January 2, 2008 – On Dec. 12, at 10 in the morning, I was sitting in room 345 of the Cannon House Office Building, as Rep. Bob Filner called to order the Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on “Stopping Suicides: Mental Health Challenges Within the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
The hearings were in response to increasingly ominous rumors of soldier and veteran suicides (which the DoD and the VA have continued to deny), culminating in the dramatic CBS News report about veteran suicides released in late November. Finally, an entity with some insider clout had produced some hard numbers that attest to an epidemic of monstrous proportions. Even so, the bad guys, like Dr. Ira Katz, who is head of mental health at the VA, quibble about whether or not this is “an epidemic” or a “major problem.” “Why hasn’t the VA done a national study seeking national data on how many veterans have committed suicide in this country?” Katz was asked by the CBS reporter. “That research is ongoing,” Katz replied, looking a lot like Lucy promising not to snatch the football away again.
So, on Dec. 12, I and three other citizens found ourselves scheduled for the morning panel: Mike and Kim Bowman, whose son Tim, a veteran of the Iraq war, took his own life a year ago; Ilona Meagher, author of Moving a Nation to Care; and me — all of us, by the way, suicide survivors. We were to be followed by a second panel consisting of Katz and fellow apologists, who were supposed to eviscerate the CBS report and skewer us with their conflicting numbers. Without, of course, appearing callous, slimy or cruel.
Mike Bowmen spoke first, his wife Kim sitting beside him. Kim didn’t speak, but kept her hand on Mike’s back. It was such a simple gesture, but one that spoke volumes: Mike is capable of doing the talking, because Kim makes it possible. They are absolutely there for each other. And for their son’s memory. And for all the other parents who have already — or will someday — have to find ways to survive a death like Tim’s.
The Bowmans are devastated. Their grief is huge and terrible, and together they have found ways to give public meaning to their personal tragedy. Aside from giving such an inspiring human face to statistics so awful anyone would want to become numb and turn away from them, Mike mined his own experience and his son’s for those moments that had seemed most senselessly counterproductive if not just plain stupid. You can read the whole of his testimony on the Veterans Affairs Committee website, but two points, at least, I think are worth sharing. This first reminds me of those rebate offers that make things sound like such a deal, but are really so complicated and time-consuming to fill out that they know you’ll never do it: The VA currently protests that it can’t possibly be asked to take responsibility for veterans who have not registered with the system. They don’t know where to find them. Well then, Mike asked, “Why isn’t the VA sitting there when they get off the bus?” Why don’t they have somebody … with a computer and a desk, registering them before they can go home? They’re coming out of combat. You know that they’re going to need help. Sign them up right there. That way, you know where they are, you know who they are, and they’re in the VA system right away. Don’t make it so that the soldier has to go to the VA. Make the VA go to the soldier.” So simple. So obvious.
Mike’s other point was a simple intervention into military culture, and one that would go a long way towards undermining the age-old stigma that is the main reason soldiers don’t ask for the help they need: Instead of shunning or punishing a soldier who admits to a combat stress injury and asks for help, hold him or her up as a model. “Grab that soldier and thank him for saying, ‘I’m not OK’ and promote him,” he said. “A soldier that admits a mental injury should be the first guy you want to have in your unit because he may be the only one that really has a grasp on reality.”
When Mike and Kim Bowman finished, the entire hearing room came to its feet, and one after another, the committee members fell all over themselves thanking them for their courage and identifying with their pain. Even the Republicans, though they couldn’t quite hide their compulsion to hold soldiers responsible for their own pain. One of my favorites, Rep. Cliff Stearns from Florida, “in all candidness,” told Mike Bowman, “You coming here is good for us, but it’s probably good for you to talk about it.” And then did himself even one better when he suggested that perhaps Mike and Kim hadn’t quite lived up to their responsibility as parents. “The building up of the self-esteem is the key,” he said, “and the parents somehow have to convince him or her that everything is going to be all right, we’re going to work through it. And in this case it didn’t happen, and so, tragic and sad.” Gag me, Cliff.
Steve Buyer, the ranking Republican on the committee, shared a story about losing a childhood friend to suicide. “And there were no signs. There were no risk factors, he said. “It was just one of these bizarre strikes of the mind to just — I don’t have the answers.” Knock, knock, Steve. It does seem that spending time in a combat zone is, in and of itself, a risk factor that screams to be taken seriously. But Steve isn’t in an entirely conciliatory frame of mind. “As we delve into this issue, we have to also be very sensitive,” he said, “because I recognize there are anti-war advocates that also want to say that these individuals that then therefore commit suicide, who have worn the uniform, are somehow victims. And that’s not right either.”
As one of the anti-war advocates he is referring to, I would like to point out that he is conflating two entirely different positions: anti-war and anti-this-war. The two are not mutually exclusive (and I am a proud example of that), but they are different, and pretending they are not is simply disingenuous. As disingenuous as it would be for me to call him pro-war, if I could be persuaded to sink so low.
In fact, aside from anti-war activists, the other thing that seems to terrify this crew is socialized medicine. The VA, properly funded, could actually serve as an example of how universal health care might work. In practice, it has been bearded to look like just any old hospital, replete with exclusionary practices that are a caricature of the most extreme behavior of a private insurance company gone mad.
When after two hours, congressman Bob turned the mike over to me and then to Ilona, we did our best. We did not shame ourselves. In fact, we both had important things to say and (very much to our relief) we said them well. But the Bowmans were a hard act to follow.
The second panel, however, didn’t seem to have noticed. Anything. All Katz and crew wanted to talk about were the fine new programs that the VA has inaugurated — programs that, as Filner repeatedly interrupted to point out, obviously are not enough to stem this outbreak of despair. Filner didn’t even try to disguise his frustration and impatience with these apologists who complained bitterly about how mean CBS was being about sharing their research and the creative new outreach plans they have come up with to bring psychically injured veterans into the system: The agency, according to Katz, is writing a letter that should go out this week or next to all veterans, raising these issues.” Right, Dr. Katz. A letter.
After only two of the four panel members had given their testimony, Filner cut the hearing short: “Throw this away and talk to the Bowmans, talk to Ms. Coleman, talk to Ms. Meagher, and say, What are we going to do about these issues? You’re not doing that. I mean, you had the advantage of listening to them. Respond to them … I still don’t know what you’re doing for those people … You have not done the job. We’re going to have another hearing on this. We’re going to have another hearing on this. And I want you to come back with a better report. This is not very useful.”
That was, I admit, a sweet moment.
There are countless examples, one more painful than the next, of ways this administration has cut corners on soldiers’ and veterans’ healthcare. They have, with consummate cynicism, decked themselves in yellow ribbons, mandatory lapel pins and cheap jingoistic rhetoric while simultaneously sucking and siphoning off the VA’s already inadequate resources. Mike Bowman’s testimony alone is a devastating indictment of those policies. And yet Katz continues to insist, as he did repeatedly during these hearings, that the VA has adequate resources to manage a crisis the parameters of which they have yet to determine and the measures to be taken that might actually intervene in the mounting death toll not yet articulated.
I have hope that good things will come of these hearings, but if they did nothing else, they made a few things very clear. For one, the VA is a system in crisis. It has been deeply underfunded for way too long. It has a bureaucratic system that is adversarial to veterans. And though it employs many dedicated and humanitarian care providers, it is led by a bunch of flunkies who say whatever they think they can get away with to avoid taking responsibility for those Americans who honorably enlisted to defend their country.
The hearings also made it perfectly clear that people like me, a pro-peace activist, can find common cause with a military family like that of Mike and Kim Bowman. The Bowmans still support this war, at least in part because they need to believe that their beloved son died for a reason. I cannot support this war, but I too have a beloved son. I cannot begin to imagine the heat of the rage I would feel had my son died as a result of stupid bureaucratic neglect and mismanagement, not to mention skimping. I may not be in favor of this war, but I am fierce when it comes to taking care of those we sent to fight in our name. The architects of the war and those who implement their policies at the VA have to wake up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror. With the deaths of so many of our children on their hands, I wonder how they manage.
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam Veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is Flashback.