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For many veterans, finding treatment for mental wounds proves difficult


We have reported for years about how difficult it can be for U.S. service members returning home from war to get the health care they need, especially for mental health issues, like PTSD.

This morning, Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego brings us the story of one U.S. Marine who scored a rare win.

COOPER WILLIAMS: I started working out again. I've gotten healthy. I don't have that dark cloud over me that I used to have.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: I met Cooper Williams just as the sun was coming up outside a coffeehouse an hour north of San Diego. He sounded upbeat. Last December, he'd been worried about being kicked out of the Marines after 17 years.

WILLIAMS: Am I going to lose everything? Is my family - are we going to be put out after 18 years without any insurance, any assistance based off of everything that I went through? That was taxing on myself and my family.

WALSH: He'd been spiraling. After multiple deployments, including Iraq and Afghanistan, he was self-medicating. A horrific family tragedy had made things worse when his parents were involved in a murder-suicide. Williams asked for help. He entered a Wounded Warrior battalion at Camp Pendleton, where Marines are treated for mental and physical injuries. But in the space of one month, he racked up two DUIs. He faced dismissal from the Corps.

WILLIAMS: From the time of the incident till now, it's been about a year and eight months.

WALSH: His attorneys sent letters to his command showing Williams wasn't receiving the proper medication. But he still faced being discharged. Then earlier this year, Williams was told one of the generals in charge of his case changed his mind. Lieutenant General Ed Banta now thought Williams should be allowed to retire.

WILLIAMS: It's not as simple as it looks. You know, there's a lot that was going on at that time, both medication-wise, personal-wise.

WALSH: But it wasn't over. Williams was still required to face a board of inquiry. The process hung over him for 20 months until a panel of three officers recently ruled in his favor.

WILLIAMS: So it feels very good to have the weight lifted off of your shoulder and the cloud of the unknown and the fear of the unknown because that weighing over you within itself is a very emotionally taxing thing, I guess, for you and your family - so very glad.

ESTHER LEIBFARTH: If you have someone who's suffering from mental health or TBI issues, they're likely to commit more misconduct.

WALSH: Esther Leibfarth is with the National Veterans Legal Services Program. She says the military typically doesn't reverse itself, even in cases where service-related medical conditions play a role in the misconduct. Leibfarth says the Marines and other services need a single set of rules so troops with TBI, or traumatic brain injuries, or PTSD don't go through a long process where they risk losing everything.

LEIBFARTH: Because it's a symptom of their mental health condition - they're likely to have other adverse effects if you're two years just waiting to find out what's going to happen to you and without proper treatment, without being able to move on to your life.

WALSH: In a letter obtained by KPBS, the new commander of Wounded Warrior Battalion West, Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Harvey, says Williams did not receive proper treatment initially. She revealed that mental health resources have gone down more than 50% at a time when the Marines are seeing more cases like Williams'. She added, Marines like Chief Warrant Officer Williams have served for many years, often ignoring their injuries to ensure they can deploy when asked. We owe them more. Between his treatment and the separation process, she says, the Marine Corps failed Williams.

For his part, Williams is ready to move on with his life.

WILLIAMS: It made me dig deep into - find out who I am inside and also learn more about myself and who I am and how I'm going to respond. You can either go darker, or you can come into the light. And I came into the light.

WALSH: For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGENDARY SKIES' "PETRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.