BRUNSWICK, Maine — The Maine Public Employees Retirement System for a second time denied disability retirement benefits to a military veteran from Brunswick whose two tours in Iraq left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scott Couture, a former Maine Marine Patrol warden, was denied when he first applied for retirement system disability benefits after determining he could no longer work as a marine warden because of his condition. Couture appealed that decision, but that appeal was denied in a letter dated April 14 and received by Couture’s family Monday.
Couture will appeal the latest decision to a hearing officer, his wife, Darcie, said Monday. The decision devastated Scott, who declined to speak about the denial. The couple was preparing Monday night to tell their two teenage sons that they can’t afford to keep their house.
Scott Couture served in the Army Reserves with the 94th Military Police Company in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, for what would become the second-longest deployment of any U.S. military unit since World War II, including 15 months in combat zones such as the notoriously violent “Sunni Triangle.”
In February, Couture recounted his tours in Iraq for the Bangor Daily News, describing a number of experiences that led him to feel “like I was losing my humanity.”
Upon his return, Couture, like many veterans, ignored signs of post-traumatic stress and returned to his job as an officer with the Maine Marine Patrol. Soon, though, irritability, depression and other symptoms eroded his relationship with his wife, Darcie, and their two sons, and in 2015 cost him his job.
A Veterans Administration determined Couture is 80 percent disabled and provides him benefits, but in December 2014, the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, or MePERS, which Couture paid into as a Marine Patrol employee instead of Social Security, denied Couture’s application for retirement because of disability, despite acknowledging he suffers from PTSD.
Retirement system representatives argued Couture did not prove he is permanently disabled and unable to work.
During a December 2015 appeals hearing, Couture and his wife were questioned for hours about his combat experience. Couture described that interview as one of the most emotionally difficult experiences of his life since returning from the war.
After months of waiting, the Coutures received a copy of an April 14 letter Monday from MePERS deputy director James Duseth to Jonathan Huntington, the MePERS hearing officer, upholding the denial.
Attached to the letter was a March 24 memo from the MePERS medical board, stating it determined records don’t support a finding that Couture suffers from depressive disorder because the retirement system’s criteria — which differ from VA criteria — state that symptoms cannot be because of the effects of alcohol or another illness.
“In this case, alcohol may have been a cause … but more importantly the member was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that were depressive in nature … it is thus now the opinion of the medical board that depression is subsumed under PTSD,” the memo states.
Furthermore, the board ruled that although Couture’s physician said he was “at risk of impulsivity with limited judgement,” he displayed “astute judgement” during one incident shortly before leaving his job and thus could not have been having trouble at work because of PTSD.
“Mr. Couture’s situation is complex because in large part it presents a contrast between his conversations with medical professionals, particularly those seen after his last day working, and his employment record,” Duseth wrote.
“Really, what I want to do is drag that medical board over to our house and have them stay for just a few days so they can see what life has been like for us,” Darcie Couture said Monday. “It would be abundantly clear to them then how disabling Scott’s PTSD has been, and they wouldn’t have any question in their mind if the VA got it right or not.”
She went on to describe the family’s ordeal as they awaited the appeal decision.
“We have been hanging by our fingernails for well over a year now, and we put everything we had, every detail of our worst private battles as a family living with PTSD, on the table at the appeal hearing in December, and it wasn’t enough. … Because Scott fought so hard to at least make it look like he was keeping it together on the outside, hide his painful struggle, and hang onto his career for as long as possible, now he’s being punished and abandoned by that same system he served for all those years.”
“The VA and MePERS disability decisions have different standards based on different laws,” MePERS general counsel Michael Colleran wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “We both agree that Mr. Couture honorably served this country and that he suffers from PTSD. The question that we had to answer in our decision was whether it was impossible for Mr. Couture to perform his warden’s job when his State service ended. The totality of the information showed that he was able to do his job and do it well.”
Darcie Couture said her husband will appeal the denial to the hearing officer, who according to their attorney can overrule the medical board and executive director.
“I’ve always been proud to be a Mainer, because I feel like as a state we have a reputation for hard work, making the best of tough situations and standing by our military and first responders,” she said. “Looking at MainePERS, I’m not so sure that’s who we are anymore. Tonight, I’ll have to explain to my kids that we need to put our house up for sale because we can’t afford to keep it and we’ll all have to tighten our belts a little more, and we’ll dig deep and figure out how to live one day at a time.”