Fighting a Different Battle

Veterans return home to a broken system, depressed, stressed, and no help in sight.


The city of Talpa is considered one of the holiest places in Mexico. Every year thousands of Catholics make a pilgrimage to this small pueblo in the state of Jalisco to give their dues to the Virgen de Talpa. Reverent followers journey here to complete a manda—a pilgrimage to the home of the virgen when a prayer is granted to the follower. Last month I accompanied my mother from California to Talpa on her journey to fulfill her promise to the virgen.

In the summer of 2007 at the age of 17, and to the shock of my parents, I enlisted into the United States Navy. Amidst the Iraq War, my parents took my decision tougher than I expected. My mom resorted to religion to help her get through my five years in the service. She prayed to the Virgen de Talpa devotedly promising a pilgrimage to her upon my safe return. Often I would get care packages out at sea with crucifixes and pictures of the virgen — a reminder that my mother was always there for me, even when my faith in God had completely run dry.

As she delivered flowers and candles to the Virgen de Talpa, my heart was heavy with guilt. While she prayed, I contemplated those hellish nights on deployment in the South China Sea where among the turbulent waters of a typhoon I nearly ended my life.

On nights like those, the sounds of sailors puking from the motion sickness would echo throughout the berthing followed moments later by the faint smell of stomach acid and half-digested food. The alarming echo of metal clanging through the ship’s compartments as equipment was tossed about in the tempest made sleep on one specific night en route to the Philippines impossible.

I made my way to the main deck and to the nearest hatch with access to the tempest outside. I pulled the lever up half way and leaned up on it. The rain and wind pounded on the hatch. I stood there tempted to invite the elements inside.

By the age of 20, I had experienced a dehumanizing, drawn out, and seemingly endless misery. Not the kind of misery like the death of a loved one, but more like a car crash happening every hour, the sense of inescapable doom, a feeling of terror and anxiety that clung to my insides — A deployment at sea.

All it would have taken to end my life was just a slight opening of the hatch and a jump into the waters below. I’d drown before anyone could even notice I was missing. No one would be there to talk me out of it.

I opened the hatch all the way. Only the security latch was keeping me from the elements. Thoughts of my mother receiving news of my death started to seep into my resolve. She doesn’t speak English, so someone would have to translate the news of my death. She would most definitely be confused.
She would deny it.

I’ve never heard my mother cry, but she cried in my mind, and it startled me right there by the hatch. There would be no closure, no body to bury. How selfish of me. I closed the hatch and dogged the lever down all the way. I was wide awake, in shock and full of adrenaline.

My mom rose from the altar, and signed the cross over herself. I wish I could have told her there that it wasn’t her religion or her God, but my love for her that saved my life that night, and every other sleepless night thereafter that I found myself at that hatch.

Suicide among service members has been talked about in great lengths since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan War. The military suicide rate exceeds the suicide rate of the general civilian population, but it wasn’t always so. In every war before the War on Terror the military suicide rate was always considerably lower than that of the nation as a whole. Outside of active duty, male military veterans are twice as likely to die of suicide compared to their civilian counterparts.

Army veteran and anti-war activist Michael Prysner speaks to a crowd at an anti-war rally near downtown Los Angeles.

Army veteran Michael Prysner, 31, believes one reason for the high suicide rates among veterans is the concept of moral injury and how the Department of Veteran Affairs, VA, classifies post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

“I know there are a lot of people — especially when they deploy when they are young, I was 19 years old — in an environment where you end up doing things that later in life you are morally conflicted with. At the time you fall into being a fucked up person, and then you have to go through life remembering yourself as that person. And you just hate what you did, hate what you were, and you can’t convince yourself that you are any different now. That is a major thing that people deal with that is not really touched on by the VA care.”

Prysner was a corporal working for Army intelligence as an interrogator in Iraq between 2003 and 2005 and later involved in determining Iraqi targets to bomb. “Most of the people were totally innocent and hadn’t done anything wrong. I have a huge amount of memories of being the guy that was doing the bad stuff to these people, and a lot of people that were being interrogated that I will always remember. That is an example of something that a lot of interrogators and I have gone through.”

He added there are moments when service members are “fucked up” and it is those moments some will never forget.

“A lot of people like me report being changed by that experience and it is something that you cannot shake. I think a lot of the care is focused on having you be able to function, but it is one of those things that there is no cure for. You can’t change the past. I think that is a feeling a lot of us have, I can make myself feel better now but it doesn’t change what I actually did.”

Prysner’s experiences mirror those of other combat veterans like Clay Hunt. The Marine infantryman grappled with depression and PTSD after his service. Hunt committed suicide in 2011 at the age of 28. He often sited his struggle to get appointments with the VA psychiatrists and felt he was being over-medicated.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act was signed into law by President Obama to provide more funding and resources to the VA for mental health and suicide prevention programs.

According to the VA, an estimated 22 veterans kill themselves every day.

“One of the things that is important is what the money is spent on. I think there are a lot of things that a lot of veterans feel do not work,” said Prysner. “The VA should hire more doctors rather than having private doctors fill the gap. People want to work for the VA, they could hire thousands of more doctors to perform the same things that they would be contracting out for.”

“I really want to defend VA workers and the doctors. I feel like people are genuinely caring and are there because they care about the veterans. But I’ve also had really negative experiences where there were too many hoops to jump through.”

Frustrated with the lengthy appointment times due to huge caseloads, Prysner hired a private doctor to treat his PTSD. The doctor could not prescribe medication but seriously urged him to get a prescription through the Westwood VA in Los Angeles. He told the doctor that he was going to kill himself, and according to Prysner, the following conversation followed:

“Do you have a plan?”

“Yes I do.”

“Alright, what’s your plan?”

“I’m going to shoot myself in the head.”

“Do you have a gun?”


“Is it in your room?”


“Ok, so why don’t you get rid of the gun?”


“Why don’t you just get rid of the gun?”

“No dude.”

“Why don’t you just get rid of the gun?” The doctor said for the third time as if expecting to hear a positive response.

Prysner realized that the conversation was not going anywhere so he finally told the doctor what he wanted to hear, “Yes.”

He said the doctor handed him a card for the suicide hotline before concluding the appointment.

“I was actually surprised with his response. The guy felt that just getting me to say I wouldn’t do it after just prodding me was enough. There needs to be more doctors, there needs to be reviews of those doctors, and there needs to be a full staff that is focused on meeting the needs of the people who walked through the door.”

Prysner said that through the VA, the best way to get immediate care is to go into the emergency room and say you are going to kill yourself. “Then you’ll see a doctor that day. But if you are just trying to schedule and appointment, it will take you a long time to get an appointment because there is not enough staff. The VA is understaffed.”

Last year the Phoenix VA was at the center of a national scrutiny after several veterans died waiting for treatment at the facility. The VA then deleted and falsified records to hide the discrepancies. The incident prompted a national audit of VA hospital records and found that many VA hospitals around the country had falsified wait lists to meet quotas and that over 100,000 veterans faced long wait times for care. Since the resignation of former secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, over 900 VA employees have been fired.

Prysner said he believes that aside from lack of training, overwhelmed staff contributes to the problem. He added that with the proper resources the treatment of vets could improve, however the culture as a whole must change.

“The issue of resources of course is a big one, but it isn’t something that in itself would solve things. There is also a culture problem in the military and the VA. The bill address funds for the VA, which is when you get out of the military. But there is this huge number of suicides in the active duty military that that doesn’t address.”

Suicidal ideation is everywhere in the military.

While I was stationed at a naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, a sailor jumped off the top of his warship and on to the concrete pier ending his life over what was rumored to be a failed relationship. In another incident, an acquaintance of mine never made a deployment into the Pacific. A week later someone told me in passing that he was found on his bathtub floor with his wrists slit open.

On my second ship stationed in Mayport, Fla., a sailor hung himself from the overhead. He didn’t die, but he was left in a vegetative state. His family made the tough decision to pull him from life support a couple of weeks after. A somber feeling lingered in berthing for a couple of months. It was a strange and morbid feeling to know that as you brushed your teeth or watched TV, someone tried to end their life where you called home on board a naval ship.

During my last couple of months before I separated from the military, a girl, just about my age when I first joined, sat in master chief’s office. She wasn’t on board for even a week, and already the signs to a suicide attempt were marked on her wrists. She was put on suicide watch and someone always escorted her everywhere she went.

Suicide watch was normal, almost routine. No one ever stopped and wondered why; it was just another mundane part of shipboard life.

I saw her only a couple of times in the chow line before I separated from the ship. She was Hispanic, like me. Every time I saw her I saw myself four years back looking out into the sea, contemplating my own suicide. Every time I saw her, I saw my own mother, I imagined her mother, all mothers who have been left behind to deal with the loss of a child due to suicide.

“In the military, I feel, is a whole other story than the VA side of things. Because on the VA side of things I feel you are more responsible for yourself and it is up to you to seek out certain care. When you are in the military, you are someone else’s responsibility. Your command is responsible for you and your life. And that is where a huge number of suicides are happening,” said Prysner.

“When I was deployed a guy killed himself. And everyone said that it was an accidental discharge from his riffle. It was a situation where it didn’t really make sense.”

“You can be a totally alienated, and picked on person in the military. And in the military is this hyper-macho culture — especially in the army and the marines where you are constantly just getting yelled at, humiliated and ridiculed. If you are small, or if you are gay, or act feminine you are just completely shit on. It’s just a very fucked up culture.”

Ryan Endicott at an anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C.

For those that make it out of the military with mental and physical scars, the VA becomes the new source of conflict. Marine veteran Ryan Endicott, 31, served in Iraq from 2004 to 2008 as an infantryman. He recalls Iraqi children getting run over by American soldiers as their mothers scream on, and watching children cry as their fathers were detained and their heads covered with sandbags at 2 o’ clock in the morning. Endicott admits that his experiences in the Middle East took a heavy toll on him.

“When I got out of the Marines it was like a wall of hopelessness. It was like welcome home, good luck, survive. And you have to pay all these bills, and you have to organize your life, and you are still just trying to survive and get over the war.”

Endicott was discharged from service at a time when veteran unemployment was upwards of about 30 percent for those ages 18 to 24.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to survive that transition. I thought about killing myself all the time.”

“To expect someone with severe PTSD to walk into the job market when you can’t even predict your sleep cycle, you can’t predict your mood cycle, and you can’t predict anything about how you are going to feel to just try to survive in a society that has no respect for where you’ve been felt like it was impossible.”

It took 11 months for the VA to approve his PTSD claim. Endicott felt he was short changed. PTSD is not curable, and a veteran diagnosed with the condition can receive up to $2,527 a month depending on the extent of the disability. In 2008, returning veterans with PTSD were being misdiagnosed with a less severe and curable adjustment disorder.

Veterans at that time were receiving little to no benefits. Private emails began to surface of officials urging doctors to refrain from giving a PTSD diagnosis in order to cut costs. The VA reports that about 300,000 U.S. troops who served in the Iraq War are suffering from PTSD.

The VA has instilled a stigma among young veterans that to reach its services a long and confusing bureaucratic maze has to be navigated. It is this tarnished reputation of the VA that keeps most young veterans away.

“At the end of the day what the VA really is, when it comes to post-traumatic stress healthcare, is that the VA is a dumping ground for the pharmaceutical corporations,” says Endicott.

“I go to these group therapy session that are put on by the VA and there are two mission of the VA doctors; to pump you as full of medication as they possibly can, and to tell you that what you did in the war was right. These group therapies just really turn into racist war propaganda and war stories. And then the doctors say, here are twenty thousand more pills for you to take. See you next week. See you next month. See you whenever.”

Both Prysner and Endicott are anti-war activists and members of March Forward, a coalition organizing against the Iraq and Afghanistan war, based in Los Angeles. They stress that the support they needed to move forward after military service has not come from any VA doctor, or any VA treatment. Instead, they owe their successful transitions into civilian life to the network of other veterans outside of the VA.

Prysner realizes that not all returning veterans have the same access to other veterans. He demands that the VA be more proactive in its engagement with returning veterans.

“There needs to be more outreach led by young veterans. The VA could have a program where they are employing young vets to go out meet and talk with other vets in their generation and encouraging them to get whatever treatment they need. So much of it is about having a good mentor. If you are on your own, you are on your own. If people are being sought out, and they are people who you can relate to and who are guiding you through the process; that would make a huge difference for people.”

Photo illustration by Adam Ernesto Fuentes

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.