that each of these should have been cause enough for immediate medical attention, which was not rendered.

Lastly, the DEA enters the picture again as they have now managed to create such a culture of fear in the medical community that doctors are too scared to even take the necessary steps to control the symptoms. All under the guise of a completely manufactured “overprescribing epidemic,” which stands in stark relief to all of the legitimate research, which shows the opposite to be true. Perhaps, with the right medication at the right doses, I could have bought a couple of decent years, but even that is too much to ask from a regime built upon the idea that suffering is noble and relief is just for the weak.

However, when the challenges facing a person are already so great that all but the weakest would give up, these extra factors are enough to push a person over the edge.

Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day? That is more veterans than children killed at Sandy Hook, every single day. Where are the huge policy initiatives? Why isn’t the president standing with those families at the state of the union? Perhaps because we were not killed by a single lunatic, but rather by his own system of dehumanization, neglect, and indifference.

It leaves us to where all we have to look forward to is constant pain, misery, poverty, and dishonor. I assure you that, when the numbers do finally drop, it will merely be because those who were pushed the farthest are all already dead.

And for what? Bush’s religious lunacy? Cheney’s ever growing fortune and that of his corporate friends? Is this what we destroy lives for

Since then, I have tried everything to fill the void. I tried to move into a position of greater power and influence to try and right some of the wrongs. I deployed again, where I put a huge emphasis on saving lives. The fact of the matter, though, is that any new lives saved do not replace those who were murdered. It is an exercise in futility.

Then, I pursued replacing destruction with creation. For a time this provided a distraction, but it could not last. The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand. How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle? If they could see me sitting here in suburbia, in my comfortable home working on some music project they would be outraged, and rightfully so.

I thought perhaps I could make some headway with this film project, maybe even directly appealing to those I had wronged and exposing a greater truth, but that is also now being taken away from me. I fear that, just as with everything else that requires the involvement of people who cannot understand by virtue of never having been there, it is going to fall apart as careers get in the way.

The last thought that has occurred to me is one of some kind of final mission.

It is true that I have found that I am capable of finding some kind of reprieve by doing things that are worthwhile on the scale of life and death. While it is a nice thought to consider doing some good with my skills, experience, and killer instinct, the truth is that it isn’t realistic. First, there are the logistics of financing and equipping my own operation, then there is the near certainty of a grisly death, international incidents, and being branded a terrorist in the media that would follow. What is really stopping me, though, is that I simply am too sick to be effective in the field anymore. That, too, has been taken from me.

Thus, I am left with basically nothing.

Too trapped in a war to be at peace…too damaged to be at war.

Abandoned by those who would take the easy route, and a liability to those who stick it out—and thus deserve better. So you see, not only am I better off dead, but the world is better without me in it.

This is what brought me to my actual final mission.

Not suicide, but a mercy killing. I know how to kill, and I know how to do it so that there is no pain whatsoever. It was quick, and I did not suffer. And above all, now I am free. I feel no more pain. I have no more nightmares or flashbacks or hallucinations. I am no longer constantly depressed or afraid or worried….

I am free.

I ask that you be happy for me for that.

It is perhaps the best break I could have hoped for.

Please accept this and be glad for me.

Daniel Somers

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What troubles me about Arizona are two things: The media and the State Legislature. Change is dictated by what is sexy and profitable at the moment, by what gets ratings or soundbite opportunities for journalists and lawmakers. Journalists get prestigious awards, lawmakers get voters and win elections. But the problem stays a problem. PEOPLE ARE STILL DYING. We don’t work together and pool resources to make change happen in this state. There is no cohesive effort that binds together the talents of “award winning” journalists, experienced intelligent lawmakers, healthcare agencies, and the citizens of Arizona affected by the problems. Everyone does their own thing…..each with a means to an end in their own mind. In all of that—the important stuff gets lost somewhere along the way.

     The journalists love to drop the bomb, they make us aware of the travesties and the injustices occurring, people get mad….….and then they silently walk away like their job is done. Like somehow, because they brought light to the issue, it will magically correct itself and go away. WHY NOT KEEP THE ISSUES FRONT AND CENTER?!!!! Legislators will often posture and pace behind podiums and microphones making strong, passionate declarations and demands in front of the flashing lights and microphones…..but when it comes time to walk the talk on the House Floor…what has actually been done? I reference Veteran Health and Patient Safety as just two examples of major issues that have been brought forward in the past two years on many a newscast…..and still, we are losing Vets. Still, we AS A STATE, are failing to rescue.

See, everyone likes to talk about the problem, and around the problem, and what could potentially be done to attack a problem….but as the media attention fades, the legislators go back to fighting about other issues such as who can use a public toilet and who can’t……and people go back their own lives and forget about Brian Mancini and Daniel Somers…the urgency and impetus for change dissipates.

There is no longer this life or death need to get up and do something to prevent another soldier from dying, to prevent the loss of another wife, mother, daughter, husband, father, son….friend. Lawmakers go back to other things like immigration or education….and the mountain toward change gets harder to climb, dangerously steeper. The terrain becomes that much more complex to overcome. If you are a soldier with PTSD, you know that every day the terrain is difficult and often times unpredictable to navigate. In fact, there are some days you have no desire to even try.

This is not YOUR MISSION.

It is ours….

Or, at least, it should be.

     Without the help of concerned citizens, activists, lawmakers, journalists, and healthcare agencies these Veterans cannot get the job done themselves…AND THE POINT IS—they shouldn’t have to. Because it is our turn now. Whether we like it or not, our draft card has been pulled and it’s our turn to figure out what the battle plan should be. It’s our turn to put on the gear and do the work. It’s our turn to protect and serve THEM.

….And we’re doing a pretty crappy job.

In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say– WE…..are failing THEM.

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 “It Matters.”

Amanda L. Trujillo, BS-MSN

Director of Nurse and Patient Advocacy

Humanitarian Advocate Coalition

Phoenix, Arizona

https://www.azhac.us/

This One’s For the Veterans!

This one is for all you vets out there.

I’m going to TRY and keep it short and sweet as I know many of you out there have much more important things on your mind and stuff going on in your lives that requires more attention than a blog posting. But really, sit for a minute—especially if you are at the VA waiting for one of your many appointments. Because it involves your health, your healthcare now, your future health status and how your healthcare is administered in the future.

Whether you realize it or not you have an advantage over lots of us healthcare consumers here in Arizona. You get real time access to ALL OF YOUR MEDICAL RECORDS. Unfortunately this is just one area that you veterans are failing to see how you can catch certain things that will impact your mental and physical health not just now but in the years to come—

When the VA Medical center throws another batch of narcotic refills at you to solve all of your health problems  and says “we’ll see you in three months, or call for a refill when you need it,” it doesn’t mean you just take that advisement and go on your merry way without question, to your next appointment.  Narcotic medications are deadly and debilitating, many of you Vietnam vets have probably been taking them since you were overseas, as well as some of you returning veterans. The most common diagnoses I see among VA Medical records when vets ask me to look at them is “Low Back Pain, Muscle Strain, Degenerative Disc Disease, Degenerative Joint Disease, and Arthritis.” In fact, there is much lacking in the way of performing a simple differential diagnoses in lots of the records I help vets with. If you actually started doing some research you would probably find out that there may be something completely different going on that you hadn’t considered— but now makes a whole lot of sense since you WERE EXPOSED TO AGENT ORANGE OR OTHER TOXINS IN THEATRE!

 

  1. FIRST AND FOREMOST: When a VA doctor sends you out on a “referral or consult” with a specialist DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOUR PRIMARY DOCTOR WILL ACTUALLY “IMPLEMENT” what the specialist is recommending! For example—-The condition Ankylosing Spondylitis requires a much much different care approach than a simple lower back strain or sprain. What is usually done when this diagnoses is suspected: The primary will send you out to see a Rheumatologist for a battery of testing that will include a good history and physical—asking you lots of questions about your symptoms and your pain. Along with the exam the specialist will order imaging studies such as X-Rays, MRI’s or CT Scans and labwork that will include things like a “ESR” (Sedimentation Rate) to get an idea if inflammation is running rampant inside your body. Now, heres the important part: When you see these results come back in the form of a “Letter of consultation” to your main primary care physician, LOOK CLOSELY AT IT AND ACTUALLY READ WHAT IT SAYS! Then put your doc to the test. The next time you go for a follow up ask whether there will be any changes in your treatment. If he says no, this is when you bring out YOUR COPY of the recommendation letter and ask about why each recommendation is not being carried out if that specialist thinks it should be. In doing this, you are advocating for yourself, your body, your future and your quality of life!

 

  1. As most of the nation knows, the VA Healthcare System has gotten some pretty bad press as of late…especially here in Arizona (BIG SURPRISE THERE, EVERYTHING IS CORRUPT HERE). For those of you waiting desperately for your applications for benefits to be approved (or rejected) and are struggling, there may be a light here in what I have to say. Number one— if you are suffering from mental illness such as PTSD and are in crisis and the VA Emergency Department won’t let you in— You call 911 and ask for help ASAP, you go get help elsewhere like UPC or Terros or another local Emergency Room. You do not suffer alone. You do not “try and just get through it.” For the Veteran’s Crisis Line, dial 1-800-273-8255, press “1”… Every Emergency Room in the valley is obligated to see every single person that walks through those doors—and that includes YOU. NO VETERAN SHOULD EVER BE TOLD TO “GO LIE DOWN ON THE FLOOR UNTIL THEY ARE FEELING BETTER” AND SENT AWAY ALONE WHEN THEY ARE IN CRISIS! (Nor should any human being for that matter) You can get evaluated in a local ER and in most cases will be able to see a case manager who can help to coordinate a safe place that will help get you stabilized—at the very least. While you are waiting for VA benefits consider this: If you paid into FICA—meaning if you have had money taken out of your paychecks over the years to pay Social Security, then YOU MAY HAVE A GOOD case to file for SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS AND DISABILITY BENEFITS!!!! In addition to this, you may also be able to collect on existing disability policies you already have while you receive social security benefits!

 

  1. The plain truth is–It is not YOUR FAULT the VA is backlogged and understaffed , which makes it all that more CRUCIAL to take your health and  well being INTO YOUR HANDS and morph into a Private Investigator of sorts to ensure you are getting the same standard of care for your medical conditions that ALL PEOPLE should be getting. You see, for health conditions such as Congestive Heart Failure or COPD there is a specific government “gold standard of care” that they have set as the “bar” all healthcare providers and facilities must meet to pass healthcare quality assessments. This is their way of ensuring that people are getting the right care for the right condition at the right time and aren’t falling through the cracks. Unfortunately, from what I have been reading in both the news and records—its you guys who are falling through the cracks RIGHT NOW.

 

Most Veterans have no idea that they would even be considered a qualifying recipient for Social Security Benefits, so they simply keep waiting for the VA System to process their applications for benefits all the while struggling to keep up paying for the basics—food, medication, a roof over their head. Why not apply for Social Security and Disability Benefits while you are waiting for the VA? Chances are, if you are qualified, youll be getting the Social Security/Disability payments way before the VA comes through. When the VA approves you for a percentage based on your “rating” you can still receive the Social Security benefits at the same time! If you are interested in pursuing this you need a good attorney. Given the circumstances surrounding the past few years of my life, I happen to know a few good ones in different areas of law who really know their stuff. If youd like me to give you a few names please email me at fyrhoneybsn@yahoo.com ASAP. Hint–a good attorney will always do a first time consult for free.

As you may or may not know,  a lot of your health conditions are a direct result of  time spent in service overseas, especially if you were exposed to certain chemicals over prolonged periods of time. I brought up Ankylosing Spondylitis because it is often misdiagnosed as mechanical back pain when it is actually a progressive chronic inflammatory condition that, when treated the right way and in a timely fashion, wont have nearly the impact on someone’s health and quality of life as those who went years being misdiagnosed and dismissed with concomitant diagnoses such as anxiety and depression and a handful of scripts for various narcotic medications that barely touch the pain. Ankylosing Spondylitis actually takes years to become overtly present on x-ray and in scans. In fact,   its diagnosis is largely dependent on patient history/physical as well as certain characteristics of the pain, and some subtle tell tale signs on imaging studies. The Veterans Health Administration has a website that briefs Veterans about chemical related health conditions and they are categorized by campaign and/or location. You can find that by clicking HERE. You can also find out more about the back/joint condition Ankylosing Spondylitis, and answers to the most frequently asked questions by clicking HERE.

The take home message is: Really take the time to read your medical records, and if you don’t understand them and have been suffering with the same symptoms (that seem to be worsening despite visit after visit to the doctor)  for years, ask someone who does know how to read records to help you understand them. There are plenty of us out there who would be glad to help a vet or two advocate for themselves and get what they deserve! Advocate for yourself by making sure that the recommendations made by the specialists the VA sends you to go see are ACTUALLY CARRIED OUT! For those of you living with chronic debilitating pain—consider that there may actually be more answers out there than you thought. The hunch or gut feeling you have “that there is something really wrong here” ….may actually be right on point.

     Lastly—and I cannot urge this enough: Seek out experts on Social Security Disability Law to see if you can apply for benefits while you continue to wait on the VA. A word of caution—check your State’s Bar Association first before considering ANY ATTORNEY. If you live in Arizona you can find that by clicking HERE.  I learned THAT LESSON the good ol fashioned hard way. My quality of life suffered for it, and I most certainly did not get effective representation. Don’t make the same mistake and pick up the phone at the next commercial you see for Social Security Representation, Criminal, Administrative, or Civil representation. Be proactive with your health, AND your pocketbook!

 

 

 

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