Parents of military veterans who took their own lives after surviving combat told a congressional panel Thursday how not to prevent suicide:
1. Turn away a combat veteran because he’s no longer active in the National Guard.
2. Despite a long wait time for an appointment, refuse to refer him outside the Veterans Affairs Department health-care system.
3. Incorrectly interpret privacy protections to mean that therapists can’t share information with family members even in a life-threatening crisis.
4. Watch that veteran sprawled out on the floor crying in the corner of a VA hospital where he’s gone while having flashbacks and begging to be admitted. After turning him away, tell him to feel free to stick around until he feels better and then drive himself home.
All of these things happened to one soldier, Daniel Somers, who committed suicide last year. His parents, Howard and Jean Somers, tearfully testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Thursday morning. They took turns reading their statement — and finishing one another’s sentences when they started to cry and couldn’t go on.
The parents of Clay Hunt, a Marine who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was honorably discharged in 2009 and took his own life in 2011, less than a week after taking a new job, renting an apartment and buying a new truck. His parents, Richard and Susan Selke, had a few more items to add to the list of what not to do.
● Classify someone so compromised by the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress that he can’t work as only entitled to 30 percent disability. Lose his paperwork altogether for 18 months, and then five weeks after his death, finally review his appeal and conclude that he should be on full disability.
● Tell a veteran who has found an antidepressant that works well for him that he has to change drugs because there’s no generic form.
● Once that hurdle is cleared, tell him the VA doesn’t stock that particular medication, but it will be mailed to him in seven to 10 days. Ignore as necessary everything we know about how ill-advised it is to stop antidepressants cold.
● Tell him his prescription can’t be refilled because it was written in Colorado rather than Houston, where he’s just moved: Welcome to Texas! Now you have to start all over in the system, and wait to be reevaluated.
Brian Portwine’s mom, Peggy, said he didn’t get a mental health evaluation, even though a fellow soldier he’d just switched seats with in their Humvee in Iraq was blown to bits.
“Isn’t that enough to warrant a thorough evaluation” of someone who’d already been trapped in a tank that hit an IED? she asked. Back home, he had such poor short-term memory that he’d frequently ask his friends, “Where are we going again?”
Yet despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and a traumatic brain injury, he was deployed again, and took his own life in May 2011.
“I’m begging this committee” to do something, she said, in keeping with what “I promised my son at his funeral.’’
Mission accomplished, mom, and all the parents and loved ones who’ve been turned into advocates by the rolling tragedy of the 22 veterans a day who committed suicide every day in 2010, up from 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures from the VA.
On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the committee chairman, will introduce a bill called the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.
Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), who served in Iraq, has also proposed legislation that would extend eligibility and address the chronic shortage of providers by financially rewarding psychiatrists who stay in the VA system.