A tragedy for one local family is resulting in a push for more awareness for veterans who have post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Thirty-year-old Dustin Wernli was laid to rest over the weekend after he died last week after calling 911 saying he was a combat veteran with PTSD and was feeling suicidal.
Officers responded to the scene, speaking with Wernli for about 15 minutes before shooting him when Police say he reached for a gun. The veteran died at the hospital.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are treated each year for PTSD nationwide. The VA in Tucson says last year alone, about 2,600 veterans came in for treatment. Wernli's family says their son was being treated for PTSD at the VA and getting private help. While there are lots of services available for veterans, the VA says they are very under-used.
"'Doc' (Dustin's nickname) and I talked a lot about how we prepared for the military," explained Michael Kase a friend of Dustin's and a fellow veteran. "Everything was physical because we knew all these physical hardships we'd encounter but neither of us did anything mentally or emotionally to prepare for those emotional hardships we were going to encounter."
Dustin's parents didn't want to talk on camera but want people to know their son was a good person, a field medic who during his nine months in Iraq, saw the worst of it and was responsible for trying to save lives.
"He not only experienced their loss but felt a sense of responsibility for their loss," Kase said, adding Dustin's is one of the hardest jobs there is in the military.
At Dustin's funeral, instead of flowers, his family asked people to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, hoping to promote solutions for issues faced by thousands of veterans.
At Tucson's VA, mental health treatments are available in the primary care clinic because mental illness has a stigma, which doctors say often deters people from seeking help.
"There's a societal stigma and personal stigma," Dr. Timothy Mueller, the acting chief physician in the VA's mental health department said. "A lot of people view accepting that they have mental health problems as a weakness."
Dr. Mueller says there are ten thousand Tucson-area veterans registered in the VA's mental health clinic. Dustin was one of them, but the VA says its services are under used.
"For a lot of veterans they think, 'I've seen enough death, destruction' so the best thing for me to do if I feel that way is isolate myself," said Dr. Michael Marks the VA's lead psychologist said. Dr. Marks says isolation and avoidance can worsen the problem.
"There's really no difference between a physical wound suffered in combat and a non-physical wound suffered in combat," Kase said.
Both need treatment and a support group to help them heal.
The VA encourages all veterans to enroll in health care.
For more on services for veterans, visit the following links:
Services overview: http://www.va.gov/landing2_vetsrv.htm
Mental health: http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/
Veterans Crisis Line: http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/
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