Last month, we brought you the story of former Army Staff Sgt. Jarrid Starks of Salem . He was a decorated combat veteran who lost his medical benefits when he was kicked out of the Army for misconduct. He has PTSD. Since our story aired, Starks has learned he will, in fact, qualify for health care from the Veterans Administration. But, across the country, another soldier with a similar story has died tragically.
In Afghanistan, Jarrid Starks earned a Bronze Star with Valor for his actions on the battlefield. But when Starks came home he smoked pot and repeatedly went AWOL. Behaviors he blames on severe PTSD.
Starks told me how earlier this year he was escorted from the psych ward at Madigan Army Hospital to the gate at Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“I had a 90 day supply of medication of medication that I received from Madigan in a paper lunch sack,” he said.
Because of his “other than honorable” discharge, Starks lost his automatic right to veterans health care and benefits.
Back home in Salem, he applied to the Veteran’s Administration for a review of his case. He was told he’d likely have to wait a year or more for an answer.
But things changed after we told Starks’ story in August in collaboration with the Seattle Times. In a follow up interview by cell phone, Starks told me he has received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs informing him that he will qualify for VA benefits after all.
“It’s a huge burden lifted actually thinking that I’m going to have the proper health care and be able to talk to the right people about the problems that I’m going through.”
Joseph Weeks in Iraq in 2007 at age 18. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Lewis
The VA’s letter to Starks says the reason for giving him benefits is mostly because his first three year term in the Army ended honorably. However, Starks will not qualify for disability benefits for injuries he received during his second tour.
Starks is one of more than 20,000 soldiers and Marines who were booted from the military between 2008 and 2011 with other than honorable discharges. Many of them troubled combat veterans.
Like Joseph Allan Weeks who was also based at Western Washington’s Lewis-McChord. “Joey” to his friends and family. Like Starks, Weeks returned home from battle with PTSD. And had similar troubles. In his case: a fight, the Army brig, AWOL, the psych ward, and finally an “other than honorable” discharge in lieu of court martial.
“After being given a powerful cocktail for months of medication, he was discharged with no benefits and no access to healthcare," says Elizabeth Stinson of Portland. She was Weeks’ civilian trauma treatment therapist.
"That’s a formula for disaster,” she says.
After leaving the Army, Weeks returned to the mountains of east Tennessee where he went to work as a plumber’s assistant. Last month, he apparently became suicidal.
According to a police report, he armed himself with a handgun. Police were called to reports of a domestic disturbance. An officer ended up shooting Weeks in the driveway. Dead at age 23.
Phyllis Lewis raised Weeks from a young age and considers him her son. By phone from North Carolina, she says Weeks was far from perfect. But she believes it wasn’t right to kick him out of the Army without access to ongoing mental health care.
“If Joey had been getting the help he needed and if he had been on the medications he needed to be on, he would not have reacted the way he did and I think I would still have my son.”
The VA says federal law dictates it initially deny health benefits to other than honorable veterans. But as in the case of Jarrid Starks there is an opportunity for a review.
The agency also points out that it will provide emergency treatment to these veterans. But first they must they sign a form promising to reimburse the government if ultimately they are found ineligible for VA care.
On the Web:
Army veteran Jarrid Starks, with his medications to treat PTSD and a hat that reads “Warning this vet is medicated for your protection.’ Photo by Austin Jenkins
Joseph A. Weeks obituary: