At this moment in American history, about a third of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and military suicidesare on the rise. Knowing all that, I was hoping this election year would include a frank discussion of military mental health care. Though that, apparently, was asking too much, PTSD has become something of an unexpected background factor in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race.
In June, ABC News ran a story revealing Senator Vitter’s aide Brent Furer’s checkered history of DUI’s and cocaine possession, as well as an incident in which the aide stabbed his ex-girlfriend with a knife and held her captive for 90 minutes, asking her charming questions such as, “Do you want to die?” While the violent episode was not made public when it occurred, Sen. Vitter, no stranger to questionable love practices himself, knew about it when it occurred but did not think it significant enough to merit firing Furer, according to ABC. Instead, the senator accepted Furer’s resignation only after “learning” about his past drug and alcohol issues. (ABC News cast doubt on that explanation, noting that Vitter’s regional campaign director “oversaw” Furer’s community service obligations after one of his DUI incidents.)
Vitter’s spokesman claimed Furer was originally hired because of his service in Gulf War I. Retired Marine General James Livingston – who has testified to Congress about the benefits of early PTSD detection – defended Vitter’s choice, saying Furer had PTSD after witnessing “horrific” violence in Operation Desert Storm. Gen. Livingston applauded Vitter for letting a veteran with PTSD keep his job after a knife-wielding encounter, rather than letting him “flounder on his own in his time of need”.
ABC News disclosed an instance of road rage involving Furer which transpired as he was driving to get PTSD medication:
[An] ugly incident occurred in late 2008 when Furer was driving to pick up medication from a Washington [D.C.] area pharmacy. Furer, a former Marine and veteran of the first Gulf War, has told lawyers he takes medication for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.
The ride turned ugly when Furer and another former Marine, Gregory Blake became caught up in a violent road rage incident in late 2008. As Furer allegedly chased Blake through the streets of Washington in their SUVS, Furer struck a motorcyclist, throwing the cyclist to the pavement and breaking his femur, according to a lawsuit that followed. When police arrived, Furer flashed his senate ID and told them he worked for Sen. Vitter, according to court records. Furer’s insurance company settled the civil case.
Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democratic aspirant to Vitter’s seat, has emphasized reported claims that Furer handled “women’s issues” for Vitter in a hard-hittinginternet ad. There’s a cryptic twist at the end, when the ad implies Vitter kept Furer on staff because the aide might “have” something on his boss. Melancon invites viewers to speculate about Vitter’s other “serious sins,” beyond those Vitter vaguely referenced in 2007 while apologizing for his involvement in a D.C. prostitution ring.
Sen. Vitter’s Republican primary challenger, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor, is also stoking doubts about Vitter’s past. Justice Traylor’s campaign manager, Lev Dawson, recently raised the possibility of more skeletons emerging from Vitter’s closet in anAP story:
Lev Dawson believes Vitter is vulnerable. Dawson is a conservative north Louisiana farmer and businessman and a frequent contributor to past Republican campaigns, including Vitter’s. But now he is managing Traylor’s fledgling campaign and says Republicans who want Traylor to run believe the latest scandal isn’t the last.
“Is there more coming? We think there might be. And if there’s more coming, how bad is it? And what will happen to the women’s vote in Louisiana, and will he survive it?” said Dawson. “We think if Justice Traylor gets the nomination, he’ll win.”
Despite Traylor’s“complicated romantic history”– which if expressed in chart form would be tangled yet disturbingly vertical – Dawson says his candidate’s reputation is “impeccable”. Republican voters will have their say on Vitter and Traylor on August 28.
But there’s a PTSD episode connected to Traylor’s campaign personnel, as well. Lev Dawson’s son, Seth, who was appointed to the Louisiana State Police Commission in 2008,was arrestedin May for drawing a gun on a security guard at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans. Lev Dawson attributed his son’s behavior to symptoms of PTSD from a 2001 incident, saying: “On 9-11 [Seth Dawson] was involved in a gunfight with two drug dealers who were trying to collect a debt from another drug dealer. He shot and killed one of the drug dealers, a justified shooting, and suffered a severe form of PTSD.”
Back in November I wrote apost at Humid Beingswith a teaser to a personal story that I will complete in the near future:
Several months ago I was riding in a car with a soldier named Vic, who just learned that he was going back to Afghanistan. We were driving through Broadmoor, and I asked about his circumstances. “You don’t know what it’s like over there,” he said. I agreed that I didn’t know, and asked what I could do for him before he left. He didn’t directly answer but became increasingly anxious and stressed. Then he pulled over and did something quite unexpected and dangerous.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the conclusion to this nail-biter will involve Vic’s PTSD symptoms. By the way, I concluded that post with a chilling quote from a Boston Reviewarticle, which I described as speaking to “this perverse, recurring impulse we have to err on the side of LESS care for Vets, rather than more”. It still shocks me:
[Paul] Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. “That’s too many,” McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. “They are too young” to be filing claims, and they are doing it “too soon.” He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are “costing us too much money,” and if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.” At that point, he slammed his palm against the table a final time, making a loud smack. Everyone in the room fell silent.
The U.S. is still waging two long wars that began under different circumstances after 9/11, and continued throughout the Great Recession. Multiple deployments in these conflicts have taxed the psyches of military personnel and families in ways that are impossible to calculate. In addition, South Louisianans have been struck by two mega-disasters in the past five years: the BP/Macondo oil gusher as well as hurricanes Katrina, Rita and the Federal Flood of New Orleans. The effects of all these disasters – compounded by wars and recession – will likely affect the mental health of Louisianans more severely than anywhere else.
The irony in all this is that even as the disorder’s scary symptoms creep into campaign PR battles, Louisiana’s Senatorial candidates seem to have no platform on the issue, beyond using it to bash their opponent. Sure it’s fun to speculate about a wave of Vitter disclosures being on the horizon, but not if we’re ignoring the wave of mental health challenges that’s about to crest.
Perfunctory platitudes in a few campaign speeches to veterans groups aren’t enough. I fear PTSD won’t be treated as a top-tier issue for our state until it’s recognized as an official “crisis”– probably only after a series of high-profile PTSD acts result in deat