Kristof: What our loyal soldiers deserve

The New York TimesApril 14, 2014 

The only reason he is alive, says Mike Yurchison, is his girlfriend, Leigh Anna Landsberger. She sits with him through endless waits at Veterans Affairs, whispering that he’s smarter than she is even if his brain is damaged. She helps him through his seizures, and she nags him to overcome drug addiction.

Leigh Anna gave Mike, 34, something to live for after his brother, an Iraq veteran confronting similar torment, died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide. She talked him through his grief after the suicide of another Army buddy, Jake, the one who persuaded them to move to Dallas from their native Ohio.

“If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead right now,” Mike told me. “It was her that got me to start feeling human.”

Yet the shadow of war is difficult to escape, and a U.S. veteran still kills himself (or, sometimes, herself) almost once each hour. A few weeks ago, Leigh Anna returned the ring Mike had given to her and called off their engagement. She says she still loves Mike, but she is 26 and full of dreams, and he’s a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that leaves him speaking slowly and sometimes sounding punch drunk. He muddles his age, forgets his address, struggles to hold a job, and he isn’t getting much help from Veterans Affairs.

“I want a family, and I want a lot of things girls want,” Leigh Anna told me, crying softly. “There are things I’m giving up.”

Leigh Anna has stood by Mike for 3 1/2 years, but how much does a girlfriend sign on for? She isn’t sure what to think now.

“I’m taking it a day at a time,” she said.


Iraq is but a fading memory for most Americans, and Afghanistan may soon recede as well. But for countless others like Mike and Leigh Anna, the war continues and will for decades to come.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that it has made progress in reducing its backlog in processing disability compensation claims, but critics say that is because of the way it defines the backlog – and many hundreds of thousands of veterans are still awaiting decisions.

Likewise, the VA has improved suicide prevention work, but it’s not enough. Veterans are dying unnecessarily.

Mike signed up to join the Army a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as an act of patriotism.

“I wanted to go to war and do my part,” he said. I first wrote about him two years ago in a column about the apparent suicide of his younger brother, Ryan Yurchison, who had looked up to Mike and signed up for the Army after he did.

Then a bit more than a month ago, I heard from Cheryl DeBow, the mother of Ryan and Mike.

“I am fearing I may lose my other son as well,” DeBow told me. “It it’s becoming deja vu and truly scares me.”

When Mike went to war he was, like Ryan, strong and healthy. So when he returned, DeBow couldn’t believe the difference.

“When he got off the plane from Iraq, his body was shaking and so stiff when I went to hug him,” she said. “It’s as if he wasn’t there.”

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been treated by the VA, 55 percent have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. He says that military doctors prescribed anxiety medication and painkillers that left him addicted to opiates.

Although his mom and girlfriend worry about suicide risks, Mike told me the thought has barely crossed his mind. I don’t know whether to believe him. He also said: “This is probably going to sound weird, but with my brother dying, then Jake, I keep feeling death is, like, closing in on me. It’s a horrible feeling. It’s almost like this war had a curse, and if you didn’t die there, you’ll die at home.”


Mike is also haunted by a particular incident. On an officer’s order in Iraq, he shot a young girl who the officer feared was wearing a suicide vest. The girl died, blood was everywhere, there was no suicide vest – and Mike was shattered.

So the Iraq War goes on in Mike’s head.

The Department of Veterans Affairs rates him 30 percent disabled and pays him a monthly stipend. Mike is stoical and reluctant to complain, saying he knew the risks when he signed up. He has appealed for a higher fraction of disability payment because he is struggling economically.

That’s common. The unemployment rate for veterans who joined the service after 9/11 is higher than the civilian rate, and the homelessness rate for such veterans is significantly higher.

Mike periodically visits VA doctors but finds them unhelpful, and he gave up on an addiction program because of a long waiting list. An outside doctor prescribes him medicine to help wean him off opiates (and his family says he is making progress), but he has to pay for it himself.

As for his mental health, he’s not hopeful. “In a lot of ways, it’s getting worse,” he said.

So the pain lingers in Mike, in Leigh Anna, in DeBow’s fears for her son – and in so many homes across America. These are the families that sometimes wish the injuries were the obvious ones, the amputations or scars that the public recognizes and honors, rather than mental health concerns that are stigmatizing.

Mike agreed to share his story, despite embarrassment, in hopes that the attention might help other veterans.

There are no simple answers, but we as a country can do so much more for these veterans and their loved ones. If we have the wherewithal to repair armored vehicles, we can at least try to repair the people like Pvt. Mike Yurchison who served in them.

“My heart is breaking not just for a second son I could lose,” said DeBow, “but for all those we will lose as well due to government apathy.”

The New York Times

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