Tag Archives: robin williams

No Shutting Up Until it is Fixed: Veteran and Military Mental Health Care

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“If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” Col David Hackworth

Over the past couple of weeks I discovered just how mentally and emotionally fragile I still am. As those that follow my writings here know I wrote a couple of articles recently about the treatment that I was receiving at the local Naval Medical Center, and my perceptions of that command. Those, as well as the e-mails to my provider, which were then shared by the person in charge of fixing the problem with the Medical Center Executive Officer without my permission, (I think there is another violation of my HIPPA rights there as well)  were very difficult to write.

They were extremely painful because of the emotions that were unleashed, especially because I thought of doing something that scared me to death. I considered, very briefly in my pain, anger and my sense that the system had betrayed me and for that matter all of us seeking help; the possibility of committing suicide, in a very public and dramatic way. It scared the hell out of me that I developed a perfectly executable plan to do it, a plan that for a moment would have drawn attention to the issue, but at the same time would have traumatized many others.

Of course I do not think I would ever do it. The death of Robin Williams by suicide yesterday shattered me, and no matter how bad things are I wouldn’t want my death to cause distress to anyone. Frankly, I love life too much, and God knows that one more dead body won’t change how the military or the Veteran Administration medical systems treat people in crisis.

However a living person, especially a pain in the ass like me, that won’t stop speaking out just might make a difference. That might take a while to do, but I will do it until war, and the indifference of soulless bureaucracies are  no more. That may be unreasonable, unrealistic and unattainable but it is a windmill worth tilting at.

But I fully understand that people in a moment of madness and despair, would make the choice to end their life, and see as it as a perfectly logical and rational act. I have known senior chaplain colleagues and former commanders who have chosen suicide, and I am sure that none of them thought that they would ever make that choice, until they actually did it. Please don’t worry about me. I am not going to kill myself, the thought scares me too much. Honestly I would rather live to a ripe old age and be a thorn in the side of the system to get veterans the care that they deserve, and the care that this country owes them than to be yet another statistic whose death is swept under the rug as quickly as the system can do it. Unfortunately, that is the reality; any bureaucratic system, military, government or the private sector will go on with as little inconvenience and reflection as is required once the body is disposed of properly.

Just a few months ago I was talking about simple teaching history, religion and ethics at local junior colleges and for profit universities “for the beer money” as I joked with friends. I told people that my desire when I retire was to be like LT Weinberg in the classic movie A Few Good Men and “have absolutely no responsibility here.” The fact is that I am tired and I don’t want to be in charge of anything when I retire, either in the military, civilian or church world. What T.E. Lawrence wrote to a friend shortly before his death in 1935 resonates with me:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That being said, I want whatever amount of time left on this earth, and hopefully it is a very, very long time, is to make a difference in the lives of the men and women who have served in the military and who come home broken, in mind, body and spirit. I can think of no other option or higher calling at this point. To that end I have been referred to a therapist in the system, but not at the Naval Medical Center. The therapist was highly recommended by a chaplain friend who has also went through some very difficult times, even in trying to get help for himself. Thankfully, the person who I talked to a week ago agreed to the referral. So I will get help for me, something that I need and go into with a positive attitude based on my friend’s recommendation.

Now those who have never walked the dark path of long lasting, abiding clinical depression or other mental illness may not understand what I am talking about, but those that have walked this terrible path know it all too well. The feeling that no one cares and that you are alone is a major factor in the despair that overwhelms people, and acts as a trigger to suicide.  Unfortunately far too many military personnel and veterans reach that point. The numbers are staggering. No wonder that Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war, or the “bill” as he calls it: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations…”

There are a number of ways that I could do this. I could go to work for the VA as a Chaplain, or I could go get a degree in counseling and do therapy or any number of other venues. But I think I would be limited by having to serve in ossified bureaucracies if I was to do any of those things.

Thus I am probably going to venture into the world of social activism, working with veterans organizations, political leaders and the media to draw attention to what is happening to veterans that seek care. Veterans like me who perceive that the system doesn’t really care about them, many individual providers may care deeply and deliver wonderful care, but the system itself is soulless and seems often to be clueless. Likewise I will work to expose the war profiteers who seek to cut back medical and mental health care for veterans even more and actively lobby the military, and Congress to enact those cuts. Personally I feel that is immoral and unjust and that it needs to be confronted and exposed.

I wish I could say that things were any better in the civilian mental health system, but they are not. My wife has battled and suffered from severe depression almost all of her life, and over the past 20 years what is paid for by insurance companies for people in crisis has shrunk to a pathetic “system” whereby a person that is hospitalized remains in hospital 2-5 days until they assure they providers that they will not kill themselves. There is no continuity of care, there is little or no therapy or medication management, it is simply warehousing. I’d like to take that on too, but I have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with where I am.

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I am a dreamer, and I don’t mind tilting at windmills. Lawrence wrote: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

I am a dangerous dreamer because as Lawrence noted I will act on my dreams with open eyes. I may not be able to do a lot while I am still on active duty, but when I retire I will be very dangerous because I know far too much and I won’t be afraid to speak out. My heroes include men like Major General Smedley Butler and Colonel David Hackworth and I have no inhibitions at following in their footsteps. I am very determined, persistent and I can be a total ass. When I determine to do something I don’t quit.

As Colonel Hackworth, who I had the honor of corresponding with in the years before he died said: “If a policy is wrongheaded feckless and corrupt I take it personally and consider it a moral obligation to sound off and not shut up until it’s fixed.” The way we are treating our veterans is just that and I won’t shut my mouth until the day that I die, which Lord willing won’t be anytime soon.

Pray for me, I do need it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Depression Kills: RIP Robin Williams

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Robin Williams during his 2007 USO Tour to Iraq and Afghanistan 

Tonight I found out about the unexpected death of the great Robin Williams. It was shocking and upsetting to hear that it was believed that Williams had recently suffered from severe depression and that he was believed to had committed suicide.

I guess I can say that I almost met Williams when I was in Iraq, in between missions at Ta’Qaddum airbase west of Fallujah in 2007. Williams was with a number of celebrities and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen touring Iraq and Afghanistan. I had just come in from a mission and could not see his show, but the following morning I walked by Williams as he was walking back from the dinning facility. I recognized him, but I am loathe to interrupt a person’s time alone. I simp gave him a “good morning” which he returned and both of us went on our ways. I could have stooped him and detained him, but in good conscience could not do it. My friend Fr Jose Bautista, a Navy Chaplain had Williams and Lance Armstrong sign a baseball cap for me. I treasure it.

Robin Williams was brilliant, talented and brought much you to many people. Unfortunately. like so many brilliant and caring people he was afflicted with his own personal “demons.” He struggled with depression ands substance abuse.

I understand. Since returning from Iraq in 2008 I have dealt with the effects of PTSD, including depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, nightmares and night terrors. I know why people commit suicide, and at times considered it myself. Most recently less than two weeks ago when dealing with the inhuman machine that is the Navy mental health system, something that is common to the rest of the military and VA systems.

The fact is that depression is a killer and it disproportionally afflicts the most talented, brilliant, artistic and insightful people.  Van Gogh, Hemingway, Williams and so many others, including men and women that distinguished themselves in combat, some of whom I knew, have taken their lives.

The death of Robin Williams has shaken me. I pray for his wife and children and all those who loved him, or who were touched by him.

Please, if you are suffering from anything that makes you think that suicide is the only option, please seek help. If you have no one else, contact me. I may not be able to do much but I will listen. You are not alone.

Rest in Peace Robin Williams. You brought much joy to my life and to so many others.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under celebrities, mental health, suicide

“Lancing” the Boil: The Ethical Conundrum Presented by Lance Armstrong

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“Listen, I’ve said it for seven years. I’ve said it for longer than seven years. I have never doped. I can say it again. But I’ve said it for seven years. It doesn’t help. But the fact of the matter is I haven’t. And if you consider my situation: A guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence, why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy. I would never do that. No. No way.” Lance Armstrong to Larry King and Bob Costas on Larry King Live August 25th 2005 

It appears that Lance Armstrong has confessed to cheating to win his historic 7 Tour de France cycling championships. Using a sophisticated means of blood doping he sometimes with the cooperation of his teams he, like the majority of the high level competition cyclists of his era used an illegal but often hard to detect means to bolster his ability to win.

Armstrong, like so many at the top level of his sport appears to have been a habitual cheater, liar and bully. The fact that he was a cancer survivor and had returned to the top of his sport made him a legend and gave him an almost mythic aura. Who could criticize such a heroic individual? Certainly his struggle to defeat cancer and return to the top of his sport was worth something and indeed it was. Armstrong became a legend and established a foundation that did and still is doing wonderful things for cancer victims.

If it was simply cheating and then getting caught the situation would be different. Armstrong was not different than many of his competitors and if it was like the cases of people in other sports who cheated and later either were caught or admitted their misdeeds it would be just another case of a sports cheater.

However in the Armstrong case the story is one that is not so simple. His also involves an aggressive cover up and willful destruction of the reputations of anyone who dared challenge him or accuse him of cheating. It involved attacks on the character of critics as well as threats made against them, even veiled physical threats. It involved legal actions to attempt to prevent the publication of articles or books that could damage him in multiple countries. It involved a campaign of lies that lasted over a decade. It also ensnared cancer victims as his charity foundation Livestrong was devoted to helping those battling the dread disease.

It is a case that will not simply interest sport writers, but one which will engage philosophers, ethicists and theologians for years to come. The reason is that it is so multifaceted and brings to the fore questions that most people care not to even think about, even though they fascinate us.

The questions are hard. Who would want to think that the cancer victims helped by Livestrong were not positive beneficiaries of Armstrong’s benevolence? It is certain that Armstrong’s foundation has done remarkable work. At the same time can Armstrong’s actions be justified simply because many people were benefited by them? What about the his victims? Those men and women who suffered professional, legal and financial reverses as well as had their reputations damaged for attempting to stand up to someone that looks by the actions committed against his critics and accusers to be a bully.

It is the classic question of whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few combined with the actions of one person to advance himself at the expense of others. Some would like to be able to fame Armstrong’s cheating and subsequent support of Livestrong and its tremendous work in helping people in a positive manner.

That can be done, but at what cost? We wrestle with such ethical questions all the time but seldom do we see the drama play out out in such a personal manner. Usually we are able to keep it theoretical and distant. But Armstrong, he had become a legend, a hero to many and

I think that most of us, me included were enamored with the myth of Armstrong the cancer survivor rising to unheard of heights in his sport. I think that this was especially the case in the United States where the thought of an American winning at the top levels of a sport that has few American long dominated by Europeans was particularly pleasurable, especially since most Americans couldn’t care less about competitive cycling. However, Armstrong got us to care about it, even if it was only when we saw Tour de France highlights on ESPN Sports Center.

Caught up in the myth we surrendered to it. It was attractive and it appeals to the underdog in all of us. However, it was a myth and the creation and sustainment of the myth created victims just as it helped others in need of live saving treatment as well as cancer research.

As for Armstrong, his confession and apology that will be aired on Oprah Winfrey’s show the next two nights I am of mixed feelings. Some like Mike Lupica have stated that it is another attempt of Armstrong to control the situation and the narrative. He could well be right and there is part of me, the cynical and realistic part that believes this. At the same time I would hope that Armstrong has had a real epiphany as to the consequences of his actions in the lives of the people who were his fans, his beneficiaries as well as his victims.

As for the very harsh remarks of Pat McQuaid the President of the International Cycling Union that “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling….” I have a negative opinion. He and his championships, though tainted and no stripped from him are a part of the history of cycling. He helped popularize the sport in the United States. He and his tainted accomplishments cannot be erased as if he did not exist. No cycling bodies took any substantive actions against Armstrong during his competitive career. No sport was as inundated by a culture of cheating as professional cycling. Armstrong cannot be forgotten as McQuaid says he deserves to be. It is okay to say “never again” and work to build an authentic and honest competitive sport. But to erase and forget is to ensure that another Armstrong will come along. It is a cautionary tale.

As long as Armstrong brought attention and income to the sport his actions were tolerated and despite numerous accusations he was celebrated and because of his story as a cancer survivor many looked the other way. I have to say that I am part of that latter group that saw a cancer survivor winning as inspirational. I did not want to believe the accusations and I did not look to see or even pay attention to the things that he and his associates were doing to those attempting to bring the story to the light of public scrutiny.

As for Livestrong I do hope that it will survive and continue to help cancer victims. As for Armstrong I hope that his confession and admission of wrong doing are genuine and that he will make restitution to those that he bullied or ruined in maintaining the cover up. I am less concerned about his competitors in the Tour de France as so many of them were doping that it makes the steroids scandals in other sports pale in comparison.

I encountered Armstrong once in Iraq when he was on a tour with a number of celebrities. I had come back to my base of operations the day that he and his tour led by the now retired Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen came through. Since the number of people who could attend the show was limited and I wanted to make sure that junior personnel had a chance to see Armstrong, Robin Williams, Kid Rock and Lewis Black I did not attempt to go. The next morning I was walking to the dinning facility and passed Armstrong as he was walking back to is quarters. I said “good morning” and he returned the greeting and we both continued on our way. I figured that he didn’t need another person coming up to him to get an autograph and though he was a public figure on a USO morale tour I still attempt to honor some modicum of privacy. The tour left later that morning and my friend, Father Jose Bautista-Rojas a Catholic Chaplain who had escorted Mrs Mullen during the visit brought me a ball cap signed by both Armstrong and Robin Williams. I will keep it and remember the fact that Armstrong and those with him came to Iraq at the height of an unpopular war, but also to remind me that all of us have feet of clay.

I do hope that he is able to make his peace and reconcile with those that he has hurt or disappointed and that some good will come out of this for him, his family, those that benefit from Livestrong and the sport.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Tom Watson: Gentleman, Champion and Supporter of the Troops

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Shaking the Hand of Legendary Golfer and True Champion Tom Watson at Al Taqaddum Iraq 24 Nov 2007

My dad was a golfer.  He began golfing as he was in his last few years in the Navy.  Before he started golfing he was constantly watching it on TV when no baseball was on.  When he retired he began golfing in earnest.  It remained a lifelong passion of his even after he contracted Alzheimer’s disease.  He developed as a golfer and by his early 50’s had developed a decent handicap.  He also would help out as a volunteer at major tournaments at Pebble Beach.   Dad loved golf, but as with everything in his life he took it very seriously.  Sometimes when I visited home on leave dad would take me golfing and let me use his old clubs.  Well, since I would golf once every three to five years I would not do very well.  Before long he would be preaching at me and berating me because he said I had natural talent to hit the ball well and was wasting it.  Those were always interesting outings, as my brother Jeff can testify to himself.

Anyway, back in the 1970s when I was still living at home dad would frequently watch golf on TV.  One of his favorite players was Tom Watson.  Back in those days because of dad I was familiar with almost every major figure in the sport.  However they were not the same to me as like baseball players.  Baseball was more of my sport, though I did and still do appreciate golf and now that my shoulder is getting healed up from the beating it took in Iraq I am going to be getting out on the course on a much more frequent basis once the Minor League Baseball season is over.  The last time I was out in California my brother told me the same thing that my dad did about my ability to hit them ball.  I trust Jeff as he is a very good golfer and had coached golf at the high school level.  I think I am even more attuned to what I’m doing on the golf course because of Iraq and my PTSD.  I am much more in tune with what my body is doing at any given point of time.  I can now feel when a shoulder dips or I pull up on a shot as well as a number of other things that I never noticed before when I would go out on the course.

Because of dad I have retained a latent interest in golf.  So when I heard that Tom Watson was in the lead at the British Open while listening to my local ESPN Sports Radio 1310 on the way home from having the Undead Tooth of Terror extracted my ears perked up.  I had met Tom as well as a number of other golf legends in between missions at Al Taqaddum Air Base which was my home away from home while deployed to Iraq.  Tom and several others came through on a tour.  Now celebrities would make the rounds of Iraq and Afghanistan and I am grateful for them coming to visit, especially when things were not going well and a lot of guys were still getting killed and wounded.  Many times I was out in the far reaches when people would come through so I didn’t see many of them.  My friend Father Jose Bautista-Rojas was an escort for some dignitaries who accompanied the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen on his tour which included Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams.  Jose got to spend some time with them and got me baseball hat signed by both.  He said that Robin said that “I had better be praying for him.”  I thought that was both funny and kind.  I did meet Chuck Norris when he made his 2007 trip through Al Anbar visiting Marines.  He shook about every person’s hand and had pictures taken with them and he didn’t just go to the big bases, but some of the little remote places that I went. I would have liked to meet Robin. I have heard from a number of folks that he is great to military folks.  One thing that I noticed about the celebrities that came out, no matter who they were or what their politics, they were generally very friendly and seemed to care.  Celebrities take a lot of knocks for many reasons, some justified and others not, but when they come out to a combat zone it is appreciated.  I remember my dad talking about the Bob Hope tour that came to his ship off of Vietnam which included Sammy Davis Junior and Charro.

Anyway, I met Tom at Al Taqaddum in between mission’s right after Thanksgiving on November 24th 2007.  He and his group comprised of him David Feherty, Butch Harmon, Joe Inman, Tom Lehman and Howard Twitty were some of the finest and kindest men I have ever met while deployed.  These men took time with every Marine, Soldier and Sailor who came to see them.  They not only signed items but they gave away more things to our folks than I have seen given anywhere.  I received a hat signed by Tom and the others from the Rider Cup Team, and a picture signed by all, personalized to me.  That was really cool.  While talking with Tom I told him about my dad and his condition as well as my brother.  I asked if it would be possible to get something signed for them.  Tom got with the other guys and had a hat signed for my brother and each of the golfers inscribed a person message to my dad on the pictures.  They all expressed their well wishes to him and prayers for his health.  I was really touched by what gentlemen all of these men were.

I watched the last part of the British Open today pulling for Tom, but unfortunately he lost in the playoff to Stewart Cink after making bogey on 18. The golf miracle story ended with Tom finishing in second place, but even still he was not expected to do what he did even a week ago.  I really felt bad for him as he stood with tears in his eyes.  Despite the fact that he finished second Tom Watson to me is a gentleman, sportsman, a supporter of us who serve in unpopular wars, a man of compassion and a true Champion.  God bless you Tom and thank you for what you did for my dad while I was in Iraq.

Peace, Steve+

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