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War, depression, suicide: American veterans are finding help

By Catherine Triomphe

Roger King was 19 when he enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 2005. He left four years later after two deployments in Iraq, where a sniper’s bullet nearly cost him his life.

Once home, he faced a new set of problems in his return to civilian life on New York’s Long Island, including a suffocating sense of anxiety and difficulty being in group situations.

King was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—two afflictions sadly common among veterans of the largest army in the world, bogged down in seemingly endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Increasingly depressed by the challenges of his new life, King began drinking.

This solidly built 33-year-old man quietly confides that he attempted suicide—twice.

Russell Keyzer—another New Yorker—joined the National Guard shortly after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Now 42, he suffers from flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks and other PTSD symptoms following two years with NATO’s multinational force in Kosovo, where periods of relative stability alternated with violent outbursts.

After returning home in 2008, Keyzer sank into a life of drinking and depression. His marriage came crashing down and he found himself homeless. On no fewer than seven occasions, he says, he attempted to kill himself.

Today, King and Keyzer say they are doing much better, thanks in large part to an aid group for veterans, the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, a non-profit organization created in 2012 in tribute to an army medic who killed himself in 2008 after returning home from Iraq.

More needs to be done

King and Keyzer spoke about their darker times at a recent “Wellness Day” organized by the association at a park in the coastal village of Center Moriches.

Veterans enjoyed a picnic, a salute to the US flag, yoga, meditation and kayaking—all activities intended to foster a sense of security and camaraderie.

Some 20 organizations also set up stands to offer assistance.

“More needs to be done,” King said. Groups like the Dwyer Project “should have been done in World War I, World War II, Vietnam.”

He now leads a group of a dozen veterans for the project. They meet weekly.

“We thought of AA, NA,” he said, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but “it’s like you never really thought maybe this might help for veterans.”

Now, King added, “the compassion and the caring is getting there.”

Keyzer agreed.

“If the proper resources were there when we came home, we would not be in this position ... We would not have turned to drugs, we would not have turned to alcoholism,” he said.

But he added: “Things are slowly changing for the better every day. There are more and more veterans’ programs out there.”

Peer support

Psychological support groups like the Dwyer Project have indeed been multiplying across the United States, as the world’s leading superpower struggles to help its 20 million veterans—nearly 10 percent of the adult population—overcome their challenges and thoughts of suicide.

Many recent veterans are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the proud and smiling men and women who assembled in Normandy last week to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II.

More than 6,000 veterans—many of them gun owners—killed themselves each year from 2008 to 2016, according to a report published late last year by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

By comparison, a total of 6,951 American troops died in major war zones between 2001 and 2018, according to an analysis from Brown University.

Faced with those sobering statistics, the VA—which administers some 1,200 hospitals and clinics—has made suicide prevention a priority, establishing a hotline for troubled veterans that is among the most heavily used in the world.

Increasing awareness 

The Veterans Crisis Line was launched in 2007 with a staff of 14; it now has more than 900 employees, with three call centers across the country including one in upstate New York, director Matt Miller told AFP.

The number of incoming calls has grown steadily, now totaling some 650,000 a year, he said.

“We are all increasing in our awareness” of suicide, he said, not just among veterans but among all civilians, where the rate—while lower than among veterans—has been climbing.

Fifty years after the hell of Vietnam and more than 17 years after US troops first intervened in Afghanistan, “there is a lot more awareness” about veterans’ needs, said Marcelle Leis, who heads the Dwyer Project after 20 years in the Air National Guard.

But she quickly adds: “We have a lot of work to do.”

Unlike the norm during the Korean and Vietnam wars, she said, troops sent to Iraq or Afghanistan often serve “multiple tours” and struggle while “going back and forth in this constant state of hyper-vigilance.”

As they cope with the difficult return to civilian life, veterans have an added handicap: in their former military culture, asking for help could be seen as showing weakness.

“A lot of what we do is education to ask for help and garner support—and learn that that’s a sign of strength,” Leis said.

She is cheered by the fact that many Vietnam veterans, even as they battle their own demons, have been quick to join support groups to help younger veterans.

“It is giving them a new sense of purpose, and helping them heal,” Leis said.

My blood is pumping

King credits a Vietnam veteran as the first person to encourage him to seek psychotherapy, a crucial step on the road to healing.

While he admits to still having difficult moments, the former Marine, now married and the father of a three-month-old, has plans for the future: with a newly earned history degree, he hopes to work as a high school teacher.

And while he still misses the adrenaline rushes of combat, his weekend job as a firefighter helps make up for it.

“The alarm goes off, my blood is pumping (and) I’m going out to save somebody,” King says with a smile. AFP

The Securities and Exchange Commission has been making important and precedent-setting moves on the shareholder conflict hounding Medical City. If the SEC maintains this direction, it will be raising investor confidence to levels that augur well for several major initial public offerings planned for next year.

The SEC recently formally charged a group of shareholders linked to a foreign investment company with fraud. Based on media reports, the regulatory body charged the  Singaporean firm Viva Holding, its local partner Fountel and several entities identified with the latter of violating key provisions of the country’s Securities Regulation Code.

The SEC said the group “misrepresented their independence from each other” as they went on a buying binge for Medical City shares, eventually acquiring a majority stake in the decades-old medical institution.

The SEC said the misrepresentation prejudiced “the unsuspecting stockholders whose share value and voting power have declined.” The “misrepresentation” referred to by the SEC was a “funding scheme” used by the group where foreign money were channeled from the Singaporean firm to several local companies owned by former Medical City Treasurer, now Chairman Jose Xavier Gonzales.

The SEC said the group violated provisions of the SRC which prohibit any “fraudulent, manipulative and deceptive act or practice in connection with any tender offer.” It also charged the group with violating SRC provisions which make mandatory for “groups of persons acting in concert who intend to acquire 35 percent or more of equity shares in a public company to disclose such intention and contemporaneously make a tender offer for the percent sought to all shareholders.”

It has been a long time since the SEC has put out a strongly-worded order.

Observers are now watching to see if the strongly-worded order is a signal that the  SEC is set to impose a penalty that matches the crime, so to speak. Specifically, that could mean that the SEC may declare the acquisition of the Medical City shares by the Singaporean group and their Philippine partners invalid, null and void.

Sources inside Medical City have revealed that current management has played down the SEC charges, assuring employees and doctors that at worst, the SEC would simply impose a fine.

Business community observers, however, believe it is remote that the SEC would simply  impose a fine on a group which it has charged with committing fraud involving billions of pesos worth of corporate shares.

The prevailing view is that the SEC may decide to flex its regulatory muscle. If this view holds water, the move will certainly earn the body kudos from the business sector. If the SEC metes out the appropriate penalties which it certainly has the power to do, the regulatory agency would be making a strong statement that investment rules in this country are to be followed by all, both by the small players and the big, moneyed groups. The playing field is level, the rules are clear and the SEC is determined to make sure they are complied with.

Recall that the attention of the business sector and healthcare industry was caught by these developments because of the apparent dare thrown to the SEC by this Singaporean-backed group.

Earlier media reports bared that the group had apparently ignored an order by the SEC for all the protagonists in the corporate intramural to respect the status quo. The move raised questions regarding the ability and resolve of the SEC to uphold the law and impose its will in the face of a challenge posed by an international investment giant. We watched with bated breath the next move by the SEC and wondered whether or not it would let itself be intimidated by a powerful global business interest.

With its latest moves on this issue, the SEC has clearly vindicated itself.

It has sent signals to all that, in the face of a challenge to the rules, the SEC will not blink.

That clear SEC judgment on the Medical City row should put all doubts to rest and enhance investor confidence in the country. After all, legitimate investors prefer an investment destination where the rules are clear, where the playing field is level, and where the government ensures both.

Another major hospital group is planning a big IPO next year. The offering planned by the healthcare group of tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan is expected to create excitement in the market and bring in fresh funds into the industry, both from local and foreign investors.

The SEC move on the Medical City row, therefore, could not have been more timely.

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Topics: War , depression , suicide , American veterans , US Marine Corps , post-traumatic stress disorder , PTSD , traumatic brain injury , TBI
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