Stress from war leaves a heavy toll
Little is done to aid veterans' daily struggles
ROMNEY, W.Va. - Michelle Turner's husband sits in the recliner with the shades drawn. He washes down his Zoloft with Mountain Dew. On the phone in the other room, Michelle is pleading with the utility company to keep their power on.
"Can't you tell them I'm a veteran?" asks her husband, Troy, who served as an Army scout in Baghdad and came back with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Troy, they don't care," Michelle says, her patience stretched.
The government's sweeping list of promises to make wounded Iraq war veterans whole, at least financially, has not reached this small house in the hills of rural West Virginia, where one vehicle has already been repossessed and the answering machine screens for bill collectors.
The Turners have not been making it on an $860-a-month disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After revelations about the poor treatment of outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center earlier this year, President Bush appointed a commission to study the care of the nation's war-wounded. The panel returned with bold recommendations, including the creation of a national cadre of caseworkers and a complete overhaul of the military's disability system that compensates wounded soldiers.
But so far, little has been done to sort out the mess of bureaucracy or put more money in the hands of newly disabled soldiers who are fending off evictions and foreclosures.
In the Turner house, that leaves an exhausted wife to hold up the family's collapsing world. "Stand Together," a banner at a local cafe reminds Michelle. But since Troy came back from Iraq in 2003, the burden of war is now hers.
Michelle has spent hundreds of hours at the library researching complicated VA policies and disability regulations. "You need two college degrees to understand any of it," she says, lacking both. She scavenges information where she can find it. A psychotic Vietnam veteran she met in a VA hospital was the one who told her that Troy might be eligible for Social Security benefits.
Meanwhile, there are clothes to wash, meals to cook, children to get ready for school, and a husband who is placidly medicated or randomly explosive. Besides post-traumatic stress disorder, Michelle suspects that Troy may have a brain injury, which could explain how a 38-year-old man who used to hunt and fish can lose himself in a three-day "Scooby-Doo" marathon on the Cartoon Network.
"He can't deal with everyday stresses of living," Michelle says. "He can't make decisions. He is a worrywart. Fearful. It's like they took Troy and put him in a different person."
As thousands of war-wounded lug their discharge papers and pill bottles home, more than a quarter are returning with PTSD and brain trauma. Compensation for these injuries is more difficult and the social isolation more profound, especially in rural communities where pastures outnumber mental health providers. Troy's one-year war has become his wife's endless one.
The Turners live in a small rental house in the northern tip of West Virginia. There is a VFW tavern in town, but Troy doesn't bother.
After one of his distraught soldier buddies from Iraq got so drunk he wrapped his motorcycle around a tree, Troy stays away from alcohol. Still, the techniques he learned to calm his PTSD in Army and VA treatment programs - tai chi meditation and classical music - seem like distant remedies in this farming county.
Michelle thinks Troy's anxiety and depression are worsening, and she tells anyone who will listen - her pastor, doctors, and counselors at VA. His speech is sometimes soupy from mood stabilizers. The meds give him tremors. He used to cut the grass and bring home a paycheck, but now he stays inside like a perpetual patient. His memory is shot, and he relies on Michelle for everything.
At 31, her eyes are hollowed by worry and her brown hair is turning gray. The Turners live 80 miles from the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, where Troy receives his care, and sometimes they go once a week. The all-day journey requires a baby sitter for the children - ages 10 and 11, both from previous marriages - and burns $25 worth of precious gas.
"This is the part you don't see on TV," Michelle says.
Troy served with the Third Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His problems started after his tour. While he was on home leave from Fort Stewart one weekend, Michelle found him sitting on the bed with a bottle of pills. He said he couldn't go back. Michelle drove him to the Martinsburg VA hospital, which sent him to Walter Reed for three weeks of psychiatric care.
He was sent back to Fort Stewart and returned to duty. Twice he tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized at Winn Army Community Hospital before being medically discharged for PTSD in 2004. After 13 years in uniform, Troy got nearly the lowest disability rating possible, a $11,349 severance check and no benefits.
For 18 months Troy worked as a truck driver until his symptoms worsened. He imagined he saw Army vehicles on the interstate, causing him to shake and panic. His family needed the $2,600-a-month salary, so Troy kept driving and Michelle rode in the truck with him. Finally VA doctors increased Troy's medication, and he became too zonked to drive.
VA rated Troy's disability level at 50 percent, resulting in $860 a month in compensation. Michelle has been pushing to have VA reevaluate Troy in hopes of getting his disability rating raised.
"I am at the end of my rope," she says.