Father of Marine grapples with death of son after PTSD struggle

ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Christine M. Tressel WLS logo
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Father of Marine grapples with death of son
On April 8, Staff Sgt. Cole Van Dorn, 29, was found dead at his home. He was being treated for PTSD.

ARLINGTON, Va. (WLS) -- Tom Van Dorn, a pianist and composer, wrote music for a video he made about his son's first deployment. He can no longer bear to watch it.

On April 8, his 29-year-old son, Staff Sgt. Cole Van Dorn, was found dead at his home in Southern California. He was being treated for PTSD and taking about a dozen drugs, his father said.

Two thousand miles away in west suburban Bloomingdale, his father got the terrible news. He had just spoken to his son a couple days before. He never thought his son was suicidal.

"I'm guessing that it was 30 hours later that he died," Tom Van Dorn said.

One in five service members have post-traumatic stress disorder. Government data says there are 300,000 service members with PTSD, depression or brain trauma after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Veterans Administration.

"Treat these Marines -- whoever is in charge -- like this is your kid," said Tom Van Dorn. "That's all I want."

Cole Van Dorn was a tough, smart kid. He graduated about 10 years ago from Glenbard East High School in the western suburbs. He played football, but really loved hockey.

"When he came to me and said he wanted to be a Marine, it was to do a good thing for the country and be the best that he could be. He was a sniper and he was really proud of that," Tom Van Dorn said.

Two days before he died, Cole had asked his dad to watch "American Sniper," a riveting war memoir.

"He said it portrays very well the kind of meltdown psychologically of a guy doing what he was doing," Tom Van Dorn said. "He said that's him, making these decisions on who lives and who dies."

Van Dorn said that was the backdrop for military doctors last year to start his son on a "stew" of mind-altering medications for treatment of PTSD.

"He mentioned this stew, this soup, and he told me he was told some of these anti psychotics, anti-depressants, they told him many of them he could be on for the rest of his life," Tom Van Dorn said.

"They were all taking the same thing. 'Take this, take this, take this.' If you didn't do it you were bounced out."

Chicago psychiatrist K. Luan Phan, who did not treat Van Dorn but is a PTSD researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said: "Some medications are used for depression, some are for anxiety and there are very few medications that are particularly good for PTSD or are useful for PTSD."

Military data obtained by the I-Team shows the use of psychiatric medication for soldiers and veterans doubled in the past decade. While talk therapy can be expensive and in short supply, drugs are now used more widely than after any previous war.

"I don't know how anyone could be put on a dozen to 20 to 14 meds at the same time and come out normal," Tom Van Dorn said.

Phan, who is chief of NeuroPsychiatric Research at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, said he knows how complex the disorder is and the money and research needed to make progress in treating it.

"Unfortunately, we don't have strong evidence of head to head trials of a pill against talk therapy to know for a particular veteran is one better than the other," said Phan, who is also a professor of psychiatry and director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Clinical and Research Programs at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Cole will be buried Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

His father said that nearly one veteran suicide per hour is not acceptable, adding: "How long do you lose 22 a day before you come to the conclusion, 'Hey, this isn't working well.'"


Capt. John Ralph, assistant deputy chief,

Wounded, Ill and Injured Programs, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

Protocol for PTSD treatment at U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

Navy mental health providers are trained in the provision of evidence-based psychological care for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our care practices are in compliance with Department of Defense (DOD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) clinical practice guidelines (CPGs).

Generally speaking, these guidelines emphasize the use of psychotherapy that is exposure-based or cognitive-based, often combined with the prescription of CPG-consistent medications. We expect our providers to provide care that is consistent with these guidelines to the greatest extent possible, and we conduct regular audits to quantify the extent to which we are in compliance. Our providers are also required to assess the efficacy of care through standardized outcome measures. We are interested in providing evidence-based treatment as well as determining whether this treatment results in a quantifiable benefit to the patient.

We also emphasize close partnerships with other entities involved in psychological services. For example, we have a close partnership with the Marine and Family Programs (MFP) Division of Marine Corps Community Services, which provides non-medical counseling and support to Marines and their families. We work with MFP to establish scopes of practice and referral processes to ensure that Marines get the level of care required, no matter who they first turn to for support. This cooperative partnership is visible at Camp Pendleton, where our hospital-based mental health providers work in close cooperation with MFP, and with mental health providers assigned to the operational units on base. This cooperation has resulted in a system of care that provides the full range of services, from counseling and education, all the way through outpatient, intensive outpatient, and (when required), inpatient care.

When service members are medically-retired from the military, they become eligible for care from the VA. To enhance this transition of care, an existing program known as "inTransition" has been expanded to capture all service members who are transitioning. These service members are now automatically enrolled in the program, which provides coaching and care coordination services until the service member has established a relationship with their post-military provider.

To learn more about inTransition, visit: http://intransition.dcoe.mil/


Suicide Data Report, Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012

DOD and VA Health Care: Medication Needs during Transitions May Not Be Managed for All Servicemembers

REPORT: A review of how prescribed psychiatric medications could be driving members of the armed forces and vets to acts of violence and suicide