Bradenton-area veteran says he struggled to get VA diagnosis for PTSD, brain injury

jajones1@bradenton.comJune 19, 2014 

Owen

ELLENTON -- Jeanette Owen says her Iraq veteran husband needs help.

"He's up and down a lot. He gets easily frustrated. John is a good guy, but he has some issues to work through," she said. "He doesn't like to talk about the Army, but the bits and pieces he tells me are not good."

John Owen, 28, served on active duty in the U.S. Army from 2004-08, including during the surge in Iraq.

He knows he needs help, citing his experiences in Iraq on convoys, tower guard and as a first responder. He also had a parachute training accident in 2006 at Fort Bragg, N.C., when he was knocked unconscious.

His rucksack and weapons bag failed to release before his landing. On impact with the ground, his machine gun came up and struck him in the head, knocking him out.

The Department of Veterans Affairs awarded him a 50 percent disability for back and knee injuries in 2009, and suggested he try later for a diagnosis for suspected post-traumatic stress disorder.

A VA official told Owen on Wednesday that he had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury in 2009 -- which Owen said was news to him.

"They told me that it's the duty of the patient to keep

calling until they get an appointment," Owen said.

Owen claims it has taken years to get callbacks from the VA. He was also charged with missed appointments, when he says he knew nothing about them.

"You try to call them and they won't call you back," said Owen, who has received treatment at both the Bradenton Community-Based Outpatient Clinic and at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg.

The VA has come under national scrutiny as the scope of the scandal over long patient waits for care widens. Records were also falsified to hide delays at some VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, reports have shown.

There have been suggestions that dozens of veterans across the United States died waiting on VA care. The scandal prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

A nationwide audit of 730 VA facilities was recently conducted to determine the extent of problems. Among the facilities audited that will receive more review are Bay Pines and the Sarasota clinic, said Jason Dangel, public affairs officer for Bay Pines.

"We don't know what that means at this point," Dangel said.

Owen redoubled his efforts to get a new diagnosis around Memorial Day when he discovered that one of his team leaders from Iraq had been killed.

This month, the VA confirmed his diagnosis for PTSD, he said.

He is scheduled to begin treatment July 5.

"There are thousands and thousands of us with the same issues," Owen said.

Owen said he has lived for years with emotional issues and self-worth questions after his experiences in the Army.

"I have already had so many of my friends pass away," he said. "Many have been in trouble with the law or have substance abuse problems. It's a stigma for all veterans trying to seek help."

Without responding to the specifics of Owen's case, Dangel said there are sometimes complaints about scheduling. But the VA seeks to minimize those through post-card and phone-call reminders.

"We take a very proactive approach," Dangel said.

Bay Pines serves about 103,000 vets a year, the fourth-largest veterans population served by any facility in the United States. The Bradenton clinic handles nearly 62,000 appointments or outpatient visits a year.

The VA is looking at the way it provides care as a whole to "ensure everyone is on the same page," Dangel said. "The initiative for accelerated care across the country is all for the better. We want to provide the very best, timely care that we can."

Recognizing that sometimes more timely care can be provided in the community rather than through VA facilities, Bay Pines spent about $80 million on community care from October 2012 to September 2013.

Veterans with care issues are encouraged to call their primary care provider in the VA first. If they have an emergency, they should go to an emergency room or urgent care facility.

In addition, they may call the VA patient advocate office at 727-398-6661, ext. 4024.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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