Joe Geoghagan is a 31-year-old veteran who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for the United States Navy. Geoghagan has been unable to eat any solid food for a year and most meals for longer than that, his only nourishment coming from a tube that feeds nutrients straight into his intestines.
Geoghagan graduated from Oakman High School in 2001 and began working as a reserve officer for the Parrish Police Department. When the city pulled its sponsorship for Geoghagan to go to the police academy, he decided to enlist in the Navy and serve his country.
After almost five years of service, Geoghagan was honorably discharged from the Navy and decided to enter school in Washington, where he had been stationed and where his fiance lived. As he entered college and reacclimated to civilian life, Geoghagan sought help for depression, paranoia and hypervigilance. A quick evaluation deemed him “pretty normal” with no post-traumatic stress disorder.
As his grades began to slide and his symptoms worsened, he decided to leave college and take a job as a military contractor, hoping that would return some normalcy to his life. Geoghagan again found himself back on a ship in the Middle East, this time for a contractor and, for a while, said he was able to focus on getting the job done.
When he returned stateside in December 2009, he started getting nauseous and having trouble eating. Assuming it was a stomach virus, he attempted to ride out the severe nausea and vomiting. As the symptoms progressed and worsened, he returned to the doctor to try to determine what was going on. Testing didn’t reveal any issues, but doctors in Washington searched for answers. As he grew weaker and sicker, the contractor he was working for was forced to let him go, meaning he lost all his benefits and was forced to seek medical help at the VA Hospital.
The Veteran’s Hospital in Washington set him up with a representative and began looking for answers. Geoghagan’s weight began to steadily decrease as he became less able to hold food down. Eventually, he decided to move home to Alabama so his mom could take care of him. His VA representative in Washington urged him not to make the move because he wouldn’t get any attention at the Alabama VA.
“I blew that off,” Geoghagan said. “I mean, I was still going to be in the same system, just in a different state.”
Geoghagan said he wishes now that he had listened.
Since transferring to Alabama, Geoghagan said he has been ignored and mistreated. His list of complaints against the VA are numerous, but include stories of botched procedures, like his last endoscopy. According to the veteran, after numerous failed attempts to start his IV, the procedure was done with virtually no anesthetic as all the medicine pooled in his arm like a softball.
“The doctor said, ‘OK, hold your breath and try not to struggle,’” Geoghagan remembers. “Then two grown men just pinned me down so I couldn’t move. ... If it wasn’t in a public healthcare environment at the VA, where I have no legal rights, it amounts to malpractice.”
He continued to lose weight and became unable to keep anything down. He would throw up every time he ate or drank. Sometimes that means he would throw up 10-12 times a day.
With no answers and only a working diagnosis of “failure to thrive,” Geoghagan is existing on supplements and medications to treat some of his symptoms. The feeding tube goes into his stomach and then winds into his intestines, and he feeds himself four or five Boost shakes through those tubes every day, spending an average of 13 hours hooked to a pump. All his medications must be pulverized and fed into the pump as well.
The shakes provide nourishment, but leave his stomach empty, meaning he suffers from continuous hunger pains.
“I try to eat every day,” he said, “but after just a few minutes, it comes right back up.”
Geoghagan has been refused any further testing by the VA. He said no new tests have been performed in seven months. He is also not getting any medicine for pain or nausea and has now received a letter from the VA saying they will not be paying for the pump or Boost shakes anymore. Appeals to senators and other government officials have fallen on deaf ears, Geoghagan said.
Feeling despondent and being heavily medicated for depression, he attempted suicide last year.
“Though I’m not suicidal now, I can safely tell you that the disparity and hopelessness I feel on the inside has not changed,” Geoghagan said.
Although he is still determined to fight, he has made peace with the fact that he may not win this battle.
“I feel like I’m in a pit, looking up at this little speck of light where I fell in,” Geoghagan explained. “It’s so defeating to look at because you know you cannot reach it, no matter what you do. That light is my health and future.”
He is also determined to help the other veterans like him who are coming back with a mysterious illness. He is in touch with several other veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan that are displaying similar symptoms, with no diagnosis or effective treatment. He is also in touch with one family who lost their Marine to the mystery illness earlier this year. Kenton Bray weighed just 72 pounds when he died after a month in a VA hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I don’t even recognize myself anymore when I look in the mirror,” Geoghagan said. “I mean, 145 pounds have gone by. I am, by definition, less than half the man I was.”
What he does recognize now are his priorities.
“I find time every day to thank God for all the little things in my life,” Geoghagan said. “That’s the one good thing I’ve gained through all this; I realize I went through my life taking for granted the little things like being able to eat or being able to see your friends.”
And he still has his humor to get him through. When things look especially dark, he calls a friend, pets his dog or watches television to take his mind off of it. His recent favorite pastime is watching the Food Network and fantasizing about being healthy and able to eat.
“If they ever fix me, I won’t be skinny long,” he laughs.
But, returning to the serious side of things, Geoghagan is concerned for himself, other veterans suffering from illnesses after their service and the total apathy he believes the system is showing toward its vets. He is also concerned about the future of the country if no one enlists out of fear that they will be the next sick veteran who can’t receive treatment. “I’m proud to have served my country, but if I had known I was coming back to this, it would have never happened,” Geoghagan said.
An account has been set up at GoFundMe.com under the name “Get well, Joseph Geoghagan” to help raise funds for his medical care, supplies and living expenses.