Northeastern Pennsylvania vets shine a light on the mental health crisis vets face


Editor’s Note: This story contains depictions of a suicide attempt. The reader’s discretion is advised.

Aida Montanez had a week to prepare her will. She would be 27 in a month but didn’t expect to live that long: the Twin Towers had fallen and she was about to be deployed.

Someone in military uniform wrote down his banking information and the name of his power of attorney. They called it a family care plan: who would take care of her 2-year-old daughter if Montanez never came home?

She read her account numbers robotically. People depended on her.

“We didn’t have time for feelings,” Montanez said. “The feelings came later when things were calm.”

She is now 46 years old and has been elected municipal councilor for the Borough of Mount Pocono. Even today, she runs away from this calm: doing the dishes, cleaning the house, cooking for her daughter and granddaughter. Wash more dishes. Check the doors: are they all locked? Smoke a cigarette and clean up a bit more. Calm sets in anyway.

“I can only smoke a certain number of cigarettes. I can only drink a certain number of cups of coffee,” Montanez said. “And then the noise comes to my head.”

These are memories of the people she lost in the military and regrets for the little girl she left at home. The noise also afflicts veterans Eric Pimm and Dave Ragan. From strangers from Monroe, Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, their stories of life after the military paint a heartbreaking picture of the mental health crisis facing veterans today.

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In search of peace in a whiskey bottle

Pimm toured Iraq twice before returning to the United States in 2006. The transition home was abrupt, made final after an exchange of paperwork and jokes: Welcome to the United States. Sign these documents and go see a doctor. Thank you for your service.

He remembers a celebration that first night with his family. In Iraq, going home had been all he had wanted.

“It was in the days and weeks that followed that you started to realize: things are not the same,” he said. “I am not the same.”

Montanez was not the same either. Once a city girl who frequented clubs and rode in strangers’ cars, she now mentally notes restaurant outings before choosing a place to sit. Strangers too close in the aisles of Walmart make her anxious, and a dirty dish could set her off – so does Pimm. He would yell at his wife if he came home and found one in the sink. If someone interrupted him in traffic, he would follow him for miles, jump out of his car and scream.

Small details mattered in the military, Pimm said. People died if something was wrong, so soldiers were trained to be hypervigilant and responsive. In civilian life it looked like paranoia and rage. It took its toll on both of them.

When Montanez couldn’t sleep at night, she would have a drink and go to bed. When she woke up groggy, she took a caffeine pill. Pimm was drinking whiskey in his cellar.

Asking for help didn’t seem like an option, Montanez said. Mental health was taboo and she had been trained in the military to overcome injuries.

“Your fellow soldiers were like, ‘Come on, stop being a baby. You can manage, ”Montanez said. “And then you get by.”

Some don’t. His first friend to kill himself was a Texas veteran, who committed suicide in his work parking lot after his marriage ended. Next was a soldier from the State of Virginia, who Montanez said encouraged and supported her during their time in the military.

“He always said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead. We have this,” Montanez said. He committed suicide three years later.

Dave Ragan was also in pain. His military career took him to Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq, and left him with PTSD and depression when he returned home in 2006. He was 27 years old. He attempted suicide eight years later.

“I got into a fight with my ex-wife and I just said, that’s it. I have no value or no value here on this earth,” Ragan said.

Month after month, he had collected drugs that had been sent to him by the Department of Veterans Affairs – collected, but never taken. At 11 p.m. on the night of the argument, Ragan swallowed three bottles of Seroquel, a medicine for depression, and lay down on the couch to die.

He is paralyzed within 30 minutes. An ambulance arrived at 5 p.m. the next day and he spent weeks in the hospital on a ventilator. It wasn’t the first or the last time he tried to kill himself.

Moments like this precede stories of how Ragan, Pimm, and Montanez finally found the cure. For Ragan, it was another suicide attempt. For Montanez, diagnosed with autoimmune disease. It came to Pimm as an ultimatum from his wife.

“I can’t come home and find you dead,” she told him one evening. They had just learned that another of Pimm’s comrades had committed suicide. “I’m not going to stay here and watch you kill yourself.” You need help.

He went to the basement with a bottle of whiskey and Google typed, “I don’t want to die.”

Dave Ragan has served in Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait and Iraq.

Regaining hope by serving others

“If you had told me two years ago that I would be a guy who sits and meditates, I probably would have laughed at you,” Pimm said.

He now does this twice a day for 20 minutes a day. It’s a coping strategy he learned at the Boulder Crest Institute for Post-Traumatic Growth in Virginia, the link he found in that fateful Google search. He no longer pursues drivers who interrupt him in traffic and recently started a non-profit organization called Heroes Hearthstone in Lucerne County to help veterans and first responders practice healthy coping skills.

Montanez turned to the VA for help after being diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 2011. The care and financial support she found there was a relief, but she didn’t want it. spend so long.

“I didn’t know I was eligible for these things,” she said. “I had spent all these years on my own, self-medicating like any other veteran.”

She began organizing social events at Reeders United Methodist Church to connect with other veterans. She organized town halls to help them fit into the VA health care system and launched a career in politics.

Ragan fled his home in an attempt to kill himself once again, and was arrested, tased and arrested by officers who responded to the process. It was “the greatest blessing in disguise,” he said. He went to court and was forced to get help. He stopped storing his medications and started taking them regularly instead.

“One time I got to really dig in and say, ‘You know what. I want my life to change. “That’s when it really changed,” he said.

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He is now 42 years old and runs a nonprofit called Veteran’s Promise in Lackawanna County that supports and advocates for veterans and their families.

While their stories are one of redemption and recovery, that doesn’t negate the trauma Pimm, Montanez, Ragan and other veterans still face on a daily basis. The attacks of anxiety and depression are still there. The bad memories are still there too.

“I have accepted to live my truth: I am broken,” said Montanez. “I know I’m broken. But I’m managing.”

A veteran committed suicide at the end of August in front of the Wilkes-Barre VA hospital where Pimm and Montanez receive treatment. Documents confirming the veteran’s death were leaked to the Pocono Record following a Freedom of Information Act request this month.

His death, a week after the Taliban took over the Afghan government and a week before the start of Suicide Prevention Month, is one of some 20 veteran suicides that take place every day in the United States. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to kill themselves than Americans who have never served in the military, and the risk for female Veterans is even higher.

“They move from job to job because they can’t face people. They heal themselves and just function,” Montanez said. “They don’t live. We have to find a way to help our vets to live.”

It will take more than a “thank you” from passing foreigners – Montanez did not join the military for them, she said. The gratitude and care she now desires comes from the institutions meant to protect her.

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John Baloga, spokesperson for Wilkes-Barre VA, said suicide prevention was a top priority for the department and its outpatient clinics. Veterans Crisis Line information plays in place of music on hold when you wait to contact a VA employee.

“Are you going through an emotional crisis that makes it difficult to manage daily life? A drawling voice asks. “Press 7 now.”

VA’s suicide prevention program identifies high-risk patients and offers drugs and therapy to treat them, Bolago said. While their work is far from done, he added that there were signs it was reducing the number of veteran suicides reported each year – 399 fewer in 2019 than in 2018, according to a 2021 report from the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. .

Balogo encouraged veterans in need to reach out and ask for help. Those not currently enrolled in the VA can learn more about their eligibility for health services at an enrollment fair at Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. next Wednesday.

Participants are encouraged to bring their DD214 and general income information, if applicable.

Aida Montanez, left, served in the military from 1997 to 2003.

When Montanez went to enlist in the army, his daughter only knew simple phrases: “Juice, please. She is now 22 years old and carries with her the same vigilance that the military instilled in her mother.

Montanez’s granddaughter has none of these.

“This little girl is fearless,” Montanez said. “She’s a year old and she has no idea. She’s perfect.”

If you are a veteran in crisis, or if you are concerned about any of them, free, confidential support is available 24/7 at the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. Or send an SMS to 838255.

Hannah Phillips is a public safety reporter at Pocono Record, a sister publication of the Tri-County Independent. Contact her at [email protected]

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