A bright-eyed Jesse McClurkin, born and raised in Chester, left South Carolina more than 40 years ago looking sharp in Army boots and camouflage, destined for the war-torn jungles of Vietnam. He returned years later only a shell of the person he once was, tattered by combat and scarred with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Now, McClurkin is one of about 60 local veterans trying to overcome decades of substance abuse, wrecked marriages, depression and anxiety in 25-minute therapy sessions at the Rock Hill Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. And they're not happy about it.
About two dozen local veterans have petitioned the federal government to increase the amount of therapy they receive for PTSD at the local VA Outpatient Clinic after a counselor resigned because clinic officials shortened therapy sessions from 45 to 25 minutes. The vets have signed a letter to VA officials in Columbia and U.S. Rep. John Spratt asking for John Garland, a licensed professional counselor who resigned last month, to be rehired and therapy sessions extended.
"We're trying to get things out that have been hidden away deep inside for years. But by the time we get started, the session is over," McClurkin said about the 25-minute therapy, noting sessions are cut off when the time is up. "Every time we see the light at the end of the tunnel, Uncle Sam closes the door on us."
Garland, a U.S. Air Force veteran, said he worked at the clinic, a place where veterans can receive federally subsidized health care, for more than four years counseling the individuals who signed the petition. But when clinic officials told him to shorten sessions to 25 minutes in order to serve more patients, he said the increased case load became too much. He asked for a break, longer therapy sessions or to only counsel groups.
But clinic officials wouldn't budge. So Garland resigned, saying he couldn't provide proper treatment in less than 45-minute sessions, which is the minimum amount of time suggested by the non profit National Mental Health Association, he said.
"In this business, you're either helping them or prolonging the agony; there is no middle ground," Garland said. "I wasn't helping them."
The VA Outpatient Clinic in Rock Hill is operated by a private health care contractor, C.R. Associates. When contacted by The Herald, clinic officials referred all questions about mental health treatment to the state's VA headquarters in Columbia.
VA spokeswoman Yvetta Gregg said the VA standard for PTSD therapy is a 30- to 60-minute session. But because the Rock Hill clinic is operated by a private company, Gregg said it is responsible for making the scheduling decisions. After reading the petition, she said the Rock Hill clinic and C.R. Associates would be reminded to follow the VA standard.
"The shorter time is not something the VA endorses," she said. "The VA will be paying closer attention to make sure they are following the policy."
Spratt also was mailed a copy of the petition but just read the document Monday. He pledged to investigate the complaints.
"I am concerned and sympathetic," Spratt said. "And (I) will open an inquiry with the VA to find out why the schedule with John Garland was changed and whether it can be reinstated."
But the Rock Hill veterans said the VA's reminder may be too late because it cost them a trusted therapist.
"We get this guy, build trust with him and then they snatch him away from us," said McClurkin, whose had three different counselors in four years. "They're always bringin' in somebody new on us."
McClurkin said PTSD has cost him two marriages and nearly a job. He worked for years as a driver for the city of Baltimore's light rail transit system. But his PTSD worsened to the point that he couldn't focus and wasn't making scheduled stops on his route. His supervisor told him to retire early or be fired, he said. That's when he came home to Chester, started receiving therapy at the Rock Hill clinic and met Garland.
Howard Deaver, 61, of Clover is a Vietnam vet who also suffers from PTSD. He said the disorder has hampered him since he returned from combat in the late 1960s.
"I stepped out of the jungle onto the street and all I heard was, 'There goes a baby-killer,'" said Deaver, who also signed the petition. "We've all either had sleep insomnia, drank, did drugs or worked 80 hours a week to cope."
Garland said he was supposed to have a "closure session" with each patient when he resigned, but clinic officials asked him to move on two days after he provided a two weeks notice, without saying good-bye.
"I said, 'You just don't jerk the rug out from them without fair warning,'" he said. "But they did it anyway."
Gregg said the clinic has other counselors so no patient will go without care. "There should be no gap in the treatment," she said.
'Deserve to be treated fairly'
For many veterans, the VA is the only health care they can afford. Others could pay for treatment from private practices, but James Barnette, a Rock Hill native and Vietnam veteran who signed the petition, said that's irrelevant.
"It's not about the money," Barnette said. "We went to war for this country. We deserve to be treated fairly. All we're asking for is good treatment."