Man is the only animal of which I am thoroughly and cravenly afraid...There is no harm in a well-fed lion. It has no ideals, no sect, no party...
George Bernard Shaw
Original Blog US Casualties Contact Donate

April 23, 2008

Vets' Lawsuit Opens Door on Suicides, Poor Care

by Aaron Glantz

The United States government does such a bad job of caring for wounded war veterans, advocates told a federal judge in San Francisco Monday, that 18 veterans commit suicide every week.

"The suicide problem is out of control," said Gordon Erspamer, an attorney representing the groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). "Our veterans deserve better."

Erspamer's comments came in opening arguments for what is expected to be a week-long trial, the first class action brought on behalf of 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Early arguments were punctuated by allegations top government officials deliberately deceived the U.S. public about the number of veterans attempting suicide.

In one e-mail made public during the trial, the head of the VA's Mental Health division, Dr. Ira Katz, advised a media spokesperson not to tell reporters 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.

"Shh!" the e-mail begins.

"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 e-mail concludes.

According to CBS News, Katz's e-mail was written shortly after the VA provided the network with data showing there were only 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007 – a fraction of Katz's estimate.

Earlier this month, the city of Dallas, Texas, closed its psychiatric unit after the hospital experienced its fourth suicide of the year.

"On April 4, a man fastened a bed sheet to the bottom corner of a door frame, draped a noose over the top, and hanged himself," the Dallas Morning News reported last week. "Before that, a veteran hanged himself on a frame attached to his wheelchair. And in January, two men who met in the psychiatric ward committed suicide in Collin County days after being released."

"The system is in crisis, and unfortunately the VA is in denial," Erspamer told the court, urging U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti to appoint a special master to oversee the troubled agency. The veterans' groups are also seeking a judge's order forbidding the VA from turning away any veteran who shows up at a facility seeking mental health care.

In a number of high-profile cases, Iraq war veterans have killed themselves after being turned away from the VA.

Lawyers for the government argued strongly against the veterans, countering the VA runs a "world-class health care system." Multiple times during his opening statement, Justice Department lawyer Richard Lepley portrayed the veterans' groups as "special interests" and argued the changes the groups seek in their lawsuit – better and faster mental health care, and more rights for veterans appealing denials of benefits – are beyond the judge's authority.

"You have no standards to judge," Lepley told Conti. "This court shouldn't be trying to be a substitute for what the medical professionals at the VA decide."

No veterans are set to testify at the trial, which focuses on the nature of the Byzantine bureaucratic system veterans must navigate to receive health care and disability benefits. According the Department of Veterans Affairs, the average time a veteran must wait to learn if his or her disability claim has been approved is 185 days, or about six months.

Veterans' groups countered the real wait is much longer, noting that if a veteran appeals the disability ruling, the appeals process can drag on for years. According to internal VA documents provided by the plaintiffs, 526 veterans have died this year while their disability claims were being reviewed.

None of this surprises Kelly Conklin of Chunchula, Alabama.

Her husband Manuel was reduced to a wheelchair after experiencing a negative reaction to an anthrax vaccine administered as he was preparing to deploy to Iraq with the U.S. Navy in 2003. Military doctors pumped him with steroids and other medicine in hopes he would recover, Conklin said, but in 2005 she came to realize that was unlikely and filed a claim with the VA for disability compensation.

After three years, the family is still waiting.

"It's an every day battle," Kelly Conklin told IPS. "We're having grits and eggs for supper tonight and a lot of nights. Sometimes we don't eat anything but lima beans for supper – it depends on what we have."

In the absence of a regular paycheck or a disability check, Conklin says her family of four is now living almost completely off charity, with much of the food they eat coming from the local food bank.

She said she used to be proud of her husband for his service in the Navy, but has now forbidden her youngest son from joining the Armed Forces.

"If it sounds like I'm down, yes I am down," she told IPS. "If I sound like I'm bitter, you got that right. They've taken everything away from me. The only thing left for them to take from me is my birthday."

"When we give them our spouses, we give them whole," she said. "And if you can't make him whole [again], then you make sure he's taken care of."

(Inter Press Service)

comments on this article?

  • Winter Soldier: Domingo Rosas

  • Peace Activists Welcome Obama, Will Push Him

  • Calling Gitmo What It Is

  • These Are the
    Consequences of War

  • McCain Should Know Better

  • Revelations of an Abu Ghraib Interrogator

  • Fallujah Fall Guy

  • Iraq Veterans Describe Atrocities to Lawmakers

  • Soldier Refuses Iraq Tour, Citing 'Stomach-Churning Horrors'

  • Vets' Lawsuit Opens Door on Suicides, Poor Care

  • Army 'Rewards' Outspoken Antiwar Soldier

  • Winter Soldiers Move Toward GI Resistance

  • US Vets Testify to Torture of Detainees

  • Tune in to Winter Soldier Hearings

  • Embattled Veterans Official Resigns Post

  • Vets Break Silence on War Crimes

  • States Consider Calling Back National Guards from Iraq

  • Bush Signs Vets Bill, Won't Ban Permanent Bases

  • Dear Soldiers: Your Government Lied to You

  • Parsing the Democrats' Iraq Plans

  • Wounded Vets Trade One Hell for Another

  • Iraq, Afghanistan War Costs Top Vietnam

  • US War Vets to Speak Publicly About War Crimes

  • Canada Shuts Doors to US War Resisters

  • Outrage in a Time of Apathy

  • Case Crumbles Against Officer Who Refused Iraq

  • Peace Activist's Son Discovers Pain of War

  • Troubled Soldier Gets Demoted, Not Treated

  • US Vote Could Close 'School of the Americas'

  • Homeless Vets Struggle Long After War's End

  • Latino Soldiers Who Refused Iraq Speak Out

  • Suicidal and Facing a Third Tour in Iraq

  • Iraqis' Mental Health Suffering, Say Doctors

  • Moms Spend Their Weekend Protesting War in Iraq

  • Ex-Soldier Recalls Horrors of Abu Ghraib

  • Iraq, Afghanistan War Vets Find Relief in the Footlights

  • Civilian Court Sides With 'Conscientious Objector'

  • Congressman Trades Iraq Vote for Spinach

  • US Religious Leaders Urge Bush to Talk to Iran

  • US Ill-Equipped to Deal With Wave of Troubled Vets

  • Reprieve for Officer Who Denounced 'Immoral War'

  • Officer Who Refused Iraq Tour Goes on Trial

  • Democrats Sidestep Defunding Demands

  • US Military Spied on Hundreds of Antiwar Demos

  • Antiwar Groups Plan Surge on Washington

  • A US Soldier Speaks Out
    From Baghdad

  • Sick, Literally, of Fighting in Iraq

  • More Subpoenas Come Down in Watada Case

  • Iraq Vets Come Home Physically, Mentally Butchered

  • Saddam's Death Leaves Unanswered Questions

  • Reporter Summoned to Testify Against War Resister

  • Experts Expect Democrats to Increase Military Spending

  • Natives of Guam Decry US Expansion Plan

  • Democrats Let Gates Slide

  • Spying Won't Deter Us,
    Peace Groups Say

  • Rural America Suffering High Death Toll in Iraq, Afghanistan

  • Military Plea Bargains Raise Questions of Justice

  • Antiwar Voters May Get Less Than They Bargained For

  • Active-Duty GIs Call for Withdrawal

  • Iraq Brings Wounds That Deepen With Time

  • More Dissension in the Ranks

  • Iraq Violence Leading to Academic Brain Drain

  • In Iraq, Strife Follows US Military Wherever It Goes

  • I'm a Veteran, and I Support/Despise This War

  • Doctors Under Fire in Iraq
  • Aaron Glantz is a reporter for Pacifica Radio who spent much of the last year in Iraq. His radio documentary, "Iraq: One Year of Occupation and Resistance," can be accessed online at www.fsrn.org.


    Reproduction of material from any original Antiwar.com pages
    without written permission is strictly prohibited.
    Copyright 2003 Antiwar.com