The War Within: Eyewitness News investigates PTSD, Part V

The War Within: Eyewitness News investigates PTSD, Part V »Play Video
Mike Allen, foreground, is a Marine veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He and his wife, Amber, background, discuss his illness at a counseling session at Good Samaritan Hospital in southwest Bakersfield.
* Editor's Note: This is the final installment in an Eyewitness News special report on post-traumatic stress disorder. For months, Eyewitness News has been documenting personal accounts of the devastating disorder. Many military veterans have never spoken publicly about their agonizing problems.


By the time all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan finally come home, thousands will face a different battle: post-traumatic stress disorder.

So how are veterans and their families getting help? And, is the Department of Veterans Affairs prepared for the expected onslaught of cases?

Amber Allen is married to a Bakersfield Marine veteran diagnosed with PTSD.

"You want to throw in the towel all the time. You really do. Like I quit, I'm done," says Amber Allen.

"My marriage is starting, hopefully it doesn't, to go down the drain. I don't want it to," says Marine veteran Mike Allen.

Mike Allen and wife Amber are opening-up at a counseling session at Good Samaritan Hospital in southwest Bakersfield.

"It comes firmly out of his mouth. Nothing will make me happy," says Amber referring to husband Mike.

The Allens who have known each other since they were thirteen.

"I served eight and a half years in the Marine Corp and I was diagnosed with severe PTSD," say Mike Allen surrounded by his family in a cozy conference room.

This is ground zero in their desperate attempt to save a close knit marriage deeply impacted by Mike's struggle from within.

"Takes a lot of courage to just be free enough to take the risk, just to talk," says Russ Sempell who leads the counseling session.

Russ Sempell and Patrice Maniaci are co-founders of the counseling session called "Frontline."

"It's a unique "National Alliance on Mental Illness" or "NAMI" support group geared towards counseling family and friends of veterans with PTSD.

"Have you accepted I've got a different deck of cards to play with this time?" says Sempell speaking directly to Amber Allen.

Sempell is a clinical psychologist and licensed family & marriage therapist at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Maniaci is a recovering survivor of PTSD learning to understand a father who developed the disorder in World War Two and Korea.

"I saw that he wasn't that crappy old drunk that we all hated or that I did. He was a veteran suffering with the trauma he suffered while he was in the war," says Maniaci.

"We had a veteran last night that was excited about getting help for the first time in fifty years. Our motto is we're trying to save lives and save families," says a beaming Sempell.

So successful is their "Frontline" project that is now a national model. It was showcased at an "National Alliance on Mental Illness" convention in Orlando this past summer.

For many veterans fighting PTSD, hitting rock bottom can mean being homeless.In fact, according to the VA, nearly half of all homeless veterans are mentally ill and on the streets.

"I've fire-bombed some houses, I've shot people, I've stolen stuff from people," says Vietnam veteran Doug Davison of Oildale.

Davison spoke candidly to us about how the ravages of PTSD can lead to anger and outright aggression.

"There's just something about some people that irritate me, just makes me want to hurt them," says Davison.

Diagnosed with PTSD nearly two years ago, Davison ended-up homeless, sleeping in his car. His illness, not brought on by combat, but by what he says was a childhood filled with mental, sexual and physical abuse while growing up in Indiana.

"Back there, they had basements. So there's an I-beam across supporting the upstairs. He would hang us from that and had a whip, a cat o'nine, and flog us," says Davison.

Davison finally sought help here and got it at the California Veterans Assistance Foundation center on Decatur Street in Oildale.

The nonprofit gets grant money through the VA and provides transitional housing to vets who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. It's the only place like it in California.

"Usually around June, that's when I have a real bad month, that's when my leg was blown off, June 23rd," says Bob Piaro, founder of the CVAF center in Oildale.

Piaro is a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. He founded the center and four others like it in his home state of Wisconsin. The nationally recognized homeless veteran advocate says he saw a need for a center because of the large number of veterans in Kern County.

"You know what my goal was when I started this? To get out of it. To close it up, there's no more homeless vets. I don't think that's ever going to be," says Piaro.

"Critics out there believe the VA isn't equipped to handle all these vets coming back with PTSD. How do you respond to that? we asked VA spokesperson Kerri Childress.

"Well, right now we are," Childress says.

She says, although promises can't be made for the future, the VA is preparing for it.

"In the last two years, we've hired 3100 mental health clinicians across the country, bringing the total to 17,000 mental health clinicians in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It makes it the biggest mental health dept anywhere," says Childress.

And that includes three psychiatrists, two social workers, a psychologist, and two more on the way, at the Bakersfield VA clinic. Despite the VA's contention they're ready, the veterans advocacy group called "Veterans for Common Sense" went as far as suing the VA, claiming veterans are not being given the care they need.

Still others charge the VA purposely misdiagnoses soldiers in effort to avoid a lifetime of costly PTSD treatments. Veterans advocates like Bob Piaro are convinced PTSD will be an epidemic.

"It's going to be worse than Vietnam I believe. The reason I believe that is because they're going back for multiple times of service. They're going 15 month terms, they come back six, eight months and then they're going back again. I've known guys gone back three times," says Piaro.

And for Iraq war veterans like Jacob Holder of Bakersfield, PTSD has changed his life forever.

"Do you think you'll ever return to who you were before," we asked Holder at his Bakersfield home.

"No. I'll never be the person that I was as much as I try. I'm just not that person anymore," says Holder.