On behalf of the Save the VA Committee, I would like to offer our condolences to the victims and families of victims of the shooting at the Naval Yard in Washington, D.C., last week.
We are at a loss to explain the acts of violence perpetrated by a veteran of the armed services on co-workers and civilians. But this incident adds to a long list of perceived failures of the Veterans Administration to address the mental health of our veterans.
The month of September has been harsh on the Veterans Administration as it is being scrutinized by the press and the public for veterans’ deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease and the lack of mental health care for our nation’s heroes leading to more suicides.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs met in Pittsburgh on Sept. 9 to hear testimony about problems with health care at agency facilities in that city and others. Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary of health for the Veterans Administration, testified before the committee to defend the agency against allegations of mismanagement and cover-up at the Pittsburgh VA.
Since 2011 at least five veterans died of Legionnaire’s at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. Family members were outraged that Michael Moreland, the Medical Center Director of the Pittsburgh facility, received a $63,000 bonus in 2012, despite the emerging story of the Legionnaire’s outbreak. Petzel went on to say that Moreland would not be asked to return his bonus.
The committee then turned its attention to veterans who claimed they did not receive adequate treatment for mental health issues. The committee heard testimony from families of deceased veterans who committed suicide.
Joseph Petit injured his knees during parachute training as a U.S. Army Ranger and sought the VA’s help. The agency finally said “the problem was in his head and sent him home with meds for his head, not his knees,” his sister told the panel. Joseph committed suicide in the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, Ga., in November, “locked in a hospital bathroom dead in his wheelchair, a plastic trash bag tied over his head with a blue cord around his neck,” reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
And there is the story of Daniel Somers as reported by Joe Davidson of the Washington Post: “Once a Humvee turret gunner in Iraq, Daniel Somers became so frustrated with his attempts to get VA medical and mental health treatment that he felt the government had ‘turned around and abandoned me.’” Somers shot himself in the head on a Phoenix street, leaving a note to his family that said he was “too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.”
There are many stories of veterans who have fallen through the cracks of our medical system. Sadly, some of these stories end in tragedy.
The members of the Save the VA Committee have considered the root cause of these scenarios on numerous occasions. Over the past nine months the domiciliary in Hot Springs has had 30-40 empty beds per night, beds that could be used for homeless veterans, veterans with substance abuse issues or veterans with PTSD.
On July 26 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the award of $761,436 in homeless prevention grant to the Rapid City Cornerstone Rescue Mission. Yet, over the last three months, the Hot Springs VA has turned away 70 veterans who applied for admission to the domiciliary. They have been turned away despite the empty beds.
The Save the VA Committee does not know where these veterans are today. But more importantly, neither do Dr. Petzel, Secretary Shinseki nor Black Hills Management know where they are.
We can only pray that one of these veterans does not commit suicide, or worse, take out his frustration like the shooter in Washington.
What our veterans earned, we deliver!
Please, Secretary Shinseki, let the employees of the Veterans Administration provide these services and stop turning veterans away. Remember our mission, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle!”