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Mental Health Care in the Eyes of Veterans

Maggie Martin stood behind a mass of microphones and throngs of media at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Wacker Drive and spoke about one of the most personal and heartbreaking experiences imaginable.
While serving in the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division from 2001 to 2006, she, like many women soldiers, experienced hardships and bigotry due to her gender. She said her male supervisors would watch her constantly, effectively keeping her under their social control and authority.
In 2006, she was sexually assaulted — and told no one for five years. The stigma that surrounds sexual assault, coupled with the lack of trust in her leadership, silenced her.
“When it happened to me, I was like ‘what does that mean about me? What does that mean about everything I thought before?” she said. “I just shut it down.”

She tried to get help for her myriad of post traumatic stress disorder side effects — intense anxiety, nightmares, and vivid flashbacks of the incident – through Veteran’s Affairs. She took all the necessary steps: enrolling in the program for documentation, while attempting to set up treatment.

The program, she said, “was more traumatic than anything.”
She said she was passed from one disinterested and skeptical caregiver to another, until she gave up on the system altogether.
It wasn’t until she found Iraq Veterans Against the War that she was finally able to heal through their tight-knit and supporting community. She wrote a blog for The Huffington Post, published on Veteran’s Day 2010, and now provides inspiration and help to others.
“So many people have come to me to say that they’re also survivors and they haven’t been able to admit it or talk about it and said that me talking about it has given them strength,” she said.
She chokes back tears as she tells her story.

Stories of veterans’ problems with Veteran’s Affairs are common. Besides military sexual trauma (one in three women soldiers are sexually assaulted) and PTSD, problems with traumatic brain injury, poverty and suicide run rampant. One in five homeless people are veterans and 67,000 veterans are homeless every night, according to Irag Veterans Against the War.

During the NATO Summit in Chicago veterans from around the country gathered to voice their concerns and call attention to their ongoing struggles.

“When our veterans return home broken in body and spirit, don’t receive the medical care they need or the resources they need, and are not cared for when they return, there’s a problem,” says Jan Rodolfo, Midwest director for National Nurses United.

In Chicago right now, it’s especially difficult to seek mental health care. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently closed six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics due to budget concerns.

At the “Healthcare not Warfare” rally on May 20, citizens took to the Chicago streets to voice their concerns and march to Emanuel’s home.

“There’s over 20,000 men and women coming out of Iraq that need mental health because they’re not on the VA bill,” says Diane Adams of the Southside Together Organizing for Power. “Go to the mayor and tell him to open the clinics.”

But veterans’ problems receiving adequate health care are not new. 

Conrad Creitz is 65 and a veteran of the Vietnam War.

“The current problems with the VA are problems that existed for a long time,” he said.

He has to wait six months between his PTSD treatments due to overworking and understaffing. He is also diagnosed with diabetes, rectal cancer, abnormal EKG (a right blockage of the heart) and other physical problems due to Agent Orange exposure. He had an operation to take out the last two feet of his large intestine which resulted in a colostomy and a hernia the size of a bowling ball, which he said the VA refuses to fix.

“When I first went in (the army) there was somebody from the VA — I hadn’t even been to basic training yet – and they told us they would take care of us when we got out, health-wise,” Creitz says. “It didn’t work that way.”

The Iraq Veterans Against the War is one alternative organization that fights for veteran’s rights. The Iraq Veterans Against the War provide a healing atmosphere and activities like support groups, creative writing, and artwork, to help them work through their emotional damage. There’s also a combat paper project where veterans turn their uniforms into paper.

The organization helped Martin finally come to grips with her assault and speak out.
“In the end I kind of gave up (on the VA) and decided I was better off using the healing tools I was learning in this community,” Martin said. “These are my family and they’ve helped me change my life.”

Once Martin started talking, other women followed suit. She says that the “truth set her free” and she realized the assault wasn’t her fault — it was the fault of the person who assaulted her — and being a victim of sexual assault does not define her.

“Being able to say that it happens to a lot of people, but it doesn’t make you who you are, and it doesn’t say something about you, that was really empowering for me,” she said.

On May 20, during the first day of the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, the Iraq Veterans Against the War marched on McCormick Place and returned their medals in an act of solidarity.

Martin was one of them. As she looked out on the thousands of protesters and armored police officers hanging on her every word, she couldn’t keep it in any longer. The tears streamed down her face — for her recovery and for all of her military brothers and sisters who can’t.

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