For 30 years, L. Bunny Johnson flew in combat zones from Bosnia to Afghanistan, rescuing fallen soldiers by medevac.
But when she got back, she was the one needing medical help for her invisible wounds.
"Mistrust, PTSD, mental health problems in general . . . Let's just leave it at that," said Johnson, 60, of Abington. Asked about the scale of mental illness in the veteran community, she said, "On a scale of one to 10, I'd go to 30."
Her trauma - and desire to help others - led her to a summit Friday at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. About 80 people - from experts to veterans - came to discuss the growing epidemic of mental illness among veterans and what could be done to help them.
Nationwide, the number of VA patients being treated for mental illness spiked 45 percent between 2005 and 2012, reaching about 1.8 million. But over the same period, the number of veterans in the system grew by only 16 percent. In 2010, an estimated 22 veterans committed suicide each day.
In response, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs called for centers across the country to hold summits like the one in Philadelphia. Eight are scheduled through September in Pennsylvania and another one is set for Sept. 18 at the Lyons Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System to get input on ways to help struggling veterans.
The Philadelphia VA has seen the same trends with the number of those in treatment for a mental illness jumping by 31 percent between 2006 and 2011, to a total of 17,000. And of concern are those who caregivers aren't reaching.
"Untreated mental health kills people, whether by suicide, or by cardiovascular disease or by being homeless, having pnuemonia and sleeping on the streets at night," said David Oslin, associate chief of staff for behavioral health at the Philadelphia VA and leader of the summit. "But we know if we can get people in treatment and connect them to community resources, we can have those things averted."
The summit assembled VA staff with other health providers, veterans, city police and community-based groups to brainstorm outreach and support strategies.
"You meet people who are doing similar things in the same battle space, if you will," said Timothy Meserve, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and executive director of The Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center, Inc. "And when we collaborate, we can take those finite resources and get the best out of them."
Meserve took part in a 90-minute group meeting focused on the justice system, one of seven with topics from women's health to suicide prevention.
Several groups came up with similar suggestions with participants calling for better information sharing, and tools like a collaborative website known as a Wiki, or LISTSERV, an automated mailing list forum, to connect veterans with resources.
Another idea was promoting peer mentoring between healthy and troubled veterans.
When asked which suggestions the VA might actually pursue, Oslin said all submissions would be evaluated by a local recovery coordinator.
"Some of the things we already do, it's just getting people to realize that we do it. But if there's something that really needs funding, we'll do it," said Oslin, who is also a Penn pyschiatry professor.
"Lots of people want more empowering of our non-mentally ill vets to be a good neighbor or peer to those with mental health issues," Oslin added. "To be that soldier they were while in combat."
Bunny Johnson could be one. While she does struggle, she said she's not afraid to talk to others about her condition if it can help. It was an hour's drive getting down to the city, she said, but it was well worth the trip.
"If you knew you could have a piece of you put back, how far would you go?" Johnson asked.