Top officials at the Veterans Administration tried to
conceal information from the public about the sudden increase of attempted
suicides among veterans that were treated or sought help at VA hospitals around
the country, a previously undisclosed internal VA email indicates.
The email was disclosed Tuesday in a federal trial at a
courthouse in Northern California, where two veterans advocacy groups filed a
class-action lawsuit against the VA alleging that a systematic breakdown at the
VA has led to an epidemic of suicides among war veterans. These groups claim
the VA has turned away veterans who have sought help for posttraumatic stress
disorder [PTSD] and were suicidal. Some of the veterans, the lawsuit claims,
later took their own lives.
The organizations thaat filed the lawsuit, Veterans for
Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, 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 and overhaul the internal system that handles
benefits claims. PTSD is said to be the most prevalent mental disorder arising
The Feb. 13, 2008, email, disclosed in federal court
Tuesday, was sent to Ira Katz, the VA�s mental health director, by Ev Chasen,
the agency�s chief communications director.
Chasen sought guidance from Katz about interview queries
from CBS News, which reported extensively on veterans' suicides last year.
�Is the fact that we�re stopping [suicides] good news, or is
the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we�ve ever seen before? It
might be something we drop into a general release about our suicide prevention
efforts, which (as you know far better than I) prominently include training
employees to recognize the warning signs of suicide,� Chasen wrote Katz in an
email with the subject line "Not for CBS News Interview Request."
Katz�s response is startling. He said the VA has identified
nearly 1,000 suicide attempts per month among war veterans treated by the VA.
His response to Chasen indicates that he did not want the VA to immediately
release any statistical data confirming that number, but rather suggested that
the agency quietly slip the information into a news release.
�Shh!� Katz wrote in his response to Chasen. �Our suicide
prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month
among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we
should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone
stumbles on it?�
The February email was sent shortly after the VA gave CBS
News data that showed only a total of 790 attempted suicides in 2007 among
veterans treated by the VA. In an email sent to the network Monday, after
Katz's email was disclosed in court, he denied a "cover-up" and said
he did not disclose the true figures of attempted suicides because he was
unsure if it was accurate.
Yesterday, Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Patty Murray of
Washington state said Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's mental health director, should
immediately resign in the wake of evidence showing he withheld crucial
information about veterans' suicides and attempted suicides.
"Dr. Katz's irresponsible actions have been a
disservice to our veterans, and it is time for him to go," said Murray, a
member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "The No. 1 priority of
the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth."
In a December email Katz sent to Brig. Gen. Michael J.
Kussman, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration
within the VA, that roughly 126 veterans of all wars commit suicide per week.
He added that data the agency obtained from the Center for Disease Control
showed that 20 percent of the suicides in the country are identified as war
The �VA�s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among
those who receive care from us,� Katz said in the email he sent to Kussman.
Pehaps underscoring just how underprepared the VA was for
the number of PTSD cases to emerge from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,
documents released to support the plaintiffs� allegations show that prior to
the U.S. invasion of Iraq the VA believed it would likely see a maximum of
8,000 cases where veterans showed signs of PTSD.
Last week, the RAND Corporation released a study that said
about 300,000 U.S. troops sent into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are
suffering from major depression or PTSD, and 320,000 received traumatic brain
injuries. Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have deployed to
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many soldiers have completed more than two
tours of duty, meaning they are exposed to prolonged periods of combat-related
stress or traumatic events.
�There is a major health crisis facing those men and women
who have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Terri Tanielian,
a researcher at RAND who worked on the study. �Unless they receive appropriate
and effective care for these mental health conditions, there will be long-term
consequences for them and for the nation. Unfortunately, we found there are
many barriers preventing them from getting the high-quality treatment they
Those are statistics Paul Sullivan, the executive director
of Veterans for Common Sense, has been warning lawmakers about for several
�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 be 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
immediately overhaul the VA.
�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
In opening statements Monday, Richard Lepley, a Justice
Department attorney, said the VA runs a "world-class health care
But Gordon Erspamer, the lead attorney representing the two
veterans groups, said the VA has arbitrarily denied coverage to thousands of
vets; that it takes nearly a year to decide whether it will provide coverage to
veterans suffering from PTSD, and takes as long as four years for the VA to
address veterans' appeals cases.
�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.�
The lawsuit the groups filed 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
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 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."
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 soldiers 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.�
Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit
www.newsjunkiebook.com for a