Why Are We Failing Our Veterans?
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 can we let these soldiers die by their own hand because we aren’t giving them adequate mental health services and disability benefits? As Americans, we should be demanding more for them.
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- Turn away a veteran of some 400 combat missions in Iraq because he’s no longer active in the National Guard.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.
By 2008, a year after the end of his second deployment, he was diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (suffered in combat), fibromyalgia, and a host of other medical problems.
Somers sent a letter to the VA in October 2011, describing his symptoms as worsening in several ways. He had nightly panic attacks and auditory hallucinations.
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 16, 2014, the Veterans Health Administration’s top health official, Dr. Robert Petzel, retired early at the request of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.
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.”
After reading this tragic story, I am even more sickened that this Obama administration plans to let 5 MILLION more illegals stay here in this country when our own service men and women are in a horrible situation of not being given proper care when returning home after serving our country. We need to take care of our own first and securing our own borders should be paramount in the step to better care for our own citizens, especially American Vets.
We must do better. For not only regular armed forces, but our National Guard as well. People who denigrate the National Guard, as part time or not real soldiers have no idea what our Guard troops face. In Idaho our National Guard was formed to go fight the Spanish American War, and the Guard has been called up in every war since. The government now is relying more and more on the Guard, as combat troops, but they aren't getting the services they need when they come home. The economy is bad, jobs are scarce, and our troops come home to an apathetic public. Things need to change.
Belinda's comments above are excellent. We should be embarrassed by how our Vets are treated, but the answer is so complicated. When my Dad and others returned from WW II, because of the times, and how men responded to any crisis, little to nothing was talked about. I lived through Vietnam and it, too, isn't simply a right or wrong answer. Again, the times were reflected in how EVERYONE acted and reacted. Then we had the more recent wars. We went in totally unprepared for what we thought was going to be a simple "Shock and Awe" extravaganza and were dealt a horrific blow. A war that lasts more than a decade has repercussions which we never anticipated and we are experiencing that blow-back now in these totally shocking stories of how Vets are treated. We sent them off to war and didn't plan for the after-war in the 21st century to help them re-enter into society. The world, the technology, the terrorist complexities are all new and we are trying to deal with things the same way we did following WW II. The answers are complex and sadly aren't coming fast enough to combat the horrors of these recent wars.
This just makes me want to cry! Not only are we failing to give any help to veterans, the medical help we have for the mentally ill is often failing. Case in point–Robin Williams had the best help he could find and had more than one anti depressants in his system when he killed himself. One of the warnings on anti depressants is—-suicide.
This entire situation is so very sad to me but unfortunately it is not as simple as we would all like for it to be. Being the wife of a USAF veteran who served for 12 years and now is 90% disabled after his service I have seen up front and center what he has had to face. I've also had to deal with the VA. I am not one who will sit here and say the system is perfect by any means, were it perfect we wouldn't have these that are falling through the cracks and taking their own lives.
But I will say that it is my humble opinion that it is not only the fault of the VA – it is not that simple. I will also add that my husband being disabled has received tremendous care from the VA, their staff and doctors in TX and in AR for many years. Perfect? Absolutely not but is the care received in a public hospital perfect?
As many here have said the healthcare system in this country is broken to begin with. When a soldier serves in the military regardless of whether he served in combat or not he is given benefits for the time that he served. For many of these young men and women coming home from war today they have only served one tour of duty and many of them have not retired from the military, they have chosen to get out of the military because of their experiences.
When a soldier gets out of the military without retirement benefits are limited just as they would be in the private sector. Anyone who has served in the military can receive medical care at the VA hospital in an emergency situation. Otherwise they are given medical care at the facility based on their injuries or illnesses that were caused while in service in the military. I'm not saying this is the way it should be I'm only saying that this is how the system is set up.
A soldier is also rated on disability based on the injuries he received while in service. Yes the claim system takes a long time for there are many veterans filing claims each day. Personnel cannot keep up with the claims and therefore the time is long to wait for a ruling on the claim.
As most coming back from the Middle East today are certain to have PTSD YES claims should be expedited but again it's just not that simple. But let me add that expedited claims has been put in place in recent months for these soldiers.
I've also experienced mental health issues myself, with my son and my husband. I know how pressing it can be to seek immediate care.
My only point in all of this is it's not solely the fault of our government, our military, and the VA. When it comes right down to it every situation is different. Blame can be laid on many different people, organizations, situations, etc. I personally believe that the beginning of change for these young men and women is the public healthcare system. The system they have to use while the process is being gone through for the care they deserve from the VA. We all know our healthcare system in American is broken whether everyone wants to admit it or not. That is where the change needs to begin IMO.
Thank you for this post Brenda. God bless these soldiers and their families. May we all take a stand where it is needed to make the changes happen.
It is so sad . Go back to Viet Nam. Remember how those soldiers were treated when they came home. I am surprised how many tours some soldiers have. My son had two tours in the Middle East……each a year. Too long. When he came home he struggled. Just being out in the public, he would always be on alert. He was one of the ones that could move on. But in his current job, he is reminded of the past. We need to support these soldiers that come bsck wounded but physically and mentally. Their families go through so much as well. They also need support. Thanks for bringing this to the surface.
Brenda, this is such an important topic to share. Frankly, those percentages on that chart for the numbers of veterans who experience PTSD seems low to me! Thanks for doing a great service by reminding people of this situation.
Thank you Brenda for a beautiful and informative post..
I do appreciate these parents up there fighting for those who are still alive and suffering through similar pain as the children they lost..
It wont be enough to change things.. Their words will be heard by Few and acted on by Fewer.. I am not a pessimist but I am a realist.. Until the masses take time out of their cushy lives, gather together, and scream till all the world hears and it becomes so embarrassing to our government– there will be no change.
We are always so busy spending money and resources and energy that would best be spent warring against the injustices and inequality we face right here in our own country. We must find a way to Gather and Revolt inn numbers that could not be ignored~~~!!! For a country who constantly TALKS religion and being under GOD, we show very littlle LOVE, COMPASSION and Kindness to each other, which was supposed to be the Greatest Teaching. Its spoken a lot but rarely shown.. Actions speak louder than words~! and we have far too many words and far too little action.
I too am surprised at how few comments there are on this post. I don't get your updates until the next day, but I know most of your readers get them the minute they're published.
There are so many things that are broken in this country. Health care in general, and the care of our veterans, are at the top of this list. It sounds like through the advocacy of these parents strides are being made. At least let's hope so.
I did it…wasnt hard afterall!
Brenda, this is so sad…so outrageous! Id love to share it on facebook for more people to see but I dont know how. Im going to try something..
Yes, it is sad at the lack of comments regarding this article. Maybe, it is because of apathy or maybe it is because of ignorance of the issues. I am the wife of a veteran who served two tours in Vietnam. I am the aunt of a nephew who died in Afghanistan. I certainly understand why we are where we are concerning our veterans and their families. We all have a voice, as these parents did, and we all have opportunities to use those voices to be heard. But first, we have to care enough to use those voices. Maybe that is the problem. Brenda, thank you for caring.
It is inexcusable how we are treating our returning vets. We spend billions of dollars sending them into war and then refuse to take care of them when they return. I am ashamed of our country. My father was a WWII vet, a prisoner of war. I know now that he had PTSD when he returned. Taking care of our vets should be at the top of our priorities list. xo Laura
Sad at the lack of comments here regarding this article. And sad at the general apathy overall in our country regarding our vets. They fight for our lives, but we can't be bothered to fight for theirs once they return home. Sad. Very sad. Thank you so much, Brenda, for sharing this with us.
Brenda, Thank you so much for sharing this. My heart aches for these men and their families. God Bless our Military/Veterans Dawn
Brenda this is a much needed post! I too am distressed at the lack of mental health services available in our country and especially for the men and women who put their lives on the line for us. They deserve so much more and the suicide rates show this. How tragic for the veterans, the families and us as a country! I'm going to post a link to this on my FB page! Great information that needs to be shared.
My son has lost several comrades to suicide since they came back from Iraq
He and his brigade had casualties over there to get over and then when they came home there were more.
Maybe a lot of it has to do with the support system you had when going and returning. I know that there are things that he never told me that I found out from others that he went through…/ for instance they took care of the vehicles. So when a friend was blown up in one, they had to clean it / perform maintenance on it afterwards. Enough said. 🙁
We treat those in our country illegally, 100% better than we treat our Veterans. What a horrible tragedy. This is unacceptable, when are we (as a country) going to change this?
OMG, Brenda. How very, very horrible. What a terrible end to a person's life-to be ignored and treated as unimportant when they were there protecting the freedom of all of us…including those that treat them. It makes my heart ache. xo Diana
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