By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Brian Callan was a combat-tested veteran (Operation Desert Storm and Somalia) who had been diagnosed with a severe, well-documented case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. He badly needed and richly deserved the VA to provide him the individualized treatment that the American Psychiatric Association and other sources say is imperative in such cases.
But Callan hardly got the help he so desperately needed.
Instead, his VA doctors prescribed Callan a bevy of mood-altering drugs (and, importantly, not the best available ones), while offering little in the way of therapeutic counseling. Many studies have concluded that the combination of proper medication and counseling can help victims of PTSD cope with their loss of self-esteem, rage, and continued alienation from society.
But mental health advocates say Callan was handled in an inadequate manner that often is the case with veterans in similar straits.
VA officials insist that veterans these days generally are more satisfied than ever with the services they are provided. However, watchdog groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) say that vets who suffer from mental disabilities such as PTSD continue to get the short end of the VA stick.
"Special services for those diagnosed with PTSD have been cut to the point of virtual extinction in some [VA facilities]," says Ohio psychologist Dr. Fred Frese, a NAMI official who is a Vietnam vet himself.
A spokesperson for the Disabled American Veterans organization reaffirmed that viewpoint in testimony last June to a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. Said Joy Ilem, "Over the past five years, there has been a continuing erosion of specialized services for veterans suffering from severely disabling conditions [such as] PTSD, mental illness and substance-abuse disorders."
Brian Callan was in the small minority of those with severe PTSD in that, by all accounts, he didn't self-medicate his mental woes with alcohol or illegal drugs. Instead, he continued to seek a healthy way out of his misery until he died.
"I have a proposal to make to you and your staff," Callan wrote. "As a 100 percent disabled veteran, the proposal is to treat me pro bono. It would be our goal to heal me, documenting this to the VA, and winning a contract to provide medical services to other disabled veterans. As you well know, the VA only treats the symptoms and not the ailment. I want to get better and heal, to become a functioning and contributing member of our society again."
Dr. O'Brien responded in writing on September 7 that he'd forwarded the proposal to the chief medical officer of the school's teaching clinic. He ended the letter, "Yours in Health."
But Brian Callan already was gone.
Brian Callan was far more than a troubled ex-jarhead who'd decided he'd had enough of this life.
He was a born leader who was highly educated, patriotic, inquisitive, flirtatious, considerate, funny, obsessively organized, idealistic and loyal. Callan also could be stubborn, rigid, hot-tempered, and intolerant of anything or anyone he perceived as mediocre.
Though his many letters to friends and officials demonstrate that he had come to deeply resent the way the Marine Corps had medically discharged him in 1997, Callan remained intensely proud of his service.
Callan often told family and friends that he considered his stint in the Marines to be the most meaningful thing he'd ever accomplished, even more in many ways than being a father to his two children, Cheryl and Michael, now in their early 20s.
The walls inside his impeccably kept home were covered with framed accounts of his many military accomplishments, combat-themed artwork and other Marine memorabilia. He had a Semper Fi front license plate and often wore something -- a tee shirt, a cap -- that spoke to his Corps affiliation. In a master bedroom closet, he'd hung a full set of his Marine Corps uniforms.
But Callan's distinguished military career long had been marred by increasing bouts of depression, starting even before he first went into combat during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Some of his despair stemmed from personal crises -- especially the breakup of two marriages and his mercurial relationships with his children.
But military doctors later determined that Callan's deteriorating mental state in the mid-1990s had been exacerbated by two difficult tours as a peacekeeper during the civil war in Somalia, first in 1993 and then in 1995.
Callan's increasing inability to cope with life after Somalia -- his incessant nightmares, inability to sleep, uncontrollable rages, recurrent feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide -- precisely fit the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition, Callan had been hurting physically since suffering a neck injury in Somalia while diving for cover from sniper fire in March 1995. That injury necessitated two major surgeries, one later that year and another last February.
The Marines issued Callan an honorable discharge in 1997, citing his continued depression. He then worked at a few civilian jobs, but lost them after he couldn't get along with his co-workers. For the last two years or so of his life, Callan was forced to survive solely on VA and social security benefits for his service-connected disabilities.