Meet my brother, Neil Landsberg. Neil was motivated and accomplished from an early age. He graduated high school at Valley Forge Military Academy in 1998 and graduated from the Citadel Military College in 2002. After the Citadel, he began his career in the Air Force and earned a position as an officer in the elite Combat Control special operations. While a Combat Controller, he deployed multiple times to Iraq, Afghanistan and the horn of Africa. During nearly each deployment, one or more members of his team died or were severely wounded. After Neil left the military, he worked for a defense contractor, where he trained special operators and CIA personnel. In his free time, he volunteered at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for Sentinel’s of Freedom, Habitat for Humanity and Team Rubicon. He loved all watersports, cycling, animals and his friends and family.
PTS and Survivor’s Guilt
After Neil separated from the military, he successfully hid the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress from his family, friends and employer. Only until the trauma became acute and Neil was in crisis, did he ask for help. He was extremely anxious and acting unusual when he said to me, “Matt, I think I need to be checked in somewhere. I’m feeling suicidal.” I was concerned, but I knew he was safe with me. I didn’t make a big deal of it, I just drove him to what I thought was a reputable area hospital.
At the hospital, the psychiatrist, without taking into account his combat tours or current line of work, misdiagnosed Neil and prescribed him medication. The attending physician showed no compassion and offered no hope for recovery. The doctor ordered him to stay at the hospital where he was observed but not treated or cared for. We tried to get him transferred to a Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospital so he could be with people who understood his background, but we were denied. After a week at the hospital, we knew he wasn’t much better, but we trusted the hospital and physician’s decision to release him. After all, he’s the expert.
Once Neil was released, we tried again to get him admitted to a VA Hospital. Despite his time in the service, the VA didn’t have his medical records – we were told it would take three weeks to process paperwork and admit him. My mom offered to drive his medical records to the closest VA hospital that day, but we were told that it wouldn’t matter, insisting that it would take three weeks to admit him.
Sadly, a few days later, we believe he lost hope that any professional would be able to help him. He took his own life May 9, 2013.
A few weeks after Neil died, we received a form letter from the VA stating that Neil didn’t qualify for help because his income was too high. Apparently not all Veterans can receive care at VA facilities because of budget limitations. In other words, the professionals most capable of helping Neil would never get the chance.
It Can Happen to Anyone
Neil was one of the most capable and strongest people I knew – both physically and mentally. His military college and years of Special Operations training hardened him into a warrior with incredible mental and emotional fortitude. He was trained “to do” and to overcome, not to ask for help. Knowing Neil’s pedigree, his personality and his character, I’m absolutely certain that if Neil can succumb to PTS and survivor’s guilt, feeling hopeless after receiving no help in a civilian hospital, then it can happen to anyone. Just like heart disease or cancer.
The pain of Neil’s sudden death is with me everyday. I always miss him and will miss sharing life experiences with him. He was a remarkable brother and friend. Unfortunately, we can’t change what happened to Neil, we can only look forward, prevent unnecessary tragedy, and turn this into something positive. We can take Neil’s story and the many, many thousands like him, and make changes within the system so no other veteran falls within the cracks of the Defense Department, VA and civilian hospital system. We should collectively provide ample support, therapy and education so Warrior’s don’t need to ask for help – it will be available and readily exist, when they least think they’ll need it. We should verify that best practices and procedures are in place to greatly reduce the number of Veterans that reach the crisis/acute need stage. We should address the threats to mental health early so no one endures this unnecessary end. Neil’s mission will continue, in a different capacity, to help some of the people he cared for most – his fellow service members. I believe it’s our moral obligation to fight for those that have fought for us. Join the coalition and work with us to protect one of our most valuable resources – our selfless Veterans…and help end this tragic epidemic of Veteran suicide.