VA must explain inaction in preventing Iraq vet’s suicide
A veteran killed himself after telling the Veterans Administration he was considering suicide and being put on a waiting list.
THE suicide of a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran from Minnesota, who had been put on the waiting list for treatment at a veterans' hospital after saying he was considering killing himself, has prompted an appropriate inquiry by Sen. Daniel Akaka, the new chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. The denial of immediate treatment is so outrageous that it should prompt a thorough and expedited review of the Veterans Administration policy and practices dealing with mentally disturbed veterans.
The needs of Vietnam War veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder prompted Congress more than 20 years ago to require creation of a special VA committee to deal with the disorder resulting from military combat. Of the 24 recommendations the committee made in 1985 related to clinical care and education, the VA had not fully met any by 2005, according to the congressional Government Accountability Office.
In a letter this week to Michael J. Kussman, the acting undersecretary for health with the VA, Akaka said he understands that "all the suicide prevention initiatives" included in a 2004 plan by the VA's mental-health experts "have not been implemented." He called for "an expedited analysis of the events preceding Mr. Schulze's death."
The death of Jonathan Schulze, a former Marine machine gunner in Iraq, is a ramification of such delinquency. Schulze, shaken by bombings, firefights, dismembered bodies, deaths of friends and his own physical wounds, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by his family physician in a small Minnesota town while on leave from the Marines in 2004.
Schulze left the Marines in late 2005. He sought admittance to a VA hospital in Minneapolis but was told he could not be treated until months later in March. In mid-January, accompanied by his father and stepmother, he went to the VA hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., told a staff member that he was thinking of killing himself and asked to be admitted. He was told he could not be admitted that day.
The next day, a VA counselor told Schulze by phone that he was No. 26 on the waiting list. Four days later, Schulze was found hanging from an electrical cord at his home, soon after phoning family and friends to tell them that he was preparing to commit suicide.
The special VA committee created after the Vietnam War issued a report in 2004 stating that the VA "does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of new combat veterans while still providing for veterans of past wars," according to the GAO report.
"We don't have a system for this," William Phillips, the Schulze family doctor, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "The VA is overwhelmed, and we're rural doctors out here trying to deal with this. Unfortunately, we're going to see a lot of Jonathans." Such collateral damage from the war in Iraq cannot be tolerated.