WALTER REED AND BEYOND
The War Inside
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Army Spec. Jeans Cruz helped capture Saddam Hussein. When he came home to the Bronx, important people called him a war hero and promised to help him start a new life. The mayor of New York, officials of his parents' home town in Puerto Rico, the borough president and other local dignitaries honored him with plaques and silk parade sashes. They handed him their business cards and urged him to phone.
But a "black shadow" had followed Cruz home from Iraq, he confided to an Army counselor. He was hounded by recurring images of how war really was for him: not the triumphant scene of Hussein in handcuffs, but visions of dead Iraqi children.
In public, the former Army scout stood tall for the cameras and marched in the parades. In private, he slashed his forearms to provoke the pain and adrenaline of combat. He heard voices and smelled stale blood. Soon the offers of help evaporated and he found himself estranged and alone, struggling with financial collapse and a darkening depression.
At a low point, he went to the local Department of Veterans Affairs medical center for help. One VA psychologist diagnosed Cruz with post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition was labeled "severe and chronic." In a letter supporting his request for PTSD-related disability pay, the psychologist wrote that Cruz was "in need of major help" and that he had provided "more than enough evidence" to back up his PTSD claim. His combat experiences, the letter said, "have been well documented."
None of that seemed to matter when his case reached VA disability evaluators. They turned him down flat, ruling that he deserved no compensation because his psychological problems existed before he joined the Army. They also said that Cruz had not proved he was ever in combat. "The available evidence is insufficient to confirm that you actually engaged in combat," his rejection letter stated.
Yet abundant evidence of his year in combat with the 4th Infantry Division covers his family's living-room wall. The Army Commendation Medal With Valor for "meritorious actions . . . during strategic combat operations" to capture Hussein hangs not far from the combat spurs awarded for his work with the 10th Cavalry "Eye Deep" scouts, attached to an elite unit that caught the Iraqi leader on Dec. 13, 2003, at Ad Dawr.
Veterans Affairs will spend $2.8 billion this year on mental health. But the best it could offer Cruz was group therapy at the Bronx VA medical center. Not a single session is held on the weekends or late enough at night for him to attend. At age 25, Cruz is barely keeping his life together. He supports his disabled parents and 4-year-old son and cannot afford to take time off from his job repairing boilers. The rough, dirty work, with its heat and loud noises, gives him panic attacks and flesh burns but puts $96 in his pocket each day.
Once celebrated by his government, Cruz feels defeated by its bureaucracy. He no longer has the stamina to appeal the VA decision, or to make the Army correct the sloppy errors in his medical records or amend his personnel file so it actually lists his combat awards.
"I'm pushing the mental limits as it is," Cruz said, standing outside the bullet-pocked steel door of the New York City housing project on Webster Avenue where he grew up and still lives with his family. "My experience so far is, you ask for something and they deny, deny, deny. After a while you just give up."
An Old and Growing Problem
Jeans Cruz and his contemporaries in the military were never supposed to suffer in the shadows the way veterans of the last long, controversial war did. One of the bitter legacies of Vietnam was the inadequate treatment of troops when they came back. Tens of thousands endured psychological disorders in silence, and too many ended up homeless, alcoholic, drug-addicted, imprisoned or dead before the government acknowledged their conditions and in 1980 officially recognized PTSD as a medical diagnosis.
Yet nearly three decades later, the government still has not mastered the basics: how best to detect the disorder, the most effective ways to treat it, and the fairest means of compensating young men and women who served their country and returned unable to lead normal lives.
Cruz's case illustrates these broader problems at a time when the number of suffering veterans is the largest and fastest-growing in decades, and when many of them are back at home with no monitoring or care. Between 1999 and 2004, VA disability pay for PTSD among veterans jumped 150 percent, to $4.2 billion.