That grief then drove her all the way to Capitol Hill. On July 10, the 62-year-old Roswell resident stood before the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs. In front of a packed Cannon House Office Building, she painfully recalled the incidents leading up the death of Brian Portwine, her only child.
“I felt they were very moved by all our stories,” she said. “The timing was perfect, because they were presenting the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act that afternoon.”
Senate Bill 2182 was introduced by U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., earlier this year. The legislation seeks to extend eligibility periods for veteran health services and requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense to implement more thorough suicide prevention programming.
As a child, she said, Brian was “a little G.I. Joe,” who liked to play night tag with flashlights and make toy guns out of PVC piping. He loved his grandfather’s World War II tales and participated in Roswell High’s ROTC.
He enlisted in the Army three months before his 18th birthday. He was deployed to Iraq in 2006.
During his first tour of duty, Brian experienced eight improvised explosive device blasts. Once, his tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. In another incident, an IED went off while he was riding in a Humvee. The explosion decapitated the driver — he and Brian had switched seats just minutes earlier.
Brian returned home in 2008. Attending college in Daytona, Fla., he began displaying severe memory problems and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.
Portwine recalled taking her son to the Georgia Aquarium. “All of a sudden, he turned around and said to me ‘we need to leave right now,’” she said. “He got out and said ‘mom, I can’t handle that, it reminds me too much of the snipers on the roofs in Baghdad.’”
He was then called up for a second tour in Iraq. Rather than seek an educational deferment, the Purple Heart recipient returned to combat.
“He was never screened properly for PTSD when he came home,” Portwine said. “He never should’ve gone back.”
Brian returned to the U.S. in late 2010. His mother said he had poor concentration and displayed uncharacteristic anger.
Brian was then given a litany of diagnoses — traumatic brain injury, PTSD, depression and anxiety among them. He began having night terrors and drinking heavily. He was assessed “at-risk” for suicide.
“Although his body was back,” Portwine said, “his mind wasn’t.”
She considered Brian’s VA and DOD services negligent. “He was never put on one medication,” she said.
In 2011, Brian shot himself. He was found wearing a memorial armband for his fallen first sergeant. It was May 27 — three days before Memorial Day.
Portwine waited 18 months to receive her son’s medical records. His VA outpatient clinic records were not included.
“The VA and DOD are doing a disservice to our young men and women,” she said. “They’re quick to send them, but slow to treat them, if they treat them at all.”
Veterans, she said, are lost in a bureaucracy forcing them to “grovel” for benefits. “They’re so mired in paperwork that there’s a big lack of timeliness of their care.”
Portwine said she wants better communication between the DOD and VA and greater investments in reentry programs.
“You can’t take them from a warzone and two days later, put them in society and expect them to function normally,” she said. “If we send them and turn them into warriors, we need to turn them back into civilians.”
At least three other soldiers from Brian’s unit have also committed suicide. “We’re losing 22 soldiers a day to suicide,” Portwine said. “That’s an epidemic.”