Veteran charged with homeless murders: Hint of larger problem for US military?

A veteran charged with killing four homeless men was troubled after returning from Iraq, reports say. That has highlighted the rising mental-health problems facing the US military.

Reed Saxon/AP
Itzcoatl Ocampo's dress uniform, government military photo, dog tags, and a religious medallion that went to war with him lie on display at Ocampo's home in Yorba Linda, Calif., Sunday. Ocampo has been charged in a series of killings of homeless men in Orange County.

The scheduled arraignment later this week of an Iraq veteran charged with killing four homeless men in southern California has shone a spotlight on the mental-health troubles facing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans back home – and whether communities and government agencies are equipped to help.

The Orange County district attorney said in a press conference Tuesday that he has no evidence that Itzcoatl Ocampo is mentally ill. But numerous media reports have suggested that Mr. Ocampo, who once gave money to homeless, was changed after returning from Iraq and losing a friend in the Afghanistan war.

It is too early to judge what, if any, impact a tour in Iraq had on Ocampo, say veterans and mental-health experts. But the incident has spawned greater discussion of how effective friends, families, and the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) can be in reintegrating such returnees, as well as spotting signs of trouble.

“The fact that the accused is a prior-service Marine and a veteran of the Iraq War underscores the critical importance of pre- and post-deployment mental health screenings and the availability of sufficient and appropriate mental-health care for all returning veterans,” says Jay Agg, national communications director for the advocacy group AMVETS, in an e-mail.

“This is an opportunity for the Department of Defense, the veterans' administration, and the public to reexamine our best practices when it comes to serving the mental health-care needs of our returning heroes,” he adds.

Ocampo’s arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 21.

It is important to be very careful about speculating on mental illness and implying a correlation to violence, says Bob Carolla, national spokesman for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

“We shouldn’t presume to diagnose, even though there are indications of what might be called symptoms in his hearing voices and having lost a close friend,” says Mr. Carolla.

But the violence of the alleged murders – with one victim stabbed 50 times and another 60 – alongside another incident last week in which an Iraq veteran killed a national park ranger, has prompted new discussion of the potential role of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Last year, more than 1.2 million veterans were treated by the VA health-care system – about a third for PTSD – according to Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI. That’s an increase of about 25 percent from 2007, he says.

The increase of multiple deployments in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has multiplied problems – as have funding shortages, says Belle Landau, executive director of the Oregon Returning Veterans Project.

“I have met several veterans who have served no fewer than nine tours of duty,” she says. “This is very different than it used to be. With two wars and no draft, we are relying on the National Guard and Reserves to serve combat missions in very dangerous war theaters.”

Noting that average age of a national guardsman or reservist is 30, and that 50 percent have children, she says, “This is going to impact families and will be a big issue for a long time.” 

A September VA survey shows that 70 percent of its doctors, nurses, and social workers say they feel the system lacks the space and staff to provide adequate mental-health care, Landau says.

Families, spouses and friends are going to have to fill the vacuum, she adds.

“These vets live in our communities, go to our churches and our stores. They’re our neighbors,” she says. “If we don’t have the funds to give these vets the proper care and counseling they need, at least we can raise our collective consciousness about the problem and learn to spot the warning signs of someone in trouble.”  

One of the biggest challenges: helping veterans overcome the shame associated with asking for help.

“The military is doing what it can to rid veterans of the stigma of asking for help, but it is still deeply embedded in soldiers that it’s OK to ask for help for your buddies, but not for yourself,” says Landau. “Reaching out is really a challenge for them.”

Several studies concur on telltale signs of potential mental-health troubles: drug abuse, relationship problems, aggression, and depression. 

Landau and others say friends and relatives can at the very least direct troubled veterans to seek help at websites or anonymous call-in counseling lines.

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