Mental health services facing uphill battle
In the span of three months, Allen Morton buried his soldier son and then his son’s widow.
Loved ones, he said, killed at the hands of an enemy: Sgt. Benjamin “Rat” Morton by an insurgent in Iraq, and Elaina Morton by suicide.
In some ways, Ben’s death is easier to accept, he said. Benjamin Morton, called “Rat” by family and friends because he saved everything, was a 24-year-old soldier in a war zone, killed by an enemy during a nighttime apartment raid in Mosul.
His 23-year-old wife, Elaina, was a radiological technician with a good job, who loved her cat Stinky, and lived seemingly serenely in America’s heartland.
Then one morning in May, the girl from Overland Park, Kan., woke to a life as a young widow.
In her grieving, perhaps Elaina Morton left hints that now, knowing the outcome, might have been clues, said her father-in-law, an instrument technician for a fertilizer manufacturing company in Dodge City, Kan.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Allen Morton, 46, said Friday in a phone interview from his workplace. “There were a few things that maybe we should have taken notice of, but there wasn’t anything she said or did around me that would clearly indicate that she planned to commit suicide.”
A possible clue that comes to his mind is that she might have spent too much time dwelling on the death of her husband, who was killed May 22. “[Ben] seemed to consume most of her thoughts most of the time.”
And a message she posted on a Web site honoring another soldier might have foreshadowed her actions.
“Adam ~ I haven’t met you yet, but I know I’ll see you in Heaven someday,” she wrote July 16 on a site honoring Sgt. Adam “Plum” Plumondore, who hailed also hailed from Ben’s 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment. “Your family has been a blessing to me since Rat joined you. Their love for you is never ending.
“Plum’s Family ~ Thank you, and thank your brave son for our freedom. Our Heros (sic) will never be forgotten. Love & Prayers, Elaina Morton.”
Elaina Morton shot herself Aug. 25.
As far as Allen Morton knows, Elaina Morton did not seek mental health services — and neither has anyone in his family, which consists of his wife, two daughters and two sons.
“I guess it’s because this is a small community, we’re a close family, and we rely on each other,” he said. “And with four other children, it’s hard to just sit around and think about stuff for very long.”
Grief counseling and mental health services for families abound — provided the grieving seek them out.
Mental health services are offered through the various military departments, the military health care system, the chaplain’s corps, the Department of Veterans Affairs and numerous independent organizations, said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general’s office.
At the death of a servicemember, U.S. military casualty assistance officers are assigned to families to help them navigate the turbulent maze of funeral services, death benefits, insurance, Social Security and other programs available to survivors.
“Aside from the casualty assistance officers … we in the behavioral health field don’t seek out someone,” Ritchie said. “For some, there is a stigma [to mental health aid]. There is a need to respect someone’s privacy.”
That said, Ritchie explained, a need exists for an organized method to seek out those who might be unwilling to get needed help.
“We need to improve our ability to do outreach for families,” Ritchie said. “We need to ask ourselves: Are we taking care of families long term, not just in the military, but as a nation as a whole?”
In addition to the casualty assistance officers, Ritchie said families can get mental health care through the military-sponsored Tricare health care system, by going to base chaplains, through VA benefits, and from a number of independent organizations, such as Military OneSource, a private company contracted by the government that offers a range of services, and Gold Star Wives of America Inc., which posts an extensive listing of numerous resources on its site at: www.goldstarwives.org/resources.htm.
“We can only do so much in terms of reaching out to them,” Ritchie said. “But help is available. We’re concerned about families, and encourage them to take advantage of the services that are available.”
Where to get help and information
A list of some of the mental health services available to families of military members who die:
Tricare: The handbook spells out what is covered for psychotherapy, either in the hospital or on an outpatient basis.
Military OneSource; 800-342-9647.
Army Medical Department, or AMEDD.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS; 24 crisis hot line at 800-959-TAPS (800-959-8277)
— Stars and Stripes