Vietnam veteran still fighting, this time for VA’s PTSD support group

Alexander Nogales still fights the Vietnam War, not with his Marine buddies along the border with Laos but in Southern Nevada where he’s battling the Department of Veterans Affairs over its plan to cancel his support group for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an interview at his Las Vegas home Wednesday, Nogales, 63, said psychologists with the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System told his PTSD support groups at the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas and at the Las Vegas Valley’s northeast clinic that their last sessions would be Dec. 18.

“They said it’s good for us to have change now and to try to make it to the Vet to Vet programs. So in other words, they’re washing their hands of us,” Nogales said.

By Vet to Vet he was referring to a consumer-provider partnership arrangement in which veterans in recovery from VA mental health programs serve as peer counselors to help other veterans.

But Nogales, who is 100 percent disabled from PTSD and maladies from Agent Orange defoliants that were sprayed in Vietnam, said he prefers the traditional support groups that he’s been involved with since 2008. He said the one-hour sessions held every other week for 15 to 20 Vietnam veterans have helped them cope with the invisible wounds of war such as nightmares and flashbacks of their combat experiences. Many of them can’t hold jobs, he said.

“We don’t talk anything about combat. We don’t tell war stories. It’s all about helping other veterans and what we can do to help each other,” he said.

As a 19-year-old rifleman from Los Angeles with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, he pulled many ambush patrols during a yearlong tour in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was awarded a Navy Commendation Medal for risking his life to shoot and kill an enemy soldier in a cave who refused to surrender.

“When I came back, I knew I had a problem right away,” he said, describing his after-service problems with drugs and alcohol and his two-decade battle with the VA over disability compensation.

Without the support groups, “you’re going to have a lot of veterans in a lot of deep problems,” Nogales said. “The suicide rate is up anyway and I tell you some of these guys do not get out of their rooms all day long except to go to these classes. They stay cooped up in their rooms almost the whole time.”

In an email to the Review-Journal last week, Nogales wrote that the “Las Vegas VA plans to end PTSD support groups by the end of the year. This is only happening in Nevada. When we asked why they told us we were done and to seek help elsewhere.”

When the Review-Journal sent emails to Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and spokesmen for the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, the VA Reno benefits office and the VA Western region office in Los Angeles asking if this was true, a member of Titus’ staff fielded the Sept. 4 query but none of the VA spokesmen responded.

Late Wednesday, Titus’ spokeswoman Caitlin Teare said the congresswoman’s staff is still seeking answers from the local VA officials. She released a statement, however, saying, “Our office reached out to the VA on this issue and was assured that all veterans will have access to PTSD care. It is important that the VA keeps veterans fully informed of all the options for care that are available to them.”

“The Congresswoman’s top priority is ensuring that Southern Nevada’s veterans have access to the quality care they need and deserve,” the statement reads.

Similarly Nogales asked U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to look into the matter. In an email reply on Sept. 5, Reid wrote that he contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs “and have brought this action to the attention of appropriate officials. They have been asked to review your letter and provide a written response.”

Nogales said out-of-state combat veterans have told him their VA-sponsored PTSD support groups are still in place. “Their programs are going on. They’re not changing at all.”

Asked why he thinks his PTSD support group is being disbanded, Nogales said, “I think the administration doesn’t want to pay our travel pay and I think it’s all about their bonuses to tell you the truth.”

He receives about $15 for making a round trip to sessions at the VA Medical Center minus $6 deductions for each of the first three visits.

He said he would be open to joining a PTSD support group with post-9/11 veterans. “That doesn’t bother me at all. If we can help the younger generation, that’s even better.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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