Families of Veterans Pushing for Funds for Mental Health

Medical journals report a growing number of soldiers returning from Iraq suffering from a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Recently, a congressional panel heard from family members who've lost loved ones because of this.

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Stefanie Pelkey lives in Spring. She says her husband Michael is a casualty of war. But he didn't die in Iraq - he shot himself almost a year after returning home. He was suffering from PTSD. She addressed the House Veterans Affairs committee.

"He looked as if he were sleeping peacefully, except for the wet spot on his chest. His pain was finally over, and his battle with PTSD was won. No, he wasn't in Iraq. But in his mind he was there day in and day out."

Michael Pelke tried to get help at a military mental health facility. There he was told he'd have to wait a month for an appointment. Stefanie Pelke says she knew nothing about the disease or its symptoms before her husband's death. "I believe that it is crucial that spouses be informed about the symptoms of PTSD, spouses are sometimes the only ones who will encourage a soldier to seek help. Most soldiers I know will not willingly seek help for fear of repercussions from commanders or even jibes from fellow soldiers."

The Veterans Administration cut spending for mental illness by $630 million over the past 7 years. Doctors have known about PTSD since just after the Vietnam War. But, today there is greater awareness and more treatments available. The number of veterans suffering from PTSD is on the rise. Last year, over 80,000 were treated for the disorder. And The New England Journal of Medicine reports nearly one in four soldiers returning from the Iraq war deal with mental illness. Last week, congress approved $1.5 billion to address a shortfall in funding for veterans medical care. But some lawmakers in Washington worry there's still not enough money for mental healthcare.

Washington State Democratic Senator Patty Murray is a leader when it comes to pushing for additional VA medical funds. Murray says, "Congress now has to look at that budget request for next year. I am very concerned that we still don't have a realistic grip of what we need to do to take care of our soldiers who are returning.

Stefanie Pelkey echoed that concern, saying she hoped to raise awareness of the issue by telling her story. "So many soldiers suffering from this disorder and so many families suffering the aftermath of this war. I don't want my Michael to have died in vain."

Mental health funding for veterans will be an issue long after soldiers leave Iraq. As with Michael Pelke's case, PTSD can show up months even years after soldiers return home.

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