MINNEAPOLIS – A U.S. senator from Hawaii has asked the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to explain what happened before the suicide of an Iraq war veteran who, according to his family, had sought help at two VA hospitals in Minnesota.
In his Jan. 29 letter, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii and chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked for an expedited analysis of the events preceding the Marine's death, as well as a description of actions the VA is taking to prevent similar tragedies.
According to previous news reports, Jonathan Schulze, 25, of New Prague, told a staff member at the VA hospital in St. Cloud two weeks ago that he was thinking of killing himself and he asked to be admitted. His father and stepmother, who accompanied him to the hospital, said he was told he couldn't be admitted that day. The next day, a counselor told him by phone that he was No. 26 on a waiting list, his parents said.
Four days later, Schulze committed suicide.
A team of federal investigators was due to arrive at the VA medical centers in Minneapolis and St. Cloud on Thursday to look into the family's claims.
Rep. John Kline , R-Minn., said VA officials in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Washington told him they dispute that Schulze presented himself to hospital staff as suicidal. Kline said it should be clearer next week, after the investigation ends, just what happened in the exchange between Schulze and VA staff.
"It's just unconscionable that you have a man that's identified by the system, yet he gets to the point where he commits suicide," said Kline, a retired Marine who represents Schulze's district.
Akaka said the issues go beyond just Schulze's case.
"I am concerned that reports of VA's failure to respond to Mr. Schulze's request for help may indicate systemic problems in VA's capacity to identify, monitor, and treat veterans who are suicidal," Akaka wrote in his letter to Dr. Michael J. Kussman, the acting undersecretary for health with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A phone message left Wednesday with Schulze's father and stepmother was not immediately returned to The Associated Press.
Joan Vincent, public affairs officer at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center, said she couldn't comment on Akaka's letter, and that privacy laws prevented her from confirming whether Schulze had been at the facility.
She said internal reviews are ongoing and the VA is "very, very good about trying to learn what happened when an adverse event occurs."
"Our biggest concern is this is a really tragic incident and of course we express our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of this young man," Vincent said. "We also want to encourage anyone with suicidal thoughts to seek help."
Steve Moynihan, public affairs officer for the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, also could not get into specifics of Schulze's case.
One unresolved question is how full the hospitals were.
Ten of 25 beds in the Minneapolis VA's locked psychiatric unit are occupied this week, Moynihan said Wednesday. He said the unit doesn't have a waiting list.
The St. Cloud VA has no waiting list for its locked psychiatric unit — and never has, Vincent said. However, a separate residential mental health unit with beds had a waiting list of 21 veterans on Monday, she said. That unit is more for ongoing cases involving mental health and substance abuse, she said.
"We've never had a wait list for our beds in the acute psychiatric unit, where we would likely take people if we were thought they were suicidal," Vincent said.
In an earlier media report, Schulze's father, Jim Schulze, and his stepmother, Marianne Schulze, said their son would still be alive if the VA acted on his pleas for admittance. His parents said he unsuccessfully sought help at the facility in Minneapolis before going to St. Cloud.
On Jan. 16, Schulze called family and friends to tell them he was preparing to kill himself. They called the New Prague police, who found him hanging from an electrical cord.
Schulze's family doctor said he was convinced Schulze suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"For a veteran at risk of suicide, contact with VA must trigger a response that will prevent suicide and provide ongoing monitoring and care," wrote Akaka.
He said that in 2004, a series of initiatives were developed to improve VA's ability to prevent suicide, and he believes all those initiatives have not been implemented. He asked the VA for information on efforts to continue to prevent suicide among vets.
Separately, the Minnesota Senate on Wednesday issued a statement also asking for information on prevention efforts, and urging the VA to find out what led to the tragedy.