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Veterans Share Stories as Work Starts on Mental Health Bills - Washington Post, February 22, 2008

For two years, Edward Robinson was stationed at a Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Va., helping treat wounded troops returning from battle in Iraq. The experience was so emotionally taxing that when Robinson moved home to Annapolis in 2006, his life started unraveling.

Robinson tried to kill himself four times, he said in emotional testimony before a panel of Maryland legislators yesterday. The 35-year-old told lawmakers that he was hospitalized five times, and his mental illnesses grew so bad that his wife recently left him.

"The stigma of having a mental illness . . . people look at you differently. People don't want to hire you," Robinson said. The problem, he said, is that the federal government is not providing adequate care.

Thousands of veterans like Robinson live in Maryland, and state officials say the federal government is failing to connect them to mental health-care providers, a void that became clear last year amid the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed legislation to close gaps in federal care for returning service members. The measures would establish a $3.5 million pilot program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan navigate the federal system to obtain care for mental and behavioral health problems.

At the start of this week, O'Malley and the General Assembly paid tribute to the 20 Maryland troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

"Our hearts go out to them and to our families," O'Malley said in a short speech. "Our promise goes out to them that we will stand by their comrades."

During a poignant ceremony Monday night on the floor of the House of Delegates, each fallen service member was honored. A delegate representing the service member's county read his or her name and date of death into the record. Then on the wooden dais, a bell tolled for each.

Lawmakers began work on the bills this week by hearing testimony from veterans such as Robinson, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers and Veterans Affairs Secretary James A. Adkins.

Brown, who served as an Army reservist in Iraq, said the state government should fill the gaps to help a "very fragile cohort of veterans" in Maryland.

"In a perfect world, the federal government would help ensure the welfare and care of veterans," Brown said. But "we don't live in a perfect world."

From 2006 to 2007, the suicide rate of veterans increased by 20 percent, Brown said. Since the Iraq conflict began in 2003, he said, the rate of attempted suicide by veterans increased by 600 percent.

Robinson tried to kill himself four times, he said in emotional testimony before a panel of Maryland legislators yesterday. The 35-year-old told lawmakers that he was hospitalized five times, and his mental illnesses grew so bad that his wife recently left him.

"The stigma of having a mental illness . . . people look at you differently. People don't want to hire you," Robinson said. The problem, he said, is that the federal government is not providing adequate care.

Thousands of veterans like Robinson live in Maryland, and state officials say the federal government is failing to connect them to mental health-care providers, a void that became clear last year amid the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed legislation to close gaps in federal care for returning service members. The measures would establish a $3.5 million pilot program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan navigate the federal system to obtain care for mental and behavioral health problems.

At the start of this week, O'Malley and the General Assembly paid tribute to the 20 Maryland troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

"Our hearts go out to them and to our families," O'Malley said in a short speech. "Our promise goes out to them that we will stand by their comrades."

During a poignant ceremony Monday night on the floor of the House of Delegates, each fallen service member was honored. A delegate representing the service member's county read his or her name and date of death into the record. Then on the wooden dais, a bell tolled for each.

Lawmakers began work on the bills this week by hearing testimony from veterans such as Robinson, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John M. Colmers and Veterans Affairs Secretary James A. Adkins.

Brown, who served as an Army reservist in Iraq, said the state government should fill the gaps to help a "very fragile cohort of veterans" in Maryland.

"In a perfect world, the federal government would help ensure the welfare and care of veterans," Brown said. But "we don't live in a perfect world."

From 2006 to 2007, the suicide rate of veterans increased by 20 percent, Brown said. Since the Iraq conflict began in 2003, he said, the rate of attempted suicide by veterans increased by 600 percent.

"Those statistics paint a tragic picture, but they're only a corner of the canvas," Brown said, adding that mental illness is an "invisible injury" for veterans.

In Maryland, many veterans return home to such rural towns as Leonardtown, Crisfield and Cumberland, where mental health services for them can be hours away, Adkins said.

"They're not coming home to places like Fort Meade and Aberdeen, where they have services available," Adkins said.

Colmers said the proposed program would help veterans find the services they need. "The quicker you treat someone, the more likely you will be successful," Colmers said. "That is especially true for these soldiers with" post-traumatic stress disorder.

The administration's bill received enthusiastic support from the House panel yesterday.

"For 20 years, we've Band-Aided the mental health system in this state," said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's). "Your goal is laudable, and I support it wholeheartedly."

Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) became emotional as she told her colleagues that after her husband returned from combat in the Vietnam War, he became a chain smoker and alcoholic, which, she said, led to his death six years ago at 57.

"He went to Vietnam as one person and came back as somebody different," Benson said. "He pretty much gave up on his life.

"Somehow we've got to work with the VA and other agencies that are responsible for helping us with these veterans that come back broken and torn. . . . It's unbelievable. It really is. If we don't do anything for anybody else, we've got to do something for our veterans," she said.

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