But the Marine veteran couldn't escape the war inside his head.
Drugs and alcohol temporarily numbed his pain. Yet the guilt he carried around with him having been one of a handful of soldiers in his unit to survive combat was impossible to run away from.
Schulze was suicidal.
Schulze told the VA staff that he "felt suicidal," his mother, Marianne Schulze, recalled.
The hospital didn't admit him. Instead, he was told to call back the following day. He did. He was given a number: 26. The VA staff told him he'd have to wait at least two weeks to be admitted. Apparently, there were other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were also suffering from PTSD. It's unknown whether they met the same fate.
This week, Schulze's story is being retold in a federal courthouse in San Francisco as evidence of the widespread, systemic failures by the Veterans Administration to treat tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who suffer PTSD.
Attorneys for two veterans advocacy organizations are hoping to convince a judge that a lawsuit filed against the Department for Veterans Affairs last year and several government officials associated with the VA should receive class-action status. In their lawsuit, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, which represent about 12,000 veterans combined, claim Iraq and Afghanistan war vets are dying while waiting for the VA to treat PTSD and work through a backlog of at least half-a-million disability claims. The groups want a federal court judge to issue a preliminary injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show signs of PTSD and are at risk of suicide.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is said to be the most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat. According to the lawsuit, “more than any previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to produce a high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD,” due to the widespread use of improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity of fighting combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National Guard members and Reservists.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs' attorneys allege that numerous VA practices stemming from a 1998 law violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans suffering from PTSD by denying veterans mandated medical care.
"Because of those failures, hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered grievous injuries fighting in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned," states the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California. "Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families, and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system and other social services in our communities."
VA attorneys had argued in court papers filed last month that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not "entitled" to the five-years of free healthcare upon their return from combat as mandated by Congress in the "Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act." Rather, the VA argued, medical treatment for the war veterans was discretionary based on the level of funding available in the VA's budget.
On Tuesday, the second day of testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, Dr. Gerald Cross, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, made a startling admission during cross-examination by the plaintiffs' attorneys that would appear to contradict the agency's position.
Cross admitted that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were not only entitled to free healthcare, "there is no co-pay," he said.
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