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Veterans Share Stories as Work Starts on Mental Health Bills

Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed bills to fill gaps in care.
Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed bills to fill gaps in care. (Jamie C. Horton - AP)
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By Philip Rucker
Friday, February 22, 2008

For two years, Edward Robinson was stationed at a Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Va., helping treat wounded troops returning from battle in Iraq. The experience was so emotionally taxing that when Robinson moved home to Annapolis in 2006, his life started unraveling.

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Robinson tried to kill himself four times, he said in emotional testimony before a panel of Maryland legislators yesterday. The 35-year-old told lawmakers that he was hospitalized five times, and his mental illnesses grew so bad that his wife recently left him.

"The stigma of having a mental illness . . . people look at you differently. People don't want to hire you," Robinson said. The problem, he said, is that the federal government is not providing adequate care.

Thousands of veterans like Robinson live in Maryland, and state officials say the federal government is failing to connect them to mental health-care providers, a void that became clear last year amid the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed legislation to close gaps in federal care for returning service members. The measures would establish a $3.5 million pilot program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan navigate the federal system to obtain care for mental and behavioral health problems.

At the start of this week, O'Malley and the General Assembly paid tribute to the 20 Maryland troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

"Our hearts go out to them and to our families," O'Malley said in a short speech. "Our promise goes out to them that we will stand by their comrades."

During a poignant ceremony Monday night on the floor of the House of Delegates, each fallen service member was honored. A delegate representing the service member's county read his or her name and date of death into the record. Then on the wooden dais, a bell tolled for each.

Lawmakers began work on the bills this week by hearing testimony from veterans such as Robinson, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers and Veterans Affairs Secretary James A. Adkins.

Brown, who served as an Army reservist in Iraq, said the state government should fill the gaps to help a "very fragile cohort of veterans" in Maryland.

"In a perfect world, the federal government would help ensure the welfare and care of veterans," Brown said. But "we don't live in a perfect world."

From 2006 to 2007, the suicide rate of veterans increased by 20 percent, Brown said. Since the Iraq conflict began in 2003, he said, the rate of attempted suicide by veterans increased by 600 percent.

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