Sen. Jay Rockefeller
Imagine you’re the mom of three young boys with special needs. You are deeply proud of your husband, a combat veteran who served five tours of duty and earned two combat action badges. But you and your family struggle every single day with the invisible wounds of war.
Tracy White stands firmly by her husband’s side. She is with him when his unimaginable combat experiences — like taking his friend’s photograph at the moment he was killed by an IED — manifest in frightening ways. She is working with every fiber of her being to support their family, including holding down a part-time job so she can also be there for their sons.
She is also her husband’s biggest champion while he navigates an unfairly complex system to get the care and benefits he earned.
The Whites have no health coverage. When Jerry sought therapy through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a counselor told Tracy she should sleep in another room and call the police for protection. He was told he didn’t fit into a certain stereotype of someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So as he awaits a decision from the VA about his disability benefits, he remains isolated in his home. He says he feels like a prisoner. This is someone who served his country, who selflessly answered the call, and in doing so faced the ruthless realities of war that are forever cemented in his mind.
The system is failing him. We are failing him. But I believe we can do more. We can find a way for Jerry, and thousands of veterans like him, to get beyond this struggle.
I’m working closely with the Whites to make sure Jerry gets the care he needs, and his family gets the support they deserve, in return for his service. And I was so grateful that they joined me for a conversation I recently held in West Virginia about veterans’ mental health needs.
I’ve met with veterans on countless occasions, but this was an especially powerful and important discussion — because the Whites and other veterans and their families bravely chose to share their experiences publicly. They felt they needed to for the many others who suffer silently.
With the end of the Iraq War, and with tens of thousands of veterans coming home from Afghanistan, the VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) — both of whom were there for our conversation — know the complexities of caring for returning service members with conditions like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
As the demand for mental health care increases, we must be prepared to answer the call for our newest veterans and those from every generation.
In recent days, the VA announced that it has filled 1,600 mental health positions and the vacancies of more than 2,000 mental health clinical providers. This is an important step, and something I pushed for.
But I believe we must do more to deliver the strong, timely, consistent, individualized care our veterans need, including providing highly-skilled doctors and therapists — and making sure that care is always available.
We must end the months-long delay that places veterans in limbo when transitioning their paperwork from active duty status at the DOD to the VA. And we can no longer expect veterans tormented by mental health issues to twist and turn through multiple levels of bureaucracy to get the care we owe them.
The reality for our veterans is that, far too often, they face a host of issues when they come home — backlogs, claim delays, stigma and lack of understanding around their private struggles. Without the right care, things can start to spiral out of control — financial hardship, marital stress, feelings of hopelessness.
This is a difficult issue. But we can’t let the complexity be an excuse for not delivering the kind of support our veterans have earned. No one is more deserving.
We know the system can work for our veterans when the VA, DOD, vet centers, counselors and support networks get it right. And we know the right kind of care when it is most needed can keep families together.
It can also transform and save lives.
We should be relentless in our pursuit of that outcome for the Whites, and for each and every veteran and their loved ones.
(Rockefeller is West Virginia’s senior United States senator.)