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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Items throughout Keith Holtsclaw's Topeka living room remind him of his 30-year military career.
Medals. Patches. Photographs.
At one point in time, Holtsclaw was proud of his service.
"That is me," Holtsclaw said as he pointed to a shadow box filled with his patches. "I have given so much time to a country I love. What good did I do? What good did my son do?"
Holtsclaw's 43-year-old son, Mark Allen Holtsclaw, died by suicide in early August in Kansas City, Missouri, The Topeka Capital-Journal (http://bit.ly/1U0ZCzD ) reported. Mark's body was discovered Aug. 7 in his apartment.
Mark joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17. He spent 22 years serving and did tours in Panama, Kuwait, Iraq and Egypt. He also served in Somalia and Haiti.
"We could tell when he came back from Iraq something was wrong," Keith said. "We couldn't get him to come out of it."
The soldier — who was described as a loving son, father and brother — battled post-traumatic stress disorder.
He became a statistic.
"Twenty-two veterans die by suicide every day," said Stephanie Davis, suicide prevention coordinator for VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System.
Mark's parents, Keith and Norine, of Topeka, and his wife, Charice Holtsclaw, of Kansas City, Missouri, want to see that change.
Keith and Norine Holtsclaw couldn't have children, so they decided to adopt.
A young boy and girl in Colombia, South America, were to join the Holtsclaw family — but it was a long battle.
"God had a plan for us," Keith said. "It took us a year of fighting."
Mark, born April 4, 1972, and an older girl, whom the family named Sarah, joined the Holtsclaw family on May 18, 1974.
"What a glorious day that was when we got our children," Keith said.
The children only spoke Spanish, but despite the language barrier, Keith and Norine fell into a normal routine with their two new children.
The family moved to Missouri to be closer to Mark's family, who lived in Wichita.
At the age of 17, Mark decided high school wasn't for him and decided to join the Army.
"He always wanted to go in," Keith said. "He turned 17 and signed up."
During his basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Mark received a trophy for Most Highly Motivated person. His father treasures the trophy.
Mark was 17 years old when he took part in the Panama invasion, his father said.
"That was an adventure for him, not me," Keith said.
Mark married Charice 14 years ago. They had two sons, Slate, 5, and Aspen, 2.
Mark's son from a previous marriage, Cody, died five years ago, Charice said. That was when family members began to notice a changed man.
Mark was vocal about his suicidal thoughts, Charice said. He sought help through the VA and through private mental health practices.
While the VA treated Mark, when he tried to get into a PTSD program at the Topeka VA he was turned away, family members said.
"The application (process) brought up 22 years of trauma," Charice said. "They denied him. They said he needed further stabilization — he was too unstable."
Charice said the VA overall did a "good job" treating Mark's PTSD. His VA social worker and psychiatrist in Leavenworth worked closely with Charice. However, Charice said, some private practice mental health providers would medicate Mark, but didn't work with him.
"He took medication to numb himself," Charice said.
Doctors would prescribe him medicine and then tell him to come back in three months for a med check-up, she said.
"We need a system that is more long-term," Charice said.
Mark's parents say the VA should have done a better job.
"Why did I spend 30 years in the military?" Keith asked. "Why did he spend 22 years in the military? They did this to my son. They know he needed help, but they didn't want to be bothered. Someone has to know how they are treating our soldiers. If I can keep one more dad, one more mother from going through what we are going through, it will be worth it."
Financially, the government was taking care of Mark. But he needed mental help, Keith said.
"I spent the last five years doing everything I could do," Charice said. "It was incredibly painful. He definitely wanted help, but it was bigger than him."
The VA offers suicide prevention programs, as well as PTSD programs.
"The VA is recognizing this as an epidemic," Davis said. "Our goal is to try to identify those at high risk for suicide and be able to offer some enhanced services."
Chalisa Gadt-Johnson, program chief for the stress disorder treatment unit for VA Eastern Kansas, said the Specialized Inpatient PTSD Unit in Topeka is a seven-week inpatient program for veterans and active duty service members who have experienced military-related trauma. It is completely voluntary. A person has to be referred through a private mental health care provider or a VA mental health care provider.
At the end of the seven-week program, the participant is referred back to the provider. Participants have to have a diagnosis of a stress-related disorder, be willing to work in a group-based program and be clean and sober for 30 days prior to treatment.
Participants can't be court-ordered to participate, and veterans are allowed to leave the program.
Mark's parents said they would like to see parents and spouses of veterans be able to ask for help for the veteran.
"Please do not let the people with PTSD make all their own choices," Keith said.
People can't be held against their will, Davis said.
"It can be heartbreaking to watch for a clinician and family members," she said about a family member pulling away from help.
The best thing to do is to talk to a veteran struggling with PTSD.
"Sometimes they may not be ready to reach out and get help yet," Davis said. "Just talk and listen. Encourage them to get help. Encourage them to take that first step. Don't be afraid to ask about it. Don't be afraid to talk about it."
Mark will be remembered as a giving and loving son, father and husband.
"He loved doing things for our kids," Charice said. "He had so many plans. He was my biggest cheerleader. From the moment I married him through to the end, I was 100 percent committed. In sickness and health. He couldn't help his sickness. I never gave up. Mark was extremely proud that he served his country. He never regretted it."
Mark's parents don't have regrets about adopting him.
"Not at all," Keith said. "I had those years with him when he was little. I'm so proud of him — of his military career. I'm not angry with my son. I'm angry at the people who could have helped him."
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com
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