When serving our country lands you in jail— Army veteran’s cry for help ignored

Congress’s lack of funding for Veteran Affairs offices across the country is causing veterans to lash out when denied treatment for PTSD

Photo by JeffOnWire (Flickr)

Since the War on Terror began in 2001, more than 100,000 combat veterans have sought help for mental illness.  Almost half of those men and women have suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”).  PTSD, along with other mental health conditions, affects veterans that have experienced any terrifying event.  However, the way our country takes care of these wounded citizens once they have returned home is questionable.  Roughly half of the men and women who need help attempt to reach out, but only slightly more than half of those who do receive treatment get “minimally adequate care.”

PTSD occurs after a person has been through a traumatic event, focusing on combat exposure

PTSD occurs after a person has been through a traumatic event, focusing on combat exposure.  There are four symptoms of PTSD: (1) reliving the event, (2) avoiding situations that remind you of the event, (3) negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and (4) hyperarousal.  People with PTSD, especially before receiving treatment, can face other problems such as feelings of despair, depression or anxiety, suicidal thoughts, drinking or drug problems, employment problems, and relationship problems.

It is very difficult for service members to come back from war and act like a “common civilian.”  A veteran goes from being surrounded by guns and fighting terrorists one day to having dinner with his or her family the next.  Unfortunately, the stigma in our country about mental health issues can be a huge barrier for those who need professional help.  Military men and women fear negative consequences of using mental health services, are concerned about confidentiality, and fear the affect it could cause their career.  However, acknowledging and accepting that something deeper is wrong takes strength and courage.

If PTSD is not treated, it can be damaging to other parts of a veteran’s life.  For example, these servicemembers have higher risks for unhealthy behavior—smoking, excessive drinking, violent outbursts—and higher chance of attempting suicide.  There is also a possible link between homelessness and PTSD.

PTSD is treatable with therapy, and sometimes, medicine.  However, what are veterans supposed to do when they actively try to seek help and are ignored?

One of the biggest problems for the Department of Veteran Affairs is wait times

The VA faces challenges in providing access to returning veterans, who may face long wait times for appointments, particularly in facilities resourced primarily to meet the demands of older veterans.

One of the biggest problems for the Department of Veteran Affairs is wait times.  These long, drawn out wait times keep veterans from receiving the help they need.  In 2014, an audit on over seventy percent of VA facilities uncovered tens of thousands of veterans were put on “alternate” wait lists to hide long wait times.  Veterans were waiting 90 days or more for an initial appointment.  This scandal became public after a whistleblower reported that at least forty veterans had died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA facility and were never placed on the waiting list to see a specialist.

Lack of funding and treatment for veterans costs our society as a whole more than it would if these conditions were treated head on

There are two primary reasons for the long wait times: (1) lack of funding and (2) U.S. healthcare system.  Congress has continuously failed provide adequate funding so that the VA increase its staff to care for an increasing number of veterans.  Veterans who survived Vietnam and the first Iraq war are often poor, have serious mental health problems, and usually share age-related health issues.  In addition to the Vietnam and first Iraq war veterans; there are those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan who are coming back with PTSD, amputations, and/or every day health problems.

Lack of funding and treatment for veterans costs our society as a whole more than it would if these conditions were treated head on.  There are much higher long-term individual and societal costs stemming from lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence, strain on families, and suicide.  Delivering effective care and restoring veterans to full mental health has the potential to reduce these long-terms costs significantly.

[M]ost veterans who do need medical help do not have the money to pay for this service in the private sector

The second reason for long wait times by the VA is the issue with primary care providers and the U.S. healthcare system.  Since there are such few people helping out the VA because of lack of funding, very few doctors or medical school graduates want to devote time in helping the VA.  Unfortunately, most veterans who do need medical help do not have the money to pay for this service in the private sector.

The Choice Card program, passed by Congress last year, is starting to be highly scrutinized as a failure for the necessary cure warranted by the VA’s poor services for veterans.  The Choice Card program allows veterans to be seen by private doctors if wait times at the VA are too long or the patient lives too far away from a facility. Advocates for veterans insist that Congress raise the budget so the VA can hire more staff and get a new scheduling system to prevent another waiting list scandal.  The VA needs an additional $2 billion to keep up with the growing demands of veterans.  Unfortunately, the Choice Card program is not working fast enough, and veterans are still going several weeks without any treatment for serious mental health problems.

Broderick made the threatening phone call after continuously trying to seek help from the VA for his PTSD

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge W. Earl Britt sentenced Ryan Broderick, Army veteran and reservist, to three years on probation for threatening to shoot up the Fayetteville VA Medical Center.  Broderick made the threatening phone call after continuously trying to seek help from the VA for his PTSD.  Broderick accepted a misdemeanor assault plea in lieu of not being charged with a felony for threatening federal officials.

Broderick served eight years in the Army and spent two years in the reserves, including three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.  During deployment, Broderick was tasked with the job of cleaning blood and body parts from Army vehicles destroyed by homemade bombs.  Broderick was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010, but he never received medication or treatment for the condition.

When Broderick made the phone call on January 29, 2015, he was on his third day of no sleep and felt that his life was spiraling out of control.  He seemed to be suffering from nightmares, night sweats, anger, depression, and anxiety.  Broderick called the crisis hotline and spoke with a counselor for the VA.  During that phone call, he threatened that if he did not receive the help he needed for his PTSD, he was going to take a gun, bring it to the VA hospital in Fort Bragg, and start shooting.  As soon as Broderick was able to speak to a crisis specialist, he calmed down.  When contacted the next day, it was noted by the specialist that Broderick was not homicidal or suicidal and he was only looking for help.

Broderick received probation because it would give him a longer period to receive counseling and services

At sentencing, Judge Britt announced to the court that the nation and its leaders “have not done their duty to service members who return from war psychologically injured.”  Judge Britt explained, “the biggest blame in my view is the failure of the Congress of the United States to adequately fund the Veterans Affairs and otherwise prepare for and cope with the problems we have with so many returning veterans.”  Judge Britt made it clear that he did not agree with the plea agreement but accepted it to spare Broderick the uncertainty of a trial.  Broderick received probation because it would give him a longer period to receive counseling and services.

Unfortunately, Ryan Broderick is not the first veteran to be prosecuted for wanting help.  In 2013, another North Carolina Veteran made a threatened to blow up the VA office in Winston-Salem.  Unlike Broderick, he was spared a trial and conviction.  Similar to Broderick, Sean Duvall, a Persian Gulf War veteran with PTSD, was charged with possessing a destructive device after threatening to commit suicide in Virginia.  Additionally, Alphonso Wynn, Dennis Ruble, and Frank Harmon made threatening phone calls to the VA after not receiving treatment and were prosecuted, too.  Again, like Broderick, all of these veterans said they would never carry out the actual threats; they just wanted to be heard so they could receive help.

Danielle Feller, Associate Editor
About Danielle Feller, Associate Editor (16 Articles)
Danielle Feller is a 2016 graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a degree in Political Science with a concentration in Law and Justice and a minor in Business Administration. Following her first year of law school, Danielle interned at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office in the Felony Unit. Following her second year of law school, Danielle interned at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Danielle is also worked as Professor Bobbi Jo Boyd's research assistant during her third year of law school.
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