Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), ranking member
of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a real friend to
his fellow veterans, held a briefing in December on one facet of
what has become a political hot potato: How Post-traumatic Stress
Disorder affects families. Nancy Switzer, speaking on behalf of
herself and the Associates
of Vietnam Veterans of America, gave a wrenching account of her
marriages to husbands suffering from PTSD.
“PTSD is an insidious and debilitating
condition that has tragic, devastating effects on the family of
the veteran or active-duty soldier returned from a combat zone,”
she told a rapt audience.
“I have been married to two Vietnam
veterans. Both served with the 25th Infantry Division based in Cu
Chi. My first marriage lasted five years. We were high school
sweethearts. He was drafted into the Army in 1968, my senior year
in high school. We got engaged in 1969, right after he found out
he was going to Vietnam. I was 19 years old.
“When he came home a year later, he didn’t
have a mark on him,” she continued. “I thought he’d been lucky. I
was wrong. The first slap made me wonder if this was the same
person I’d known the year before.
“But I loved him, and six months after he
returned we got married. Our wedded bliss was short-lived,
however. He beat me. I’d come home from work, and I’d find
strangers in our house doing drugs. There was no talking to my
husband about this. And I blamed myself; I thought I had to be
doing something wrong for him to be treating me the way he was.”
Nancy Switzer left her husband after five difficult years. She
renewed a friendship with the man who would become her second
husband. “I fell deeply in love with Rick, and I still love him
deeply after almost 30 years of marriage.
“What he experienced in Vietnam is with
him every day,” she said. While walking point, Rick stepped on a
mine. His left leg had to be amputated below the knee. He suffers
with PTSD, for which he receives disability compensation. He just
finished radiation treatments for cancer of the prostate, which
was radically removed two years ago.
“To say my life with Rick has been
difficult hardly conveys the reality. After our son and daughter
were born, Rick started having trouble with his stump and had to
go into the VA Hospital in Buffalo to have more cut off, his
second revision surgery since his injury. When he came home three
months later, he started drinking heavily.
“He would break down, crying
uncontrollably, hitting things but not me. One moment he would
yell at the children, who didn’t understand, for leaving a toy on
the floor. Then he would become overly protective of them,
wondering where they were every second of the day.
“One night, after drinking, he threw me
across the room. My son was on the couch, crying, scared for my
safety. I looked into Rick’s eyes and I saw a person I didn’t
know. He was having a flashback. Then he left and we didn’t know
where he was for two days. This was the first of many similar
She finally sought counseling at
the Veterans Outreach Center, which had a women’s group. She
“couldn’t go to the VA; there was no treatment or help for me
there, and we had no Vet Center then in Rochester,” she said.
It was at the Outreach Center that Nancy
Switzer first learned about the Vietnam War, about PTSD, and about
“the reasons behind the mental anguish, the feelings of
helplessness. Not knowing what was happening to the man I was
still madly in love with was so emotionally draining.
“Finally, after several more episodes of
flashbacks and mental abuse, I felt I had no choice. I told Rick:
Either you get counseling or we leave. He sought counseling, thank
God. But it did not cure him. He still has flashbacks and
outbursts of anger and violence. And he won’t go for counseling.
“Our children are grown now and live on
their own. I have learned to walk away in difficult situations. I
walk on eggshells, so to speak.
“My husband has become a workaholic,
working every minute on anything he can find, except our home. We
cope. But our lives have been and continue to be dented by a war
that for Rick has never quite ended and, quite frankly, never
“What I would hope you can come to
understand is this: Today we are faced with a new generation of
psychically wounded veterans. I hope that what took us so long to
learn will help them, and their families, learn to cope with this
wound of war that can be as debilitating as any physical wound.
Families have to understand the nature of PTSD. They need to learn
coping skills. Perhaps most importantly, they have to learn that
the outbursts and the anger are not their fault.
“I understand that the DoD is doing more
for families now when the mother or father is deployed,” she said
in her concluding remarks. “But I wonder: Are these families being
counseled about PTSD and its effects on them as well as on the
veteran? Are they learning where they can go for help? And when
they think they have nowhere to turn, they have to know: There is
help for them. At the Vet Center.”
respect and congratulate Nancy Switzer for her forthright and
deeply felt remarks. And we hope that those in Congress who can
provide the funding, and those at the VA who can implement and
integrate programs, hear, and abide by, her words.
In an attempt to curb a runaway budget,
Congress has targeted discretionary spending items. There is good
news for veterans, however: The spending package arrived at by
members of the House of Representatives provides a 1 percent
across-the-board cut, totaling $8.5 billion to programs funded on
a discretionary basis. Veterans programs are exempted from this
Perhaps recognizing that programs aiding
the troops, current and former, are good politically, the House
legislation also extends a program intended to reimburse troops
who paid for vital combat gear in Iraq and Afghanistan. House
appropriators reduced defense spending by some $4 billion; the
House bill spares veterans’ programs.
Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.), chair of
the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said the cut to
discretionary programs would not affect veterans or combat funds
being used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but would
affect annual programs.
It is appalling that Congress has made a
habit of waffling on the budget for veterans’ health care. This
hampers the VA’s ability to plan. It exacerbates the backlog in
adjudicating claims for compensation for service-connected
disabilities. It adds to the time a veteran has to wait before
seeing a primary care physician or clinician.
Congress must come to the realization that
the current discretionary mechanism that funds the VA’s health
care programs no longer works. Reasonable members of Congress from
both sides of the aisle need to come together and formulate a new
method of funding veterans’ health care. If they do not, the same
scenario that marked last summer’s tizzy over a shortfall in
funding will, to borrow from Yogi Berra, be déjà vu all over
Government Relations Part 2
Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission:
Inquiring Minds Want To Know