Florida war veterans returning from Afghanistan struggle to get treatment for invisible wounds
Amid negligence and lack of resources, military families in South Florida jump through hoops to get wounded warriors the help they need
MIAMI – Iraqi insurgents in Mosul were shooting at Hayes Brahmer and his platoon. Sgt. Steve Holloway fell backwards. A 7.62mm bullet blasted a vertebrate; he couldn't walk. Brahmer dragged him behind a truck. After several surgeries, he tried to defy a wheelchair at Miami's Veteran Affairs rehab -- and called Brahmer a hero.
Now Brahmer, 34, struggled with invisible wounds, but was unable to get a bed at the Miami VA's rehab. That he had served in the military since he was 18-years-old and had earned numerous medals did not get him any special treatment. His wife said she was "disgusted and outraged" when a National Guard Sergeant Major referred to Holloway's hero as "damaged goods."
Barbara Brahmer-Benson, a former inpatient psychiatric nurse, said she felt the military had turned its back on him. Her husband, an Army Staff Sergeant working at the Pembroke Pines Armory in Hollywood, "begged" for help.
"I need to learn coping skills."
"I need to dry out from the alcohol."
"I know I can do it but I just need help."
South Florida wounded veterans struggle with waiting lists at VA hospitals. And for those who do get access, the quality is questionable. While the need for funding is increasing with warriors returning from Afghanistan, the Pentagon warned the 2015 budget will reduce health care funding.
"It's hard for a warrior to lay it all out on the table and say they need help," the 29-year-old military wife said in tears. "He has risked his life so many times and he is seeking help and he is being declined."
Gov. Rick Scott said VA hospitals in Florida were turning away state inspectors this week, after a recent internal investigation revealed several patients died in their care. One in his 20s died because of lack of surveillance, inspectors reported.
Scott -- who served in the Navy for three years -- said Tuesday he was going to "stand up for the heroes" who "stood up for our country." The co-founder of a private for-profit health care company involved in Medicare fraud is running for re-election Nov. 4th.
March 16th was a dark day for the Brahmer family.
The warrior was home alone in Pompano Beach. Therapy was not soothing the wounds. Alcohol wasn't numbing the pain. His wife arrived without their 10-month-old daughter Michaela to find him drunk. He unloaded his gun, and locked it in the safe to avoid doing "anything stupid."
And although they felt alone, they were not. Nearly four out of 10 veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan said their mental health has slipped, according to a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
That night, she took him to University Hospital's emergency room in Tamarac. Hours before the scare, Brahmer told her he wanted to go to a program for active military personnel that treats post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse in Connecticut.
TriCare -- the health insurance for military families facing increased fees next year -- covered the rehab. And the treatment center had a bed available. Brahmer's superior put a stop to the plan. He questioned his need for inpatient treatment, and said that there was no need for him to leave the state.
Brahmer-Benson couldn't find her husband a bed at a VA rehab in Florida. She juggled bureaucratic holdups from the insurance company, the hospital case managers, South Command Medical in Doral, and the National Guard. There were waiting lists at the Miami, Bay Pines and West Palm VA rehab programs.
Brahmer was probably better off. After an inspection of the Miami facility, the VA recently released a report titled the "Unexpected Patient Death in a Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program." It sited a lack of surveillance and evidence of drug use in the facility.
In the report, inspectors said a veteran in his 20s left the hospital and went to "pick up money that had been wired to him." The night before he died of a drug overdose, he was so high he "required assistance to get into bed."
The unidentified vet had served in Afghanistan – the country that produces 80 percent of the world's heroin -- and died with the drug in his system.
HELPING YOUNG SOLDIERS
After saving Holloway's life in Iraq, Brahmer worked as a military recruiter for about three years. He told teenage students that right after high school, the Marine Corps took him to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Djibouti, north of Somalia.
"He was enthusiastic about serving," Brahmer-Benson said. "He helped young soldiers and wanted to work in an ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] program."
Brahmer did not tell recruits that picking up body parts had been a part of his job, or that he knew the smell of death that a roadside bomb left behind. He also didn't talk about his struggle with insomnia.
His "bubbly personality" was gone after he served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, his wife said. Combat stress had affected his testosterone levels and he was irritable.
"I could see in his eyes [that] he wasn't the same --- [he had] cold angry eyes," Brahmer-Benson said.
HOPE IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR
As frustration broiled, the advise she got from the military, she said, was not to "go up the chain of command" to ask for help, because it wouldn't be in her "husband's best interest."
In an act of desperation, she called Memorial Hospital of Tampa, her former employer. As a nurse, she had seen men in the military hospitalized under the Florida Baker Act, which was holding her husband in Tamarac for 72 hours.
A colleague helped her find a private rehabilitation program in Central Florida that had beds available. And TriCare insurance covered it.
Brahmer was admitted to the 30 day program March 21st.
"It was so hard on us to get him to where he is. I felt like they were trying to wrong my family. There was no help," Brahmer-Benson said. "If I didn't push as much as I did, I don't know where he would be."
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