For Veterans, 'Bad Paper' Is A Catch-22 For Treatment

Reed Holway served in Iraq, where he developed PTSD. His symptoms worsened back in the U.S. He got in trouble and ultimately received a bad-conduct discharge. Now Holway is stuck: He can't get medical care from the VA for the disorder that he says caused him to get kicked out of the Army in the first place.

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In many ways, military veterans hold a privileged place in American society, but not all vets have access to what goes along with that privilege. In the past decade of war, more than 100,000 men and women left the military with less-than-honorable discharges, many due to bad conduct related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Once they're kicked out of the military, they lose access to benefits like treatment for PTSD.

In our continuing coverage, NPR's Quil Lawrence takes us to a small New Hampshire town, to meet a man who's still paying mistakes he made in the Army years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Reed Holway is calling to the horses in the pasture next to his old family farmhouse, in the foothills of the White Mountains. Iraq couldn't be further away. Holway says he never talks about the war with anyone. Once he starts, you understand why. Somewhere deep into his 13-month deployment, crazy stuff started to seem normal - like the night a fellow soldier asked for a favor.

REED HOLWAY: He came to me one night. He wanted to go home; and he said, the only way they're going to send me home is if I get something broken. He said, so here's the deal. Meet me down at the fuel point. There's a sledgehammer in there. I want you to break my arm so I can go home.

LAWRENCE: Holway tried to refuse, but the guy insisted.

REED HOLWAY: He says, Holway, you're the craziest guy I know, and if you don't do this - he says - I'm probably gonna take myself out. It had to be a full break. We tried it on sandbags, and it didn't work. So then we did fire extinguishers. I broke his arm with a sledgehammer so he could go home.

LAWRENCE: War wasn't what he expected. Since he was a kid, Holway had talked about joining the Army and after 9/11, he could barely wait to finish high school and enlist. But when he got to Iraq in 2005, there was no front line. Insurgents ripped up American convoys with roadside bombs. Early in his tour, he watched a mortar drop into a building on base, right in front of him.

REED HOLWAY: I heard a deep thud that kind of turned my gut inside out. And I turned around and just as I did, I saw what looked like a football coming out of the sky and blowing that building to smithereens. And I was close enough to it that the drink in my cargo pocket had broken, and I thought I urinated in my pants. So I started the vehicle and started driving.

LAWRENCE: Mortars, rockets, IEDs - something was always exploding, for 13 months. Holway got the standard medals but he also got in trouble, including for the sledgehammer. After a fellow soldier died, Holway had trouble sleeping. The clinic on base prescribed him Prozac and Ambien. His post-deployment medical screening showed depression and violent, even suicidal thoughts.

It didn't get better back in the U.S. Holway was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., but he started drinking on duty - every day, every night.

REED HOLWAY: I needed to do something to feel on edge again, and the drinking would bring a chaos and a - unpredictability to life. And I developed a wicked problem.

LAWRENCE: And one night, he finally came undone. He was seeing a woman on base, and she asked him to watch her 9-month-old.

REED HOLWAY: She had me watch her daughter one night. And I was on a bender, and I couldn't handle the baby screaming. It did something to me inside that made me want to die. And I just couldn't channel these feelings, and the screaming just - it got to a point where I don't know why, but I struck the child. And she stopped for a moment.

And then I did it again. And she stopped for a moment, maybe two. And I think like after the second time, something went through my head that said, I really shouldn't do this. This is wrong.

LAWRENCE: The blows left marks on the baby and the next day, the police arrested him. Holway was sentenced to six months in the stockade, but he also got what vets consider a life sentence. It's called a bad conduct discharge. After he did his time, Reed Holway went home to New Hampshire, but he was not well.

BILL HOLWAY: My name is Bill Holway. I am Reed Holway's father.

LAWRENCE: Bill Holway says he raised his son on small-town New Hampshire - hard work, church and family.

BILL HOLWAY: I gave them a nice, a nice guy; you know, a good man. It's not what I got back.

LAWRENCE: Reed clearly needed help, his father says, but there was none.

BILL HOLWAY: So we get this boy back, and he's damaged. And all he wants to do is drink and die. It went on for months and months, months. We're on our own. Went out drinking, smashed his truck up. I knew that was gonna be - he was DUI and he says, I'm sorry, Dad. And I said, well, don't worry; we'll get you another truck. And he says, no; he says, I'm sorry I wasn't going fast enough to kill myself.

LAWRENCE: Recovery started for Reed Holway one night when a girl he'd known in high school called him up. He was out drinking; she asked him to stop. They started seeing each other. Kelly, now his wife, pushed him to start seeing a therapist. When they had their first child, Reed quit booze for good. His father, a building contractor, gave him a job painting, remodeling, roofing houses around Lake Winnipesaukee.

REED HOLWAY: I don't mind working for my dad. But it's like I kind of had dreams and aspirations, and it's like I can't follow through with any of them.

LAWRENCE: That's because a bad-conduct discharge is a red flag on a job application, worse than having no military record at all. He's not eligible for help with his PTSD, which doctors say he got while serving in Iraq.

REED HOLWAY: I don't know, you know, what we should do.

KELLY HOLWAY: What the military did was wrong, and I don't...

REED HOLWAY: Yeah, but what I did was wrong too, so...

KELLY HOLWAY: But you wouldn't have done it had you been properly treated and diagnosed, and this is in writing from a psychiatrist.

LAWRENCE: The Holways have tried to get his discharge upgraded. They even hired a lawyer, and arranged to pay him whatever they could. But then he told them to stop sending checks because they have no chance.

REED HOLWAY: He said, you might want to just be happy with what you have, and try and move on.

LAWRENCE: And, he says, he's got a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD GIGGLING, SQUEALING)

REED HOLWAY: You're being silly.

LAWRENCE: Reed's pushing his daughter Anna on a swingset beside the old barn. She just turned 3 and her sister, Page, is almost 2.

ANNA: It's a birthday shirt.

LAWRENCE: When his first daughter was born, Reed says, he started to feel like he was going to make it. He handles the child care while Kelly is at work.

KELLY HOLWAY: I work two jobs. I go to school full time. Granted, he takes great care of the kids and enables me to be able to go to school, but it's pretty much that we're going to have to survive off of my income.

LAWRENCE: They rent the old family farmhouse next to Reed's parents, though with a VA home loan maybe they could have tried to buy it. Everyone is healthy, though they're paying out-of-pocket for the medicine Reed takes for PTSD. Reed says he's making peace with it. For Kelly, there's something they're still missing, even if it's just a piece of paper.

KELLY HOLWAY: This has been very difficult, and I really wish that they could just give him a paper. Not even the benefits, just the paper. (Crying) I would give anything for that. And I'm sorry for crying. But if he could just have that paper that he could put in a frame, that said you did your country right, it would make his spirit so much better because for once in a long time, he'd believe in himself.

LAWRENCE: She says in spite of what happened later and the crime he committed, people should know that once her husband raised his hand, joined the Army, and served in Iraq.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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