Widow fought to prove husband's death wasn't in vain
It's a nine-word sentence, simply written in English, passive voice. But Colleen Whitten Price had to read it a few times before it registered. From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Nashville, Tenn., to the widow of one Charles Whitten: "Service connection for the cause of death is granted." The letter came to her Tennessee mailbox late last December, some 36 years after her young
Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen Colleen Price (left) displays a photograph of her late husband Charles Whitten, as she talks about her struggle to get his suicide recoginized as post traumatic stress disorder related. Price's daughter Lori Whitten- Harrison is in the background. Price's husband, Charles Whitten, committed suicide two years after returning from Vietnam and Price is trying to get the Veterans Administration to recognize Witten's death as a service death.|73748 (AP)
Stephanie Price Posted on March 9, 2008 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on March 9, 2008 at 8:56 a.m.
ELKHART -- It's a nine-word sentence, simply written in English, passive voice. But Colleen Whitten Price had to read it a few times before it registered.
From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Nashville, Tenn., to the widow of one Charles Whitten: "Service connection for the cause of death is granted."
The letter came to her Tennessee mailbox late last December, some 36 years after her young husband had gassed himself with carbon monoxide in the garage behind their Middlebury Street home.
"I couldn't believe it, just couldn't believe it," said Price, an Elkhart-area native. "I'd waited so long for this, and now Charles' death wasn't in vain."
It meant the U.S. government recognized this U.S. Army veteran's death -- by his own hand on U.S. soil -- was related to his military service after all.
Price breathed one word: "finally."
The VA letter included payment information. Price would get about $19,000 up front and about $1,100 a month in survivor benefits. She could have government health insurance if she wanted it.
"It wasn't the money I was after," said Price, now divorced from her second husband and relocated to Tennessee where her two grown daughters live. "It's always been about telling the truth -- that Vietnam changed Charles, that the war actually killed him."
Price had been saying so for a long time, since before Charles was found dead on the garage floor Oct. 12, 1971.
"I begged him to get help," she said, "because I knew he just wasn't the same, that something was bad wrong."
Her husband, 23 years old when he died, had come back from the war a different man, Price said. He'd been a fun-loving, responsible young man before left. When he came back, he was angry, cruel and abusive.
Charles, an Osceola-area native, served about four years in the U.S. Army. He went to Vietnam in 1966 and served there about two years there before he was wounded, returning to Elkhart in 1969. The couple had married in late 1965 and had two daughters, Lori and Stacy, in 1966 and 1967, respectively.
Charles and his wife had troubles after he was discharged from the Army and returned to Elkhart. He drank a lot. They fought often. Charles hit her.
"It was horrible, just horrible," Price said, "but I wanted so bad for things to work out."
Charles did go to Oaklawn, a local psychiatric facility, Price said, but he didn't ultimately get much help. In 1970, there wasn't even an official diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder, the ailment from which Charles has now been deemed to have suffered.
Price first approached the VA right after Charles' death, requesting the agency mark his death service-related. The VA denied the claim, noting that Charles had taken his own life worlds away from the jungles of Vietnam.
But Price couldn't let it go. For decades, she gathered evidence, going through spools of red tape to get medical records, service records and memoirs from soldiers who served alongside her husband. She garnered letters from witnesses who said Charles had changed, that he clearly had been "shell-shocked" from Vietnam and likely killed himself as a result of that shock.
In 2003, The Truth wrote several articles about Price's plight.
And in 2006, Price heard from the VA again: "No."
Ever the bulldog, Price -- who says "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" -- filed another appeal. This time she got some help from a Harvard psychiatrist who performed, for a fee, a psychological autopsy. He pored over Charles' medical and psychological records and came to a clear conclusion: This man's suicide had been related to a combat-induced psychological problem.
Dr. Harold Bursztajn declined to comment on Charles' case specifically, but his letter to the VA -- along with two dozen other pieces of evidence, including the Truth articles, Price piled on -- suggested clearly that Charles had suffered from undiagnosed PTSD.
"Combat-related PTSD ... is an all-too-often overlooked case of combat veterans' distress," the doctor wrote The Truth via e-mail. "When misdiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to needless suffering, both for the veteran and his or her family."
Price doesn't know all that Charles suffered while serving in Vietnam. She's met with soldiers who knew him and heard snippets of horrors -- things like cutting off victims' ears and carrying them on a keychain. Charles had earned a Purple Heart when three bullets tore into his body in Vietnam. He wore a body cast for several months, and one bullet near the base of his spine stayed, a grisly souvenir.
Likely it was Dr. Bursztajn's letter that made a difference to the VA this time, Price speculated. A well-respected Harvard doctor, Bursztajn is considered an authority on psychiatry and the law.
A media relations representative from the VA said she would need to check with the agency's general counsel before commenting on Charles Whitten's death. She was unable to do so before press time.
For Price, the efforts to get Charles' death service-related have taken their toll. Her second husband divorced her, she said, after he couldn't handle her obsession with the issue.
"I told him, 'Honey, I'd do the same thing for you,'" she said. But her words didn't make up for the hours, energy and money she spent fighting.
Price has some relief now -- at least someone "official" has acknowledged what she knew all along, she said.
But holes are still there:
The VA offered no money to Charles' two daughters, Lori and Stacy, who grew up without their dad and have had their own share of struggles.
Price is afraid the same thing's happening to veterans of the Iraq war today, that they're coming home with undiagnosed psychological troubles.
And then there's the 36 years Price has lived without her husband.
"We missed out, we really missed out," she said. "The Vietnam War took my husband, took my daughters' father. No amount of money or recognition can bring that back," she said.