Opinion

The VA failed my veteran son and he committed suicide

Congress urges DOJ to launch investigation

 

Much has been written in recent days about secret waiting lists for Veterans to get a medical appointment at Veterans Administration facilities. An audit released on Monday uncovered widespread problems, including the fact that more than three quarters of VA hospitals and clinics had manipulated data about wait times. Still to be determined are allegations over whether these secret delays led to the deaths of 40 Arizona veterans. 

The controversy, which led to the resignation of the VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki, is certainly cause for outrage, and possibly criminal charges. 

But as tragic as this may be, we cannot help but wonder where all of the concern and outrage is over the tragic suicide epidemic that claims 22 Veterans lives. Every single day. 

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On May 9, 2013, our 33-year-old son, Neil, was one of them.

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During the 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. has lost nearly 7,000 warriors - total. Every year 8,000 Veterans’ families across America lose a son, daughter, or parent to suicide. 

If the U.S. military suffered those fatalities on the battlefield, the American public would demand immediate measures to stem the losses. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about the suicide epidemic claiming so many veterans lives.

What happened to our son is fairly typical. 

Neil told his brother he was having suicidal thoughts and asked for help. But when his brother took him to the local civilian hospital, they decided to transfer him to another civilian hospital, neither of which had even a basic understanding of military mental health or culture. A captain in U.S. Air Force Special Operations, Neil’s team suffered heavy casualties in multiple combat tours, but the importance of this fact was lost on his civilian doctors. 

It was not lost on us and we asked that he be transferred to the VA hospital, which had expertise treating Post Traumatic Stress. We were denied on the grounds that such a transfer was not hospital policy. 

In hindsight, the lack of civilian expertise in military mental health turned out to be critical, and possibly fatal. Neil was released shortly after he was admitted, perhaps worse off than before, although we did not fully comprehend that at the time. We decided to call the VA ourselves, asking that he be admitted; we were informed that it would be three weeks before he could be get an appointment.

One week later he took his own life. 

Three weeks after his death, we received a letter from the VA denying Neil treatment, essentially for budgetary reasons, even though he had never even spoken with anyone at the VA. 

Sadly, as we have learned, this is not an unusual sequence of events. The country is now well aware of the delays Veterans face when seeking care from the VA. And as it turns out, civilian mental health providers are not required to be trained in military mental health or culture. This is significant considering that nearly two thirds of Veterans are not enrolled in VA healthcare and 35 percent live outside of geographic areas served by the VA.

There are other problems contributing to the Veterans suicide epidemic, including lack of rigor in using evidence-based treatment and overcoming the stigma associated with reaching out for help. 

Yet despite the enormity and urgency of the problem, and the prevalence of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping our Veterans--there are many tens of thousands of them--there is a serious lack of coordinated and focused effort among the key players to save lives. 

So our family and some of Neil’s friends decided to do something about it by forming the Coalition to End Veteran Suicide (CEVS). 

Together with Veterans service organizations, the military community, business, mental health experts, community groups and concerned citizens, our goal is to change the outdated policies, procedures and culture that have contributed to an estimated 65,000 Veteran suicides since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began. 

To do this, we must create awareness of military mental health issues and culture, improve access for Veterans and expand quality mental health care in both the military and civilian sectors.

Our Veterans have earned the right to accessible, effective treatment for the injuries they have suffered on the battlefield--seen or unseen. Veterans should not survive the war only to die at home, waiting for an appointment or competent care. We can, and must, do better.

Neil’s mission continues.

Bruce Landsberg is president of the Coalition to End Veteran Suicide.

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