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Mon August 13, 2012
Combat Vet With PTSD Booted From Army, Barred From Healthcare
In Salem, Oregon a former Army staff sergeant named Jarrid Starks has run out of the medications that keep him stable. He has severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental and physical wounds of war. But he’s currently not eligible for veterans’ health benefits that would include prescription refills. That’s because Starks was kicked out of the Army for bad behavior. He’s far from alone.
Starks joined the Army right out of high school with dreams of a 20-year career. He left the Army earlier this year in disgrace. Starks recalls being escorted from the psychiatric ward at Madigan Army Hospital to an out-processing center and then to the front gate of Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “I had a 90-day supply of medication that I received from Madigan in a paper lunch sack. “
That sack of pills was Stark’s lifeline: a combination of antidepressants, beta-blockers, anti-psychotics, muscle-relaxants and sleep aides. A daily cocktail that allowed Starks to keep his anger and anxiety in check. He sports a baseball cap that reads “Warning this vet is medicated for your protection.”
There's truth he says in that joke. If Starks was a typical veteran with PTSD he’d sign up for VA benefits and get his prescription drug refills. But he doesn’t qualify for veteran’s health care – at least for now. That’s because in May he was kicked out of the Army with an “other than honorable” discharge for drug use and going Absent Without Leave. Starks says he did those things because when he came home from Afghanistan he was pretty messed up.
“Just the act of putting my uniform on in the morning would trigger flashbacks and would bring my anxiety and depression to a level that was just unbearable,” he says.
Starks was in and out of psychiatric hospitals three times. But his misconduct prompted the Army to take a hardline. Starks was jailed on base and charged with crimes related to his drug use and going AWOL. Rather than face court martial, Starks accepted a voluntary separation from the Army.
“I’ve been stripped of all rank," he explains. "I’ve been denied an honorable discharge and basically the Army has made repeated statements that they want nothing to do with me anymore.”
Officials at Lewis-McChord respond that Starks knew the risks when he voluntarily chose to separate from the Army to avoid court martial and possible conviction. According to Defense Department records, more than 20-thousand soldiers and Marines were booted from the military between 2008 and 2011 with other than honorable discharges.
Current federal law says these former service members – even if they suffer from the mental or physical wounds of war - lose their automatic right to veterans’ medical benefits. Kristin Cunningham is with the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, D.C.. She explains what happens if an “other than honorable” veteran shows up seeking care. “The veteran is counseled that we cannot provide healthcare unless there is an emergent condition at that point in time.”
Instead, the veteran is placed in a sort of healthcare limbo while the VA conducts a comprehensive review of the record - including the misconduct. That can take months and there are no guarantees of care at the end of the process. The VA says it doesn’t track how many “other than honorable” veterans apply for these reviews or how many are ultimately awarded health coverage.
But for the last several years these vets have found support from an unlikely source – senior military lawyers. Major Evan Seamone is chief of military justice at Fort Benning, Georgia. He says, of course, it’s important to maintain good order and discipline in the ranks. But Seamone also argues the military must recognize that. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a connection often times between misconduct and mental health conditions.”
Jarrid Starks has applied to have his case reviewed, but his county Veteran’s Services rep recently advised him that it will likely take a year or more for a decision will likely take a year or more. That’s a long time for someone dealing with multiple flashbacks everyday.
Starks visibly shakes as he talks about his worst day in Afghanistan. His 25th birthday. His close friend was killed in a bomb blast. The alleged triggerman escaped on a motorcycle with an eight year old boy on the back. Starks shot and killed them both.
“I still see that kid’s face in my dreams at night. I definitely have guilt over killing that kid and his dad.”
Starks’ father Lonnie - a retired Navy man - says his son came home from Afghanistan broken. “When I find out that he isn’t even entitled to medical benefits, that blows my mind. I can’t imagine the military I was in giving that kind of treatment to anybody.”
For now, Starks plans to start taking classes at his local community college. It’s one way he hopes to stay out of jail or a psychiatric hospital.
This story is a collaboration with the Seattle Times, which you can read here.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network