WASHINGTON — When Army National Guard Lt. Michael McMichael returned to Franklinton, N.C., from Iraq in January 2005, it took a while for his wife to recognize the changes in him.
They came on slowly at first: A hotter temper. Migraines. Sore bones.
Then the problems grew. McMichael lost his job, exploded at home and walked out on his family. In the three years since his return from Iraq, McMichael has tumbled from being a skinny but content war veteran to a troubled husband and father who's unemployed, walking with a cane and suffering tremors and nightmares.
His wife, Jackie McMichael, has suffered, too. Even when she repeatedly tried to get help, calling doctors in tears, officials turned her away, citing confidentiality requirements about her husband's health, she said.
The isolation of military families has become a common story in Congress, where lawmakers still are trying to understand how they can help veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Laws and rules have been passed to get counseling to troops in war zones, to expand research into traumatic brain injury and to ease the bureaucratic transition from the Department of Defense to the Department of Veteran Affairs.
"I represent thousands of wives, family members, mothers," Jackie McMichael told the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs. "There are thousands who need this."
When Jackie McMichael's husband left for Iraq in 2004, she dealt alone with an infant who was fast becoming a wandering toddler. Her preschool-age son talked of how his daddy was "putting the bad guys in timeout."
Overseas, Lt. McMichael, a platoon leader, saw some of his men killed. Then in November 2004, an improvised explosive device exploded near McMichael's vehicle, causing injuries that he wouldn't realize until he was back home months later.
In three years since, Jackie McMichael said, her husband has had three nervous breakdowns and has been committed to inpatient psychiatric therapy. He never hit her, but he came close during one difficult night, she said.
Depressed and repeatedly late for work, McMichael lost his job as a power company lineman. Now he earns $10,000 a year in disability pay.
Seeking help, Jackie McMichael called the local veterans center and doctors at the VA Medical Center. They refused to talk about her husband, citing confidentiality.
Her testimony came as the committee gathers information to develop legislation to help returning veterans. Senators were moved.
"It's so overwhelming to listen to you," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "This is a reminder that we're still not where we need to be."
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, called the problems with mental health intervention "unconscionable."
"My assessment is the VA doesn't see the human face behind the patients they're treating," Burr said.
McMichael's story came alongside those of two other veterans, both of them so seriously injured that their fathers spoke on their behalf.
Robert Verbeke's son, Navy sailor Daniel Verbeke, suffered critical injuries during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. He now struggles with a brain injury so severe that he can barely utter words.
When Robert Verbeke tried to take his son home to Pennsylvania, the Coatesville VA Medical Center tried to put the Iraq war vet in a stinking ward meant for dementia patients, he said.
"I vowed my son would never be placed in a VA center again," said Robert Verbeke, himself a former member of the Navy.
Retired Air Force Col. Peter Bunce spoke of trying to get care for his son, Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce, after an IED explosion in Iraq. Bunce said he had to go to officials to demand what he needed for his son.
"And we either got reluctance or referrals," he said.
Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs officials testified that the agencies are trying to improve.
"We stand ready to correct the (problems) we heard about this morning," said Kristin Day, a chief consultant for managed care within the Department of Veteran Affairs. "By statute, the VA can provide limited services to families."