SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – The man who shot and killed 12 people at a bar in Southern California Wednesday night was a former marine who served a combat tour in Afghanistan. The tragedy prompts the question – do veterans in Utah get the mental health services that they need? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Approximately one-third of the 150,000 veterans in the state of Utah receive services from the V.A. with 30,000 who have a service-connected disability.
Gary Harter, executive director for the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs said veterans and their families are served very well in the state.
“The V.A. continues to have greater capacity for their mental wellness efforts and have made that a priority,” said Harter. “It continues to get better and better. More robust services overall.”
Randy Edwards, who served in the U.S. Army for 40 years and is now the representative for Utah County Veterans Services said he’s always had a good experience with the V.A.
“A lot of the time, the experience we have is an experience we create ourselves,” said Edwards. “You want to make sure that you have a service officer that’s speaking for you and then work with that service officer to get them all of the paperwork and documentation that they need.”
He said some people have a negative experience because they don’t follow through with the requirements or appointments, which can set them back another 30 to 90 days.
Daniel De La O, who served in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years, has had a different experience. He said the V.A. system is broken.
“Veterans will try to seek out help and when they do, they run into doors, closed doors,” said De La O. “There’s so many folks I served with who have been in in-patient treatment for months, not just 20 days, but months. They’re diagnosed with PTSD, combat-related. Yet the V.A. won’t compensate them for any PTSD rating.”
It was visibly difficult for De La O to open up about this topic. He shared that he has been battling PTSD and struggled when seeking help. Some of the worst episodes being nightmares that haunt him each night.
“When you’re in a combat situation, you have to do, often times, what we would consider evil deeds or bad things,” said De La O. “When you come back and deal with the stressors in life, they’re no longer the way you dealt with them before.”
Harter, Edwards, and De La O all told ABC 4 News that it’s a challenge for veterans to even reach out and seek the help that they need because of the stigma and perception of being weak.
“What we typically see within our state is the services are there, but we all have to work time and time again to connect those with veterans who understand that there is a need and we can connect them with the program,” said Harter.
“We perceive any lack of ability to maintain or control, especially psychologically or emotionally as weakness,” said De La O. “It’s difficult to reach out for help because that’s something you have to admit to yourself that you’re not able to handle.”
He explained that once a veteran is finally reaching out for help, they need help immediately. But help can often take weeks or even months.
“When a veteran finally picks up the phone or finally walks into an office, the help needs to be there,” said De La O. “When you have a physical illness, you normally get help right away. But with a mental illness like PTSD, that’s not the case. When a veteran is reaching out, they’re usually at a breaking point by then.”
However, De La O emphasized that no matter the severity of a veteran’s mental illness, there’s nothing that can justify the actions of the gunman who shot and killed the 12 people at a Southern California bar Wednesday night.
“Going and now hurting the innocent, there’s no excuse for that,” said De La O. “There’s no level of PTSD, level of anxiety, level of nightmares that would excuse that kind of behavior.”
De La O encourages other veterans to start seeking mental health services early, pride aside, because of the wait… instead of waiting until it’s so severe that it can’t wait.
“It’s difficult being here talking to you right now. I believe that the other veterans who see me are going to perceive me as being weak or me as not holding the standard,” said De La O. “But if it helps one veteran with his spouse, with his family, with his job, and he’s able to seek out the help before things go so bad as what happened in California, then it’s worth it.”
He said he would also like to see more done for those in the Utah National Guard or Reserve, because they are not given an acclamation period when returning to civilian life from combat like those in active duty are.
De La O said any veteran who needs help is welcome to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Utah veteran benefits, click here.