Monday, May 26, 2008

Vietnam vet on post-traumatic stress disorder mission

Vietnam vet on post-traumatic stress disorder mission

VIETNAM VETERAN ON PTSD MISSION -- "I ain't called trouble

for nothing. I saw what happened in the past and I see too much

of it happening again. That's why I'm pushing like hell."

Veterans advocate Jim Alty of Dover served two tours of duty in Vietnam between 1967-69: "I ain't called trouble for nothing." (photo by Rich Beauchesne)

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Vietnam vet on post-traumatic stress disorder mission

Vietnam war veteran soldiers on

By Michael Mccord

On this Memorial Day weekend, Jim Alty is mad as hell and he's doing something about it. Then again, Alty has been mad for as long as he can remember. The Vietnam War veteran, who just celebrated his 74th birthday, has for the past 15 years dedicated much of his life and emotional energy to helping his fellow veterans.

The Dover resident with the salty language and determined demeanor admits he's not a perfect messenger. He's been dealing with anger and alcohol issues for decades and doesn't hesitate to let the powers that be (politicians, government officials, newspaper columnists) know that, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator," he will "be back" again and again to press his demands for more and better service for veterans who have slipped between the cracks — and more stories to spread the word about the invisible war veterans face every day.

"I ain't called trouble for nothing," said Alty, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and retired from the Air Force in 1973. "I saw what happened in the past and I see too much of it happening again. That's why I'm pushing like hell."

Alty is consumed. He's consumed about the people he saw die in Vietnam (his bases were frequent targets of rocket and mortar attacks and his job in crash rescue was not for the faint of heart). He rattles off date connections during his lifetime and one includes Oct. 2, 1968, in which four young airmen died at the base where he had served. He keeps their names in his wallet.

He knows all about PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, because he has a 100 percent disability rating from the VA because of it. His house is full of newspaper and magazine clippings on veterans' issues. He drives fellow vets to counseling sessions or medical treatments to Manchester or the Boston area. He goes to regular formal and informal therapy groups and has created a veterans support group that brings together vets from World War II to Iraq to share their common experiences in and out of combat.

Alty's daily living nightmare is that he won't be able help a fellow veteran who's been ignored or misdiagnosed or doesn't know how to navigate the bureaucratic waters to get the services to which he is entitled.

"Government is not going to give you anything at all," Alty told me. "People don't know the resources, don't know that you can't get what you need right away. But what we can do is get started and keep pushing."

Alty knows in his angry gut what a recent RAND Corp. study reported: one in five returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan experiences PTSD or major depression (we are talking 300,000 and counting). He gets passionate talking about the rising rate of suicides among veterans who still face rejection in the warrior culture of the military for showing emotional scars of any type — and for newly released vets who are often cast adrift.

As Alty told me, all too often PTSD patients are often suicidal, and a misdiagnosis or the inability to get urgent care can prove deadly. The problem is so serious Congress passed a law called the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act last year, requiring the VA to develop a comprehensive plan to stem the rise of vet suicides.

If you really want to get Alty going, talk to him about the difficulties veterans face not only to get treatment, but also to get diagnosed. They are facing higher hurdles than normal, in part because the VA health-care system was not prepared for the onslaught. The pressures to deal with these serious issues has led to accusations of political interference (the Bush administration is notorious for its cowardice in sharing any bad news at all levels of the executive branch.

For example, according to new reports, internal VA studies have estimated 12,000 vet suicide attempts annually, while only publicly reporting 800).

It surprised no one when a psychologist at a VA center in Temple, Texas, sent out an e-mail to medical workers asking them to "refrain" from diagnosing veterans with PTSD (this document was made available, courtesy of Slate magazine). Due to the increase in "compensation-seeking veterans," the psychologist wrote, social workers and psychologists should consider ruling out PTSD and instead render a diagnosis of the less-serious "adjustment disorder."

This is no small matter financially for veterans, because according to the VA guidelines, PTSD "qualifies as a disability" entitling a veteran to an "improved pension." This bureaucratic guidance was offered in part, this manager wrote, because "we really don't ... have time to do the extensive testing that should be done" in order to diagnose PTSD.

That has been Alty's experience. Roadblock upon roadblock, but he's not angry with the people he personally meets on the front lines of veterans' health care at the VA or the DAV, the Disabled American Veterans organization.

"I give them the benefit of the doubt. Just like Vietnam, they just didn't see it coming," he told me.

He's less charitable about whom he calls the "yo-yo in the White House" (President Bush) that started the Iraq war and didn't have any plans for either post-war Iraq or the potential rise in VA health-care needs (the VA operates 155 medical centers and more than 1,400 treatment centers. In 2006, it provided health care to nearly 5.5 million veterans.)

"I get overwhelmed at times," Alty said. "My doctor tells me 'you gotta slow down,' and I do sometimes. But how can you stop when there's so much to do and so many to help?"

Such as one of the Iraq war vets he's helping who suffered a traumatic brain injury and other serious bodily carnage during the Iraq war when his vehicle was blown apart by a roadside bomb (the RAND report about traumatic brain injuries should be required for any politician or policymaker who talks about supporting the troops, but wants to do it on the cheap. It can't be done unless we condemn tens of thousands to a living hell.)

Alty told me he has become an informal mentor to the young family man who is suffering from PTSD and is helping him deal with the paperwork and coming to terms with the depth of depression.

"His wife, she said she understands more," Alty said about literature he shared with the couple.

Alty knows the difficulties of family life for veterans with serious readjustment issues. He burned through three marriages, and says he was a confused, uncommunicative and drink-laden partner at best.

"The important thing is to let them know they aren't crazy, that they have these feelings that don't have words and really bad nightmares," said Alty, who will celebrate his 17th year of sobriety today.

His passion now is focused on getting a PTSD center at the VA hospital in Manchester — or at least allowing veterans to use local civilian therapists and psychiatrists as is done in other parts of the country. He's constantly pushing elected officials such as Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Sens. John Sununu and Judd Gregg (he has their phone numbers on speed dial) to find out what they have done lately to help his fellow vets — and he has no tolerance for talk without action, and said he mobilizes vets to take political action when election day rolls around. He believes veterans are going to be more organized and potentially more unified for this election than ever before.

He calls me up to tell me about news he has just heard that the VA psychiatric ward in North Hampton, Mass., is now taking patients immediately who have suicidal symptoms, no small breakthrough in a struggle of a thousand small daily battles.

Jim Alty is part of an immense, largely unseen army of volunteers across the nation who fight the good fight for veterans every day and collectively bring stories and light to issues that frankly most Americans would rather not see or talk about.

"Are you going to spread the word that vets who feel like they might commit suicide don't have to wait to get treatment?" Alty asks me.

I am, Jim. I am.

Political columnist Michael McCord is the editorial page editor of Seacoast Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald. He can be reached at


posted by Larry Scott
Founder and Editor
VA Watchdog dot Org


I understand Jim Alty all to well he sounds like me only 22 years older......

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