Constant fireworks frazzle nerves in U.S. city that never sleeps

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Complaints are skyrocketing about thundering fireworks exploding over otherwise quiet U.S. neighborhoods, fraying nerves already frazzled by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

Even in the city that never sleeps, weary New Yorkers in the first half of June lodged a one-hundredfold increase in complaints compared to the year-ago period, of explosions that begin before sundown and rattle windows into the morning. The city’s 311 hotline received 2,492 fireworks complaints from June 1-16, up from just 25 in the same period in 2019.

The pyrotechnics occur almost nightly across the five boroughs of New York, once the U.S. epicenter of coronavirus infections, which recently achieved the nation’s lowest rate of virus spread.

“We have been terrorized by the fireworks for weeks now,” said Tanya Bonner, a government policy consultant in her 40s who lives in upper Manhattan, where Columbia University’s athletics complex had been converted into a COVID-19 field hospital.

“It is very bad up here. This area also has many essential workers – and they need rest.”

Bonner, who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma and must leave her apartment windows open, said she can sleep only by turning her television volume “way up” even though “the fireworks happen so close to my window that it is impossible to drown it out.”

To get some shuteye, another upper Manhattan resident said she closes all windows and muffles the blasts by turning on a noisy air conditioner, a fan, a white noise machine and screwing in some tight-fitting earplugs.

“Fireworks are illegal in New York City,” New York Police Detective Sophia Mason responded in an email. But neighboring New Jersey legalized some fireworks in 2017.

From Jan. 1 through June 14, the New York Police Department has seized fireworks on 26 occasions, made eight arrests, issued 22 criminal court summonses, and responded to 2 fireworks-related injuries, Mason said.

In Massachusetts, which has the country’s strictest prohibitions against fireworks, police blamed a spike in complaints in Boston and other municipalities on a stretch of warmer weather after months of stay-at-home orders.

“It’s just been months now of young people being inside, being bored,” said Lieutenant Sean Murtha of the Worcester Police Department, roughly 47 miles (76 km) west of Boston.

“It’s been a stressful time for everybody, an oppressive time,” said Murtha, who noted recent reports of gunshots that turned out to be fireworks were double the five-year average, totaling 27 in May, the most recent data available.

In upstate New York, Syracuse residents said they were being pushed to the brink by the pyrotechnics and more than 530 have signed a petition demanding Mayor Ben Walsh “crack down on constant fireworks” that have been booming since May.

“These are not merely a nuisance, but extremely traumatic for service members with PTSD,” Scott Upham Jr., a Syracuse resident who started the petition, said on Change.org.

Others said the noise was particularly bothersome for people with autism and family pets and worried that the fireworks create a fire hazard.

Mayor Walsh did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Additional reporting by Aleksandra Michalska; Editing by Richard Chang)

U.S. college teaches veterans to heal each others’ mental wounds

Dr. Bob Dingman, Director of the Military and Veterans Psychology Concentration, speaks to Reuters at William James College of Psychology, the first in the nation to run a program focusing specifically on training military veterans to treat the mental health problems of their fellow soldiers and veterans, in Newton, Massachusetts, U.S., May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Scott Malone

NEWTON, Mass. (Reuters) – Former U.S. Army Specialist Tara Barney will never forget the 2013 night when a fellow soldier cried as he described holding a dying friend in his arms, a wartime memory he had not shared with anyone.

“I can’t even talk to my wife like this,” she recalled her friend saying. “Nobody would understand.”

Barney, now 34, says that moment defined her future.

She finished her four-year enlistment and enrolled in William James College, which says it is the only U.S. psychology graduate school focused on training veterans as counselors.

Founded in 2011, the school’s programs aim to address the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health conditions experienced by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other conflicts.

“If you talk to most vets, they want to talk to people who have had the same sets of experiences,” said Robert Dingman, the director of military and veterans psychology at the school, located west of Boston. “We don’t believe by any means that only vets can help vets, but we think it’s a good career pathway.”

Estimates of how many of the country’s 19 million veterans experience mental health problems vary widely. A federal government report released last year found that about 40 percent of veterans who received care through the Veterans Health Administration were diagnosed with a mental health or substance abuse condition, most commonly depression, followed by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other data suggest that figure may represent a higher rate of mental health and substance abuse than is seen among the overall population of veterans. An analysis of medical research by the RAND Corp think tank found that rates of PTSD likely range from 5 percent to 20 percent of veterans.

CULTURES COLLIDE

William James College wants to bridge the cultural divide between veterans, some of whom view seeking mental health care as akin to admitting weakness, and psychologists and counselors, many of whom know little about military culture.

The gap is wide enough that Barney’s fellow student, Adam Freed, left a graduate psychology program at Yale University when he realized he was failing to connect with patients’ issues related to their or their loved ones’ military service.

“It was just something that was completely alien to me,” said Freed, 31. “I became increasingly interested in why didn’t I get it?”

Freed decided the best way to understand was to enlist. He signed up for the New York Army National Guard and went on to serve a tour in Afghanistan before enrolling at William James. This month he returned to active duty as an Army captain and military psychologist.

The college, previously known as the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology before renaming itself after the 19th-century philosopher, regarded as one of the founding thinkers of American psychology and brother to novelist Henry James, boasts a growing population of veterans, who this year represented about 50 of its 750 students.

Barney said her friends and even her wife were skeptical when she told them she was planning a career in psychology after stints as a prison guard and working on Army missile systems.

But the experience with her fellow soldier friend had convinced her that her military service would be invaluable as a counselor, she said, adding, “Some people just don’t want to know the veteran’s experience.”

Several students in the program said they also hope to overcome the cultural gaps that can make it harder for therapists to connect with veterans.

Fewer than one in 12 adult Americans have served in the armed forces, and the students said many veterans are wary of discussing their wartime experiences with people who do not share a military background.

Freed recalled a psychologist asking him during a job interview what it felt like to be “blown up.” Freed had avoided such an incident in combat but said he did not consider the topic as appropriate for casual conversation.

“I don’t think people ask about other forms of trauma with the same laissez-faire attitude,” Freed said. “I would confidently say that they would not ask, ‘What was it like to be raped?’ These are both things that are extremely, extremely traumatic and yet they are treated in a very different way.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)

Military veterans suffering PTSD get back on course with golf

FILE PHOTO - The pin on the 6th hole casts a shadow across the green in Augusta, Georgia, U.S. April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

(Reuters) – Sylvan Olivieri, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in the Vietnam War as a U.S. Marine, is among dozens of veterans who have sought therapy on the golf course.

Olivieri, who is completely new to the game, told Reuters he learned of the Professional Golfers’ Association’s (PGA) Helping Our Patriots Everywhere (HOPE) program through his PTSD group.

“The first time was rough because I was making some minor mistakes but the instructors got me straight,” Olivieri said at the West Point Golf Course, just steps from New York’s prestigious U.S. Military Academy.

“I’m motivated. It’s all for fun, relaxation,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which is a partner in the program with the PGA, said its goal is to help veterans assimilate back into their communities through the social interaction, mental stimulation and physical exercise that golf provides.

PTSD is caused by an overactive fear memory and includes a broad range of psychological symptoms that can develop after someone goes through a traumatic event.

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry, decades after the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam, said more than one in 10 of all American veterans continues to experience at least some symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

“PGA HOPE is an opportunity to bring veterans out onto the golf course and give them something to look forward to,” said Andy Crane, the head PGA professional at West Point Golf Course.

The program started in 2014 and the six-week course is now offered at more than 80 locations across the country. It is free to military veterans and fully funded by the PGA’s charitable foundation.

Bobby Colletti also turned to golf in hopes of happiness. He served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and as a contractor in Afghanistan and started abusing drugs after returning home.

“I thought at first (drugs) helped,” he said. “But then it turned into a problem and kind of just made everything worse to the point where you almost want to commit suicide because of it.”

Colletti heard about PGA HOPE while in treatment for addiction and said it “has definitely helped me along the way in my process of recovery.”

Colletti encouraged his stepfather John Edd, a Vietnam War veteran, to try golf. Edd completed the program two years ago and the two have since become regulars on the golf course.

Like Colletti, Olivieri said the course helped him heal and he now describes himself as “a pretty happy guy.”

“It puts you in a different place,” he said of golf. It makes you concentrate. You are not thinking about anything else but that ball. That period of time is PTSD-free.”

(Editing by Melissa Fares and Bill Trott)

Most U.S. troops kicked out for misconduct had mental illness: study

FILE PHOTO - U.S. army soldiers are seen marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A majority of U.S. troops discharged from the military for misconduct during a four-year period ending in 2015 had been diagnosed with mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, a new study found.

The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office will likely add to scrutiny over whether the U.S. military is doing enough to care for troops identified with mental health issues during their service, instead of simply casting them out.

The GAO analysis showed that 62 percent of the 91,764 servicemembers discharged for misconduct during the fiscal years 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed within the previous two years with conditions including PTSD, TBI “or certain other conditions that could be associated with misconduct.”

Twenty-three percent of the servicemembers received an “other than honorable” discharge, which made them potentially ineligible for health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans’ advocates have long complained about a lack of support for former U.S. servicemembers who do not have honorable discharge papers, something new Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has announced plans to address.

The watchdog said the Navy does not require medical examination or screening of some sailors who are being kicked out of the service for misconduct. It said the Army and Marine Corps “may not have adhered to their own screening, training and counseling policies related to PTSD and TBI.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart)

Chicago police department struggles with officer suicide

Ark Maciaszek poses with a photo of his cousin, former Chicago police officer and suicide victim Scott Tracz, at his home in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. May 2, 2017. Picture taken May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Rookie Chicago police officer Scott Tracz sat in a black sports car outside his girlfriend’s suburban house late last year, put his gun to his head and fatally shot himself.

The normally upbeat Tracz, 30, had become withdrawn and sullen, struggling with the violence he witnessed as an officer but rejecting advice from friends and family to seek help, fearing it would end his career, relatives said.

“He said, ‘I will lose my job,'” his cousin, Ark Maciaszek, said. “Just like that.”

Tracz is believed to be the latest contributor to the Chicago Police Department’s suicide rate, which stands 60 percent higher than the national average according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

Critics say the problem has been exacerbated by a lack of mental health resources. Chicago officials said they are working to improve their mental health services.

The pressure on Chicago’s police officers has intensified as the city has dealt with a surge in murders and increased scrutiny around tactics following the 2015 release of video showing the shooting death of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white officer.

In 2016, the number of murders in the city jumped nearly 60 percent to over 760, more than New York and Los Angeles combined. There were more than 4,300 shooting victims in the city last year, according to police.

The McDonald video sparked outrage and thrust Chicago into the nationwide debate over police use of force. The subsequent Justice Department report in January found Chicago police routinely violated civil rights, and also cited suicide as a “significant problem” for the city’s officers.

“Chicago is a war zone,” said Alexa James, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Chicago. “They (officers) are seeing the worst day of everybody’s life every day.”

Chicago police’s suicide rate was 29.4 per 100,000 department members between 2013 and 2015, the report said, citing police union figures. The department disagreed in the report, putting the rate at 22.7 suicides per 100,000 members. Both estimates were higher than the national average of 18.1 law enforcement suicides per 100,000.

RELUCTANT TO SEEK HELP

While each case contributing to Chicago’s suicide rate is different, interviews with mental health professionals and legal experts, as well as current and former officers, reveal deep-rooted stigma for those seeking help from its Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Some officers believe that seeking counseling will result in the loss of their Firearm Owner Identification Card, a requirement to carry a firearm under state law, according to current and former officers, as well as health officials. That view is mistaken, say Justice Department officials.

Still, “If someone thinks I have talked to EAP they think I’m unstable, so I’m not going to call,” said one veteran officer, who asked not to be identified.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in February the department’s past approach to mental health was wrong. In a report issued in March, the department said it would review mental wellness support services.

“Law enforcement historically has been seen as a very macho profession,” Johnson said at a public forum about police reform. “To say you needed help was seen as a sign of weakness and we were wrong for looking at it that way, we were simply wrong.”

Tracz had long dreamed of becoming a police officer to help others. But working in the violence-stricken Chicago Lawn district, he came face to face with the city’s violent crime. The area accounted for 58 of the city’s more than 760 murders last year, as well as 228 shootings.

“He would say, ‘You can never imagine what the human race is capable of doing,’ then he would just put his head down,” said his cousin Maciaszek, 46. Tracz’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend also grew strained as he became more irritable and angry, Maciaszek said.

Even if officers like Tracz had sought help they would have found the department’s resources strained. Three clinicians serve roughly 12,500 sworn officers and also their families, providing nearly 7,500 consultations in 2015, the Department of Justice said in its report.

The program is hiring another psychologist, as well as another drug and alcohol counselor, Robert Sobo, the department director of counseling services, said in an interview. In addition, the unit has four officers who serve as substance abuse counselors and a peer support network, he said.

But this would still leave the department lagging other major police cities of similar size. For example, Los Angeles Police has 14 trained psychologists and plans to hire two more for fewer than 10,000 sworn officers.

“Suicide is killing officers, alcohol is killing officers, at a far greater rate than ambushes, but there is not the same sense of urgency around this issue,” said Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department official who led the Chicago federal probe.

(Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)

MMA Fighter’s Ministry Helps Combat Vets With PTSD

An MMA fighter says he feels called by God to help the men and women of our armed forces who suffer from PTSD.

Chad Robichaux said that when he retired from the Marines after eight tours of duty in Afghanistan, he almost lost his family because of PTSD.  He then discovered “God’s blueprint” for life after his wife in a last-ditch effort to save their marriage contacted a pastor that Chad knew to speak with him.

The pastor showed Chad that God had a plan for his life that included overcoming PTSD.  Working together, they reconnected Chad with his family and saved his marriage.

In 2011, Chad felt led to take that healing he experienced and use it to help other veterans who were in the same situation he faced coming home.  WoodsEdge Community Church joined with him to form the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program.

“Through the mentoring I found that all the programs I have been through, all the pills, all the counseling, nothing had worked liked it did when I let Christ in my life and aligned my life with the life he intended me to live,” Robichaux told The Christian Post. “When something like this happens to you, you can’t help but share it. Here we are four years later and 710 guys later who experienced the same story.”

The program has now branched out into churches across the country with reports of huge success.

“Bring Jesus into the equation and watch them get set free,” said John Mizerak of Life Church in Virginia.  He noted that not a single suicide or divorce has taken place among the men participating in the program.

“Communities of faith need to really listen to the needs of veterans and offer a helping hand to veteran families, especially ones that are transitioning from a time of military service,” Ruth Frey, director of programs at the Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia said.

“It is also important for people of faith to advocate for veterans needs with their state and national legislators. As Christians, we are called to care for our neighbors and these are some of the ways we can live that out.”