The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have consistently asserted that those with post-traumatic stress disorder, even those with severe cases, can overcome it with proper treatment.
The military service chiefs have spoken out against stigmatizing troops for seeking help. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki once said that every combat veteran suffers post-traumatic stress; it’s the “disorder” part that’s the problem, and that can be treated.
But one 12-year Marine veteran who suffered from severe PTSD says his former employer not only refused to reinstate him after he received treatment but essentially forced him to take a disability retirement in 2010.
What makes it worse, said Kevin Lane of Fredericksburg, Va., is that his last job was in the very heart of the Defense Department, serving on the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.
“I have a family. My head is clearer now. I want my job back,” Lane told Military.com.
PFPA -- whose officers police the Pentagon -- declined to talk about Lane, citing privacy laws. A PFPA spokesman said he could apply like anyone else, though Terry Sutherland also told Militry.com in an email that “there are no special preferences available to individuals on disability retirement, nor is there a process to reinstate a former employee on disability retirement.”
But in a letter to Lane in November, PFPA Director Stephen Calvery told Lane that he did not meet agency standards for the job because he had been diagnosed with PTSD.
For Lane, that makes no sense, given the military’s and VA’s vocal defense of PTSD treatment and the Army’s claim that many of its soldiers treated for PTSD return to duty.
A survey of police departments across the U.S. by the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control, meanwhile, found PTSD treatment is generally not an automatic disqualification for a law enforcement job.
Lane considers the way he has been treated since first showing signs of PTSD in early 2008 a betrayal.
“I had eight years of good evaluations. I was the senior field training officer,” he said. But rather than see him through his personal crisis, Lane believes agency officials worked to get him out.
The personal cost to Lane has been enormous. He lost his law enforcement career and saw his annual income drop from more than $75,000 to less than $24,000. And with that he lost this house, he says.
What’s more, Lane said he never wanted a disability retirement and was trying to get back on the force even before the paperwork was approved. The agency just wanted him out, he believes; at the time he agreed to the retirement he was just under too much pressure and too confused to know what was going on or act in his own best interest.
“I just wanted it to stop,” he said.
The case exemplifies what veterans’ advocates fear could become an ongoing problem for tens of thousands of troops returning to civilian life after the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though leaders from President Obama on down are urging businesses to hire veterans, there’s a fear of the perception that potential employees with PTSD, real or imagined, are too risky.
It’s a tough challenge because public laws or exhortations can’t always reach into the manager’s office, and every veteran is different.
In Lane’s case, 2008 found him in a deep slide into depression, anxiety, fear, and anger, which sparked a series of conflicts at work. He’d been in his Pentagon job since July 2001 and had spent the day after that year’s terrorist attack searching for survivors and pulling the dead from the rubble.
Before that he’d been a sheriff’s deputy, and before that a Marine, serving in Beirut as a guard at the embassy when it was bombed in 1983. In the aftermath, he searched the wreckage for the body of a buddy who’d switched shifts with him before the attack. Another time while stationed in Beirut, he spotted a child with a grenade approaching him and the embassy official he was guarding. Lane shot and killed the boy.
He witnessed horrific violence on assignments to Africa, as well. Serving in the embassy in Ugana, Lane saw people murdered in the street, including those burned to death by “necklacing,” when a victim is bound by a gasoline-filled tire and set on fire. In Rwanda, working for the State Department, he documented scenes of other atrocities.
Dr. Jeffrey Jay, who conducted a mental health assessment of Lane during four meetings in 2009, said everything indicates Lane managed to deal with the violence he committed or witnessed, as most troops do.
But in March 2008 everything changed. Lane was clearing his pistol at the PFPA range and it misfired, injuring his hand slightly. Jay believes it was that minor wound that shattered Lane’s stability and put him on a downward spiral. It was the “culminating trauma” that eroded his ability to keep his emotions in check. Without that check, the jumble of buried emotions related to past traumas begin to emerge.
“At some point, for whatever reason – having to do with the accidental discharge of the pistol or it could be some other thing -- it caught up with him, overwhelmed him. And his style of keeping things in balance and in control got overwhelmed,” Jay told Military.com. “I strongly confirmed a diagnosis of trauma and the need for treatment. I thought he would be in trouble if he continued to work without treatment at that point.”
Lane did, however, and struggled in his Pentagon job. He got a 10-day suspension. Then he was accused of falling asleep at his post -- a charge Lane still denies. As summer moved toward fall and winter he continued to have trouble sleeping, kept recalling scenes of Beirut, increasingly tried to avoid people and activities, and had thoughts of suicide or hurting other people, according to Jay’s mental health assessment.
“As stated multiple times in this report,” Jay wrote in the conclusion of his mental health assessment of Lane, “it is crucial that Officer Lane receives appropriate treatment for his condition before he resumes any work.”
Jay also advised that another assessment be done to determine fitness for duty after Lane completed treatment for his PTSD. Lane said that never happened. Eventually his dispute with PFPA devolved to the point that in early 2010 it offered him a “deal:” If he accepted a disability retirement it would hold off a 30-day suspension for sleeping on duty. Lane took it.
Lane subsequently filled out the retirement papers and they were submitted in June. But after working with his VA psychiatrist and counselor he was already feeling better and had a change of heart.
Dr. Van Nguyen, his VA psychiatrist, told the PFPA that Lane was compliant with treatment, had demonstrated improvement in his PTSD symptoms and “is currently capable of returning back to work if given the opportunity.”
That letter was dated Oct. 22, 2010. The Office of Personnel Management, though, approved Lane’s disability retirement on Nov. 1, with an effective date of Nov. 6.
Lane continued to try and make his case. His VA mental health counselor, Dolores Lindblom, wrote to PFPA Director Calvery asking if she could act as Lane’s advocate. She has 45 years experience in the field, she told him in a letter, a copy of which Lane gave to Military.com.
But her assurances that Lane was ready to go back to work at the PFPA went nowhere.
Lane wrote to his congressman, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., and even to President Obama. The White House forwarded Lane’s letter to the PFPA. In his response to that letter, Calvery told Lane that he did not meet the standards for being a police officer because of his PTSD.
Lane’s ex-wife, Cathi Mulroy, told Military.com she believes the Pentagon police just wanted to get rid of him, whatever it took. “I thought they deliberately placed him under undue stress. This was a way to get him out … to make him do what he does when he’s stressed,” she said. “He didn’t know what was going on. It really kills me that all this stuff happened. I’m an advocate [for him] because I believe in him as a person and I believe he got screwed over.”