Soldier gets Saddam, but not treatment
Army Spec. Jeans Cruz helped capture Saddam Hussein. When he came home to the Bronx, important people called him a war hero and promised to help him start a new life. The mayor of New York, officials of his parents' hometown in Puerto Rico, the b...
Army Spec. Jeans Cruz helped capture Saddam Hussein.
When he came home to the Bronx, important people called him a war hero and promised to help him start a new life. The mayor of New York, officials of his parents' hometown in Puerto Rico, the borough president and other local dignitaries honored him with plaques and silk parade sashes. They handed him their business cards and urged him to phone.
But a "black shadow" had followed Cruz home from Iraq, he confided to an Army counselor. He was hounded by recurring images of how war really was for him: not the triumphant scene of Hussein in handcuffs, but visions of dead Iraqi children.
In public, the former Army scout stood tall for the cameras and marched in the parades. In private, he slashed his forearms to provoke the pain and adrenaline of combat. He heard voices and smelled stale blood. Soon the offers of help evaporated and he found himself estranged and alone, struggling with financial collapse and a darkening depression.
At a low point, he went to the local Department of Veterans Affairs medical center for help. One VA psychologist diagnosed Cruz with post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition was labeled "severe and chronic." In a letter supporting his request for PTSD-related disability pay, the psychologist wrote that Cruz was "in need of major help" and that he had provided "more than enough evidence" to back up his PTSD claim. His combat experiences, the letter said, "have been well documented."
None of that seemed to matter when his case reached VA disability evaluators. They turned him down, ruling that he deserved no compensation because his psychological problems existed before he joined the Army. They also said that Cruz had not proven he was ever in combat. "The available evidence is insufficient to confirm that you actually engaged in combat," his rejection letter stated.
Yet abundant evidence of his year in combat with the 4th Infantry Division covers his family's living-room wall. The Army Commendation Medal With Valor for "meritorious actions ... during strategic combat operations" to capture Saddam hangs not far from the combat spurs awarded for his work with the 10th Cavalry "Eye Deep" scouts, attached to an elite unit that hunted down Iraqi leader.
Veterans Affairs will spend $2.8 billion this year on mental health. But the best it could offer Cruz was group therapy at the Bronx VA medical center. Not a single session is held on the weekends or late enough at night for him to attend. At age 25, Cruz is barely keeping his life together. He supports his disabled parents and 4-year-old son and cannot afford to take time off from his job repairing boilers. The rough, dirty work, with its heat and loud noises, gives him panic attacks and flesh burns but puts $96 in his pocket each day.
Once celebrated by his government, Cruz feels defeated by its bureaucracy. He no longer has the stamina to appeal the VA decision, or to make the Army correct the sloppy errors in his medical records, or to amend his personnel file so it actually lists his combat awards.
"I'm pushing the mental limits as it is," Cruz said, standing outside the bullet-pocked steel door of the New York City housing project on Webster Avenue where he grew up and where he still lives with his family. "My experience so far is, you ask for something and they deny, deny, deny. After a while you just give up."
legacy of vietnam
Cruz's case illustrates broader problems at a time when the number of suffering veterans is the largest and fastest-growing in decades, and when many of them are back at home with no monitoring or care. By the first quarter of 2007, the number of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq who had sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions, about 45,000 in all.
They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half; and Army Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.
They represent the first wave in what experts say is a coming deluge.
As many as one-quarter of all soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq are psychologically wounded, according to a recent American Psychological Association report. Twenty percent of the soldiers in Iraq screened positive for anxiety, depression and acute stress, an Army study found.
But numbers are only part of the problem. The Institute of Medicine reported last month that Veterans Affairs' methods for deciding compensation for PTSD and other emotional disorders had little basis in science and that the evaluation process varied greatly. And as they try to work their way through a confounding disability process, already-troubled vets enter a VA system that chronically loses records and sags with a backlog of 400,000 claims of all kinds.
The military also is battling a crisis in mental-health care. Licensed psychologists are leaving at a far faster rate than they are being replaced. Their ranks have dwindled from 450 to 350 in recent years. Many said they left because they could not handle the stress of facing such pained soldiers. Inexperienced counselors muddle through, using therapiesbetter-suited for alcoholics or marriage counseling.
A new report by the Defense Department's Mental Health Task Force says the problems are even deeper. Providers of mental-health care are "not sufficiently accessible" to service members and are inadequately trained, it says, and evidence-based treatments are not used. The task force recommends an overhaul of the military's mental-health system, according to a draft of the report.
Not long after Cruz returned from Iraq to Fort Hood, Tex., in 2004, his counselor, a low-ranking specialist, suggested that someone should "explore symptoms of PTSD." But there is no indication in Cruz's medical files, which he gave to the Washington Post, that anyone ever responded to that early suggestion.
When he met with counselors while he was on active duty, Cruz recalled, they would take notes about his troubled past, including that he had been treated for depression before he entered the Army. But they did not seem interested in his battlefield experiences. "I've shot kids. I've had to kill kids. Sometimes I look at my son and, like, I've killed a kid his age," Cruz said. "At times we had to drop a shell in someone's house. When you go clean up the mess, you had three, four, five kids. You had to move their bodies."
When he tried to talk about the war, he said, his counselors "would just sit back and say, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh.' When I told them about the unit I was with and Saddam Hussein, they'd just say, 'Oh, yeah, right.' "
Cruz's records are riddled with obvious errors, including a psychological rating of "normal" on the same physical exam the Army used to discharge him for a psychological disorder. His record omits his combat spurs award and his Army Commendation Medal With Valor. These omissions contributed to the VA decision that he had not proved he had been in combat. To straighten out those errors, Cruz would have had to deal with a chaotic and contradictory paper trail and bureaucracy -- a daunting task for an expert lawyer, let alone a stressed-out young veteran.
In the Aug. 16, 2006, VA letter denying Cruz disability pay because he had not provided evidence of combat, evaluators directed him to the U.S. Armed Services Center for Research of Unit Records. But such a place no longer exists. It changed its name to the U.S. Army and Joint Services Records Research Center and moved from one Virginia suburb, Springfield, to another, Alexandria, three years ago. It has a 10-month waiting list for processing requests.
To speed things up, staff members often advise troops to write to the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland. But that agency has no records from the Iraq war, a spokeswoman said. That would send Cruz back to Fort Hood, whose soldiers have deployed to Iraq twice, leaving few staff members to hunt down records.
Because of his family responsibilities, he does not want to be hospitalized. He doesn't think a residential program would work, either, for the same reason.
His needs are more basic. "Why can't I have a counselor with a phone number? I'd like someone to call."
Or some help from all those people who stuck their business cards in his palm during the glory days of his return from Iraq. "I have plaques on my wall -- but nothing more than that."