PLAINS TWP. — David Ragan, of Blakely, is proud of his 10 years of military service, but he didn’t always feel that way.
The 37-year-old veteran of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard remembers the day when, stationed in Iraq, he was handed a piece of pink paper. Printed on that paper were the words “KIA 5,” meaning five soldiers had been killed in action.
“I remember thinking that 5 of my friends were gone,” he said. “I waited to hear who had been killed.”
Describing himself as an infantry member working in administration, Ragan was overwhelmed with guilt. Although relatively safe at a desk, he felt his one year of service in Iraq was the hardest year he ever spent.
Even delivering supplies, he said, put people at risk.
“A hundred tractor trailers would be delivering supplies,” Ragan said. “We would know that they would be driving through a dangerous area, that they probably would be hit.”
Ragan said, at times, when a vehicle was hit, it would simply be damaged, but at other times, soldiers or civilians would be killed. When he came home in 2006, he brought with him a tremendous amount of guilt that overwhelmed him.
With the help of the Veterans Administration, he is now doing better, feeling better and helping others.
Ragan, and others like him, are working to make sure veterans are aware of the services available to them, including health and mental services, financial services, and education and training programs among others.
“We have to get rid of the stigma,” Ragan said. “And we have to provide information about what services are available.”
After two suicide attempts in 2014, Ragan was provided with treatment at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, an experience he calls “phenomenal.”
“Not only did they deal with my (post traumatic stress disorder),” he said. “But they addressed my family issues.”
He said time spent in Coatesville also provided him an opportunity to be “back with his brothers.”
“Other veterans told me that I didn’t need to feel guilty,” he said. “I did what I was directed to do.”
Barry Willever, of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said PTSD is not a condition specific to a specific war or a specific age group.
Veterans of the Vietnam War, he said, are often reluctant to talk about the trauma they experienced because the public reacted so negatively to that war.
Now the organization is working to ensure no veteran returns from serving his or her country without a “thank you” and the services needed to get them through.
Willever emphasizes the importance of interacting with other veterans who have been through similar experiences.
“A few years ago, I was on vacation with my wife, my daughter and my son-in-law in Cape May,” he said. “I wore military clothing, and other veterans kept greeting me and hugging me, even though I had never met them before.
“My son-in-law pulled my wife to the side and asked what was going on,” he said. “My wife just told him, ‘They’re brothers.’ ”
Willever said many veterans struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.
“I was lucky to have someone tell me ‘slow down on the alcohol’,” he said. “Some vets don’t have that in their life.”
Willever said services provided by the VA marked a turning point in his life.
“I went to a counselor and she got it all out of me,” he said.
Still, many say that the VA system, although helpful, can be improved.
“The program in Coatesville was great,” Ragan said. “But it meant that I was away from my family for three months. Why couldn’t we have that program? A one-stop shop.”
Lorri Vandermark is working to improve services offered by the Veterans Administration.
Vandermark, whose husband Frank committed suicide last year, said preventing suicide among veterans requires several things: making services available, informing veterans what services are available and removing the stigma of accessing those services.
“I think the culture of military service needs to change,” she said. “We need to stop indoctrinating the idea that if you ask for any type of assistance, whether it is mental health, alcohol, that it is a sign of weakness.”
Vandermark said her husband’s death was a loss not only to the family but to the entire community. He was a member of the Greater Nanticoke School Board and a committee person for the Luzerne County Republican Party.
In addition to his 20 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Vandermark consistently tried to help others.
He was a Computer Networking and Cyber Security instructor at West Side Career and Technology Center, and Vandermark’s family was overwhelmed with support from students.
Peg Mullin, an art teacher at the center, said both the staff and students loved Vandermark.
With her husband, Lorri said there was no opportunity to intervene, to help him understand how loved he was and to assist him in resolving life issues.
Ragan said, with 22 veterans taking their own life daily, he has a commitment to providing services, which range from candlelight vigils to specific methods of intervention.
“We had to fight for our country,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to come back and fight for services.”
Ragan said services provided to him by the Veterans Administration have been life changing, not simply in regard to post traumatic stress, but in addressing medical and dental health.
“I came in for a dental cleaning and they asked me if I wanted them to fix my teeth,” he said. “I cried. It was life changing.”
Denise Carey, suicide prevention specialist at the hospital, said the staff keeps a database of those at high risk for suicide.
“Those people are followed closely for 90 days,” she said. “We follow up if they miss an appointment or exhibit any other signs of increasing distress.”
Carey encourages veterans to take time to deal with problems, making their well-being a priority.
“I tell them treatment is an investment for the rest of their life,” he said.
Women Veterans Program Manager Patricia Conroy said the center is equally vigilant in providing such services to women.
Conroy tells the story of a woman being asked who was the veteran: her husband or her son.
“She said, ‘I’m the veteran’,” said Conroy. “If a woman walks through that door, we are to assume they are the veteran.”
Bill Klaips, public affairs officer, said the VA strives to meet the continuing needs of veterans, operating a teaching hospital, providing a community living center and offering cardiac catheterization and electrophysiology suite, hemodialysis unit and “telehealth” services.
The center also offers a substance abuse treatment unit, substance abuse residential rehabilitation treatment program and post traumatic stress disorder treatment integrated into its mental health services.
Dr. Mirza Ali, interim medical center director, said often veterans health services have incorrectly been characterized as sub-par.
“We’re consistently trying to provide quality medical services,” he said.
As for Ragan, he continues to go to any length to maintain quality of life and to help other veterans attain quality of life.
He works with Equines for Freedom, a nonprofit organization whose motto is “Horses Helping Veterans Heal,” to guide veterans through the process of recovering from PTSD.
Ragan is now able to look back on his military career with a feeling of pride. Still, his life is not without challenges.
“Maybe I’ll have five good days and then one really bad day,” he said.
It is on those days he reaches into his extensive “tool box” to cope.
“I make a phone call, I remember to breath, I gather with others,” he said. “And I get through.”