SPOKANE, Wash. – Roughly 50,000 veterans live in Spokane County, according to the US Census, and many of them are in need of medical and/or mental health assistance through the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
However, as more men and women return home from serving overseas, the resources at VA's across the country are becoming increasingly stretched.
One local veteran, who wishes to stay anonymous because of fear of retribution, told KHQ he served much of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He struggles with ‘triggers' on a near-daily basis that interfere with his ability to function, and needs to see his primary care doctor at the VA to adjust his medication.
"You can't come home and un-remember things," he told KHQ. "Every day there's something that comes up that didn't before, that wasn't an issue before."
However, when he called the VA, he says was given an appointment almost two months out.
It's not a problem unique to Spokane; VA's across the country experience similar struggles.
"The defense department, the health care system, the VA, they didn't plan for so many patients to be coming home with mental health issues," the veteran added.
But when he called to see if there was a faster option, he says a Spokane VA employee told him:
"'Tell them you're suicidal. That's what you have to say,'" he recounted to KHQ. "Those are the magic words if you want to be seen."
Licensed Spokane Counselor, Marybeth Markham, says it's not the first time she's heard that. Half her clients struggle with trauma, many of them veterans, and some of them reported being told the same thing.
"I think it is reprehensible that anyone be told to lie about suicide. It's actually beyond comprehension to me, because these people have been through so much," Markham said.
"They've had their buddies die right there, they've seen things that no one should ever witness, and then to be told 'That wasn't enough what you did, what we want you to do now is lie and say you want to kill yourself?'" she added. "You can not ask someone to say something that is so serious. Ask them to lie so they can get services? There's something really wrong here."
Markham says, she's particularly concerned because so many veterans actually are suicidal at one point or another, and she worries that if some are told to simply say it, those who actually need emergency help won't get it.
"What happens then? If someone comes in and says they're suicidal, is then the triage nurse going to say, ‘Well, I wonder if they really are, or are they just saying this?'" she told KHQ. "I understand this has to be frustrating for the VA as well, because I know they're struggling with resources, but my obligation is to my client."
Marybeth Markham is one of only two therapists in the Spokane area taking part in the ‘Give An Hour' program, in which she donates an hour a week to a local veteran. If more therapists and counselors knew about the program, she hopes more would sign up.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. A major problem is a lack of funding for VA's across the country, which will take an act of Congress to address.
The veteran who contacted KHQ says, he paid dearly for his VA health care benefits through his service to country, and time away from his family; and all he wants is a few timely minutes with his doctor.
"I'm just surprised at the lack of resources, and the callous attitude I have encountered from bureaucrats, because I'm not asking for the moon," he said. "I'm not special, I'm not an individual, I'm part of a very large group of veterans who's funding and health care needs are going to have to be addressed - yesterday."
KHQ contacted the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center in regards to this story, and because this anonymous veteran did not want to provide his name to the VA, they were unable to research his particular case. KHQ requested an on-camera interview with a representative from the VA; however, that was not possible, and this written statement was provided:
"Spokane VA Medical Center's Behavioral Health Services unit has a very responsive and accessible multi-disciplinary team of professional clinical staff who provide individualized care for Veterans. Spokane VAMC Emergency Department offers 24/7 access to medical care that includes mental health services. When Veterans have concerns, they are encouraged to contact their own primary care team, or the patient advocate."