In This Story the Hero Dies
This story may be edited for strong language. This story belongs to the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Matthew Patton Foundation.
His name was Jack. We met, sort of, in 1973, but didn't have our first date until 1996. I was eighteen, just starting to work for Bell telephone in downtown Okla. City. Down nine floors and around the corner was a diner everyone talked about so I ventured in. It was so crowded and I was behind a giant of a man when I caught sight of the darkest blue eyes. The young guy behind the counter was darkly tanned. I noticed his biceps next to the gleaming white T-shirt, his hair at his neck was curling a little due to the humidity and it continued past his jaw to his forehead, where it was parted in the middle and pulled back. The giant guy moved so I had to strain my neck to peek around him. That's when I saw the black thick eyelashes covering those amazing blue eyes down his nose and....are you kidding me?! A Fu Manchu moustache! Oh man! This guy may have been a little older than me, no problem, but a Fu Manchu moustache! Well, no doubt about it, he was obviously too wild for me! Just as I was about to order he was called to the back. I just turned around and left. I went back one other time with a friend who raved about how funny Jack was. It was next to closing, the place was empty except for us. He had a phone call and I can remember his Henry Fonda like walk and his deep voice on the phone. We decided to leave and she went through the door first. For some reason, I stopped, turned around and looked straight at him. He just stared, is eyes were so sad and so angry. Through the years I have told so many people about "that guy" and never forgot seeing him young and strong and beautiful, except for that moustache!
Fast forward, twenty-three years, lots of life, three kids and a divorce that was final. We were sitting in the restaurant this friend, this man who my ex-husband and I had known casually when our kids were little in T ball. They had spoken and when he heard we were divorced had the same idea of going to dinner with an acquaintance, rather than a stranger. I was forty- two and he was forty-eight. We were both ridiculously nervous. But the conversation came easy as he was hilariously funny and the subject of our lives before children began. I started telling him about Bell telephone when he looked so surprised and said "I had a diner right around the corner downtown". What! Are you the guy with the dark tan, the white T-shirt, the hair curling from humidity, pulled back, the dark eyelashes, dark blue eyes and then simultaneously, " the Fu Manchu moustache"!? We both said it out loud and together and twenty-three years melted away. It was him! He was the guy! The beautiful handsome, guy with sad and angry eyes. Oh my God! What had happened to him?
We couldn't stop talking! Finally, the wait staff kindly asked if they could get us anything else when we noticed there were no other customers in the restaurant, and wait, when did someone start vacuuming? They were very sweet and at our age, we were a little embarrassed. It was then that I met Jack from twenty-three years before. He said he knew that he looked at least ten years older than he was. This was due, he said to not sleeping for fifteen years. Jack would make jokes about getting to Vietnam in 1968 just in time for the Tet Offensive! How lucky can you get? He joked about wanting to get married before going to Vietnam so that, God forbid, he died a virgin! I was laughing at all his stories so hard I could hardly catch my breath! He was having fun too, along with a little bitterness at remembering no welcome home and being later painted with the crazy Vietnam vet brush that the movies had exploited. He wasn't one to sugar coat anything and explained how being hyper vigilant for so many years takes a toll in so many ways. I just kept thinking about seeing him years earlier, certainly not recognizing him, but watching him help coach the little boys before he went to his job at night. If he could not sleep during the night he decided to work. One thing was clear, the sadness and anger I remembered seeing years ago had also been carefully managed away into that night. But it was not destined to stay there.
The excited relief of getting Jack to the face to face and Orientation at the Oklahoma City VAMC was short lived when a woman stepped up to the microphone in a room filled with about 75 people. She shouted in a very strident tone, If you are here for dental services you have been misinformed! The VA does NOT provide dental services! I repeat, if you are here...." . I was shocked at her tone. There was certainly no " thank you for your service" attitude going on here. We have a private prison in our town and I had been there several times as Councilwoman and Mayor. The inmates were not addressed in such a rude manner. We were given a sign in sheet and I quickly wrote a note that I was desperate to get my husband help immediately. I described his weight loss, increased drinking, inability to sleep, etc. We left Orientation and went to get Jack's ID card when his cell phone rang. It was a lady named Nancy who had read my note and told me she had secured an appointment for Jack in two weeks! To me it was a miracle. It turned out, Nancy was a volunteer who had taken immediate action! I tried to locate her later to say thank you, but was unable to find someone who knew her. As wonderful as that was, Jack still ended up in the VA emergency room after collapsing at the house. His potassium was very low and they admitted him to run further tests. My unabashed begging may have had something to do with that, but I didn't care. My dear husband was in danger and we needed help.
Jack was in the hospital for four days. His doctor was a young Vietnamese woman who tried to ask him questions about his service. It was no surprise that he acted like Vietnam was a day at Disneyland. The face of the people that were in his nightmares was not appropriate to his care. It bordered on cruelty. So many of these veterans nightmares include villagers they are afraid they have hurt. On the last day a young woman from Substance Abuse came in Jack's room while he was out taking a test. She had no qualms about HIPAA or discussing Jack's problem with drinking. She asked me, "Are you prepared for the fact that he may not be able to get back to himself?" I said absolutely not! If you start your treatment with the lowest possible expectations, what chance does your patient have? I was so worried. Jack was in trouble, but he wasn't a derelict, in the gutter, hopeless case. He had a job, a family, a life! We had a life! He had taken care of himself for forty years and now he was asking for help. I can't describe the confusion about who was providing the help and their abilities. But we had to try.
Jack was of course diagnosed with PTSD and alcohol abuse. He began to make all the required meetings and looked amazing! I didn't realize that he was again "white knuckling it." When he felt he couldn't do it, he took one of the psychotropic drugs prescribed. He got lost, he didn't even know he was still at his office. He thought he was home. I called the highway patrol to put out "attempt to locate" on his car. We lived fifty miles from Okla. City and his office so I was worried about a car wreck. Finally, about 3 a.m. Jack answered his cell phone, but I couldn't tell where exactly he was. His secretary and boss would find him at the office early the next morning. She said the pill bottle was in sight. It was Celexa.
After that episode we were all a little more discouraged. Jack was always the man with a c-plan and he couldn't make one. What was worse was his doctor didn't seem to have an effective one either. Everything was weighing on him, his very life, our marriage, our family, our home and yet there was no follow-up, no sense of urgency from the doctor who saw this veteran, late in life and in serious circumstances. Jack looked at me after his sons brought him home that day from the office and with the saddest eyes said, " I'm so embarrassed." Oh honey, I said, “it's alright. You just can't tolerate that medication." The doctor would need to come up with a different plan. That plan came in the mail two weeks later. Several pill bottles mailed from the Okla. City VAMC. I read the info sheets so carefully. I cut each pill in half so carefully. It said the newest drug, Sertraline was approved for treatment of PTSD and I thought it must be new. We talked quietly about communicating on any odd, bad, confused feelings that the drug may cause. There was only one thing we did not know. Sertraline is not a brand name. It is not a generic of anything. Sertraline is just the chemical name for Zoloft after the patent ended. Zoloft already had a huge reputation for its complicit effects in homicides and suicides. There was nothing in that package that referenced Zoloft.
After Jack died, his medical records showed he met with Dr. Araujo on June 11, 2009. He told the doctor about the problem with Celexa. He told the doctor that, "PTSD symptoms exacerbated, more frequent nightmares, feeling irritable and violent." Because Jack's risk of suicide had been changed from zero to moderate, Dr. Araujo ordered that "patient to be closely watched in outpatient." None of this was shared with me, his wife. Twenty-seven days later Jack's cell phone rang and a cheerful message was left. "Mr. Cornelius, this is Tempie with Dr. Araujo's office, just checking to see how you're doing on your new medication. " Jack was sitting in a wingback chair in our living room with a bullet in his head.
Two days after Jack's funeral. I went to the VAMC and told her, "It didn't go well." HIPAA, an Insurance Portability Act of 1976 has several Exclusions to Privacy in Section 1178. Yet, you wouldn't think that you would need to instruct a doctor in the need for family support for a veteran on the edge of an abyss. Jack's story continued as I found that a study from 1980 predicted the plight of Vietnam veterans reaching later life stage. Yes, thirty years ago, it was already known that this was inevitable.
So, the predator, PTSD entered our home. Jack had the last battle with it on July 8th, 2009 and the predator killed the young man with the tan muscles, the dark eyelashes, and the brilliant, laughing, blue eyes. Vietnam came to claim another life.
But, in that moment the Lord of all universes and the God of all galaxies reached out to bring the soldier Home. I love Jack. We talked of how we would go though all the same heartaches if we knew it would lead us back to each other. So, Jack knows that's what I'm doing now. The heartache that is the VA must change it's treatment protocol to insure a Safety Net for veterans. The tragedy that is the VA must respond to PTSD with a sense of urgency instead of treating it like a foot fungus. I will continue to face this heartache and one day it will bring me back to Jack, back to those blue, blue eyes.
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