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Veterans deserve all the help they need

Scott Maxwell

Taking Names

July 14, 2010

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Two months ago, after an Iraq War veteran attacked his own wife and was shot by police outside his DeLand home, I said that this country needs to do more for the men and women who need help at home after serving their country abroad.

Today, we are seeing signs of progress.

Last weekend, President Obama announced that this country will make it easier for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress to get treatment.

And here in Florida, one local public defender is trying to craft laws that would help veterans who commit crimes instead of simply locking them up.

The developments may not help 30-year-old Army Sgt. Joshua Gerard, who remains in a Volusia County jail cell while his family struggles to understand the ugly changes he underwent since returning home from war.

But they may help others.

On the federal level, Barack Obama announced that the federal government will make it easier for veterans to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No longer will they have to produce evidence that a specific event triggered their illness.

That is as it should be.

Suicide among soldiers has increased for the past five straight years. And researchers reached a particularly ghastly conclusion several months ago when they realized that the U.S. military had lost more members to suicide than it had to combat in Afghanistan.

Another study, reported in Tuesday's newspaper, found that nearly one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan reported PTSD symptoms — but that nearly half of those had not gotten treatment.

Orange-Osceola Public Defender Bob Wesley has witnessed the fallout first-hand.

He sees it in the rising number of veterans who are charged with crimes and are suffering with mental problems. And he has seen it in his own life, as the son of a disabled infantry captain. "It took me many years to realize that much of my father's behavior and pain resulted from his combat experiences," Wesley said Tuesday.

That's why Wesley wants legislators to help create laws and programs that would get service members the help they need.

Details still need to be fleshed out. But Wesley said the general idea, modeled after one in California, would be to send veterans with PTSD to treatment facilities rather than jail cells.

"If you can put them in a place to get help instead of just incarcerating them, it just makes."

In most cases, the veterans would still be confined for the same amount of time; they would simply be in a place that could help them get better. Said Wesley: "There really is an obligation to these citizens."

Josh Gerard's family certainly agrees.

His father, Jim, said this week that his son is recovering physically, but that "jail is no place for psychological care."

Both Jim and Josh's wife are optimistic they will one day get back the loving family man they used to know. But they are frustrated that so many veterans slip through the cracks in the first place.

Josh's downward spiral culminated on an awful night in May — Mother's Day — when a terrified Sarah Gerard found herself telling a 911 operator that her husband had just trashed the family's house and poured gasoline on her. Deputies ended the altercation by shooting Josh after he raised an unloaded shotgun.

After the incident, the Gerard family issued a statement accepting responsibility for Josh's actions. But they also said they felt Josh "has been abandoned by the government he so proudly and willingly served. And we know we are not alone."

We can do better by these men and women.

That's why state legislators should get involved — now.

Too many of our politicians are oh-so-willing to send soldiers off to war — and unwilling to deal with the home-wrecking consequences that sometimes follow.

They can demagogue war with the best of them and trot out some awfully good lines about veterans in their campaign ads and Memorial Day speeches. But they sit idly by while the domestic casualties mount.

Legislators should work with Wesley to get these new laws passed and get the brave men and women the help they need.

They've got the pandering down pat.

Now let's do the right thing, and turn talk into action.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.