Stop Making Sense
“If I’m 30 or 40 years old,” explains Walter Schmidt, director of veterans services for the Town of Oyster Bay, “I don’t know if I want anybody to know that I’ve been formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Because that means I’m a little crazy, and if I’m a little crazy, although I know I’m not supposed to lose my job because of that, I’ve been told that that has happened.”
Countering self-destructive myths like that is part of his job, explains Schmidt, 63, whose exposure to Agent Orange when he served on a Navy gunboat in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam in 1969 ultimately led to diabetes, PTSD, hearing loss and multiple sclerosis, which made him a tetraplegic. His symptoms didn’t appear until 1994, and he’d never used the VA before that.
Today he only has the use of his right hand. As he fishes for a pretzel he dropped on the floor of his Massapequa office, he waves his grip-extender and jokes that he “believes in the five-hour rule.”
A CPA, Schmidt’s been in this role for eight years. Of Long Island’s 13 townships, he says only Oyster Bay has a veterans office.
“Putting my body aside, I know very few able-bodied Vietnam veterans who don’t, in private, admit to having sleeping problems, to having anger-management problems,” he says. “And most of us admit that our personality before we went to Vietnam as opposed to our personality after Vietnam changed. In some cases, dramatically.”
One group that’s sprung up on Long Island, after starting in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, is The Soldiers Project, which provides strictly confidential treatment to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who may have post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.
“Mental health issues are still stigmatized,” says Susan Cohen, a psychiatric nurse who says she’s lined up 70 volunteer therapists, all licensed mental health professionals, and dozens of nonclinical volunteers. Her group’s services are free, and “there’s no paper trail,” she adds.
Sometimes a PTSD diagnosis may hinder a promotion if one’s still in the service, she says. Unlike the VA, her group also treats the soldier’s family members. So far, Cohen’s group has been getting about two or three veterans a month seeking her group’s treatment.
The calls are coming in from the soldiers’ mothers, grandmothers, wives and girlfriends. “They often recognize the soldier’s got a problem before he does,” she explains.
A typical phone call, Cohen says, goes something like this: “‘My husband or my boyfriend is back from Iraq. He sleeps all day, and he gets very angry if I try to talk to him. He’s not doing the things he used to do.’”
Cohen says her group is part of the Veterans Health Alliance on Long Island, and she praises the VA for working with the community and the Department of Defense for recognizing that some soldiers may be suffering from invisible wounds that require special attention before the problem takes a serious turn.
The reputation of the VA has waxed and waned over the years. Frank Amalfitano, executive director of United Veterans Beacon House, said after his father died at the Northport facility in 1978, he wouldn’t talk about the place.