In a stunning admission, top officials at the Veterans
Health Administration confirmed that the agency�s own statistics show that an
average of 126 veterans per week -- 6,552 veterans per year -- commit suicide,
according to an internal email distributed to several VA officials.
Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kussman, the undersecretary for health
at the VA, sent the email, dated Dec. 15, 2007. Kussman had inquired about the
accuracy of a news report published that month claiming the suicide rate among
veterans was 18 per day.
�McClatchy [Newspapers] alleges that 18 veterans kill
themselves everyday and this is confirmed by the VA�s own statistics,� Kussman
wrote. �Is that true? Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million
In an email response to Kussman, Ira Katz, the head of
mental health at the VA, confirmed the statistics and added �VA�s own data
demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us.�
This week, in a federal courthouse in San Francisco, that
email will be cited as evidence that the VA has failed to properly treat
veterans who suffer from PTSD and veterans who are suicidal. Those allegations
were made in a class action lawsuit filed against the VA by two veterans
advocacy groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth,
alleging a systematic breakdown at the VA has led to an epidemic of suicides.
The organizations claim the VA, which has a backlog of
600,000 benefits claims to sort through, is unprepared to deal with cases of
posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] among veterans returning from Iraq and
Afghanistan, and has turned away veterans who have sought help for depression
at VA hospitals. Some of those veterans later committed suicide, according to
The groups want a federal judge to issue a preliminary
injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show signs of PTSD
and are at risk of suicide.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person
who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is said to be the
most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat.
According to a copy of the lawsuit filed in July 2007, �more
than any previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to produce a
high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD,� due to the widespread use of
improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity of fighting
combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National Guard members and
Those figures are now supported by a comprehensive study
released by the RAND Corporation last week stating that about 300,000 U.S.
troops sent to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from major depression
or PTSD, and 320,000 received traumatic brain injuries.
Early warnings ignored
Prior to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the VA
issued a report to Pentagon and White House officials saying that it expected
that the number of U.S. troops who would suffer from PTSD would reach a maximum
of about 8,000.
But Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for
Common Sense, told lawmakers those estimates were extremely low. He continued
to sound early warning alarms about the extent of PTSD cases and the likelihood
of veteran suicides during numerous appearances before Congress over the years.
�The scope of PTSD in the long term is enormous and must be
taken seriously. When all of our 1.6 million service members eventually return
home from Iraq and Afghanistan, based on the current rate of 20 percent, VA may
face up 320,000 total new veterans diagnosed with PTSD,� Sullivan told a
congressional committee in July 2007. If America fails to act now and overhaul
the broken DoD and VA disability systems, there may a social catastrophe among
many of our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. That is why VCS
reluctantly filed suit against VA in Federal Court . . . Time is running out.�
Sullivan has urged Congress to enact legislation to overhaul
�Congress should legislate a presumption of service
connection for veterans diagnosed [with] PTSD who deployed to a war zone after
9/11,� Sullivan told lawmakers last year. �A presumption makes it easier for
dedicated and hard-working VA employees to process veterans� claims. This
results in faster medical treatment and benefits for our veterans.�
Yet despite Sullivan�s dire predictions and calls for
legislative action the issue has not been given priority treatment by
lawmakers. Instead, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq to the tune of
about $200 billion and will likely pour another $108 billion into Iraq later
next month. Meanwhile, a backlog of veterans� benefits claims continue to pile
up at the VA.
The VA said it has hired more than 3,000 mental healthcare
professionals over the past two years to deal with the increasing number of
PTSD cases, but the problems persist.
VA says vets not �entitled� to healthcare
The lawsuit alleges that numerous VA practices stemming from
a 1998 law violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans
suffering from PTSD by denying veterans mandated medical care.
�Seeking help from the Department of Veterans� Affairs . . .
involves a two-track system,� says a copy of the plaintiff�s trial brief filed
in federal court last week.
�A veteran will go to the Veterans� Health Administration
for diagnosis and medical care; and a veteran goes to the Veterans� Benefits
Administration to apply for service-connection and disability compensation.
�VA is failing these veterans as they move along both of
these parallel tracks. They are not receiving the healthcare to which they are
entitled (and where they do receive it, it is unreasonably delayed) and they
are not able to get timely compensation for their disabilities, which means
that they have no safety net. These two problems combine to create a perfect
storm for PTSD veterans: they receive no treatment, so their symptoms get
worse; and they receive no compensation, so they cannot go elsewhere for treatment.
The failings of these two separate but interrelated systems are what this
action seeks to address.�
Justice Department attorneys had argued in court papers
filed last month that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not
"entitled" to the five years of free healthcare upon their return
from combat as mandated by Congress in the "Dignity for Wounded Warriors
Act." Rather, the VA argued, medical treatment for the war veterans was
discretionary based on the level of funding available in the VA's budget.
But during a court hearing hearing last month before U.S.
District Court Judge Samuel Conti, Dr. Gerald Cross, the Principal Deputy Under
Secretary for Health, Veterans Health Administration, said that veterans of
Iraq and Afghanistan were not only entitled to free healthcare, but he said
"there is no co-pay."
Additionally, Cross testified that of the 300,000 veterans
of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars treated at VA hospitals, more than half were
diagnosed with a serious mental condition, 68,000 of which were cases of PTSD.
His testimony marked the first time a Bush administration
official has provided detailed information about the psychological impact of
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on combat veterans. Cross testified that five
years after the invasion of Iraq, the VA has still not completed a study on the
link between suicides and PTSD among combat veterans. However, he said such a
study is currently in the works and may be published soon.
Gordon Erspamer, an attorney representing the veterans
groups, said in an interview that the VA has said publicly it is doing
everything it can for veterans, but the Bush administration�s true position is
�veterans are not entitled to healthcare if that is what we decide.�
�The agency is very hostile to most of these guys on mental
health issues,� Erspamer said. �A lot of them who work at the VA are veterans
themselves and it's the suck it up mentality. It�s a total failure of
leadership and management. They were totally unprepared for this many
casualties and totally unprepared for PTSD.�
Soldier�s suicide warnings ignored
Chris Scheuerman, a retired Special Forces masters sergeant,
testified before a congressional committee last month that there is an urgent
need for mental health reform in the military.
Scheuerman said his son, Pfc. Jason Scheuerman, went to see
an Army psychologist because he had been suicidal.
The Army psychologist wrote up a report saying Jason
Scheuerman �was capable of (faking) mental illness in order to manipulate his
command,� according to documents the soldier's father turned over to Congress.
�Jason desperately needed a second opinion after his
encounter with the Army psychologist,� Chris Scheuerman testified in mid-March
before the Armed Services Committee�s Military Personnel Subcommittee.
�The Army did offer him that option, but at his own expense.
How is a PFC (private first class) in the middle of Iraq supposed to get to a
civilian mental health care provider at his own expense?� he said. �I believe a
soldier should be afforded the opportunity to a second opinion via
teleconference with a civilian mental health care provider of their own
Jason Scheuerman shot himself with a rifle on July 30, 2005.
The 20-year-old�s suicide note was nailed to the closet in his barracks. It said,
�Maybe now I can get some peace.�
Dr. Arthur Blank, a renowned expert on PTSD who has worked
closely with the VA, testified during the federal court hearing in San
Francisco last month that multiple deployments are largely responsible for an
increase in veterans suicides.
"I think it's because of multiple deployments, which
means one is exposed to trauma over and over again," Blank testified.
Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit
www.newsjunkiebook.com for a