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Former Marine James McKenna wants the VA to help him with PTSD

Former Marine Lance Cpl. James McKenna, 48, of Bethpage, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that his doctors have linked to rocket attacks he experienced near the Kuwait border during the 1991 Gulf War. The effects -- including sleeplessness, depression, mood swings, alcoholism -- became so severe that in 2007 he moved out of the Wantagh home he shared with his wife, Christine, and four children. (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Former Marine Corps Lance Cpl. James “Jimmy” McKenna has struggled with anxiety that his Veterans Affairs doctors have linked to rocket attacks he endured during the Gulf War in 1991.

He said the anxiety has crippled his ability to hold a job as a correction officer in the Nassau County jail. The sound of the prisoners, banging doors and the tense atmosphere revived feelings of danger that McKenna said he had developed during the war.

“I was reluctant to accept it, but as time went on, I realized I needed help,” said McKenna, who has been enrolled in inpatient post-traumatic stress disorder programs at Veterans Health Administration facilities for much of the past year.

But McKenna, 48, of Wantagh, said he was rejected for benefits from the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration when he applied during his hospitalization at an upstate facility. He said that rejection came as financial pressures related to his inability to work pushed his family toward foreclosure, and threatened his wife and four children with homelessness.

An Aug. 18, 2016, letter from the Veterans Benefits Administration, a copy of which McKenna provided to Newsday, said he had not proved he had psychological problems linked to his military service. That came despite the conclusion of VA psychologist Erin Johns just before that letter that “The veteran meets the following criteria for PTSD,” including “repeated, disturbing and unwanted memories” of the rocket attacks.

Critics of the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, which stands apart from the agency’s Health Administration, say the VA’s handling of PTSD claims has harmed former troops struggling to put their lives back together after returning from service and often multiple deployments.

Veterans advocates say the benefits administration frequently makes errors while handling disability claims, including overlooking VA medical records that could prove a veteran’s eligibility for help. McKenna said he believed his failure to receive PTSD benefits was because his records were not properly reviewed.

These rejections can force veterans to wait years for relief, said David Russotto, a former Navy lawyer who now focuses on veterans benefits in his civilian practice near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He said although veterans who successfully appeal rejections are entitled to retroactive compensation, financial harm measured in damaged credit, repossessed cars, home evictions and broken families often cannot be undone.

“While it’s not a majority of cases, a frighteningly large number of rejections are wrong on their face,” Russotto said. “But the veteran doesn’t seem to be able to get anyone to correct them.”

Sue Hopkins, a spokeswoman with the VA’s regional office in Manhattan, said her agency has sped up its performance since its claims inventory reached a peak of 884,000 nationwide in 2012. She declined to comment on McKenna’s case.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs has made huge strides in providing more timely and highly accurate claim decisions for our veterans,” Hopkins said. “But our work is not yet finished.”

The VA’s handling of benefits claims has been the focus of sharp criticism for the past decade. The agency has struggled to respond to growing numbers of disability applications from veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Four years ago, 70 percent of disability claims were not being processed within the VA’s own four-month target, according to the VA’s website. Many of the 611,000 backlogged claims nationwide were far older than that. The VA’s own data showed it was making errors in handling one in 10 claims that often resulted in reduced compensation or outright rejection.

The VA has made some progress in its handling of claims, and by December had reduced the backlog nationwide to about 97,000, VA records show.

By all accounts, McKenna was an average 20-year-old Mepham High School graduate when he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1988.

When the Gulf War broke out two years later, McKenna was deployed to the Saudi-Kuwait border as oil well fires raged on the horizon and Iraqi Scud missiles landed around him. He returned home and got a job with the Nassau County Sheriff’s Department guarding prisoners at the county jail. He married in 1998, bought a house in Wantagh, and began a family that eventually grew to four children.

But as his responsibilities grew, so did his signs of stress, both he and his wife, Christine, said in interviews.

They said McKenna would be upset by the frequent shouting of prisoners and guards at the jail, and by the barking of his dogs when he arrived home. The sound of crying children would sometimes bring angry outbursts, particularly after the arrival of twin boys in 2002.

One night, McKenna said, he told his wife to hide because he thought there was an intruder in the hallway. In another incident she was awakened by a sharp blow. McKenna had imagined he was being attacked and had punched her during a nightmare.

The financial pressure of his growing family and his need to work more hours to support them made matters worse. A fourth child arrived in 2005. His father died the next year. His mother died in 2009.

“That’s when we started to see more alcohol and more depression,” Christine McKenna said.

In 2007, he said, he snapped during a second birthday party for their youngest child. He moved out of his home and in with his mother in Merrick.

After his parents died, he moved in with an elderly veteran a few blocks from his family’s Wantagh home.

“That’s when we found he really couldn’t pick up the pieces,” Christine McKenna said. “The alcohol got worse, the moods would swing. Life was getting more difficult for him. He couldn’t get past these things.”

In January 2009, he checked into a 20-day inpatient psychiatric program at the Northport VA Medical Center. But he stopped taking his medication almost as soon as he was discharged, and again struggled with sleeplessness, depression, alcoholism and mood swings, his wife said.

“He came home, flushed the pills, and said there is nothing wrong with me,” she said. “But that was the first time his doctors ever mentioned PTSD to me. They wanted me to understand he had PTSD symptoms.”

For the next four years, McKenna sporadically sought outpatient help from the VA, while still working at the jail, Christine McKenna said. He spoke with psychotherapists and took anger management classes.

In June 2013 he returned to an inpatient program at Northport, something he would do several times in the next few years and which forced him to take long stretches off from work. The time off from work threw the family finances into chaos. The couple said they fell behind on their $3,000-per-month mortgage payments.

McKenna said he applied for a leave of absence from the sheriff’s department and returned to an inpatient program at Northport in early 2015. Doctors there recommended that he be transferred to a specialized VA psychiatric program in upstate Bath, New York, where he remained from March until September 2015.

McKenna said he tried to return to work at the jail but was overwhelmed by the noise of the prisoners and by feelings that he was under threat. He stopped working in late 2015.

Nassau County officials declined to be interviewed about McKenna’s work record at the jail.

In January 2016, a friend who was concerned he hadn’t heard from McKenna found him in the shared house where McKenna was living. He had not bathed in weeks. His hair was matted from the blood of a day-old head injury. His friend took him to the Northport VA hospital, and McKenna has been mostly in and out of inpatient psychiatric programs ever since.

In March 2016, he applied to the VA for benefits related to disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Christine McKenna said she got a letter from the VA while he was a patient at the facility upstate. His application for PTSD disability benefits had been turned down.

On Oct. 17, a day after Newsday inquired about McKenna, a VA official wrote McKenna and said his case could be eligible for review. The letter included more forms for him to fill out.

With McKenna still under VA care in a residential PTSD ward at Northport, Christine McKenna said a letter from the VA arrived Thursday, saying the agency had decided to review his rejected PTSD claim.

“After all this time, I’m exhausted and truly broken by the system,” she said. “The veterans, especially the mentally ill, need our support.”

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