WKYT Investigates | Diagnosis & denial: Guardmembers, first responders with PTSD face difficult battle for benefits
A gap in Kentucky state law is allowing more first responders and service members with PTSD to fall through the cracks, veterans’ advocates said.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - It was always his desire to serve.
“I feel like God calls certain people to do certain things,” he said. “That was my calling.”
He signed with the Kentucky Army National Guard as a teenager. He was once even named “Soldier of the Year.”
But he never imagined that fulfilling his dream would end in a nightmare - with a discharge, post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis and multiple denials when he applied for help, exposing the numerous obstacles - on multiple fronts - that continue to block benefits for first responders and other service members in their own times of need.
His journey exemplifies a battle for benefits that can be particularly fraught for Guard members, who, in their dual mission for federal government and state government, can find themselves in a gray area between the two, with help coming from neither.
“At one point, I had it made,” he told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the stigma that still surrounds PTSD and because he fears the diagnosis could hinder future opportunities. “Now I struggle to even speak.”
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For two years now the former soldier - who will go by “Jason” for the purposes of this story - has been trying to build back a life that nearly crumbled to pieces.
Jason was one of 500 National Guard members ordered by Gov. Andy Beshear to assist the Louisville Metro Police Department in September 2020, as the city braced for more unrest following Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s announcement that no officers would be charged in the death of Breonna Taylor. (One officer was charged with wanton endangerment in connection with the raid. The handling of the case before a grand jury has come under scrutiny.)
“I’d say within a few months of being there,” Jason said of his service on the streets of Louisville, “it’s all I thought about.”
Jason says he screened positive for PTSD at a periodic health assessment (PHA) the following January - a result he says he was not aware of at the time.
But his symptoms began to worsen, and he started acting out of character, leaving him unable to continue running his own business or to keep employment elsewhere, he said. His wife filed for divorce, but did not go through with it.
Jason was initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but in a follow-up visit with Behavioral Health was then diagnosed with PTSD, he said.
By the time he received the PTSD diagnosis, he said he was relieved at least to have an answer. But when he tried to access the benefits he believed he was owed, the letters in return brought denial after denial from workers’ compensation, the V.A. and Social Security Disability.
According to denial letters reviewed by WKYT Investigates:
- SSDI determined the effects of PTSD were “not severe enough to keep [him] from working.”
- Jason was denied by the V.A. and V.A. healthcare because the National Guard was on state active duty orders instead of federal active duty orders.
- And he is not eligible for workers’ compensation because Kentucky state law requires a “psychological, psychiatric or stress-related change” to be a “direct result of a physical injury” in order for it to be covered.
Advocates see the workers’ compensation law as containing an outdated definition or inadequate understanding of the full scope and severity of the problem - a flaw in state statute that continues to allow a growing number of first responders and service members to fall through the cracks, as WKYT’s Garrett Wymer first reported last year in an in-depth look at the obstacles blocking benefits for first responders and the difficulty of proving a PTSD diagnosis.
“That’s a huge slap in the face for our community,” said Jeremy Harrell, founder and CEO of Veteran’s Club Inc. “They’re serving honorably - in our home state. And if the federal government won’t take care of them, then I think Kentucky needs to.”
Harrell’s Louisville-based non-profit offers services and programs to help those who wore the uniform. They work directly with 7,000 veterans around the region.
Harrell knows the impact PTSD can have. Accessing benefits, he said, should not be that hard.
“It needs to be addressed,” he said. “We have to take care of the people who take care of us. You can’t ask people to go into harm’s way and just disregard the needs that they have once they complete that.”
State lawmakers have it in their power to fix part of the problem, yet to this point they have largely remained silent.
House Bill 219, filed last week in the General Assembly, would make first responders, frontline staff and National Guard members on state active duty eligible for workers’ compensation if diagnosed with PTSD, even without a physical injury.
Language in the newly-filed bill, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Raymer, R-Morgantown, has been the focal point of a growing grassroots effort to lobby for change. Family members of first responders diagnosed with PTSD - including the Treadways, featured in the WKYT Investigates report on the issue from March 2022 - have contacted legislator after legislator looking for lawmakers willing to support the legislation.
[Follow the bill’s progress here.]
However, a similar bill filed last year - House Bill 356, which did not include National Guard members like Jason - went nowhere. It was never even assigned to a committee.
Advocates have vowed to push lawmakers to act, saying politicians need to ‘walk the walk.’
“We can’t just talk about it at a big round table or in front of an audience,” Harrell said. “We must put in place the proper rules and policy changes that help the people.”
As for Jason, his desire to serve remains strong.
“The hardest thing about being in the National Guard is taking that uniform off and coming back home,” he said.
As his struggle has become more known in his community, he says other soldiers have opened up to him about going through struggles themselves.
“They talk to me,” he said. “Some of them have been through absolute hell. And there’s no help for them.”
It is one reason he hopes to be a voice for change, even as he tries to figure out his own future.
“What’s next for me?” he asked. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
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