Brandon Ketchum, a combat Veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, committed suicide Friday after the VA turned down his request for mental health treatment. This is a letter he wrote about his experience and struggles to a healing program for veterans that he was trying to get into.

     “My name is Brandon Ketchum and am a 33 y/o veteran. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and joined the military when I was 21 y/o. I served in the Marine Corps from 2004-2008 as a combat engineer, serving two tours in Iraq, locating and clearing road side bombs. I survived 5 “hard hits” or explosions on the vehicles we used to mitigate explosive obstacles. Unfortunately, not all of my brothers were as lucky as I was. 

      In July 2008 I joined the army as a combat engineer while I attempted to go to college. I dropped out in 2010 to go to Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard. I again served on a counter Improvised Explosive Device team. About 9 months into my 3rd tour I was injured and sent to Germany, then onto the states where I had to have a couple surgeries, acquiring 15 screws/rods/plates in my back and left leg. In July 2013 I was medically retired as I had been found mentally and physically unfit for duty. 

     Since exiting the military I have faced many struggles with my mental health and also substance abuse. I was addicted to a high dose of narcotic pain meds, began abusing them and eventually started using heroin. In February 2015 I overdosed and nearly died but was saved by paramedics and coincidentally a police officer who I had once served in the military with. 

     I have been involved with the substance use disorder program at the VA since 2014 and will graduate the final portion of the outpatient program this Thursday, the 24th of March, 2016. Now that I have more control of myself and my life I have begun the daunting task of starting to piece my life back together after the traumas of three hard fought combat tours had taken a costly toll on nearly every aspect of my life. 

     The physical and mental symptoms of severe PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the inability to adapt back to the real world has been a tremendous obstacle for me, particularly going through nearly 25-30 different types of meds yet finding no solid gains or improvements. I am a firm believer in medical marijuana but unfortunately it is not yet legalized where I live. 

      I have watched several documentaries about ayahuasca and considered it in the past for my substance use disorder but opted instead for a residential VA facility. I have found purpose in life again as an aspiring wood worker and am trying to start a small business, but for now work out of my woodshop in my backyard. Although I find a great deal of therapeutic value in woodworking, every day I am haunted by my past; I struggle to find meaning in the wars I waged against people I felt we didn’t protect or help. 

     Asking for help has only clouded my life with such a stigma that I have carried the ‘crazy’ or ‘broken’ labels, forcing me to have to fight for custody of my little girl that I love more than the world. I’m nearing some possible successes in some aspects of my life, directly as a result of my unwillingness to be discarded and dismissed by the country I swore to give my life for. But at the end of the day, I feel that I am also at war with myself and my ‘demons.'”

     He sent that to Ian Benouis, one of the administrators of a plant medicine healing program for veterans that took place in Peru, but was unable to go because of passport issues. After his plan to try more natural healing remedies didn’t work out, Brandon sought help from the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Here’s how that went:

      Brandon took his life just hours after making that Facebook post. “He had relapsed and was abusing drugs and he just was in a bad place,” said Kristine Nichols, his girlfriend of three years. Brandon was from the Wisconsin Dells area, and was living in Daveport, Iowa at the time of his death.

     A local news station in Wisconsin reported that, “Brandon drove to the Iowa City VA Medical Center where he had seen the same psychiatrist for over a year, according to Nichols. He asked to be admitted to the psychiatric ward, due to what he called ‘serious mental issues.’  ‘It wasn’t like a new person. He (the psychiatrist) knows Brandon’s history, he knew he was flagged for suicide with the VA,’ said Nichols. ‘At least two occasions in the past three years he’s been flagged for suicide.'”

    Alex Skriver, a close friend of mine who is Kristine’s sister, knew Brandon pretty well. I met him about 2 or 3 times, such a nice guy. As he mentioned above, Brandon had a 5 year old daughter that he loved. I saw some of the woodworking he did. He really had a knack for it, very talented.


    Over the past few years I can remember reading disturbing reports about the inefficiencies of the VA, with veterans dying on waiting lists. I was angry, but never fully grasped the haunting reality of it until Brandon’s death. 

     Back in February CBS News reported that, “A suicide hotline operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs allowed crisis calls to go into voicemail, and callers did not always receive immediate assistance, according to a report by the agency’s internal watchdog.”

     A recent VA study showed that 7403 American Military Veterans committed suicide in 2014, at an average of 20 per day. Shockingly that’s more than the number of American Soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001-2016, which is 6884. 

     Many are blaming President Obama for the deficiencies in Veterans’ medical care, which is not unreasonable. The VA has gotten worse under his Administration, but the root of the problem is that the private sector always does a better job than government. Let’s not pretend the VA was good under Presidents Bush or Clinton, it wasn’t.

     About 5 years ago Congressman Paul Ryan put forth a decent proposal for Medicare reform (although he has done nothing meaningful to put it into action). Under that plan, “enrollees in the new regime would use the government’s contribution to shop from a broad array of private insurance plans offered by a Medicare exchange,” Fortune Magazine wrote back in 2011. I believe that same concept of a voucher system should be applied to health care for our veterans. Our vets deserve options. They should have private doctors and insurance companies competing for their business, instead of being put on hold or denied care by a failing federal agency that has no real incentive for improvement. 

     Sadly Brandon was right, they gave up on him. He had the courage to fight wars in the most dangerous and terrifying places on earth, voluntarily. Yet when he requested “send me to a mental health facility or give me a passport so I can help myself”, in the aftermath of the hell he suffered through battling terrorism, it was too much to ask. He took his own life when the VA decided it wasn’t worth saving. 

     Rest in peace Brandon Ketchum, you will be missed and your heroic sacrifices will not be forgotten.

*Update: Chris Kemp, a Marine who served alongside Brandon in Iraq, said he plans to open a non-profit retreat on a 45 acre plot near his home in Texas for veterans struggling with PTSD and their families. “I want to get families and veterans together in nature, like camping outside where they can get together and talk,” Kemp says. He plans to call it “Ketchum’s House” in honor of Brandon. 

     While it is crucial that we lobby Washington for change in the VA, that’s not going to happen overnight. It’s just as important that we take whatever steps possible, big or small, in our local communities to make a difference.

— American Exceptionalism 

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