Monday, December 1, 2008

The death of Chris Dana changed Montana National Guard

List of Names Gone Too Soon

While I posted on PTSD on my blog (link above) and on my newer blog Wounded Times Blog, I try to spotlight what comes after this kind of tragedy. Families step up and go to Washington to offer testimony to congress. Regular people decide to start programs, groups and foundations to try to keep other families from experiencing what they had to live thru.

I was doing research for the video on suicides, Death Because They Served, when I found some pretty remarkable stories. Regular people suffering after the tragedy of a suicide death usually causes people to become more introverted. There are others willing to do whatever it takes to try to stop it from happening to others. In the next series of posts, I want to spotlight some of these great stories of what came after the loss of some amazing warriors.

The life of Chris Dana from the Montana National Guard is one of those stories because of what came after his life ended.


It took several months of pushing, but finally, Chris Dana was ready.

The 23-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, who served with the 163rd Infantry Battalion, Montana National Guard, agreed to see a counselor for post-combat stress.

Members of his family, concerned for months about his change in behavior, believed they were starting to get through to him. Their son and brother promised to seek the help they all knew he so desperately needed.Then Dana canceled the appointment. He began screening his calls. He stopped showing up at drill with the National Guard.

He quit his job at Target, cleaned his car and the trailer he shared with a friend. And then, on March 4, he shut himself into his bedroom, put a blanket over his head, and shot himself.
Chris Dana

When you read about the backlog of VA claims, you may not stop and think about what waiting is doing to the veteran and their family. It's not just about the financial compensation they need to pay their bills because they can no longer work. It's about justice. On one hand the VA doctors and DOD doctors will tell them it's PTSD but the administration end of the VA tells them to prove it beyond a doubt then wait to have the decision made on their case. This brings either an approval or a denial. They have to fight a denial feeling as if they just received a knife in their backs. The VA says that legitimate claims are honored, which is true, but what they don't say is how claims can be turned down because the paperwork is not filled out right or they don't have all the paperwork they need.

Suicide shocks Montana into assessing vets' care

Chris Adams
December 28, 2007 1:25 PM
McClatchy Newspapers
HELENA, Mont. - Chris Dana came home from the war in Iraq in 2005 and slipped into a mental abyss so quietly that neither his family nor the Montana Army National Guard noticed.

He returned to his former life: a job at a Target store, nights in a trailer across the road from his father's house.

When he started to isolate himself, missing family events and football games, his father urged him to get counseling. When the National Guard called his father to say that he'd missed weekend duty, Gary Dana pushed his son to get in touch with his unit.

''I can't go back. I can't do it,'' Chris Dana responded.

Things went downhill from there. He blew though all his money, and last March 4, he shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. He was 23 years old.

As Gary Dana was collecting his dead son's belongings, he found a letter indicating that the National Guard was discharging his son under what are known as other-than-honorable conditions. The move was due to his skipping drills, which his family said was brought on by the mental strain of his service in Iraq.

The letter was in the trash, near a Wal-Mart receipt for .22-caliber rifle shells.
All across America, veterans such as Chris Dana are slipping through the cracks, left to languish by their military units and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA's ability to provide adequate care for veterans with mental ailments has come under increasing scrutiny, and the agency says it's scrambling to boost its resources to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, prevent suicides and help veterans cope. It's added more mental health counselors and started more suicide-prevention programs.

But the experience in Montana, which by some measures does more than any other state to support America's wars, shows how far the military and the VA have to go.

''The federal government does a remarkable job of converting a citizen to a warrior,'' said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat. ''I think they have an equal responsibility converting a warrior back to a citizen.''

''I can't imagine that it's only Montana that's experiencing this,'' Schweitzer added. ''Our men and women are part of this country, and we have common experiences.

It's not as though the water we drink and the air we breathe in Montana make our experience completely different than everywhere else.''

McClatchy Newspapers analyzed a host of VA databases and records, and found that mental health treatment across the country remains wildly uneven. While mentally ill veterans in some parts of the country are well tended, those in other places - especially Montana - are falling by the wayside.

The data and records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, included all 3 million VA disability claims in the nation and 77 million medical appointments in the agency's health system in fiscal 2006.

At a U.S. Senate committee hearing last summer in Great Falls, Mont., a top VA official touted the success of the department's mental-health operations in the region that includes Montana. But the agency's records indicate that it ranks below most other regions in measures of access and success.

In fact, Montana veterans trail far behind their peers around the country on the two main VA functions:
-By several measures, the agency provides less specialized mental-health care in Montana than it does in most other states. Veterans seeking to enter the mental health system at Montana's only VA hospital had longer waits and received fewer visits than veterans did at almost any other VA hospital in the country.

-Recent veterans in Montana with mental ailments receive far lower payments, on average, from the VA disability system than veterans in almost any other state do.
Adam Olivas, from the central Montana town of Laurel, had his post-traumatic stress disorder payment cut this month.

Olivas had been regular Army, and had come home from Iraq with a Purple Heart, shrapnel in his left side, ringing in his ears, back problems and the nightmares, hair-trigger responses and survivor's guilt that are hallmarks of PTSD.

Since Olivas left the military, his life has been a blur of sleepless nights, drowsy days, nightmares, flashbacks, constant fatigue, spotty memory, counseling sessions and medication. He goes to work, goes home and rarely sees other people.

''I married Adam right before he went to basic training,'' said his wife, Shannon. ''The only reason I am married to this man is because I know who he was before he went to Iraq.''

His PTSD was rated a 50 in the VA's complicated system, and with his other injuries he was entitled to a monthly disability check for $1,567. Earlier this year, however, the Montana VA benefits office sent Olivas a letter proposing to drop his PTSD rating from 50 to 30. It would cost him $2,600 a year.

PTSD is rated at zero, 10, 30, 50, 70 or 100, and the VA office in Montana, the McClatchy analysis found, is less likely to rate recent war veterans 50 or above than any other office is. The McClatchy analysis zeroed in on veterans who've left military service recently and most likely had combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The lower rating was a slap in the face, to both Adam and Shannon Olivas, who said that the last four years had been ''absolutely horrific.''

Adam Olivas, who works in hospital security, and his wife, a schoolteacher, drove three hours to Helena to appeal the decision, assisted by experts from two veterans groups. A representative from the American Legion said that Olivas' PTSD rating probably should go up, not down.

But the Montana VA office said that Olivas' symptoms weren't severe enough to warrant a 50, and that he'd gotten it only because of a quirk in the rating rules.

The Montana office dropped the rating after it was allowed to do so.

Olivas doesn't know how he'll handle the cut in income.

''I can't afford to pay for the gas to go to all these meetings and counselings and all this stuff,'' he said. ''Which probably isn't going to be the best thing for me.''

More than 2,500 members of the Montana Air National Guard and Montana Army National Guard are among the 10,000 men and women from the state who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere in the war on terrorism, according to Department of Defense numbers.

''When they were called to active duty, they were running a business, driving a truck, working at a mill, teaching school,'' Gov. Schweitzer said. ''When they returned from being a soldier, they didn't go back to a military base. . . . They don't have people they can talk to. They are 300 miles away from their detachment, and everybody where they work didn't experience what they've gone through.

''In fact, nobody where they work experienced what they've gone through. Their family doesn't understand it well.''

Montana has more veterans per capita than any other state, and they return from war to a vast expanse with few hospitals and miles between the ones that do exist. The VA has only one hospital in the state.

Chris Dana's suicide roiled Montana, which set up a task force to determine how a Guardsman had slipped through the cracks. It concluded that the Montana National Guard was following the national standard program, designed by the Department of Defense, to catch mental health issues as soldiers return from war.

But the task force also found that the national program is ''deficient'' because it doesn't provide the vision or the resources necessary to pinpoint veterans' mental heath problems.

Among other things, the task force said, the standard demobilization process is ''ineffective for identifying mental health issues,'' and coming-home briefings include such a blizzard of paperwork that things get lost in the shuffle. It noted that veterans are reluctant to disclose their mental health problems and that counseling is lacking and uncoordinated in many parts of the state.

Guard members themselves - more than 40 percent in a survey the task force conducted - said they didn't think that they were getting sufficient information about the health benefits and services available to them.

The Montana Guard is working to beef up its demobilization process significantly, hoping to keep better tabs on its soldiers as they return to their small towns and their businesses, farms, schools and families.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

In Chris Dana's case, he was one of the over 20,000 discharged under "less than honorable" when it was PTSD that was causing the problems. I would still love to know who is looking at all of those discharges to find out what happened to them or at least to find out if they have PTSD or not.

The following was posted on my blog but I cannot give the link to the Great Falls Tribune. The link must have moved and I cannot find it.

Montana Guard confronts post-combat stress head-on in wake of suicide

Great Falls Tribune
Tribune Projects Editor

HELENA — Montana's National Guard is becoming a model of how to help service members adjust to post-combat stress.

"Montana has gone beyond the level of other states in the country, and I applaud that," said Capt. Joan Hunter, a U.S. Public Service officer who was recently designated the director of psychological health for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C.

"They saw an emergency need, studied the problems and make some significant improvements," Hunter said Friday.

State Adjutant General Randy Mosley said that the effort stems from a former Montana soldier who didn't get the help he needed and who killed himself a year ago.

"We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to help our people and their families pick up the pieces for the problems that may have begun during their deployment in Iraq," Mosley said last week.

"The Guard has done an unbelievable job in changing," said Matt Kuntz, a Helena attorney and stepbrother of the late Spc. Chris Dana, who killed himself March 4, 2007. At the time, Dana was having trouble handling weekend drills after returning from combat in Iraq. He was given a less-than-honorable discharge and then shot himself a few days later.

"It takes a lot for a big organization that does a lot of things right to look for what they did wrong and address those flaws," Kuntz said. "I'm really impressed with what they've done."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Montana National Guard, Picking Up The Pieces
Picking up the Pieces (PDHRA)
This is the link to the video the Montana National Guard is showing. I've been posting about it for a couple of days now and it is very important that it not only be seen, but duplicated across the country.

Guard stresses PTSD symptoms at meetings
Tribune Projects Editor
May 21, 2008
LEWISTOWN — Montana's National Guard expanded its PTSD outreach efforts this week, hosting a series of 20 public meetings in armories across the state.

As part of its effort to familiarize the public — and veterans in particular — with post-traumatic stress disorder, it played a video produced at Fort Harrison entitled "Picking Up the Pieces."

That had Tiffany Kolar wiping her eyes."It raised a lot of questions for me," Kolar said after Monday night's meeting. "I have a brother who served with the Idaho National Guard and who later committed suicide. Now I'm learning a lot about what must have been happening."Kolar's husband is currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, and she and her mother-in-law need to understand the danger signs, she said.

"There were some things we didn't recognize the last time he came home, so we want to be better informed this time," said Darlene Kolar, his mother.Only a handful of people showed up for the meeting here, but the Guard's personnel officer, Col. Jeff Ireland, said he was happy for any attention."If these meeting are able to help even one person, for all the time and effort we've expended, it's been worth it," Ireland said.

The Guard has sent out personal invitations and videos to 2,000 behavioral health care specialists in Montana, as well as to all the veterans' organizations, he said. Next on the list is a mass mailing to all ministers and religious leaders in the state, he added.The meetings are the result of the suicide of Spec. Chris Dana of Helena, who shot himself in March 2007 after returning from combat with the 163rd Infantry. He was not able to handle weekend guard drills, and was given a less-than-honorable discharge as a result.As a direct result, Ireland said, Montana is now providing longer mental health assessments after return from combat, strengthening its family support units, creating crisis readiness teams to investigate abnormal behavior, requiring a personal investigation by the adjutant general before any soldier is discharged less than honorably, and producing and promoting its own video.

This is what I wrote on my blog about this program.

The video interviews hit all the points. Getting the clergy involved, how it hits the members of the family trying to understand and be supportive, what goes on inside of the veteran, how it's not their fault. The beginning of the video, I have to say I was no impressed. The graphics moved too fast and blurred when on full screen but as soon as the interviews began, I knew they hit the mark. Get passed the beginning and pay attention to the value in the interviews. It's a shame more people did not attend this.

This is what came after because Chris Dana's life meant something to the family and to the National Guard enough that they said there needed to be more done to hit PTSD head on.

Spc. Chris Dana's story told to Obama by step brother
Stepbrother tells guardsman's story to Obama Helena soldier took his own life after tour of duty in IraqBy LAURA TODEOf The Gazette StaffMontana National Guard Spc. Chris Dana will never know the impact his life and ultimately his death may someday have on the lives of veterans nationwide.Dana took his life in March 2007, less than two years after returning from a tour in Iraq. His family believes he was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by his combat experience.Since Dana's death, his stepbrother Matt Kuntz has campaigned for more awareness of the costs of untreated post-traumatic stress syndrome in Iraq war veterans.Wednesday, he was invited to meet with Sen. Barack Obama to share the message he's been spreading statewide for more than a year. At a quiet picnic table at Riverfront Park, Obama sat across from Kuntz, his wife, Sandy, and their infant daughter, Fiona.

Obama promises to repeat Montana's National Guard PTSD work nation wide
Obama Pledges Nationwide Use of PTSD Program
Eric Newhouse
Great Falls Tribune
Aug 28, 2008August 28, 2008 - Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama promised Wednesday to expand Montana's pilot program to assess the mental health of combat vets nationwide, if elected.The Montana National Guard has developed a program to check its soldiers and airmen for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder every six months for the first two years after returning from combat, then once a year thereafter.

The program exceeds national standards set by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The pilot program was created in response to the suicide of former Army Spc. Chris Dana of Helena, who shot himself on March 4, 2007, days after being given a less-than-honorable discharge because he could no longer handle attending drills following a tour in Iraq.

"He (Obama) told me he understood why we need to have additional screenings for PTSD," said Matt Kuntz, Dana's stepbrother, who was among a small group invited to meet with Obama on Wednesday in Billings. "And he told me when he is elected president, he will implement Montana's pilot program nationwide.

"Kuntz, who recently gave up his job as a lawyer in Helena to advocate for the mentally ill and their families, said he was invited to brief Obama on how Montana had become a national model for assessing the mental health of its combat vets.Besides the additional screenings, the Montana National Guard has developed crisis response teams that include a chaplain to investigate behavioral problems among its troops, and TriWest Healthcare pays to have four part-time counselors on hand to talk with soldiers and airmen during weekend drills.

After the briefing, Obama spent about 20 minutes telling several hundred veterans and their families that, if elected as president, he will be committed to meeting their needs.

Obama win also means PTSD work gets new hero
This is one of the biggest reasons I am so delighted that Senator Obama will be President Obama. In August, he visited the Montana National Guard because he heard about the great work they were doing on PTSD. He was so impressed that he promised to take their program nationally.Up until now, PTSD has only recently become a hot topic. President Bush surrounded himself with people who either had no clue what PTSD was or denied it was real. This prevented years of research not being done and programs that could have been created sooner, to not even be dreamt of. Thousands of our veterans and troops, guardsmen and reservists died as a result, not by enemy hands but because of the enemy within them.

Military families and veteran families have a new hero coming to fight for them and I'm sure when you get to know exactly how much he does care, plans to act, you will feel the same way too. He's been on the Veterans Affairs Committee and has paid attention to all that is going on.

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