Randy Elston graduated from VA San Diego Healthcare System’s Aspire Center on Sept. 4 after six months of care at the facility, which assists Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan recover from wounds of war. For the 38-year-old Marine Veteran, the thought of completing the program fills him with something that has been absent from his life as of late – hope.
Hope in Randy’s life means the promise of seeing his two young daughters again, the chance of getting on his feet with a place to live and a future career, and having something to look forward to with each day. Not very long ago, none of these things were possible and the burden almost ended his life on several occasions.
Elston’s troubles began with difficulties in his immediate family long before he joined the military. They continued in his service, with deployments and experiences that led to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After being honorably discharged, Randy faced a strained marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.
“When my marriage imploded, I didn’t know how the court was going to look at me and say I’m able to take care of my kids,” Randy said. “I just tried to check out.”
One night when talking to his ex-wife, she ran out to take her kids to her brother and Randy tried to end his life with a bottle of pills.
She came back to find him on the floor and barely managed to save his life. Randy woke up in intensive care at his local hospital, broken in many ways and without a path forward. After recovering, Randy went through several programs to help treat his mental health. While they did help move him forward, he needed something more. He was out of money, homeless and living on the streets.
“When he came to us, he was a lost individual.”
“After completing a program in Louisiana, I got an opportunity to come to the Aspire Center,” Randy said. “It took a while but I was finally accepted and came into the program last February.”
Among the treatment modalities offered at the Aspire Center are: case management, vocational rehabilitation, psychotherapy, education classes, medication management, complementary/alternative therapies, social and recreational activities, and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment. In addition, Veterans are given the tools to thrive when they leave, such as help with vocational, financial, and mental health resources.
“When Randy came to us, he was a lost individual. He had lost so many things leading to his admission into the program, his wife, contact with his children, no home and no care,” said Dr. Lu Le, staff psychiatrist at the Aspire Center. “He was a very appropriate candidate for our program, being very heavily exposed to combat and had post-traumatic stress. I thought he would be a good fit. The initial phase of his care, I felt like, was a challenging transition. There’s definitely a transitional period where Veterans are dealing with a new way of doing things.”
“When I came here, I had given up on myself again,” Randy said. “I didn’t want help but knew I needed it. I didn’t know what I needed. After about three or four days, I fled.”
“In talking and building rapport, he didn’t seem open to it,” Dr. Le said. “He was still preoccupied with the stress at hand and got up and left the building.”
“I jumped the fence behind the building and ran into oncoming freeway traffic,” Randy said. “I was running into traffic for 30 minutes trying to get people to hit me. I would run into both lanes of traffic and everyone would swerve around me or hit their brakes.”
When he saw police helicopters in the air and police sirens approaching, he left the area. Again, he tried to end his life through several methods, all unsuccessful. In his last attempt, he was found before completing the act and eventually came back to the Aspire Center.
“That was my turning point in my recovery,” Randy said. “I knew that I was sick, but I had a fight-or-flight instinct. I was fighting for my way of dealing with things…alone. I didn’t have an honest way of dealing with problems, so I broke down and fell apart. It all happened in the worst way.”
Randy ended up in the mental health inpatient unit at the San Diego VA Medical Center to receive a higher level of care for what he was going through at that moment. It was restrictive but stripped down the layers and allowed him to focus on what was going on in his head and in his life. In the context of that environment, he could see what an opportunity the Aspire Center was in supporting his recovery. Randy realized his mistake and wrote letters to the Aspire Center staff, pleading for readmission.
“I haven’t had that kind of care my whole life.”
In the meantime, he had ASPIRE staff and Veterans visit him on a regular basis at the inpatient unit, which felt reassuring in an odd way. “I’m from Arizona, and here I am in California, and people are checking in on me. Nobody knows me. Why would someone care about me? I haven’t had that kind of care my whole life,” Randy said.
After careful consideration and monitoring of his progress to see if it was appropriate for Randy to return, the Aspire Center staff invited him back. “It was a big decision as a team because we had uncertainties based on his past,” Dr. Le said. “Through medication management to target his impulsivity, intensive psychotherapy and amazing staff support, the rest is history in terms of his growth and progress acquiring the tools to integrate back into society,” he added.
Now with support from the Aspire Center, Randy plans on attending a trade school. He has helped with housing through social work’s HUD/VASH program and is volunteering heavily in the community. He’s also continuing with meetings and further care to help him transition. “Here is an individual who was lost and now has found meaning and purpose to his life,” Dr. Le said.
Most importantly in his recovery, Randy has made progress in getting to see what gives him the most hope: his daughters. When he entered the program, Randy had doubts on whether he would ever see them again. Through a new attorney, he now has increased access by phone and visitation, a process he hopes will evolve as time goes on.
September 9 – 15 was Suicide Prevention Week. If you know a Veteran who may be having an emotional crisis, get them the help they need by calling 1-800-273-8255, press 1 for Veterans.
About the author: Christopher Menzie is a Public Affairs Specialist with the VA San Diego Healthcare System