Veteran Suicides Draw Tearful Families to Capitol Hill

Jul 10, 2014 5:10pm
GTY military suicides mar 140710 16x9 608 Veteran Suicides Draw Tearful Families to Capitol Hill

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

ABC News’ Alexander Mallin and Jake Lefferman report:

In an emotional House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing today, a panel of parents decried failures in the VA and the Department of Defense as contributing to the mental pressures that led their sons to kill themselves.

“Perhaps none of these hearings have presented the all-too-human face of VA’s failures so much as today’s hearing will,” committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said.

Jean and Dr. Howard Somers, the parents of Army Sgt. Daniel Somers, spoke of their son’s experience navigating the VA system in Phoenix.

“He presented there in crisis, he said he needed to be admitted to the hospital,” Somers said, having to finish for his wife who had started the story but broke into tears. “He was told by their mental health department that they had no beds, and he was told there were no beds in the emergency department.

“The fact is that he went in to the corner. He lay down on the floor. He was crying. But he was told you can stay here and when you feel better you can drive yourself home.”

Daniel, 30, had largely condemned his experience with the system in his suicide letter published by Gawker 12 days after his death.

“Thus, I am left with basically nothing,” Somers wrote. “Abandoned by those who would take the easy route, and a liability to those who stick it out – and thus deserve better.”

The panel cited a 2012 Suicide Data report that estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the United States.

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The Somers were also joined by Peggy Portwine, the mother of deceased Army veteran Brian Portwine. She blamed the VA and DOD for clearing her son for redeployment after multiple traumatic combat experiences.

“Upon returning from the second deployment in 2010, Brian was diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, depression and anxiety,” Portwine said. “I never knew of his conditions. He deteriorated quickly from December 2010 to May 2010 when he took his life. If the DOD and VA assessed Brian for high suicide risk, it was their duty to treat him, but he received nothing.”

The hearing is the latest in a series of full hearings held by congressional committees that have charged the VA with individual and systemic issues that have been alleged to have caused hundreds of deaths of former servicemen and women.

“Not one more parent should have to testify before a congressional committee to compel the VA to fulfill its responsibilities to those who served and sacrificed,” said Susan Selke, whose son Clay Hunt, 28, committed suicide in March 2011 after serving in the Marine Corps. “Despite his proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs.”

Among the problems acknowledged by the panel were issues with multiple prescription trials the veterans were put through, increasing complications observed in gaining access to VA systems, and direct negligence in addressing immediate care.

Sgt. Josh Renschler described his personal experience navigating the VA system as one that spiraled downward after the elimination of a program deemed too costly despite its positive effect on his mental health.

“Now, I get better customer service at Best Buy, quite frankly,” Renschler said. “We need a system that serves the veteran, not one that requires the veteran to accommodate to that system.”

The parents and Sgt. Renschler all held back tears as they took questions for nearly three hours and made several broad recommendations for comprehensive changes in mental health treatment in the VA.

At the end of the testimony, the members of the committee, several of whom also choked back tears during their inquiries, gave a long-standing ovation.

In an effort to address the prevalence of suicides among veterans, Miller, along with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act in a news conference on Capitol Hill after the hearing.

Miller also said he would be looking for ways  to hold VA officials accountable for any evidence of negligence in fixing the problem.

“I’ve asked my staff to get me the hearings from the last three years where VA has told us that they have been handling mental health care cases in a timely fashion,” Miller said. “And we, in fact, know that that is not true.”

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