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September 1, 2014

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Back from Iraq

What’s being done, or left undone, when soldiers come home with problems?

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Aaron Artessa

That The New York Times opened its lengthy January 13 story on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans charged with murder with a Las Vegas case should’ve been a clue.

On July 31, 2005, in an alley near Sahara and the Strip, 20-year-old Iraq war vet Matthew Sepi machine-gunned 47-year-old Sharon Jackson and 26-year-old Kevin Ratliff, killing Jackson. Published reports note that Sepi said he feared for his life—he told police he thought he was being ambushed and merely reacted the way he’d been trained.

Sepi’s was one of 121 cases the Times found of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans charged with murder after returning home. According to the Times, combat trauma, substance abuse and family strife, among other things, factored into the killings. Most of the soldiers didn’t have criminal backgrounds.

At the time of the assault, Sepi was waiting for assistance from the federal Veterans Administration for post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition that can induce nightmares and cause a person to think his or her life is in danger.

Hundreds of local soldiers are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them on extended tours and second or third deployments. The longer the wars continue, the higher the probability of more cases like Sepi’s.

So what’s being done to keep returning veterans from hurting others, or themselves?

A lot, veterans’ advocates say.

They point to an infusion of federal funds that has bolstered services, as well as a full-service medical center scheduled to open in North Las Vegas in 2011.

Carole Turner, deputy executive director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services, says programs have been created specifically for Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans. (Her office mainly services veterans with Alzheimer’s and other infirmities; it isn’t a federal agency, nor does it provide clinical care.) “They are eligible for care at nearly a half-dozen VA clinics around town, and can access mental-health counseling at the office in 912 W. Owens Ave.,” she says.

Most of the services are available through Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF), which was created a few years ago by the federal Veterans Affairs Department to provide outreach for returning soldiers. Federal VA spokesman Terry Jemison says OIF/OEF offers qualified veterans a bevy of services, including five years of post-discharge VA health care, dental benefits, general and specialized health services and non-health benefits such as home loans, vocational rehabilitation, education and more. The program expands upon the transitional services offered to Gulf War veterans, Jemison says.

“We learned a lesson from the first Gulf War: that we need to get our soldiers treatment without having to decide if their problems are war-related. The enrollment criteria greatly relaxed for vets in combat theater, and we expanded the program to five years of enhanced health care, as opposed to two or three years,” Jemison says. “As with veterans of any time period, even if they served in a non-combat area, if they need services—for wounds or injuries, diseases, a heart condition that was incurred or became worse while in the military—care has always been available.”

But accessing that assistance hasn’t always been easy. In November, CBS News reported on a federal Defense Department document showing that 2,200 active-duty soldiers committed suicide from 1995 to 2007. According to the Times, 13 veterans committed suicide after committing murders, and police fatally shot two.

Jemison says nearly 40 percent of Gulf War veterans sought psychiatric care. Of the 324,846 returning Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers who’ve come to Veterans Affairs for medical care, he says 133,633 have received diagnoses for mental disorders.

And military hospitals have mental-health counselors on hand, Jemison says. But any number of issues can prevent veterans from obtaining assistance, especially layers of bureaucracy. Shortening the time between diagnosis and treatment could make all the difference.

But is the U.S. military equipped?

“We’re certainly concerned about any behaviors that may emerge from those disorders, and that they can lead to criminal behavior. We’ve increased staffing in mental-health areas. We have storefront vet centers.”

Sepi was fortunate. Under a plea agreement, murder charges against him were dropped. He pleaded guilty to weapons charges and underwent drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health counseling and now lives in Phoenix. Meanwhile, earlier this month, a jury acquitted local Iraq war vet Walter Laak of fatally shooting 19-year-old Juan Cordova last summer in a dispute. The shooting was ruled self-defense. Laak spent a year in the county jail.

Veterans can call the Veterans Affairs Department at 800-273-8255 for help.

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