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Oct-06-2011 00:44printcommentsVideo

System Pushes Marine with PTSD to the Edge - Can We Save One this Time?

Another Marine kicked to the curb by the government he served, are we going to put up with this? Part one of a series on Nick Burgin, who enlisted at 17, pulled mortuary duty Marine in Iraq, and now has watched the VA and police take everything.

Marine Lance Corporal Nicholas Burgin in Iraq
Marine Lance Corporal Nicholas Burgin in Iraq

(SALEM, Ore.) - Iraq Marine Veteran Nicholas Burgin is one of many Americans today who returned from the war, but perhaps not entirely, because the experiences were so overwhelming, jarring and dangerous... that he left part of himself behind.

It's the Vietnam experience all over again, only magnified for Marines like Nick who are trained to kill, yet not allowed to step a fraction of an inch out of line. This particular military environment places demands on an individual are taxing and serious.

With that in mind, try to imagine being a 17-year old in Iraq, and learning that your entire combat tour will involve the recovery of dead Marines from the battlefield.

Most readers probably know that Marines do not leave their dead behind - only under extraordinary circumstances. But when they had to; because the explosions and ensuing firefights were so intensely deadly that Marines violate one of the supreme rules... that is when Nick's unit got a call, and they would go retrieve the fallen Marine or other service-members.

We have reported many tragic stories about Veterans losing it and 'going postal' because the terrible experiences of war were not something they could ever shake.

For many life never normalizes, and that is understandable because there is nothing 'normal' about going to a far off place where killing and being killed are the main considerations in a person's existence.

Nothing but a Setup

The notion that the VA and police ultimately push Veterans to a point that these terrible tragedies happen is not being missed in this story, nor is a particular type of prejudice that police in this country often reserve for Marines. I've written about it several times.

The government fails to adequately address the battle scars of war that travel back to this country permanently lodged in the minds of those who fight and survive the harrowing effects of combat. People die, they go to prison, lives are devastated, and it is a result of war and a distinct inability to 'deprogram' as well as we program our armed forces.

The pharmaceutical industry has its claws sharply in the back of the Veterans Administration, and the national preference to keep Veterans strung out on addictive drugs is wrong in every possible way.

From an unrelated Salem-News.com article, Marines Who
Cared for Dead in Iraq Launch Death Scene Cleaning Firm

When I first wrote about Nicholas Burgin, the angle of the story was how medical marijuana was an effective relief for the problems he experienced from his wartime service. He was 17-years old when he went into the Marines and off to one of the worst possible jobs Iraq can offer, and the government has been bashing his head into the wall and it must stop. There is much to this story and every one like it, but the bottom line is that Nick is still in the clear, still with us, still rational, however non-rational his circumstances but they are all the fault of the government, and that is no exaggeration[1].

Everything in this Veteran's life would be just fine if the government acknowledged once and for all that he suffers from PTSD (We should all be insulted that this shameful discrepancy exists), they should raise his disability to 100%, and restore his college payments.

This happened in a country where both WWII and Vietnam Veterans were able to attain degrees and live highly productive lives. In fact Salem-News.com is packed with writers who used that very advantage in their respective generations; Dr. Phil Leveque, Ralph Stone, Jeff Gates, Dr. Alan Sabrosky, the list goes on. All served their nation and then were able to attain excellent educations.

We published Nick's story, Marine Combat Vet Discusses Iraq, PTSD and Medical Marijuana 11 June 2007. A little more than two years later, a Marine friend of Nick's wrote a comment on the story addressing the Marines, mortuary service and PTSD.

21 September 2009
From: K. Jenks, M. A.


Hey "Ice Man". I don't know if you remember me but I was deployed to Iraq with you in the Mortuary Affairs unit. I know exactly what your going through because I also came back with PTSD after serving with that unit. I believed you when I heard that you needed to go back to the states because of the events that took place. I think everyone came back with PTSD after that tour was up. I was having suicidal thoughts and was one drink away from becoming an alcoholic. I stopped taking the anti-depressants that the doctors prescribed because it wasn't working for me and it seemed like every time I went in to talk to them, they kept telling me the same thing over and over, "take this medication and I"ll see you in a couple of months to see how your doing." Finally I said fuck that anti-depressant bull shit and fuck those doctors and then I stopped going because it seems like they weren't doing anything for me. So I tried avoiding everyone and everything that reminded of Mortuary Affairs and very slowly over time, I got better. I can't watch a movie or even look at a photo of a burnt person anymore because I'll start crying like little bitch. I fist found that out in movie theatre. It just happened and I couldn't control it at all. I still think about what happened up there and everyone else in the unit and wonder what they're doing...

It goes far beyond the misdiagnoses of PTSD which apparently was recorded on his discharge papers, which has repeatedly come up; it also includes the VA's failure to pay tuition for a several month period that led to Nick being let go from Columbia Basin College in Washington, where he moved to share a home with a Marine buddy he served with in Iraq.

The players in this story:

  • Nicholas Burgin - Marine Corps Combat Veteran previously profiled in a report here, originally from Kansas, who lost a service-connected partial disability payment of $376 (Smaller than car payments many people make) from the VA*. The VA took this payment from Nick after they stopped issuing his college tuition payments that were guaranteed under the GI Bill. This leaves Nick not only unable to work because of the serious nature of his wartime trauma, but with zero income. Nick is falling through the cracks; he hasn't hit the spinning blades yet though, and we all have a chance to collectively help a kind young man who served his country find his way through the maze of corrupt and overzealous government bureaucracy and red tape.
  • The United States Marine Corps - Though they were willing to enlist Nicholas at the age of 17 and send him to war, finding absolutely no mental issues or anything of the sort, the Corps discharged him not for PTSD, but for a 'personality disorder' which is a common fate for Vets, and leads to their being blocked from benefits they would receive with a PTSD designation.
  • Occupied Iraq - Where Nick served his combat tour on a mortuary detail, which was not the job he was trained for, but a last-minute assignment which seems extraordinarily heavy for a person his age, even a Marine.
  • Columbia Basin College in Washington - Where Nick was successfully taking classes until the VA had a lull in issuing payments. The school allowed him to keep attending for two months, but with no VA payment, Nick was dis-enrolled and returned home to Kansas.
  • Veterans Administration - Poor management, terrible handling of Nick's case; the agency has now stripped his $376 monthly VA disability payment because they believe Nick, who was on the GI Bill, owes the VA for 'back payments' to the college!
  • Colorado Springs VA office - This agency repeatedly asked Nick for information which he would provide, but each time see no change. During a conversation with a councilor, he asked if a person has to 'get a gun and shoot somebody' to get the attention they need, based quite obviously on the number of tragic PTSD stories that end this way.
  • Colorado Springs Police - They have charged with Nick Burgin for an off handed hypothetical comment made to a VA councilor that was misconstrued and used as an excuse to turn an unaddressed Veterans issue into a legal problem. First, I tried to call the chief of this agency to have a personal discussion, since this is a story of strong national interest and really, but there was no chance, this official absolutely does not talk to the media. I was told I had to speak to a lower figure in their police echelon but I wanted to speak to the chief. They can't say they weren't consulted.
  • Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn - The office of this Congressional Representative was one of the first points of contact once the general facts about this story were presented to me. I am still engaged in a number of ongoing conversations and information is still developing, but happy to say that a representative of Lamborn assured me that he cares greatly about the plight of Veterans. Interestingly, my contact at his office was keenly familiar with the VA's failure in the past to issue payments to colleges and universities. Apparently many Vets like Nick were also affected.

Fallacy of VA Care

PTSD is still being explored, after eight U.S. wars in a little more than a century...

In a recent article published by Chron.com, the problems that affected Nick and so many others; with a government VA payment system that failed, were addressed in a comment by Allison Hickey, the VA undersecretary for benefits. She defended the serious problems associated with the creation of the new GI bill by comparing the process of implementing it, to flying a plane while building it. "Remember when we started this, we did not have a process at all," Hickey said. "It was a cold start."[2]

The system is now running smoothly according to Hickey, but that sure doesn't help Nick Burgin. I suspect the only reason he is here now is because he has a family that loves him, though even the best family can only do so much. Still, their support is absolutely essential.

He served his country in the hardest way and unless they were in Iraq themselves, the Colorado Springs cops who insist on charging him for what he said at the VA, know nothing about what he has been through.

His combat tour didn't buy him the padding or flexibility in this nation of free speech to make a simple comment to a VA councilor without a major repercussion. Nick told me at one point that he wasn't going to court, that he wasn't going to comply with this ridiculous misuse of law enforcement.

This recent quote from Nick shows the way this man who should be rewarded fro his service, sees his current situation:

"The VA doesn't give a rat's ass. I'm at the end of my rope and I can't hang on anymore. The VA is supposed to be there to help, and because of them I have debts, a court date, and I'm homeless with no money. They are keeping my disability and no matter who I call I can't get anything done. Before my time comes I will make sure people know about how messed up the system is so that hopefully vets stop getting jerked around. I don't mind being the sacrificial Lamb, its my purpose I guess."

Since writing that, Nick has shared with me that he knows where this can lead, and sadly there are multiple instances of Combat Veterans being shot to death in PTSD-related incidents. I think he will go to court, but none if it is right.

I talked to a Veterans Administration councilor in Colorado Springs about this case and immediately knew exactly why Nick was in hot water; there is massive incompetence and an endless series of excuses at the ready in the VA. They are inadequately staffed or funded to perform their jobs, and they are encouraged to toss people from the system when they have the chance, and they tossed Nick out of the VA program in Colorado Springs.

In the next part of this series, I will explain more about Nick's grisly work as a Marine in a mortuary unit at the worst time in the Iraq war, when many were dying. The assertion of the Marines that he does not suffer PTSD, is offensive.

Word from an Expert

Those sitting on their butts thinking Nick is wrong, need to reexamine their vast lack of understanding, there is no reason to expect that people would or should know about the horrors of war if they haven't seen or experienced them with their own eyes and ears and noses.

Doctor Phillip Leveque of Oregon

However they have to stand back and listen to those who have been there, and it is foolish to do otherwise.

Our staff expert on PTSD may be the most experienced of all, because Dr. Phil Leveque, who spent his life as a Professor of Pharmacology, Forensic Toxicologist and Osteopathic Physician, actually began his life as a soldier in General George Patton's First U.S. Army. He fought the Nazi's and came home where he continued his education, and spent his life helping his fellow Veterans. His GI bill payments didn't get cut by the government in mid-stride, nothing caused him to have to leave college early. What a country this has become.

In relation to the history of PTSD, Dr. Leveque said, "The first written record of PTSD was from a physician in an Egyptian Pharaohs Army in 2500 BC who described it as “hysterical reaction to battle”. That sounds about right and PTSD continues long afterwards. Some WWII Vets still have PTSD some 65 years later. I am one of them."

In the article, PTSD, PTSD, PTSD (continued): The VA Crime Against American Veterans, Dr. Leveque wrote that, " ...not only the VA but civilian doctors are also mistreating PTSD patients by denying them medication which really works while the standard potpourri not only doesn’t work but the adverse side effects are worse than the symptoms of PTSD."[3].

From the Salem-News.com report: Combat Troops in Iraq Talk About PTSD by Tim King

The denial of adequate treatment and intervention for PTSD has led to so many types of crimes that they could not be described here. Family members have been Murdered, as have innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time; retail clerks, joggers, and there are the shootouts between Americans in Iraq and Kuwait that were never disclosed by our 'faithful' news media or government for that matter.

It is a simple fact that people who are sent to live amid the horrors of war come back as changed individuals. Some are for the better though unfortunately, many can not be described that way.

Suicide is the looming issue that continues to affect Combat Veterans. Even family members of Vets sometimes commit this act. In one article, Dr. Leveque discusses a "suicide by police" incident that involved a Veteran home on leave in Vancouver. 22-year old Nikkolas Lookabill had just returned from a tour in Iraq which he described as "Hell and horrible"[4].

This is what we have a chance to avoid with Nick Burgin and I am calling on people reading this to actively involve themselves if they can. As always my email address is below. Back to that Chron.com article from 15 Sept. 2011:

">

VA's initial fumbling of the new GI Bill had threatened to ruin the agency's reputation among America's newest generation of veterans.

"The first year was an unmitigated disaster," said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate with the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The VA had to basically give advances to people. Then the next year was better, but it was still very problematic."

Recent changes to the program made claims easier to process, Tarantino said. The changes simplified tuition and fee payments for veterans attending public schools, and established nationwide maximum payments for those enrolled in private or foreign schools.

The article explains that the VA's backlog peaked in fall 2009, with 65,000 pending GI Bill claims with an average processing time of 60 days. Today, there are about 23,000 pending claims with an average processing time of 10 days.

Again, not much help for Nick Burgin. He needs to have his $376 restored, he needs to be enrolled in another college, and every bit of blame placed on Nick by the VA fails to stand the fact test, it is rather infuriating. I suspect that Congressman Lamborn will be able to intervene, between now and then, I will continue this series that seems to underscore the hardships faced by today's American Combat Veterans.

[1] Marine Combat Vet Discusses Iraq, PTSD and Medical Marijuana

[2] VA says it erased GI Bill backlog - Lindsay Wise Houston Chronicle

[3] PTSD, PTSD, PTSD (continued): The VA Crime Against American Veterans

[4] War Hero Assassinations and War Hero Suicides

* This story initially stated that Nick Burgin received $336 a month through the VA, when in fact that figure is $376. We acknowledge and apologize for this error.

_________________________________________________________

Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer

Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.

Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. As News Editor, Tim among other things, is responsible for publishing the original content of 91 Salem-News.com writers. He reminds viewers that emails are easily missed and urges those trying to reach him, to please send a second email if the first goes unanswered. You can write to Tim at this address: newsroom@salem-news.com




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Northwest End November 11, 2011 10:53 am (Pacific time)

I have no idea were some you people are coming from reading your comments. The VA is working with about 30% veterans inside its organization and the rest of them never put on a uniform in their life! I have the strong feeling that a lot of them draftdodgers in the Vietnam era. I have been fighting with the Veterans Administration's sense 1994, with all my paperwork and disabilities. I have still not received anything. Every time I go to veterans hospital. Some of the counselors feel like I'm taking money out of their pockets. And I hate to tell you people is going to get worse because the government is going to say you're a volunteer in the military and we owe you nothing! As far as the Korean and Vietnam veterans coast there waiting for him to die before they do anything else. And if you think the VA counselors are there to help you. They are not, they work for the VA not for you. They write down what they want. They hide records when you might get something, they send letters to other places not your home and then they say to you, you never got to your appointment so we dropped everything. This is the truth and it does happen. Everyone that puts in a claim, that's the whole reason for the Veterans Administration's benefits service is defined away for veterans. Not to get their benefits!


Lawrence King October 18, 2011 8:55 pm (Pacific time)

Let me say this, I just recently got my benefits. It took almost 4 yrs to get them. I suffer from PTSD and even though the VA is trying to help me with it it is an ongoing battle. They seem to want to push pills down my throat and send me on my way. I haven't enjoyed a 4th of July or New Years since I got out. Thankfully I have a great woman that stands beside me. She also holds me when the night terrors hit. I want to thank you Tim for doing this, I wish more people would fight for us like you are.

Tim King: Thank you Lawrence, it just so happens that I am in part two of this story, we will see Nick have a better day, and I am glad to know you are getting through and yes, family support is everything.  I have more writers today covering this subject than ever before, it is a good sign!  Many thanks.


GI BILL -- I Miss Used It October 7, 2011 7:53 am (Pacific time)

Well he really needs to go and find a VA help official in his state, and at the state level they are much better than at the federal level, and find out why, or if they stopped his payments if all college money was re-paid. The state VA is a quick way to get the federal VA to act, as they send a letter demanding either a doctors evaluation or an exlanation from the Federal Level within 30 to 90 days. I have used the state VA, and have much more success with them, than me writing or calling the VA on my own. If that doesn't work, my neighbor went to Social Security and had their doctors look at him for PTSD and they approved it and he got SSI income, until the VA approved his PTSD claim. They are changing the PTSD rules everyday, so I would start at the state level, and if that doesn't work, go to Social Security and claim it (PTSD) and whatever other conditions you may have as a disablity and see how they rule. I think he will be very surprised by what the state VA can do to make big brother listen and act.


GI BILL -- I Miss Used It October 6, 2011 5:51 pm (Pacific time)

He will have to re-pay the college loan under the G.I. Bill or any Federal Student loans IF the student does NOT complete courses, has a GPA, of under 2.0, or dropped out of school after the re-fund deadline. Seems this story, while sad, is pretty one-sided. Did you even ask him if he completed school, dropped out, or was getting grades lower than a 2.0. It's all in black and white and he had to sign an agreement with the school, that outlines what will happen if you do not complete or drop-out from school. You can't take then money then decide not to go, or drop-out, without re-payment. Hell, they charge me EVERY month from my VA disablity checks for medications that are not covered under my medical condtion, yet the doctors say I have it. Also I know the G.I. rules as I abused them, took the money then did not go to school, withdrew thinking I would not have to re-pay the money, and sure enough they took it from my VA check. He did not loose his VA disability check, once you are given a rating they can't just stop the checks UNLESS you are in Jail or Prison. He needs to read the rules, or get in touch with a VA counsilor in his home state to work this out. But if the VA doesn't get the money back, the IRS will. Either way thank you for your service to our country.

Tim King: Good questions, and it isn't as one-sided as it may seem, and I will explain why.  First I am going to show you an email sequence:

_________________________________________________________________________________

Hi Frank!

Thank you so much for writing.  I will try to break this down.

Nicholas Burgin is a former student, he is an Iraq Marine Corps vet who was on the GI bill.  He explains that the VA stopped making payments for a period of time, and that the college let him continue for two months on the assumption that the VA would pay and bring the matter up to date.  The VA apparently didn't do this in time, and Columbia Basin had no choice but to let him go.  Nick returned to Kansas, and then the VA ultimately halted his monthly payment of $336 for educational back payments.

I want to be clear that the college is the only entity in a string of events that impacted Burgin that was totally fair, there is no grievance of any kind, just my desire to be sure that the story stands up.  I have known Burgin via email for a few years, he is a genuinely nice young man.  I just need to know that the events I described above are correct.  I can absolutely produce dates if necessary or anything that may help, thank you so much Frank.

Tim

 

You are correct.  In addition, upon hearing of his plight, our president, Rich Cummins, went to our Foundation and requested they pay Nick’s outstanding debt to the College and the Foundation agreed.  Nick no longer owes any money to CBC.  If you need anything else, please let me know.   We hope Nick’s life turns the corner soon.

 

Frank Murray

 ________________________________________________________________________________________

I also have had conversations with the college, and the Veterans Administration in Colorado Springs and also the police department.  I ultimately had to leave a message and as far as I know they have not returned the call.  I also am engaged in conversations with the office of Rep. Lamborn and there are other things taking place.  I posted the conversation above to demonstrate that everything about the story is factually accurate.  And having said all of that, I am not trying to convince anyone that I am not hoping for a good outcome, I was a Marine too as you know, and I've been to both combat theaters as a photographer.  A final thought, that college president name Rich Cummins is to be commended as his actions demonstrate that somebody is willing to actually do something for this Veteran.  Every time I think of Nick only receiving $336 a month I experience a wave of frustration and I think as Americans we all should.  Thank you for your military service also and for your comment.


Vic October 6, 2011 8:37 am (Pacific time)

I have to question the wisdom and morality of an outfit that would put a 17 year old in such a tough job. I knew a Vietnam vet who had the same job...he could not even attend a BBQ because he said the smell reminded him of exhuming bodies in the jungle. He too, suffered nightmares and was deeply affected by what he experienced. I cannot imagine......


Luke Easter October 6, 2011 8:28 am (Pacific time)

But that's the problem. Other Vets who have had the problem when there shouldn't be any problem(s)in the first place. No problem signing up to enlist. Where, by the way, you are informed of the excellent health care benefits during and after service time. Right? Only Vets should be employed by the VA and preferably combat vets while doctors and medics should have first priority over jobs in their field. What does it take to get hired at Apple of Microsoft? Cronies are not allowed but in the VA... Most of the employed are related, friends of, married to, favor for... The VA in reality is BS.


Anonymous October 6, 2011 8:21 am (Pacific time)

This country had better get their shit together,or they are going to have a lot of well trained,angry soldiers to deal with,as someone once said "change comes from the barrel of a gun".


Anonymous October 6, 2011 7:11 am (Pacific time)

It's actually the Airborne, then the Rangers who began the theme of not leaving one of our brothers behind, then other elite units began saying something similar. The UDT (SEALS) started immitating us during Vietnam, then Marine Force Recon, now other less elite units. Hell even those who never served in combat started saying it with regularity, I guess to feel some kind of kinship with combatants. There are countless people like Nick going back to the "Doughboys" of WWI, and most likely before. Congress only "acts" like they give a damn just before election time. My suggestion is Nick, and all the other agrieved veterans get involved with established veteran organizations and seek their help. For it's the membership people in these organizations who have actual "real time" experience dealing with the VA, and have developed strategies and resources. They should stay away with those who claim helping success but have no evidence. It's so horrible about the suicide rates, for we Vietnam veterans also had rates that peaked for several years, then slowly went down, and even went below the rates of our same age cohorts who never served in the military. Once again, I suggest getting involved with other veterans who have had similar experiences. They are the best possible source for getting help and direction.

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