Our service members go to war for us. They fight for our freedom, but oftentimes when they come home, the battle continues. Many in the military are fighting to get help for the mental health issues caused by what they've seen while serving. It is a nationwide problem, we are seeing right here in Hampton Roads.
In the military, a "Charlie Foxtrot" is a disaster. And a Charlie Foxtrot is exactly what thousands of our service members are facing right now, because the system setup to fight for them, to protect them and to heal them is failing them.
A military love story
Amber Staton’s eyes light up at the first mention of her love story.
“Gosh, we were young,” she sighed. “We met in our hometown of Fredericksburg.”
Amber says Adam Staton was fun, wild, and dependable. Just four months in, she had no question she wanted to marry him.
“You know that 'you know feeling' when you meet somebody? And you're like, 'This is the person that I'm supposed to be with,'” she recalled. “I mean, I just knew.”
Adam joined the Army when Amber got pregnant and the growing family moved to Fort Eustis. When he came back from his deployment in 2008, something was different.
"Something wasn't exactly right..."
“He never really talked about work,” she remembered. “Even when he came back, it wasn't something that he discussed with me.”
He drank more, was distant and just wasn't himself.
“One day he basically said he didn't want to be alive anymore, and I immediately took him to Langley to be evaluated and really thought they would actually keep him,” she lamented. “I didn't know if I was really equipped to take care of and watch somebody who may be on suicide watch, and they didn't really give me that support that I felt he needed and they started putting anti-depressants in his system.”
That led to more problems. The meds caused Adam to gain weight. He couldn't pass the physical tests, and was essentially forced out of the military. According to his DD-214, he was honorably discharged in May of 2013 with the reason for separation listed as "weight control failure."
The couple tried to get help, but Adam's depression grew worse.
The voicemail that changed everything
“I remember watching him interact with our son, and I could see that it was almost like he was gone,” Amber described.
Then one night, Adam left a chilling voicemail on her phone.
“Hey big boy, it's Daddy,” the message that would change their lives forever begins. “I'll always love you, son, don't forget that. Daddy's phone might not be working much longer.”
It was May 19th, 2014. By the time Amber heard the message, her husband was gone.
“I hear somebody who is completely lost,” Amber reacted. “They don't know where to go at this point. They don't know what to do, and they feel like they're out of options.”
Spc. Adam Staton had only been out a year when he took his own life. Amber is telling his story now, because she's realized it's not rare. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die every day from suicide, one every 72 minutes.
The lapse in care
There is a lapse in mental health services. It is a delay in care once service members get out; they can't get into the VA fast enough. VA Sec. Robert McDonald said he's working to make the transition seamless.
In an area with a large military population, many of our representatives in Congress are trying to hold the secretary to that.
“We need to make sure we have a VA that's operating properly,” Rep. Rob Wittman told 13News Now. “We have to make sure we understand where the gaps are, and there are gaps that exist there. Congress, I think, needs to address those gaps of what are we going to do to help those families.”
In the meantime, Veteran Service Organizations are forced to fill in those gaps. In Hampton Roads, agencies like The Up Center provide mental health counseling to these families. Vets say while the military trains them how to deploy to battle, they're not trained how to come home.
“We really have to disassociate the stigma and help everyone in the community understand, 'This is what happens when you are exposed to very stressful and adverse conditions,’” Chief Program Officer Andrea Long said. “Our responsibility is to be proactive about it.”
A plea from an Army widow
Back at Amber's house, she is begging other families not to fall victim to the stigma.
“There's a lot of questions that I've battled for the last two years in my head... the why's, the what if's, the should've/could've... and it's hard, because I have two kids that I have to explain years down the road why he's not around,” she added.
And one day, she's going to have to play the voicemail from a desperate father to his son.
“Promise me you'll be a good boy for Mommy,” Adam cried. “I will always love you, son. “You're the best thing that ever happened to me.”
If you or someone you love needs help
There are a lot of resources within the Hampton Roads community for those who need help with mental health issues.
How can you push for change?
Congress has been working to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs health system, but improvements are still needed. If you want to reach your elected representatives to tell them how you feel on this issue, contact information is below.
Senator Mark R. Warner (D- VA)
101 W. Main Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
Senator Tim M. Kaine (D- VA)
222 Central Park Avenue, Suite 120
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
Phone: (757) 518-1674
Representative Rob Wittman (R - 01)
401 Main Street
P.O. Box 494
Yorktown, VA 23690
Phone: (757) 874-6687
Representative Scott Taylor (R - 02)
P.O. Box 66528
Virginia Beach, VA 23466
Phone: (757) 222-6739
Representative Bobby Scott (D - 03)
2600 Washington Ave.
Newport News, VA 23607
Phone: (757) 380-1000
Representative Don McEachin (D - 04)
P.O. Box 8092
Richmond, VA 23223