Vietnam veteran asks commissioners to help save counseling services

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

Feb. 28, 2012 at 7:02 p.m.
Updated Feb. 28, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.

Richmond O'Neill

Richmond O'Neill

Sometimes, the severest combat wounds are not caused by bullets or shrapnel, but by war itself.

By the time Richmond O'Neill found his way to a psychologist in 2008, he had been out of the war zone for 40 years.

"All of a sudden, it seemed like my life was coming apart at the seams," O'Neill, 70, said. "It just exploded. For 40 years, I had held everything in."

He was 26 when he shipped out to Vietnam and served as a Marine officer, commanding a rifle platoon and a company. Because he was older when he joined, he thought he was safe from the emotional and psychological consequences of war he later witnessed in his comrades: depression, addiction and divorce.

Across decades, a silent battle with post-traumatic stress disorder was going on just below the surface.

O'Neill is considered 70 percent disabled from PTSD. Through the outpatient Department of Veterans Affairs clinic, he started meeting with a social worker and joined a weekly therapy group.

Therapy "has been the most beneficial thing I've received from the VA," O'Neill said.

In therapy, he is learning how to work through depression and how to determine reality from illusion.

Two weeks ago, from a letter passed down through the chain-of-command, O'Neill found out his therapy group would end.

O'Neill almost immediately began rallying for support.

Tuesday, he shared his story with Victoria County Commissioners Court.

The group was first told it was a cost issue. Veterans from out of town received travel pay; it was getting too expensive. Those veterans volunteered to give up the money if group therapy continued, he told commissioners.

"Then we were told it's not just cost, it's other things," O'Neill said. "There are some guys I'm worried about ... some said they would just go and get drunk. Others, like me, said how can we stop this from happening?"

Compounding O'Neill's concerns is the lease at the Victoria VA outpatient center that expires in May. O'Neill fears local veterans will no longer have a place to go for health care, particularly mental health care.

"Like so many other things in the past, Vietnam veterans tend to feel like we've been dumped on," O'Neill said. "I don't even like to bring that up anymore, I'm tired of hearing it, but this is just another case of it."

County Judge Don Pozzi, also a Vietnam veteran, said he would look into the therapy issue.

"I'm certainly a mental health advocate and have been for a long time," Pozzi said. "There's a lack of funding on the state and federal level and more can be done to take care of those who need help."

Kathryn Gifford, a public affairs officer for South Texas Veterans Health Care System, which is based in San Antonio, said the PTSD group therapy issue is specific to the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions in Victoria.

"They've been meeting for a long time, and that's why they don't want to stop," she said.

She said after a given time, the effectiveness of treatment declines and patients must learn how to cope in their daily lives. However, if something changes, those veterans should call their VA doctors to be evaluated for therapy on an individual and as-needed basis.

"This is truly not a financial situation," she said. "We're recommending that they move on."

However, Dr. John M. Bouras, a board-certified psychiatrist in Victoria who is not associated with the VA, said the VA's decision to end the group therapy session is "unusual."

Ending therapy "is more of a mutual decision," he said. "Everyone has a different timetable for when they can move on with their lives."

Commissioner Kevin Janak called the group's plight "disheartening."

"Regardless if it ends everywhere or just here, it's sad that it has to end at all," he said.

Pozzi spoke to O'Neill on a personal level during commissioners court, assuring he would make calls and try to help.

"Above all, thank you for your service to our country," Pozzi said.

O'Neill is expected to speak during Wednesday's Victoria County Veterans Council meeting to garner support.

Norman Ramirez, Catholic War Veterans Commander and chairman of the 2012 Victoria County Veterans Council, said the issue is serious.

"You can't just drop a bunch of veterans out of the blue sky," Ramirez said. "It's medical care, it's considered an illness."

He said if a PTSD patient "snaps," there could be "adverse effects" for families and the community.

The county is in desperate need of the program, Ramirez said.

"PTSD is rampant among combat troops," he said. "This is the wrong time and the wrong place to do this."



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