Why are we failing our veterans? The brave men and women in America risk their lives to keep ours safe. And they are killing themselves in frightening numbers.
It seems that many of them have simply given up.
I happened upon this article written by Melinda Henneberger for the Washington Post on July 14, 2014. And I was overwhelmed with sadness for the parents of Daniel Somers. They testified to lawmakers about their son’s suicide after his military service ended.
Did You Know This About America’s Veterans?
A report published by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2016 analyzed 55 million veterans’ records from 1979 to 2014. Their analysis indicates that a national average of 20 veterans die from suicide per day.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) doesn’t seem to have a proper longterm plan to give these men and women what they sorely need.
There is a backlog at medical centers while veterans wait for mental health appointments that seem to take forever.
Many veterans struggle to find work after they return home. The unemployment rate is high.
Our troops are promised education benefits via the GI Bill as well as disability benefits for those who need them.
Some service members deal with homelessness. Many are dealing with long-term health problems from being near an open air burn pit. Or during the Vietnem era, Vietnam veterans were exposed to agent orange.
Inadequate Mental Health Services For Our Veterans:
How NOT To Prevent Suicide:
Howard and Jean Somers, parents of Daniel Somers, testified about their son’s suicide during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing. They spoke about the VA facility and the VA’s Mental Health Care procedures.
Parents of military veterans who took their own lives after surviving combat told a congressional panel on Thursday how not to prevent suicide:
- Turn away a veteran of some 400 combat missions in Iraq because he’s no longer active in the National Guard.
- Then turn him away because he was previously in the Guard and refer him to a military facility where he’s promptly referred back to VA.
- Now tell him to wait for a postcard with his appointment time.
- Refuse to refer him outside the Veterans Affairs health-care system.
- When he finally does get his first VA date with a psychiatrist, have that doctor inform him that he’s retiring and won’t be able to see him a second time.
- Emphasize that he will, however, be seen by another doctor – just as soon as one becomes available.
- Never get back in touch, and let him run up considerable debt getting what help he can in the private sector.
- And finally, watch that veteran sprawled on the floor, crying, in the corner of a VA hospital. Where he’s having flashbacks and begging to be admitted.
- Refuse to see him again, but assure him he’s free to stick around until he feels well enough to drive himself home.
Daniel Somers did not receive the counseling he needed in making the transition back to civilian life. The wait time was simply too long and he gave up.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Daniel Somers was the son of a physician and a health-care administrator. He had married Angeline Roth, his former high school sweetheart, in 2001. The couple had no children.
Somers enlisted in the National Guard in 2003. One year later he was deployed to Iraq as part of the Tactical Human Intelligence Team. In Operation Iraqi Freedom he served over 400 combat missions.
In that letter, he said his situation “drives me to consider suicide very seriously on a daily basis.”
On June 10, 2013, Somers died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
According to his suicide note he felt deeply troubled by his involvement in the Iraq War. The lack of post-combat support from the US government were primary reasons behind choosing to kill himself:
The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from…. To force me to do these things and then participate in the ensuing coverup is more than any government has the right to demand. Then, the same government has turned around and abandoned me….
Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day? That is more veterans than children killed at Sandy Hook, every single day…. And for what? Bush’s religious lunacy? Cheney’s ever growing fortune and that of his corporate friends? Is this what we destroy lives for?…
The fact is that any kind of ordinary life is an insult to those who died at my hand. How can I possibly go around like everyone else while the widows and orphans I created continue to struggle? If they could see me sitting here in suburbia, in my comfortable home working on some music project they would be outraged, and rightfully so….
[N]ow I am free. I feel no more pain. I have no more nightmares or flashbacks or hallucinations. I am no longer constantly depressed or afraid or worried.
I am free.
Harold and Jean Somers tearfully took turns reading their statement to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
A few times, he finished her sentence when she started to cry. Once, she did the same for him.
He said: I was called upon to employ deadly force on a regular basis – often in situations where noncombatants ended up in the crossfire. “To this day, I am unable to provide even a rough approximation as to the number of civilian deaths in which I may be complicit.”
In his final months, Somers suffered from post-traumatic stress so severe he wore a towel around his head. He said it helped keep out the voices, the light and the sound.
Somers’ parents have become strong advocates for the well-being of returning soldiers and for PTSD awareness. They authorized the release of their son’s records to the Washington Post. It was their effort to document publicly how the VA failed him, hoping they might help others in the process.
May 2014 was one month after initial reports of the Veterans Health Administration scandal of 2014 were aired on CNN. It was nearly a year after their son’s suicide when Jean and Howard Somers announced “Operation Engage America.”
It was their plan to raise awareness and educate Americans about the special needs of veterans returning home with what they had begun to call “moral injury.”
The Negligence Of The Veterans’ Health Administration:
The Veterans Health Administration controversy of 2014 was a reported pattern of negligence in the treatment of United States military veterans. Critics charged that patients at the VHA hospitals had not met the target of getting an appointment within 14 days.
In some hospitals, the staff falsified appointment records to appear to meet the 14-day target. Some patients died while they were on the waiting list.
An investigation of delays in treatment throughout the Veterans Health Administration system was conducted by the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General. The House passed legislation to fund a $1 million criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
On May 30, 2014, Secretary Shinseki resigned from office amid the fallout from the controversy.
Clay Hunt, United States Marine:
Clay Hunt, a Marine who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, took his own life in 2011. His parents, Richard and Susan Selke, added more to the “what not to do” list.
What Not To Do:
- Tell someone who has at last found an antidepressant that works well that he has to change drugs because there’s no generic version available.
- Once that hurdle is cleared, tell him the VA pharmacy doesn’t stock that drug, but it will be mailed to him in seven to 10 days. Ignore all medical advice against stopping anti-depressants cold.
- Now tell him the prescription can’t be refilled because it was written in Colorado rather than Houston, where he’s just moved — and thus he must start all over in the system, and wait to be reevaluated.
- Classify him as only entitled to 30 percent disability pay even though he is so compromised by the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress that he isn’t able to work.
- Lose his paperwork for 18 months, and then five weeks after his death, finally review his appeal and conclude that he should be on full disability. Notify his survivors of the good news.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), introduced a bill on Thursday called the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. It would require the National Guard and VA to work together.
Portwine’s Mother Speaks:
Brian was a 23 year old soldier in Infantry 1st team, 2nd Batallion, 8th division deployed to Iraq for 15 months.
During his first tour his Bradley tank was struck by an EFP and set on fire. The five in the tank were all injured. Brian suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and lacerations and shrapnel to his head, face and legs.
He also suffered with short term memory loss. After this incident he suffered from PTSD. He would wake his comrades, screaming: “We’re on fire!”
The DoD redeployed him for a 2nd tour in 2010.
In the last months of his life, Peggy says her son applied for disability, but never got it. Peggy knows now that she was watching her son battle PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
He took his life May 27th, 2011, five months after returning home from Iraq. He had lost hope for recovery. The VA and DoD failed him.
“I think that he felt lost, that he lost his hope. The VA should’ve given him that hope and the treatment,” Portwine said.
Portwine said she saw her son’s VA records after his death. She said she should have been warned that her son possibly had a life-altering condition.
“I’m begging this committee to do something,” Portwine said. “He should have gotten an automatic mental health evaluation.”