The mother of a U.S. soldier who committed suicide found herself overcome with emotion on Thursday as she tried to tell Congress about her son’s struggle to get medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jean Somers was one of several parents who told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee their gut-wrenching stories about how the VA ignored their sons’ need for medical attention, and how that lack of aid and compassion contributed to their suicides.
Somers and her husband said their son Daniel took his own life after his second deployment in Iraq, and after failing to receive medical care from the VA. When asked by Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) to provide more details, Mrs. Somers was unable to speak after just a few moments.
Her husband was left to tell the story of how the VA ignored their son when he showed up at the Phoenix VA health system in desperate need for medical care, but was told there was no room for him.
“The fact is that he went into the corner, he laid down on the floor, he was crying, there was no effort made to see if he could be admitted to another facility,” he said.
“He was told that you can stay here, and when you feel better you can drive yourself home,” he said. “That is just an example of the lack of advocacy, the lack of compassion.”
“Upon initially accessing the VA system, he was, essentially, denied therapy. He had innumerable problems with VA staff being uncaring, insensitive and adversarial,” Mr. Somers said earlier in the hearing. “Literally no one at the facility advocated for him.”
In their opening remarks, Mrs. Somers said the VA made it very difficult for her son to get a health appointment.
“The VA’s appointment system, known as VISTA, is at best in adequate,” she said. “It impedes access and lacks basic documentation.”
Another family, Susan and Richard Selke, said their son Clay returned from Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder, and received a 30 percent disability rating.
“After discovering that his condition prevented him from maintaining a steady job, Clay appealed the 30 percent rating only to be met with significant bureaucratic barriers, including the VA losing his files,” Susan Selke said.
She said he finally received a 100 percent disability rating five weeks after he took his own life.
His mother also noted that the VA made it difficult for him to refill his prescriptions after he moved back home to Texas. “The Houston VA would not refill the prescriptions that Clay had received from the Grand Junction VA, because they said that prescriptions were not transferable, and a new assessment would have to be done before his medications could be re-prescribed,” she said.
She said the VA health system proved too stressful for her son to use. After one appointment with a psychiatrist, Clay called his mother and said, “I can’t go back there. The VA is way too stressful and not a place I can go.”
After her son’s death, she went to the VA to pick up his medical records.
“I encountered an environment that was highly stressful. There were large crowds, no one was at the information desk, and I had to flag down a nurse to ask directions to the medical records area,” she said.
“I cannot imagine how anyone dealing with mental health injuries like PTS could successfully access care in such a stressful setting without exacerbating their symptoms.”
Peggy Portwine lost her son Brian to suicide after he was injured in eight different IED explosions. But she said at the hearing that despite his PTSD, anxiety, memory problems and other medical issues, he was quickly discharged from the VA system.
“[H]e was immediately discharged and told to follow up,” she said, even though doctors said he was at risk for suicide. “If the DOD and VA assess Brian for suicide risk, it was their duty to treat him, but he received nothing.
“How in the world you can ask someone who can’t remember the questions asked to follow with the VA is beyond me.”
Josh Renschler, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant, said his own experiences indicate that the VA is not doing as well at providing overall care to returning veterans, and is instead treating symptoms in a piecemeal fashion.
“We won’t prevent suicides by doctors mechanically going down a mandatory list asking questions like, have you contemplated suicidal thoughts lately, or harming others,” he said.
“In a treatment system where I get sent to Building 3 for a neurologist for chronic back pain, Building 61 to see a psychiatrist for sleep problems, and Building 81 to see a social worker for relationship issues, no one’s getting the full picture.”