On Friday (Veterans Day), I received a letter from a widow of a Purple Heart recipient, 32-year-old Staff Sgt. Eric Solano, who tragically took his own life less than a month ago after repeatedly reaching out to the military for help. He had been suffering brain trauma and PTSD from four tours of duty.
Sgt. Solano’s beloved wife, Anne, wrote me:
It is with grief and sorrow, I am writing this letter to you. … I lost my wonderful amazing husband Eric A. Solano on October 22, 2016, leaving behind myself and his beautiful 16-month-old daughter, Zoey Dawn Solano.
He was our hero, and best friend. Words cannot explain the emptiness feelings of our grief, or the tragedy of the feelings we’re struggling with his absence in our lives.
Anne explained that Eric “served four tours overseas. He was awarded his Purple Heart for his injuries sustained in battle.”
Tragically, Eric and Anne both suffered as he returned from combat only to suffer again from the demons of combat through post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Eric reached out to the military, but with no recourse.
Anne further explained, “My husband suffered mistreatment at the hands of his former chain of command forces to ETS [the expiration of term of service] without a medical board or any assistance, even though he asked for help while suffering brain trauma and PTSD from hand-to-hand combat overseas.”
To add insult to injury, Anne added, “The Veterans Administration took my husband’s entire pension away. They haven’t done anything to help our family, and I stand to lose our home – our vehicles – everything. My one income can’t support what my husband and I had. These are materialistic things – I don’t care if we lose everything, so long as I have my daughter that’s all I need.”
Excuse my French, but how the hell does this happen? A man gives up his life to serve our country, deploys on four combat tours, earns a Purple Heart for his courage and wounds in war, then is medically abandoned by the VA, and his family is left financially destitute as his entire pension is stripped away?
Anne’s letter and situation broke the hearts of my wife, Gena, and I, who are both passionate patriots for our military and their families.
Anne said her hope – indeed, her prayer and ours, too – is that: “This letter is to bring awareness of veterans who are being forgotten. The young men and women who are taking their lives, from the great pain and suffering endured fighting for our beautiful nation. The greatest causality is being forgotten.”
Anne is absolutely right. Unfortunately, Sgt. Solano and his family are not alone. Too many of our brave veterans and their families have experienced similar plights and tragedies.
As I also wrote about veterans in my C-Force health and fitness column this week, of combat veterans returning home after serving our country, as many as 30 percent struggle with mental health issues in which symptoms often worsen after they leave the structure and camaraderie of military life and hospital treatment to then begin reintegration back into civilian life.
Who constitutes the 30 percent? About 15 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan alone suffer from PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Though estimates are lower in the Gulf War vets, percentages for PTSD are even higher for Vietnam War vets.
Only a third of troops with PTSD, as well as less than a quarter of those diagnosed as clinically depressed, receive even the bare minimum number of therapy sessions after being diagnosed.
As a result, a recent study suggests that veterans may be more likely to commit suicide in the first year after they leave the military than after more time passes. The suicide rate for soldiers in this group was found to be 264 cases per 100,000 soldiers, far outpacing the national suicide rate of 13 per 100,000. Though veterans make up only about 8.5 percent of the population, today they account for 18 percent of all suicides in the United States. Based upon the most recent data, 20 veterans die every day from suicide.
The Military Times reported in July:
Researchers found that the risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher when compared to civilian adults. From 2001 to 2014, as the civilian suicide rate rose about 23.3 percent, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped more than 32 percent.
The problem is particularly worrisome among female veterans, who saw their suicide rates rise more than 85 percent over that time, compared to about 40 percent for civilian women.
And roughly 65 percent of all veteran suicides in 2014 were for individuals 50 years or older, many of whom spent little or no time fighting in the most recent wars.
So, if you think that the VA’s dilapidated caregiving system is a recent problem, consider that Milton Rackham of Belding, Michigan, an 89-year-old World War II veteran who is also a Purple Heart recipient, had to wait 68 years without benefits because the VA told him his records were lost in a fire – at least that’s how the VA explained its inability to give him the post-war care he deserved and fought for.
How can these military tragedies happen in the greatest nation in the world?
Even liberal comedian Jon Stewart rightly sniped a few years ago, “Here’s what disgusts me: Somehow, we as a country, were able to ship 300,000 troops halfway across the world in just a few months to fight a war that costs us $2 trillion – yet for some reason, it takes longer than that to get someone hurt in that war needed medical care or reimbursement – all while we profess undying love for their service.”
While each presidential administration has made some progress, the VA remains a broken and crippled agency, desperately needing an overhaul. For example, in 2015, the phone banks alone at the VA’s Health Resource Center had a call “abandonment rate” of 26 percent, representing more than one in four veterans who hung up in discouragement for lack of help.
Our veterans’ care is one area in particular that I will hold accountable President Trump, his administration and the Republican majority in Congress. It is high time Washington shored up the grave deficiencies in the care for veterans and their families, including widows and mothers like Anne Solano. President Trump must answer the cries and needs in her letter (and others like her) not with campaign promises but presidential actions.
While we’re waiting for Washington to get its act together, if the U.S. government won’t properly care for service members who risk it all, then we the people must – one at a time. To successfully address these issues, communities and local health organizations must become a substantial part of the solution.
Let each of us do our part. Talk to local hospitals, clinics, health practitioners, civic clubs and even churches to see what they are doing to help our veterans. Write your local and state representatives about what they are doing to care for veterans, too. Educate others about veterans’ issues, as I often do with my C-Force and culture warrior column. Befriend a veteran. Help their families. Do what you can in particular for widows and orphans who are left behind by our fallen heroes. (For those so inclined, you can still help Sgt. Solano’s widow, Anne, and their 16-month-old daughter, Zoey, through the GoFund Me account set up for them by Eric’s sister, Patricia Carroll.)
If you or someone you know knows a veteran who is suffering with PTSD, here are some tips for finding a good PTSD therapist. Don’t give up on contacting the Veterans Crisis Line: 1 (800) 273-8255, press 1 (or text 838255), or Confidential Veterans Chat with a counselor. And don’t be afraid to call 9-1-1, or go to the nearest emergency room. If needed, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255. And here are some other help and crises resources for family and friends. You can read much more about PTSD at the website for the National Institute of Mental Health.
For family and friends who are suffering from the loss of a veteran, I also recommend finding a GriefShare support group in your area to help with your grief. There are more than 10,000 around the nation. In fact, right now, many are running a “Surviving the Holidays” two-hour seminar, where you will find help and hope to navigate the holiday season.
To conclude, according to Sgt. Solano’s obituary, Eric was a devoted Christian.
Knowing that, Gena and I hope and pray that, in due time, Anne and the rest of Eric’s family will find some solace and comfort in knowing that as he entered the pearly gates, he heard the Universe’s Commander in Chief say: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”