KGUN 9 On Your SideNews


Tucson VA: PTSD sufferers claim long wait times

Possible hidden wait list?
Posted at 7:49 PM, May 12, 2016
and last updated 2017-05-11 17:02:00-04
War Video Courtesy: SSG Robert Ham
Hell at home. That's how some local veterans who have fought in the U-S wars in the Middle East and are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder describe their lives.
And some say the staffing shortage at the Tucson VA is making matters worse. 
Some complain of long wait times to see doctors and KGUN9 has learned VA investigators are looking into a possible hidden wait list for mental health patients in one of the community clinics.
9OYS Valerie Cavazos continues her investigation into the severe staffing shortage at the Tucson VA that has led to the Office of Inspector General Investigation that's currently underway
They are horrific images no one should have to see. Graphic scenes some soldiers on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan can't get out of their heads. Images of the aftermath of homemade explosive devices that caused death and agony for U-S troops on the roads.
"It's slaughter," said an Afghanistan War veteran, who doesn't want to be identified. He said he's struggling with nightmares from the images of soldiers on both sides being blown apart by bombs. "Watched a buddy of mine take a shrapnel to his neck and died. It was something that quick. He was there talking on the radio and next thing he's gone." 
He was in the vehicle behind his buddy. "I wish I could have traded places with him. He had a family, wife and baby girl," he said.
Now nightmares haunt him, he said, far too often. "Thrashing around kicking and screaming. Yelling orders," he said. "The thing that concerned me the most is bringing it back around my friend's kids." He said his best friend told him that his daughter saw him "flipping out on the couch" when he was sleeping and "it scared the crap out of her." 
He said, "It's just graphic, brutal and just disturbing. I wake up and want to puke."
Another veteran, who also wants to remain anonymous, experienced similar war scenes in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I've seen blood from a lot of our own Medivac helicopters and vehicles. Seen the convoys in the vehicles in front of you and should have been you. Or the vehicle after you, gets pulled in," he said.
He brought those horrific images on the battlefield back home and to cope he says he began to self-medicate -- a term used for those suffering from PTSD. "Where we try to drink our pain away," he said.
And he said he's hyper-vigilant -- another PTSD term. "You always try to get the corner where you want to have everyone facing you. You don't want anyone behind you," he said."It makes me not want to go into a situation where it'll be crowded. Kind of makes me a shut-in."
Both vets says they have many of the hallmarks of PTSD sufferers that include panic attacks, sadness, anger, substance abuse and isolation.
But after several years in the Tucson VA system, they said, they haven't improved.
The standard treatment for PTSD sufferers is a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Both veterans say they have no problem getting medications prescribed by psychiatrists to control their symptoms. "Right now I'm being heavily medicated taking 20 pills to get through the night. Here you go, here are some pills, come back in 3 months. That's the normal schedule they have me on," said the first veteran.
He said he isn't diagnosed with PTSD, although he  exhibits several of the symptoms. "I have symptoms of PTSD. I have anxiety and depression. But I don't have PTSD. 
However, he received PTSD medication. "So I have PTSD for medication, but for a claim for PTSD, they deny it."
The Tucson VA says it has 22 psychiatrists and 25 are needed to be fully staffed.
But these veterans want more one on one time with psychologists -- for psychotherapy -- to help them cope with the lasting impacts of war. "The VA. The care is good, but the issue is getting the care."
A highly credible source tells me there are 17 psychologists, who provide psychotherapy, at the Tucson VA Main Campus, but at least 40 are needed based on the number of patients at the Tucson VA. 
To put it into perspective, the source said the VA hospital in Minneapolis, about double the size of the Tucson VA, has 82 psychologists. 
The Phoenix VA has about 50.
The source said the doctor shortage is more severe at the community clinics, like the Northwest VA facility. KGUN9 recently received a tip of a hidden wait list for mental health patients discovered at that clinic.
And we've confirmed the Office of Inspector General is looking into it.
The Tucson VA says it offers group therapy sessions,  which some vets said are too clinical. "You're in there with 20 other people and this is what we're going to work on today. It's not that the therapies don't work, there's so many people there that need help," said the first veteran.
Both men said they're worried if the disorders are left untreated long enough, major depression will develop, to the point it simply becomes too much to handle.
Cavazos asked the second veteran, "Is it severe enough, you thought of taking your own life?" He answered,  "Yeah, I've thought about it."
"Can you deal with life?" Cavazos asked the second veteran. He answered, "I don't have a life. I don't leave the house unless I absolutely need to. I don't see my friends. I'm pissed off, irritated and depressed all at the same time. 2 years ago, I was ready to eat a bullet. This isn't a life."
They're simply waiting, they said, for any semblance of a normal life.
The first veteran said, "I'd like to be halfway normal. It's time. I'm tired. And I know guys from Vietnam all the way back to WW2 and they're dealing with it in different ways. It needs to be fixed, big time, because it's broke.
We reached out to the Tucson VA about the staffing levels.

Tucson VA issued this statement:
Most importantly, Veterans or family members in need of immediate assistance can call the VA's Veterans Crisis Line, a toll-free confidential resource that connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders.  Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at, or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.
In the case of an emergency, Veterans can go to the Emergency Department at the main Tucson VA campus 24 hours a day 7 days a week.  
The SAVAHCS Mental Health Clinic also offers same day walk-in mental health appointments for both new patients and established patients, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  in building 90 on the main Tucson VA campus. When a Veteran walks in for mental health treatment they will be evaluated by a member of the mental health care coordination team, and if clinically indicated a Veteran will be seen by psychiatrists the same day they walk in.  
When a Veteran needs to see their mental health provider prior to their scheduled follow-up appointment they can call their provider, their care coordinator, or present in the Mental Health Clinic at the main Tucson VA campus to be seen by a care coordinator, or they can call the Veteran's Crisis Line in the event of a crisis.  
Today, at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System (SAVAHCS) there are many good treatment options available to Veterans for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When a Veteran has PTSD, dealing with the past can be hard. Instead of a Veteran telling others how he or she feels, they may keep their feelings bottled up. However, through talking with a therapist Veterans can get better over time and heal from a traumatic event in the past. 
There are several treatment options available for PTSD at SAVAHCS to include evidence based group therapy and individual therapy. Both of these programs have expanded greatly over the last few years, and will continue to expand to meet the needs of our Veterans.  
The following therapies for PTSD are offered at SAVAHCS:
• Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT),
• Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
• Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
There are also a large variety of proven medication treatments that may be offered to Veterans to help control their symptoms.
Currently, we have three psychiatry vacancies. When we are fully staffed, we will have a total of 25 psychiatrists. SAVAHCS takes aggressive steps to recruit and hire highly qualified psychiatrists, but we also recognize the challenges we face hiring in the Tucson market, as do most mental health facilities in the area.
For more information on all of the PTSD treatments offered at the VA, Veterans, their family and friends can visit the National Center for PTSD to learn more about PTSD and how the VA can help Veterans heal from a past traumatic event.