Josh Junk thought he was fine when he returned to civilian life after serving a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan.
By the time his family drove the Swedesboro native to a Veterans Affairs hospital emergency room, he was alcoholic and homeless.
"I was in complete denial," the 27-year-old Army veteran said. "I was taught to fight and I did fight — very actively where I was. When I got home, there was no enemy I couldn't defeat, including in my own head. But I was wrong."
Junk was among the veterans and active service members who met with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, at Rutgers University-Camden Monday to discuss the needs of veterans battling mental illness. They shared stories about fellow veterans stymied by government bureaucracy, unwilling or unable to find treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
The congressman announced he is co-sponsoring H.R. 6108, known as the "Never Again Act," which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide in-patient psychiatric care to veterans who need immediate help. If the department is unable to provide care within its own facilities, it would be required to identify urgent mental health care treatment for veterans at an outside facility.
Introduced in September, the bill has been referred to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
"We have a responsibility to our veterans," Norcross said. "They bravely and selflessly served our country. Some bear the so-called invisible wounds of service. Now, if they need help, a guaranteed lifeline should be there for them. And it should be just a phone call away."
Norcross said 22 U.S. military veterans die by suicide daily, an estimated figure from a2012 Veterans Affairs study on suicides among veterans.
Evan Graham, the 33-year-old commander of the Camden County American Legion, said veterans who finally ask for help are frustrated by the system they encounter.
"Make it easy enough where you can say, 'I need to talk to somebody right now,' not pass the buck off to people," said Graham, an Army veteran who was deployed five times. "It needs to get fixed."
After successful treatment at a VA facility, Junk now volunteers with a veterans organization and encourages others to seek help when they need it. Even so, he finds veterans who aren't able to access care.
"There's not enough beds, there's not enough staff to take care of any of those issues," Junk said. "That's what I hear.
"Now we need to change that. Hopefully, this is what that does. It changes the availability, and it lessens the wait time. Because in that wait time, you can lose that veteran."
It's unclear how the proposed legislation would affect care in South Jersey.
In 2012, after reported shortages of mental health services for veterans, Lourdes Health System opened a 21-bed in-patient treatment facility for veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, or addiction. Within eight months, the women-only center expanded to include men, but the center did not attract the expected number of patients.
Today, Living Springs treats any patient, not just veterans. A Lourdes spokeswoman did not say how many veterans are treated there.
"We support VA services being provided in the community," said Kim Barnes, vice president of planning and development for Lourdes Health System, in an e-mailed statement. "Anything that can ease access for veterans is something we can get behind."