Sgt. Shamar Thomas is a big man.
At a hulking 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, dressed in government-issued garb and peering over the reception glass in the secured inpatient facility at the Northport VA Medical Center (VAMC), the former Marine-turned-Occupy Wall Street hero-turned-reality TV star cuts an imposing figure. All eyes were on him as the psychiatrist in charge of his care, Dr. Gregory Gunyan, conferred with Thomas’ appointed attorney and others behind the glass. The discussion centered on a waiver he was being asked to sign, which confirmed that he voluntarily sought services from the hospital, but would like to leave. And there is no mistaking the fact that Thomas would indeed like to leave. Immediately.
Only he wasn’t allowed to sign himself out. The waiver merely bought Thomas the ability to attend a hearing scheduled to occur fully 11 days after Thomas first walked into the hospital asking for assistance.
Sgt. Shamar Thomas was—until June 10—stuck in the system.
Initially Thomas was rattled by the reality that he was unable to leave on his own volition. Nevertheless, he was resigned to seeking help. Almost instantly, however, his experience soured as he lost basic privileges such as being able to retrieve his prescription glasses from his car or being able to walk outside.
“I feel like a political prisoner,” he told the Press during an interview within Northport VAMC six days into his forced detention there, “not to say this has anything to do with politics.”
Thomas clearly knows the difference. A veteran of the Iraq War, Thomas shot to instant viral fame during the Occupy movement when he squared off against about 30 NYPD officers in a now-infamous video with more than 17 million views on YouTube. In the footage, Thomas is reacting to what he perceived as excessive force against unarmed citizens exercising the right to peaceably assemble. To him, this was an affront to his service and everything he believed he was fighting to preserve back home. His outspoken nature and self-described “direct and honest” attitude didn’t win him many friends on 2013’s Survivor: Caramoan, where he lasted just 10 days before being voted off.
Like many veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas struggles to erase from his mind the images of what he encountered in combat.
“I think about death,” he said quietly as he explained what brought him to this place. Moreover, getting to this place was a battle in and of itself. “It took me six or seven years to say, ‘I’m going to go down there and commit myself to getting help,’” admits Thomas, shyly.
It’s a dilemma the entire VA system is struggling to combat, too.
On Tuesday, June 2, Thomas made the decision to seek counseling from the Northport VAMC because in many ways his combat experience didn’t end in Iraq. Since Occupy Wall Street, Thomas has garnered minor celebrity in both the reality TV world on Survivor and in activist circles, where he remains an outspoken opponent of police brutality, participating in several #blacklivesmatter demonstrations.
Most recently he had returned from a memorial service for Lance Cpl. Justin Repphun, who drove for Thomas’ assault team in Iraq; Repphun died in Al Albar Province in November of 2004. It was this trip and the emotions it stirred within him that finally compelled Thomas to “deal with the demons” that haunted his thoughts. Thomas had heard that the VA offered a 60-day inpatient program that would allow him to step away from his day-to-day life as a nightclub bouncer and finally face his emotions head on.
“I’ve never tried to hurt myself,” he explained during our visit, adding, “I’ve never tried to hurt anyone else.”
According to Thomas, he never expressed that he was suicidal when he presented himself to the Northport VAMC but admitted that visions of death plagued him and were beginning to weigh him down, both emotionally and mentally. He presumed, however, that something in the interview caused the intake team to categorize him as a potential threat and place him on lockdown in the secure wing of the VAMC; a widely cited analysis published in the February issue of Annals of Epidemiology put the suicide rate among recent vets 50-percent higher than non-military civilians. Once admitted, Thomas realized he was no longer able to sign himself out as he’d originally thought.
At first, Thomas said, he fell in line, even though he sensed that he might be in for more than he’d bargained for. He was, however, thrown for a loop when told he was required to take several prescription drugs despite claiming to have never taken narcotics of any kind in his life. Because of his size, Thomas said the doses are particularly large.
“The meds just make you feel so heavy,” he lamented.
The hospital switchboard, as well as the phone in his ward, rang night and day. Word of a demonstration on his behalf began to spread after news/media website TheFreeThoughtProject.com posted a piece indicating that Thomas was being held against his will and was told his detention could be indefinite.
The network of activists connected to Thomas rallied around him through social media, maintaining a Facebook group titled “Freedom for Sgt. Shamar Thomas,” primarily updated by activist Atiq Zabinski. The purpose of this group, it declared, was to provide support to Sgt. Shamar Thomas during his detainment at Northport VA against his will.
On Thursday, Shamar announced the following on the group’s timeline:
“I’m free. Can’t even express how I feel. I will formally thank you all when I get myself together.”
Few questioned Thomas’ need for help, including Thomas himself. The strong reaction to his case stemmed more from the indefinite nature of his detention and that certain basic privileges were not available to him.
“I want air so badly,” he told the Press as we sat inside the recreation room just outside of the secure entrance to the lockdown wing on the second floor of the facility. Periodically, Thomas politely asked other patients who wandered in if they wouldn’t mind giving us some private time.
“I have no felonies, no misdemeanors,” he continued. “I feel dehumanized.”
According to Thomas, the overwhelming reaction from the outside to his detention had punitive results. He said Dr. Gunyan and the nurses on the floor told him that he lost the right to “get air” outside because the hospital was upset with the onslaught of requests for his release. Further, Thomas said, one of the nurses apparently told him: “If you leave here and don’t take this medication, you will go crazy.”
For these and other reasons, some began to question the VA’s ability to handle the volume of returning combat veterans whose symptoms present in different ways and at different times—Thomas, in his own way yet again, serving as a lightning rod and attracting a torrent of attention to an issue plaguing so many across the country, this time the plight of his fellow servicemen and women navigating a healthcare system inadequately prepared for the deluge.
“One of the things that make me lose sleep at night,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) told the Press from his D.C. office, “is the massive increase in cases of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries that the VA is just not equipped to address over the next decades. We’re just now catching up with claims from Vietnam.”
Israel calls his relationship with the VA “bi-polar,” saying, “The Northport VA is generally responsive and well-regarded. The VA bureaucracy in Washington is consistently frustrating and a source of anger.”
Other organizations exist to fill the growing need for counseling returning veterans. One such organization is The Soldiers Project, a California-based nonprofit with a significant presence on Long Island.
“The Northport VA has referred certain cases,” explained Lael Telfeyan, a PhD and clinical volunteer for the Long Island chapter. “The reason people come to The Soldiers Project is because we’re free and completely confidential. We don’t have a record or a paper trail. That’s the whole idea…to provide an open venue for treatment without having anything go on a record that could jeopardize anything like their benefits or their status.”
Dr. Telfeyan erred on the side of caution when speaking about Sgt. Thomas and any veteran recommended for inpatient care. She acknowledged the wide room for interpretation of PTSD cases and believed Thomas might not be “aware of what he’s presenting and how serious it might be.”
A Family Affair
One person who also allows for this possibility but is deeply concerned about the path the Northport VAMC has taken is Thomas’ mother, Retired Sgt. First Class Dawn Glaspie.
“We can be having a conversation,” she told the Press from her home in North Carolina, “and he’ll just zone out. That was the first thing that concerned me. ‘Where are you going? You need to talk to somebody to find out where you’re going so we can bring you back.’”
Amazingly, Thomas and Glaspie were deployed at the same time, with a six-month overlap in Iraq. During their tours they were able to sporadically communicate, but did not see one another in person. At first, Glaspie had misgivings about her son’s intention to enlist in the military.
“I knew the hardships of the military, so when he decided that was what he wanted to do, it was really difficult for me,” she confided. “And at this point there was a war going on. But after thinking about it, somebody has to do it.”
Glaspie doubted that her son expressed any desire to “hurt himself,” but gave even deeper insight to Thomas’ life experience:
“Shamar’s father passed away when he was 2 years old and it was ruled a suicide,” she shared. “Shamar, knowing his past, he would never consider that. I can’t even think of a reason why he would consider that.”
The mother and son were able to speak when Thomas was first admitted but had trouble connecting in the days that followed due to how jammed the phone lines had been at the hospital. As for what caused the Northport VA to detain her son, Glaspie wasn’t sure.
“I couldn’t even think of anything—I don’t know about the system,” she said, admitting that she sought treatment in “somebody’s office. I went to see them, then I left.” It was her belief that her son would benefit from “a less-restrictive treatment” in an outpatient program. “Locking him down isn’t good. Would he really be receptive to what they’re offering?”
Congressman Israel declined to comment specifically on the course of action the Northport VA pursued in relation to Thomas, but indicated he had been in touch with the facility to assess the situation. He did, however, express concern that “the nature of PTSD is so complex and the volume of PTSD cases at our VA hospitals is so massive that the VA staff is in uncharted territory.
“They’re going to need new skills training and we’re going to need to provide them with more resources so you don’t have a potential action that exacerbates someone with PTSD,” he continued.
Israel knows the challenges facing the VA intimately, as support for veterans is a central focus of his office.
“Of all the functions my office performs,” he said, “veteran’s case work is not only at the top of my list as a moral obligation, but in allocation of time and resources.”
Newly released from the Northport facility, Thomas is in need of support, by his own admission. Although no one at the hospital or involved directly in caring for PTSD patients commented specifically on the proper course of action, his circumstances implied the same conclusion.
Sgt. Thomas’ situation highlights the evolving need for greater resources and understanding of what combat veterans are coping with upon their return to civilian life. His is a complicated story where there are no good guys or bad guys in terms of his emotions and need for care. Whether Dr. Gunyan and his staff used their positions to prevent Sgt. Thomas from breathing outside air is another matter that requires examination.
Given his history as an advocate—and whether Thomas meant to or not—the courageous Marine shifted some of the attention regarding his detention at Northport VA toward the plight of others with PTSD.
His mother offered this tidbit to the Press during his forced confinement, which helps, perhaps, to somewhat explain why.
“He has not done very much that I have not been proud of,” Glaspie says.
While it’s impossible to predict how, exactly, his stay at the VAMC has affected him, Thomas has already succeeded in opening a new front in the ongoing post-war battle that has claimed so many of his fellow brothers and sisters in arms.