Mental health professionals who treat veterans experience a combat simulator at Fort McCoy that is being used by the VA in Tomah to treat PTSD in vets. Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Jason Ogletree knows he’s a different person.
He isn’t the man who enlisted in the U.S. Army to become a Ranger. He isn’t the man who married a University of Iowa graduate and had a daughter with her.
Instead, he is angry, confused and jailed, several years after suffering multiple brain injuries while in the Army.
“I think I still need further treatment,” the 33-year-old said in an interview. “I need to see a neurologist.”
His mother agrees. His ex-wife thinks the Purple Heart recipient may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, a degenerative brain condition.
Ogletree’s story is familiar to those who have advocated on behalf of the thousands of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have struggled, in various ways, since returning home.
“You had this very large number of veterans coming back, thinking that they were just perfectly fine,” said Alicia Carriquiry, an Iowa State distinguished professor of statistics who has studied veterans’ mental health. “It turns out that a large proportion of those that came back with a mental health need were not aware that they had a mental health need, and therefore they were not seeking help.”
Ogletree was sentenced this month to six-and-a-half years in prison, time accumulated in a string of run-ins with Iowa law enforcement. He’s been convicted of interfering with officers, operating while intoxicated, eluding and harassment.
Micole Van Walbeek, the mother of Ogletree’s child, says people need to hear Ogletree’s story so that service members like him can get help earlier. She decided to speak publicly after seeing news coverage of Ogletree’s most recent arrest.
Ogletree, an Alabama native, followed Van Walbeek and his daughter to the Des Moines area after the couple split and he was medically discharged from the military. He said he’s enrolled in five veterans’ treatment programs to get help with his post-traumatic stress, anger and addiction issues. He thinks he has his addictions beat, but he still needs help healing his brain.
During his time overseas, bombs and missiles were dropped near him and he stepped on an IED. Ogletree received two Purple Hearts.
“I tell people all the time, ‘If he would have lost his legs in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t have expected him to come back and just run a marathon,’” Van Walbeek said. “They would have given him the tools, they would have given him the prosthetic, they would have given him the physical therapy, they would have taught him how to run again. And I feel like they never really tell him how to live his life again.”
Alaska, Alabama, Hawaii, and a pair of war zones
Van Walbeek said her attraction to the “charming” Ogletree wasn’t quite love at first sight. The Urbandale native got her first job out of college working at a museum in Alaska near Fort Wainwright. She and her friends began hanging with some of the military men stationed nearby.
Van Walbeek said she had a calming effect on the man nicknamed “Tree.” He was loyal to his friends and silly, but “always was kind of in trouble.”
As their bond tightened, she said a new drive within Ogletree was unlocked.
“He thrives on structure,” she said. “He is just a super-motivated guy.”
Ogletree was sent to Iraq in 2009. The two married in his home state during his two-week rest period that year.
After his tour ended, the newlyweds were ordered to report to Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks in 2010. There, he entered the grueling Army Ranger school. Van Walbeek said she saw him for about two months total between when they got to Hawaii and when Ogletree finished Ranger school in early 2011. He was deployed to Afghanistan in April.
Two Purple Hearts, and pain at home
Van Walbeek said he hadn’t been gone for a month when she received her first heart-stopping call.
Ogletree received one of his Purple Hearts after a missile had landed right by the open door of a vehicle he was in.
“I heard a whistling sound,” he said. “Most of the time, that’s either a mortar round or a rocket. I heard the whistle and, after that, I didn’t hear the whistle, and once you don’t hear the whistle, it’s pretty much on top of you.”
Ogletree told his wife that he felt OK, but he was confused. He said he “begged” to stay in Afghanistan with his soldiers.
Around that same time, Van Walbeek miscarried. She didn’t immediately tell her husband because she didn’t want him to feel like it was stress-induced.
“It was a really awful week,” she said.
Less than two months later, in late May, she got another late-night call.
This time, the Army Ranger was doing reconnaissance in an Afghan valley.
“I got out of the vehicle, and I just felt something was wrong,” Ogletree recalls. “It was too perfect of a day, too quiet. I saw a log about 50 meters in front of us and started walking toward that log, then I saw two guys across the river, on a plateau.
“I went to go pull out my scope to see what they were doing and that’s (when) it blew.”
Ogletree’s body was thrown.
With his ears bleeding and body impaled by shrapnel, he got to his feet.
Other soldiers thought Ogletree was dead, Van Walbeek said. “He got up and he walked toward them.”
He was taken to Germany, where he was treated for a concussion. He returned to Hawaii and Van Walbeek.
‘Maybe this is when he needs me the most’
Almost immediately, Van Walbeek noticed changes.
“While his brain is trying to heal and (the Department of Veterans Affairs is) trying to help him with his brain, they don’t monitor what’s going on at the home, which is the drinking, and then that’s when his anger started,” she said.
“I didn’t want to give up on him because our vows said through sickness and health, so I thought maybe this is when he needs me the most: He’s injured. He’s a different person.”
Ogletree felt himself fading, too. He said he had previously suffered two concussions in Iraq, but the changes started after he was injured in Afghanistan.
“I was trying my best,” he said of his relationship with Van Walbeek. “I coached 5- and 6-year-old flag football and tee ball and basketball. I was trying to not think about things that were happening over there and I kinda just pushed her away. … I knew I was different.”
Without the Army, a struggle for purpose
As the couple tried to build a life in Hawaii, Ogletree was frustrated over not being able to help his “brothers” fighting overseas.
Van Walbeek said he was angry that a brain injury — instead of a more tangible ailment — prevented him from continuing to fight for his country.
Ogletree had trouble remembering where he’d left his keys or what he was talking about.
“Then I got pregnant and he got worse — so (much) worse,” Van Walbeek said. Ogletree began drinking even more frequently and would become irate in a moment’s notice.
She said he seemed more and more lost. He’d dreamed of being a father but was suddenly upset with the idea.
In May 2012, the tension came to a head. Ogletree told Van Walbeek during an argument to leave and not return.
She replied, “‘If I go to Iowa, this is not something that you’re just having a mood swing. I’m not coming back,'” Van Walbeek said. “And he was like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ So I left.”
The couple’s only child was born July 8, 2012.
In Iowa, few solutions and new problems
Ogletree eventually followed Van Walbeek to the Des Moines area so he could be closer to his daughter. Brenda Daake, his 65-year-old mother, moved to Iowa, too, to be near her grandchild and to help her son.
Van Walbeek doesn’t want a relationship with her ex-husband, but wants people to know that the man who threatened her, another woman and police officers struggles with an intractable problem.
“He still doesn’t have purpose,” she said. “He does not know what he’s doing with his life.”
Van Walbeek said her daughter rarely sees her father.
“He just cries and doesn’t want her to go,” Van Walbeek said. “‘I can’t do that to Ava, she doesn’t know. She shouldn’t see her dad cry; she doesn’t really know anything’s really wrong with him, except that he’s sick. She doesn’t know why he’s crying.'”
How people like Ogletree can slip away
Van Walbeek believes her ex-husband has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease associated with the development of dementia. The disease gained attention after numerous football players were found to have had the condition, which causes personality changes, problems with thinking and memory, and behavioral changes, including aggression and depression.
One complication with CTE, though, is that it can be diagnosed only post-mortem.
Van Walbeek said she’s watched Ogletree’s condition deteriorate over the course of years. “They keep trying to address his alcoholism, his anger, but how can you fix someone that has an alcohol problem if they’re disabled by their brain?” she said.
Ogletree said he has completed treatment programs for anger and post-traumatic stress in three states. A spokeswoman for the Veterans Affairs medical system in central Iowa said she could not speak to a specific person’s case but said all veterans who seek help are evaluated and given a treatment plan.
Carriquiry, the ISU professor, led a study of Veterans Affairs mental health care published in 2017 that included a representative survey of 4,000 veterans. She said about half of those surveyed need some sort of care, ranging from counseling for post-traumatic stress to substance abuse treatment.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said it treated over 95,000 veterans, including inpatient and outpatient care, diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in fiscal year 2018. Another 700,000 vets were treated for post-traumatic stress in that period.
Prison or jail time is a fate all too common for veterans, Carriquiry said.
“By the time you get arrested, it’s too bad, because nobody is going to say, ‘Oh, you know this guy, the problem is he has PTSD.’ It’s too late for that,” she said.
Carriquiry said the VA still provides the best mental health services veterans can get.
Van Walbeek said she mostly agreed. But it hasn’t been enough for her daughter’s father.
Expert says improvements are possible
Carriquiry said the government needs to smooth the transition for people from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“In between these two agencies, this is where people fall through the cracks,” she said. But the task is easier said than done.
Most veterans are provided with a wealth of information and services. But many don’t want to talk about their problems and trauma; they “just want to go home.”
“It’s hard to know what one can do to reach the veterans early on,” Carriquiry said. “They start running into issues and having problems and wanting to get help with the VA and finding that it’s not so easy to navigate the system.
“But you don’t want to blame (veterans) — the last thing they want to do is sit through two days of instructions and have to do paperwork.”
Headed to prison, still seeking help
Ogletree said from jail that he will seek more help once he’s set free.
Daake, his mother, and Van Walbeek said he needs treatment in a place specially designed for those with brain injuries.
That could help him build the bond he’s always wanted with his 6-year-old child, they said.
“I think that’s what makes me the most upset is I know that he’s not the only soldier out there that’s suffered,” Van Walbeek said, “and I know that my daughter is not the only kid that doesn’t have a parent that can take care of them the way that they’re supposed to.”
VA offers numerous medical, legal resources
The Department of Veteran Affairs has avenues to help veterans with legal troubles. Specialists with the VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach program work closely with local law enforcement agencies in many communities, providing information on locally available resources for veterans whom law enforcement officers encounter in crisis, the department says.
The VA encourages law enforcement agencies to contact the VA medical center serving their area to learn more about VA resources available locally and regionally. The VA also encourages veterans to seek treatment for mental health and substance use issues as early as possible.
Any central Iowa veterans struggling with physical or mental health issues should reach out to the Veterans Affairs Central Iowa Health Care System. The central Iowa system has a polytrauma support clinic team that can help evaluate veterans and create treatment plans. These teams also exist in Omaha, Nebraska and Iowa City.
The nearest Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, which has more staff and resources than the clinics for those with traumatic brain injuries, is located in Minnesota. Four others are located in San Antonio, Texas; Richmond, Virginia; Tampa, Florida; and Palo Alto, California.
Who to call for help
If you’re having a medical emergency, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1.
The main VA phone number is 877-222-8387.
Central Iowa veterans with compliments or complaints about services can reach patient representatives at 515-699-5421. The Des Moines clinic can be reached at 800-294-8387.
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