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
"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
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)