When the Department of Veterans Affairs announced its changes for how military vets can quality for PTSD treatment Monday, it made us think back to a very powerful story we did in 2008 on the impact of these health issues on military families.
Nobody prepared Tracy Eiswert for the man who came home to her from Iraq in 2004. Nobody.
“Before he went, oh my gosh, he was fun and caring and giving and loved people.” That’s how Tracy described her husband Scott, a young sergeant who drove a truck for his unit in the Tennessee National Guard. “He was just a big kid,” she said.
But that was before the road side bombs, the colleagues killed, and before he witnessed unspeakable civilian casualties.
And that was also before Scott Eiswert spent an entire year in Iraq, living with the constant fear he’d be next.
That fear never materialized. But sadly there was tragedy in the making.
In December of 2005, just before Christmas, Scott came home to Tracy and their two little girls. He was alive. He was safe. But he was not the same man who went to war.
“He was angry,” was what Tracy remembered the most. And he was “always screaming at everybody.”
He started drinking every night, drinking until he’d fall asleep. But even that didn’t deaden the pain for very long. He complained of constant nightmares.
Tracy said they were about him dying. Or he’d dream about other people dying. He once told her, “There’s dead people around me all the time. All the time.”
Scott went to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. At first, the doctors there were too busy to see him. So he waited. Eventually, he got in.
VA doctors put him on along list of medications, which Tracy said did him no good whatsoever. She also said the counseling he got was a joke.
“He said he felt belittled,” she said. “They wanted to talk about ‘Well how’s your marriage?'”
After months at the VA, Scott was finally diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, another mood disorder called dyphoria, and alcohol abuse.
Three times, Scott applied and was turned away for VA disability benefits based on his PTSD. Examiners said he couldn’t prove his condition was caused by his military service in Iraq, and didn’t give enough information like “dates of these incidents, or names of any casualties” to show his mental problems were service related.
In May of 2008, after hearing from a buddy that his unit was being sent back to Iraq, Scott Eiswert took a gun and went into the master bedroom of the family home in Greenville, Tenn., and shot himself in the head. It happened while Tracy and the kids were on their way home from school.
When I met Tracy some months later, for a story on veteran suicides for the NewsHour, she was still living in their Greenville home, in the basement. The girls were so afraid of Scott’s ghost– which they believed walked around at night upstairs — that Tracy had put a lock on the door to the basement steps.
Tracy had sold most of the family furniture to raise money. The dining and living rooms were stacked with moving boxes. She was about to go to Florida to live with her mother in a mobile home.
When the story aired on the NewsHour, a veterans advocacy group saw it and called Tracy. They took her case back to the VA and successfully got back disability benefits for her deceased husband as well as a generous insurance settlement. So at least she’d be OK financially.
Then, Monday, an important change but one that has come late for many, the VA has announced new rules aimed at making it easier for people like Scott Eiswert to apply for and get disability benefits for PTSD.
Eiswert’s story was one of the most powerful we’ve done about veterans coming home. Of course, thousands of veterans returned with serious problems that never cascaded into the same tragic consequences, but veterans groups say tens of thousands have been hoping the government would change its position on qualifying for PTSD benefits.
No longer will vets who’ve suffered fear and trauma have to come up with dates, names, casualties, and all that detail. The new rules provide that if a veteran can show service in a war zone and that duty there caused them to develop PTSD they can qualify for disability benefits of up to $2,700 a month along with free health care.
That means if Scott Eiswert had not died, he would probably now get the disability benefits he was denied.
On Saturday, in his weekly radio address, President Obama said the change in the VA’s rules was long overdue.
“I don’t think our troops on the battlefield should have to take notes to keep for a claims application,” the president said.