GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- After serving four years as an Army Ranger, Jesse Johnson-Brower came home to west Michigan to fight another battle: PTSD. He says when he tried to get help, Veterans Affairs clinics ignored him, mistreated him and even misdiagnosed him. Now, he and his wife, Tara have turned their experience into a way to help other veterans with mental health needs.
“My experience when I was there, I was a number. Actually, I felt less than a number," Jesse tells FOX 17 about his times at a nearby VA.
When Jesse got back from combat shortly after 9/11, it didn't take long for him to believe there was something wrong with the systems in place to help veterans.
“2005. It’s been like this since the first time I stepped in those doors," Jesse says. "It really has been. Actually, when I out-processed from my base, I went to the VA. They did an evaluation, they promised me something, and that took seven years to follow through. It started from day one."
Tara says a lot was lost during those seven years.
The couple has been mentoring veterans for over ten years and decided to make it official just last year by starting the Johnson-Brower Foundation, a non-profit that provides specialized counseling for veterans and their families. It's a cause that means a lot to Jesse and Tara because they say they know first-hand just how bad things can get when veterans don't get the care they need.
“I was homeless," Jesse says. "I went from a time to, they basically said that I would be taken care of. You know, I got hurt and (the VA) said, ‘You’ll be granted a small amount.’”
He says he relied on getting that money he was promised, so he purchased a home.
“Unfortunately, I was still struggling internally and so it was difficult for me to keep a job at that time, and so my house was foreclosed, my house was repossessed, I lived in a house with no heat or water," Jesse tells FOX 17.
Not knowing it at the time, Jesse was showing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He says after only three visits to a VA psychiatrist, he was given seven prescriptions. He says before he knew it, he was addicted.
“When I was able to stop doing that, then I went to the VA and said, ‘First, never, never give me these ever again.’ And when I told the doctor, it was the same doctor. He literally giggled and said, ‘Yeah I totally misdiagnosed you.’ And he said, ‘That’s PTSD, that’s not ADD,'" Jesse says.
Jesse says he was shocked by that level of disrespect and negligence.
“It was that type of comment where I’m like, ‘Really? Really? My marriage almost fell apart, you’re lucky I’m even sitting with you today and it’s funny?’” Jesse says.
Tara says what got Jesse off drugs and back on his feet was pure grit but for Jesse, it was because of Tara.
“Her strength to stay with me saved everything. Everything. We went through times where, we’re not proud to say this stuff, but we know what it’s like to be on food stamps," Jesse says. "We know what it’s like to have your lights cut off. She had a car repossessed right out of the garage while she was bathing our son. She had to run out and beg to get the car seat out. We’ve been there and it sucks. And it all could have been avoided.”
That's where they hope the Johnson-Brower Foundation will help others.
“My hope is to give the vets an alternative," Tara says.
The foundation focuses on mental health, something the Johnson-Browers say is imperative for an overall healthy life.
“When everything isn’t healthy up here, nothing is healthy," Tara says.
She says with the foundation, they're taking a different approach than the VA when it comes to mental health care.
“Speak to the actual person and speak to their wife, speak to who they live with because we might be able to help them," Tara says. "And again, we’re not here to fight with (the VA.) We’re here to be a voice for others but something needs to be done.”
FOX 17 reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which was unable to comment on Jesse's situation for privacy reasons.