April 27, 2008 – Shh,” began the e-mail referring to 12,000 veterans who attempt suicide each year while the Department of Veterans Affairs tries to provide for their care. It continued with a question: “Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
The writer: Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s mental-health director.
Another e-mail from a VA official in December confirmed that U.S. veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 18 per day.
The reason? The VA has been unable to keep pace with the growing number of veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and returned home in need of mental-health care.
Suing to get care
Both e-mails were revealed Monday in San Francisco during the opening arguments of a class-action suit against the VA, being heard in U.S. District Court. The plaintiffs — Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., and the Santa Barbara-based Veterans United for Truth — want the judge to order the VA to provide immediate treatment for suicidal veterans and prompt care for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
A Department of Justice attorney, however, argued that the VA provides “world-class” medical care and urged the District Court judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
Sorry, the Justice Department attorney misses the point. All indications show veterans are not getting the “world-class” care they deserve and, as a result, are dying as they wait.
The need for swift treatment was underscored by the RAND Corp. in a study released April 17. It indicated that as many as 300,000 troops returning from Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from major depression or PTSD. That represents 18.5 percent of all troops who served in the two war zones.
Having depression or PTSD increases the chances of suicidal tendencies. As the veterans advocates told the District Court, 120 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan commit suicide each week while the government drags its feet in granting mental-health-care benefits.
Trying to keep pace
The Justice Department attorney told the judge the VA has tried to keep up, adding 20 percent more mental-health employees and 25 percent more in claims processing.
That might help, but it is not enough by half. Already, it takes the VA six months to decide a claim, and the backlog of disability claims has reached 650,000, an increase of 200,000 since the 2003 start of the Iraq war. That is too long a wait and too large a backlog.
And what happens if the claim is denied? The veteran who seeks benefits through the VA’s grievance system has no right to an attorney or to demand records or to question opposing witnesses.
How utterly contemptible that those who put their lives on the line for this nation and come home in need of urgent care are treated as if they were trying to scam the government. Such petty bureaucratic red tape demeans the valor this nation’s veterans have exhibited.
The VA should be pulling out all the stops so veterans, especially those who are suicidal, get immediate help.
Already, some are alleging the e-mail by Dr. Katz suggests the VA mental-health division wanted to cover up this dirty little secret. If so, swift discipline is needed. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called for Dr. Katz’s resignation last week.
Government needs to act
Cleaning house is not enough. The very people responsible for putting troops in harm’s way — the Bush administration and Congress — need to act. President Bush must ask for and Congress must allocate the funding the VA needs to care for the burgeoning number of veterans returning from battle.
People expect death on the battlefield. And too many young men and women have already died, especially in the government’s war of expediency in Iraq. However, we do not expect veterans to die of neglect at home and we must not stand for it.
In nearly seven years of war, five of those in Iraq alone, civilians have been chanting a simple mantra: “Support the troops.” They have done just that, including sending troops upgraded body armor the government had been slow to provide.
It is time now for the government to provide returning veterans the care and dignity they deserve.