Friday, May 30, 2008

For Palisades native, war trauma ends in suicide

By Hannan Adely
• The Journal News • March 1, 2008 PALISADES

After two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserve, Steven Vickerman tried to resume a normal life at home with his wife, but he could not shake a feeling of despair.

His parents, Richard and Carole Vickerman of Palisades, went to visit him at a veterans hospital after he suffered a mental breakdown; they were in disbelief. The funny and adventurous baby brother had become sullen, withdrawn and full of anxiety.

Vickerman, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed himself Feb. 19.

"We're still in shock. Our son was a proud Marine. He served his country honorably, and we don't know what happened to him," said Carole Vickerman, who buried her son Tuesday at Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill.

As soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are unprepared to deal with the anxiety and depression stemming from their experiences in war. Some seek help from the Veterans Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but become frustrated by paperwork and long waits for counseling and care. Others feel too proud or embarrassed to seek help at all, or believe they can tough it out with time. Despair drives many to take their own lives, according to reports and experts.

The Veterans Health Administration estimated in a May 2007 report that 1,000 suicides occurred per year among veterans who received care within the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all veterans.

At the same time, the number of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is surging, according to studies and veterans advocacy groups.

Families like the Vickermans often feel overwhelmed by the guilt and helplessness that surrounds post-traumatic stress disorder. The Vickermans wanted to help their son but did not know where to look for support services or how to deal with the effects of the illness.

The VA, they believed, had failed their son. The services available, they said, were insufficient, and the government should do more to address the issue for returning war vets.

"There should be something that can be done, not only for the proud soldiers but also for their families," Carole Vickerman said. "When you hear the word 'stress,' it sounds so innocuous. It's not stress; it's a killer."

Steven Vickerman, a Tappan Zee High School graduate, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. A whiz at technical jobs and an electrician by trade, the staff sergeant served as a small arms technician with Marine Aircraft Group 49, Detachment B, at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

His first tour in Iraq was interrupted when he returned home to be with his older brother, who was dying of a brain tumor. Robert died at age 35. Vickerman served a second tour and was honorably discharged in 2005.

About two weeks ago, Vickerman's wife went on a business trip in New York City and could not reach her husband by phone. The Vickermans also could not reach him. They called his therapist, who was scheduled to see him on a Wednesday, but Vickerman missed his appointment.

The therapist called police, who found Vickerman dead at his home, where he had hanged himself.

Staff Sgt. Steven Vickerman died of a combat wound. Yet his death will not be counted as a price paid by those we send. None of the thousands of others wounded will be counted when this nation let them down and they lost their battle with the enemy that followed them home.

While they are deployed with the rest of their unit, they have the men and women they serve with watching their backs. If they are wounded by a bullet, the others try to rescue them. If they are blown up, the rest of their unit using everything they have to save their lives.

Yet when they are wounded by PTSD, all the rules are broken, the sense of urgency to act to save their lives is ignored and some are even attacked for being wounded in this way.
When they come home, their military family is no where to be found as they return to their families back home. They try to cope, adjust, get on with their lives, but for some it is impossible when they try to seek help with the DOD or the VA.

They feel they are battling this enemy alone.Vickerman will be added as a number but not part of the honorably deceased names when monuments of the sacrifice are built.
His wound did not come with a Purple Heart. Vickerman is just one more of the thousands of others who died because they were wounded.There is a great debate going on that you do not hear about within the units of those who commit suicide while deployed.

Some feel as if the suicide is nothing to honor while others see it as a true wound and the death should be just as honored as the life lived. Those who want to honor it as equally as a bullet or bomb death, see PTSD as another wound. Why can't the rest of them?

What will it take for this nation to add these names, these lives, these stories into the history books of war? What will it take this nation to stop separating PTSD wounds from the rest of the wounds the men and women serving this nation suffer from?

If they really wanted to end the stigma of PTSD the best place to start is to fully acknowledge PTSD for what it is and that's a combat wound. My husband will be wounded for the rest of his life and his service, his acknowledged risk of life ended in 1971, but the real risk to his life is an ongoing battle. He fights to stay alive everyday by taking his medication and going for therapy. It all works to keep him stabilized. He is not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam veterans like him, Korean veterans, Gulf War veterans and now this new generation of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Our family is not alone and neither are the rest of the families like Vickerman's family. We all care for the wounded as if their lives depended on it because they do. To us, they are wounded by combat, wounded by their service to this nation and they should be regarded as what they are. The time to stop separating this wound from all the other wounds should have ended as soon as we understood what PTSD was. A wounded caused by trauma.

There is nothing more traumatic than combat or the events involved with combat operations. They would not have been wounded if they did not go. They would not have nightmares and flashbacks of the horror if they were not sent. We need to acknowledge this and honor it.

Kathie Costos

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