The war was just beginning for Donald Peterson when he returned home from Iraq in 2005.
A traumatic brain injury, herniated discs and post-traumatic stress he suffered in battlegrounds overseas were his new enemies.
Opioids became his crutch.
As Peterson slipped into addiction and other medical problems arose, his wife and two daughters became fearful of the Army Reserve major. They moved out of their Amherst home for their own safety.
Then the 52-year-old combat veteran died alone last March in the Klein Road house he had remodeled for them.
His death certificate listed heart disease complicated by diabetes as the cause of death. His wife believes he might still be alive if he hadn’t become addicted to opioids, an addictiong that started in the military. She blames Army doctors, veterans affairs physicians and a local pain specialist.
“When Don was at Walter Reed Medical Center, he told me they handed out the pain pills like Chiclets. He said he had become dependent on them,” Rosemarie Peterson said.
While much attention has been given to young people becoming addicted to opioids in recent years, little heed has been paid to the many military veterans showing up as addicts.
Between 2001 and 2009, military physicians wrote nearly 4 million prescriptions for painkillers to treat combat injuries and strains from the wear and tear of multiple deployments, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs often ends up treating these veterans when they leave active duty, and the numbers show opioid addiction remains a formidable challenge:
• Some 68,000 veterans are being treated for “opioid use disorder” by the VA.
• About one of every 10 soldiers who returns from Afghanistan and Iraq experiences problems with alcohol and other drugs.
• Nearly one out of three veterans who seeks treatment for substance use disorder suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rosemarie Peterson said it was beyond her abilities to provide the type of care her husband required and that the VA could have done a better job by assigning him 24-hour home care.
“Our house was like a candy store of drugs,” she said. “There was every kind of drug — fentanyl patches and other painkillers, speed, mood-enhancing medication, and on top of that heart medication, blood pressure medicine and medicine for diabetes.”
Officials from the VA, the Army and other government agencies say that protocols for treating chronic pain have been revised in recent years, and the result has been a substantial reduction in the number of prescriptions written for opioid pain medications.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported last June that it was working with the Department of Defense and the VA “to enhance informed prescribing practices and prevent misuse that can result in overdose or even death.” That includes limiting the length of opioid and other pain medication use, recognizing signs of misuse and greater awareness of treatment options.
But for Peterson, the changes in how opioids are prescribed were years away when he returned home from the war in 2005. He was plagued with constant headaches from a traumatic brain injury and spinal pain from a series of combat-related injuries.
On the day Peterson left for Iraq in October 2004, the 40-year-old captain carried his 4-year-old daughter, Christina, in his arms. She buried her head in his shoulders, just before he boarded a bus with other members of the Army Reserve’s 98th Division in Amherst.
Prior to his deployment, Peterson, his wife and a friend had worked until 2 a.m. for two weeks straight completing a home remodeling project to make life more bearable for his family while he was away.
Peterson, in an interview at the time, spoke philosophically of his mission to Iraq.
“This is the U.S. exit strategy to train up Iraqi troops,” he said then. “It’s important to get their troops ready to secure their country and get our troops home.”
Training Iraqi security forces was dangerous work.
Peterson once saved a young boy who was caught in a battle, Rosemarie Peterson said.
In another encounter with the enemy, Peterson was on a roof when he toppled to the ground. He landed so hard, it knocked him unconscious.
Another time while he was riding in a Humvee, an improvised explosive device exploded and the vehicle crashed into a crater.
When he slept at night in his upper bunk, he often rapped his head against the ceiling, jolted awake by the sound of enemy mortars slamming into the base.
“That’s how he ended up with four herniated discs,” Rosemarie Peterson said. “He should have been sent to that medical base in Germany for treatment.”
Instead, he returned home in spring 2005 for a two-week leave and sought medical help from a private physician.
“Don could walk, but he could not walk well. He was in pain. He knew he should do something to help himself. He went to his regular physician, who referred him to Dr. Gosy,” Rosemarie Peterson said, referring to Dr. Eugene Gosy.
“He was given a shot in the spine to block the pain. I think the shot gave him some relief but he should never have had to go back to Iraq.”
Dr. Gosy’s recent arraignment on a 166-count federal indictment linking him to six patient deaths and numerous lapses in medical judgment prompted Rosemarie Peterson to come forward and share the struggles from her husband’s military service and addiction.
A source familiar with the investigation into the doctor said Peterson’s death is not one of the six cited in the indictment. Gosy has pleaded not guilty. Defense attorney Joel L. Daniels, who represents the physician, declined to comment.
When Peterson returned from Iraq for good in late 2005, his headaches and back pain made it impossible for him to work. In a 2007 interview with The Buffalo News, he said that, before the war, he could read as many as 100 pages of technical material at night. He was a computer networking engineer for a cable television company.
But with the headaches, he could hardly read at all. He said that his life was “consumed by medical appointments.”
In addition to the physical injuries and post traumatic stress, he was diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
In 2009, Peterson moved to the Washington, D.C., area, and he was admitted as an outpatient to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He underwent physical therapy and psychological counseling. The doctors also prescribed copious amounts of opioid pain medications, Rosemarie Peterson said.
When Peterson returned home in 2011, he was addicted to pain pills and his physical condition had further deteriorated, she said.
“He had some kind of systemic breakdown of all the systems in his body. He had none of those issues before he went overseas,” Rosemarie Peterson said.
Peterson also became a regular patient of Gosy, who prescribed different types of opioid pain medications, according to Rosemarie Peterson.
Then on Thanksgiving night 2013, she said her husband turned to the streets for relief.
“Don said, what was the use. He was in so much pain. He said he was going out to buy heroin, and he left the house,” she recalled.
Peterson’s behavior became more erratic. In May 2014, he moved to Montana to live with a friend. He eventually returned home and for a time lived on the streets in Buffalo, Rosemarie Peterson said.
During an office visit to Gosy in 2015, the physician warned Peterson that he needed to change his ways or face deadly consequences, his wife said in recalling the appointment.
“Dr. Gosy told us that someone would end up dead in our house. He gave Don that stern warning for failing his urine test. He also gave him another prescription and wrote on it, ‘To be administered by wife.’ "
"What he should have done was place Don in a rehab. Don was addicted to pain medication. The doctor should have known better,” she said.
Not long after that visit, Peterson attacked his daughters in an argument that had escalated out of control.
“I got in between him and our daughters. He didn’t touch me. We moved out and stayed with a few different friends in Amherst, and then moved into a Buffalo shelter for women and children and lived there for about three months,” Rosemarie Peterson said.
After that, they moved into an apartment in Amherst, while Peterson lived in the Klein Road house. Because Peterson harassed them, Rosemarie Peterson said, she obtained orders of protection against him.
Veterans with addictions
Addiction among war veterans has brought about many painful consequences, and sometimes the military turns its back on the veterans, according to veteran advocates.
Patrick W. Welch is a wounded Vietnam War veteran who champions veterans. He has been asking every young veteran he meets about painkiller pills and if they were easy to obtain.
“One hundred percent have replied that all they needed to do was ask their medic or corpsman for pain relief, and they were given a bag of pills,” Welch said.
Easy access to highly addictive medications puts service members at a severe disadvantage, because the Department of Defense has a zero-tolerance policy toward improper use of drugs, Welch says.
“In the period from 2001 to 2009, they issued 3.8 million prescriptions for pain reliving medications to the troops in the combat zone,” he said. “When these troops return home, the Department of Defense conducts random drug tests and some of those individuals were given other than honorable or dishonorable discharges."
“The same organization that fueled the addiction to keep the combat readiness functional, then kicks them out. This eliminates their ability to claim VA benefits, and many employers will not hire someone with bad paper,” Welch said of those denied honorable discharges.
The downward spiral does not always end with just unemployment, he added.
“Now, in order to satisfy the addiction, they wind up on the streets and in some cases involved in the criminal justice system. If they are fortunate and have access to a veterans treatment court, they can get their life back in order,” Welch said.
In Buffalo’s Veterans and Drug courts, 45 veterans serve as volunteer mentors to assist veterans who run afoul of the law and end up in his courtroom, according to City Court Judge Robert T. Russell Jr.
When substance abuse is identified as a factor, the judge said, he works quickly to get the veteran help.
“It is important to get these people at the earliest possible time when they enter the justice system into the appropriate treatment services,” Russell said. “I say that because these men and women have made the sacrifice of service to our country.”
The VA and the Army say they have improved their approach to make sure that veterans who want help get it and that it is the right kind of help.
Opioid medications are considered a last resort, an Army spokesperson said.
Locally, some 300 veterans were admitted last year for alcohol and drug in-patient treatment at the Buffalo VA hospital on Bailey Avenue. The VA also runs an outpatient program that from month to month provides about 100 veterans with medication-assisted therapy to help overcome opioid dependency.
The VA has also started a local program to allow for individuals to go through detoxification in their homes under the supervision of a “medical monitor.” Inpatient detoxification is also available along with short and long term stays for drug rehabilitation.
And in the last two years, the VA has provided increased access to addiction treatment specialists by making them available through closed circuit tele-medicine sessions.
“We are taking it very seriously, as is our larger community,” said Jill Murray, the Buffalo VA’s manager for behavioral health services, referring to the deadly opioid epidemic here and across the country.
Nationally, the VA says that opioid prescriptions for patients have substantially dropped because of directives established in its “Opioid Safety Initiative.” Between 2012 and this year, 260,481 fewer patients received opioids. That represented a 39 percent drop to 418,895 veterans from 679,376.
But more than half of military personnel and veterans, particularly among those from the National Guard and Reserve forces, seek treatment from private medical providers.
Peterson died March 17. After his death, Rosemarie Peterson returned to the Klein Road house she was once shared with him and found it in shambles.
“It was like he moved from bedroom to bedroom, living in one until it became uninhabitable and then moving into the next,” she said.
She, friends and professional cleaners removed the debris. She says she has no plans to move back in because of all the terrible memories.
Her hope in sharing her family’s story is that the military, the VA and doctors in private practice will act in a responsible way when it comes to caring for those who sacrificed their health in defending the country.
She also wants others to know what families with troubled war veterans experience.
“All of the responsibilities were dumped on me for my husband, a wounded warrior. I was working and raising two children. We suffered through all the complications. What I want to tell other families is, don’t give up. Persist in getting help.”
Through counseling and support from different organizations and the Williamsville Central School District, she said she and her daughters are making progress.
“We’re beyond grateful to have a new start.”
But one thing remains certain. When Donald Peterson returned from Iraq, the war did not end for him or his family.