The veteran suicide crisis takes at least twenty lives a day.
Some veterans are are so frustrated by the abuse and neglect they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) they are making a very public statement when then end their lives.
WARNING: What you read here is VERY disturbing!
Veteran Sets Himself on Fire Outside State Capitol in Atlanta
By Karen Zraick, N.Y. Times – June 26, 2018
A man who said he was an Air Force veteran upset with the Department of Veterans Affairs set himself on fire outside the state Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday morning.
Capt. Mark Perry of the Georgia State Patrol said that the man parked a passenger vehicle around 10:45 a.m. and began walking toward the Capitol.
“He was strapped with some homemade incendiary devices, some firecrackers and doused himself with some kind of flammable liquid and attempted to set himself on fire,” Captain Perry told reporters.
A Georgia State Patrol trooper rushed toward the man with a fire extinguisher “and was able to douse him pretty quickly,” he said. In a phone interview, Captain Perry said that trooper was not on duty at the time — he was driving by, and jumped out of his patrol car when he saw the flames.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified the man as John Michael Watts, 58, and said he had no current address. He was taken in critical condition to Grady Memorial Hospital with burns on 85 to 90 percent of his body.
Captain Perry said he was able to speak after the fire was extinguished.
“He did indicate that he is disgruntled with the V.A. system and was seeking attention for that,” he said.
The authorities shut down the area around the Capitol and called the bomb squad to assure the man’s vehicle did not contain explosives. Nearby buildings were evacuated. No other injuries were reported.
Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation who was speaking at the time, said she assumed at first that the sounds were fireworks. But as they continued, the Georgia State Patrol officers behind her started to peel off.
“They were really calm, so I stayed really calm,” she said. “I was with trained professionals.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a sprawling agency that includes more than 1,700 clinics and hospitals and has been plagued by scandal.
In March 2016, a 51-year-old veteran died after setting himself on fire outside of a Veterans Affairs clinic in northern New Jersey. An investigation found that the staff at the clinic repeatedly failed to ensure that he had received adequate mental health care.
Critics of the agency have long voiced frustrations. Michael Owens, a Marine Corps veteran from Mableton, Ga., and state leader with the Truman National Security Project, said many veterans say it is not responsive to their needs.
“Being a disgruntled veteran is something that I hear a lot throughout our veteran community here in Atlanta,” he said.
Mr. Owens added that the agency needed to do a better job of flagging indicators that a veteran might be in trouble. “We’ve got to do better,” he said.
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Vet set himself on fire after long VA waits, appointment cancellation, investigation finds
Donovan Slack, USA TODAY – Nov. 15, 2017
WASHINGTON — A veteran committed suicide by setting himself on fire in front of a New Jersey VA clinic after staff at the clinic repeatedly failed to ensure he received adequate mental health care, an investigation of the death found.
Department of Veterans Affairs staff canceled an appointment Charles Ingram had in fall 2015 because a provider was unavailable, didn’t follow up to reschedule, and when he walked into the clinic to ask for an appointment, they didn’t schedule it until three months later, the VA inspector general found.
Ingram, a 51-year-old Gulf War veteran, had been approved to receive treatment at a non-VA facility, but no one at VA contacted him or scheduled the appointment.
In March 2016, shortly before his VA appointment, Ingram went to the clinic in Northfield, N.J., doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire. The clinic was closed at the time.
“(S)taff failed to follow up on no-shows, clinic cancellations, termination of services, and Non-VA Care Coordination consults as required,” the inspector general wrote in a report released Wednesday. “This led to a lack of ordered (mental health) therapy and necessary medications… and may have contributed to his distress.”
After the death, VA Secretary David Shulkin allocated more clinical resources to the clinic, removed the hospital director overseeing the facility and directed regional officials to take over clinic management. He also instituted same-day mental health services for urgent cases.
But the report provides a tragic glimpse of how appointment-scheduling failures, which have plagued VA facilities across the country for years, can leave veterans desperate and without treatment.
Received mental health care
Ingram had received mental health treatment at the clinic since 2011 but repeatedly had to wait more than a month for appointments. He didn’t see a therapist in the year before his death.
When patients go a year without seeing anyone, VA policy dictates that mental health providers reach out to them.
“We found no attempts to follow this process,” the inspector general said.
In early 2015, Ingram’s VA psychologist asked that he be approved to get outside treatment for neurological impairment. VA administrators approved several therapy sessions. He never got them.
In response to the report, VA officials said schedulers at the Northfield clinic have received more training and new supervisors and managers have been hired. They said regional and local officials also are reorganizing non-VA care coordination.
“The new structure…ensures high-quality and timely care,” wrote Robert Boucher, acting director of the Wilmington VA Medical Center.
Members of Congress from New Jersey, who asked the inspector general to investigate Ingram’s death, applauded improvements at the clinic.
“Ingram’s death was a tragedy that shook us to the core and reminded us of what’s at stake when it comes to providing care for veterans suffering from mental health issues,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said.
Three veterans die by suicide within five days as lawmakers warn of ‘epidemic’
By Sara Dorn, N.Y. Post – April 13, 2019
An unidentified veteran shot himself in the waiting room at a VA clinic in Austin, Texas. Diane Kirkendall
Three US military veterans killed themselves within five days of each other at VA treatment facilities in Georgia and Texas, according to a new report.
On April 5, 29-year-old Navy vet Gary Pressley shot himself in a parking lot at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, GA, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Pressley had been struggling recently with mental health, his mother told a local TV station. His sister said she called the VA moments before his death, saying he was threatening suicide, WMAZ-TV reported.
The next day in Decatur, GA, Olen Hancock, 68, killed himself outside the main entrance to the Atlanta VA medical Center, the newspaper reported.
He was seen pacing the lobby before walking outside and shooting himself, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta.
It’s unclear what branch of the military Hancock served in.
The third suicide happened Tuesday, when an unidentified veteran shot himself in front of hundreds of people in the waiting room at a VA clinic in Austin, Texas.
In the wake of the suicides, Capitol Hill lawmakers called for more services for struggling vets.
“Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement.
“It’s critical we do more to stop this epidemic.”
Hundreds witness veteran shoot and kill himself in VA waiting room
By: J.D. Simkins, Military Times – April 11, 2019
veteran reportedly shot himself April 9 in the waiting room of the VA’s Austin Outpatient Clinic in front of hundreds of witnesses. (Veterans Affairs)
A horrific scene unfolded Tuesday in the waiting room of an Austin, Texas, Veterans Affairs clinic when a veteran reportedly shot himself to death in front of hundreds of witnesses.
Despite the commotion, many in the building remained unaware of what had occurred for some time after the shooting, KWTX News 10 reported.
One group therapy class even continued on for almost an hour after the shot was fired.
“All of a sudden, over the intercom, they have this statement about everyone must clear the building including staff, so it was a little surprising,” veteran Ken Walker told News 10.
Once vacant, the hospital was locked down for an investigation.
Reddit user Diane_Kirkendall shared a photo reportedly taken in the waiting room in the wake of the suicide.
A grisly scene unfolded in the waiting room of a VA medical center in Austin, Texas, when a veteran shot himself in front of hundreds of witnesses. This photo, shared on Reddit by user Diane_Kirkendall, was reportedly taken in the wake of the shooting. (Reddit)
Like most VA medical centers — and non-VA centers — the Austin, Texas, clinic has not installed metal detectors, relying instead on randomized bag searches.
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A 2018 Government Accountability Office report determined the VA had not been adhering to the same security standards required of federal buildings, potentially leaving staff and patients vulnerable to risk.
In 2015, Veterans Affairs psychologist Timothy Fjordbak, 63, was shot and killed by Jerry Serrato, 48, at a clinic in El Paso, Texas.
Serrato then took his own life.
Between October 2017 and November 2018, 19 veterans died by suicide on the grounds of VA medical facilities in what some believe to be acts of protesting inadequate treatment by the country they served.
In December, Marine Col. Jim Turner, 55, put his service uniform on, drove to the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs, and shot himself outside the medical center, leaving a note next to his body.
“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90 percent,” it read.
Less than a week ago, two veterans from Georgia killed themselves in separate incidents outside VA hospitals.
“For military veterans, access to weapons and familiarity with weapons makes it too easy,” Jack Swope, a licensed professional counselor with Austin’s Samaritan Center, told NBC Austin.
Availability of viable medical options remains a titanic hindrance vets face as well, Swope claimed.
“There’s a scheduling problem. Part of it is a matter of accessibility, getting there, and frankly part of it is a matter of finances and costs.”
Swope’s statements, however, don’t accurately reflect the recent progress the VA has made in terms of accessibility, according to one VA representative who spoke with Military Times.
“Health care facilities now provide same-day urgent services in primary and mental health for veterans who need them at no cost,” said Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Curt Cashour.
“VA is seeing more patients than ever before, more quickly than ever before and studies show VA now compares favorably to the private sector for access and quality of care — and in many cases exceeds it.”
Cashour added that the VA completed 623,000 more internal appointments in FY18 than FY17, while seeing “positive outcomes” of its suicide prevention efforts.
In spite of those efforts, the veteran suicide rate has climbed.
“Suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority,” the VA said in a statement following the incidents in Georgia.
Despite these proclamations, the VA came under fire following a December GAO report that revealed only $57,000 of the VA’s $6.2 million suicide prevention media budget — or, less than 1 percent — had actually been used.
Recent government reports show that 530 veterans in Texas died by suicide in 2016 alone. That number equates to a suicidal likelihood that is double that of the general population.
‘I just wish they would have found him and stopped him:’ Central Georgia family mourns after veteran commits suicide
The family of 28-year-old Gary Pressley is now searching for answers after he took his own life in the parking lot of the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center
Author: Wanya Reese, WMAZ, Macon GA – April 9, 2019
DUBLIN, Ga. — A death at Dublin’s VA hospital has focused attention again on the epidemic of veteran suicides.
According to a Dublin Police report, officers responded last Friday to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center. They found 28-year-old Gary Pressley of Barnesville dead inside his car in the parking lot. They say Pressley died after shooting himself in the chest.
In this case, Pressley’s family says the VA did have the chance to help him, but didn’t act. His sister, Lisa Johnson, says she called the VA to tell them her brother was threatening suicide from their parking lot just moments before he killed himself.
“He was going to go into the service, he was going to retire from the service after 20-something years, and he was going to work for the bomb squad,” Machelle Wilson, Pressley’s mom said.
Wilson says her son Gary Pressley had his life all planned out.
“So he grew up, I’m talking 3, 4-years-old, he was going to go into the service, he was going to serve his country,” Wilson said.
By the age of 17, Wilson says her son was already in basic training for the Navy when he got his first call to serve.
“He was on the Carl Vinson when Haiti happened, and he went over there,” Wilson said.
Wilson says he helped with search and rescue in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, something Pressley will never forget.
“He said, talking about, ‘Mama, I just did not realize how awful it would be to see so many dead bodies,'” Wilson said.
By 2011, Pressley came back to the United States and was medically discharged in 2012 after a bad car accident. Wilson says that’s when another war started at the Dublin VA.
“It was just a battle with the medication, the doctors, and just, I watched him cry, because he couldn’t get the help he needed,” Wilson said.
Wilson says he was struggling to receive care for pain and mental healthcare.
“He started saying, ‘Mama, I don’t have the fight in me anymore,'” Wilson said.
Just days later, the family learned Pressley was going to end his life.
“I called the VA and I told them, my brother is in their the parking lot, and he is talking about killing himself,” Johnson said.
Pressley’s sister says the Dublin VA would not help, and he shot himself right there in the parking lot.
“I just wish they would have found him and stopped him, locked him up, did whatever they had to do, because I need my son here,” Wilson said.
We reached out to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center and they would not respond to our request, citing patient privacy concerns. However, they did release a statement:
“While patient privacy concerns prevent us from discussing the specifics of this case, our sympathies absolutely go out to this individual’s family and loved ones. At this time, the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center is reviewing its policies and procedures to identify if any adjustments are needed. If any veteran is in crisis, we encourage him or her to visit the closest VA health care facility, where they can receive same-day urgent primary and mental health care services. We ask that any veterans, family members or friends concerned about a veteran’s mental health to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net. The lines are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides a full array of publicly available resources. -Communications Director Scott Whittington”
These are words Wilson says are a little too late.
“He told his girlfriend he was going to do it in the parking lot, so they could find his body, so somebody can pay attention to what’s happening, so other vets do not have to go through this,” Wilson said.
The parking lot suicides
Veterans are taking their own lives on VA hospital campuses, a desperate form of protest against a system that they feel hasn’t helped them.
By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Washington Post – February 7, 2019
Alissa Harrington took an audible breath as she slid open a closet door deep in her home office. This is where she displays what’s too painful, too raw to keep out in the open.
Framed photos of her younger brother, Justin Miller, a 33-year-old Marine Corps trumpet player and Iraq veteran. Blood-spattered safety glasses recovered from the snow-covered Nissan Frontier truck where his body was found. A phone filled with the last text messages from his father: “We love you. We miss you. Come home.”
Miller was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts when he checked into the Minneapolis Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in February 2018. After spending four days in the mental-health unit, Miller walked to his truck in VA’s parking lot and shot himself in the very place he went to find help.
“The fact that my brother, Justin, never left the VA parking lot — it’s infuriating,” said Harrington, 37. “He did the right thing; he went in for help. I just can’t get my head around it.”
A federal investigation into Miller’s death found that the Minneapolis VA made multiple errors: not scheduling a follow-up appointment, failing to communicate with his family about the treatment plan and inadequately assessing his access to firearms. Several days after his death, Miller’s parents received a package from the Department of Veterans Affairs — bottles of antidepressants and sleep aids prescribed to Miller.
His death is among 19 suicides that occurred on VA campuses from October 2017 to November 2018, seven of them in parking lots, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While studies show that every suicide is highly complex — influenced by genetics, financial uncertainty, relationship loss and other factors — mental-health experts worry that veterans taking their lives on VA property has become a desperate form of protest against a system that some veterans feel hasn’t helped them.
The most recent parking lot suicide occurred weeks before Christmas in St. Petersburg, Fla. Marine Col. Jim Turner, 55, dressed in his uniform blues and medals, sat on top of his military and VA records and killed himself with a rifle outside the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” Turner wrote in a note investigators found near his body.
VA declined to comment on individual cases, citing privacy concerns. But relatives say Turner had told them that he was infuriated that he wasn’t able to get a mental-health appointment that he wanted.
Veterans are 1.5 times as likely as civilians to die by suicide, after adjusting for age and gender. In 2016, the veteran suicide rate was 26.1 per 100,000, compared with 17.4 per 100,000 for non-veteran adults, according to a recent federal report. Before 2017, VA did not separately track on-campus suicides, said spokesman Curt Cashour.
The Trump administration has said that preventing suicide is its top clinical priority for veterans. In January 2018, President Trump signed an executive order to allow all veterans — including those otherwise ineligible for VA care — to receive mental-health services during the first year after military service, a period marked by a high risk for suicide, VA officials say. And VA points out that it stopped 233 suicide attempts between October 2017 and November 2018, when staff intervened to help veterans harming themselves on hospital grounds.
Sixty-two percent of veterans, or 9 million people, depend on VA’s vast hospital system, but accessing it can require navigating a frustrating bureaucracy. Veterans sometimes must prove that their injuries are connected to their service, which can require a lot of paperwork and appeals.
Veterans who take their own lives on VA grounds often intend to send a message, said Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester.
“These suicides are sentinel events,” Caine said. “It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level.”
Keita Franklin, who became VA’s executive director for suicide prevention in April, said the agency now trains parking lot attendants and patrols on suicide intervention. The agency also has launched a pilot program that expands its suicide prevention efforts, including peer mentoring, to civilian workplaces and state governments.
“We’re shifting from a model that says, ‘Let’s sit in our hospitals and wait for people to come to us,’ and take it to them,” she said during a congressional staff briefing in January.
For some veterans, the problem is not only interventions but also the care and conditions inside some VA mental-health programs.
John Toombs, a 32-year-old former Army sergeant and Afghanistan veteran, hanged himself on the grounds of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the morning before Thanksgiving 2016.
He had enrolled in an inpatient treatment program for PTSD, substance abuse, depression and anxiety, said his father, David Toombs.
“John went in pledging that this is where I change my life; this is where I get better,” he said. But he was kicked out of the program for not following instructions, including being late to collect his medications, according to medical records.
A few hours before he took his life, Toombs wrote in a Facebook post from the Murfreesboro VA that he was “feeling empty,” with a distressed emoji.
“I dared to dream again. Then you showed me the door faster than last night’s garbage,” he wrote. “To the streets, homeless, right before the holidays.”
‘They didn’t serve him well’
Miller was recruited as a high school trumpet player into the prestigious 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band based in Cherry Point, N.C. In Iraq, he was posted at the final checkpoint before U.S. troops entered the safe zone at al-Asad Air Base.
Hour after hour, day after day, his gun was aimed at each driver’s head. He carefully watched the bomb-sniffing dogs for signs that they had found something nefarious.
After he came home, Miller’s family noticed right away that he was different: incredibly tense, easily agitated and overreacting to criticism. He eventually told his sister that he suffered from severe PTSD after being ordered to shoot dead a man who was approaching the base and was believed to have a bomb.
Miller called the Veterans Crisis Line last February to report suicidal thoughts, according to the VA inspector general’s investigation. The responder told him to arrange for someone to keep his guns and to go to the VA emergency department. Miller stayed at the hospital for four days.
In the discharge note, a nurse wrote that Miller asked to be released and that the “patient does not currently meet dangerousness criteria for a 72-hour hold.” He was designated as “intermediate/moderate risk” for suicide.
Although Miller had told the crisis hotline responder that he had access to firearms, several clinicians recorded that he did not have guns or that it was unknown whether he had guns. There was no documentation of clinicians discussing with Miller or his family how to secure weapons, according to the inspector general’s report, a fact that baffles his father.
“My son served his country well,” said Greg Miller, his voice breaking. “But they didn’t serve him well. He had a gun in his truck the whole time.”
Franklin, head of VA’s suicide prevention program, called the suicide rate “beyond frustrating and heartbreaking,” adding that it’s essential that “local facilities develop a good relationship with the veteran, ask to bring their families into the fold — during the process and discharge — and make sure we know if they have access to firearms.”
She said VA is looking at ways to create a buddy system during the discharge process, pairing veterans who can support each other’s recoveries.
During the week of Miller’s birthday in December, his family joined his high school band leader to donate Miller’s trumpet to a local low-income high school.
“He was a blue-chip, solid kid,” said Richard Hahn, his high school band leader. “He does this honorable thing and goes into the Marines. Then we have this tragic ending.”
He sat with Miller’s mother, Drinda, as she closed her eyes in grief, rocking gently. Hahn and Harrington recalled their memories of Justin, playing the trumpet at Harrington’s wedding and taps at his grandfather’s funeral.
After the investigation into Miller’s suicide, VA’s mistakes were the subject of a September hearing in front of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, but it was overshadowed by Brett M. Kavanaugh’s testimony during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Listening to the conversation about her son, Drinda broke down and left the room. She sat in the lobby, shaky and crying. Her daughter knelt down to hold her mother’s hand.
‘He was making real progress’
A Rand Corp. study published in April showed that, while VA mental-health care is generally as good or better than care delivered by private health plans, there is high variation across facilities.
“There are some VAs that are out of date. They are depressing,” said Craig J. Bryan, a former Air Force psychologist and a University of Utah professor who studies veteran suicides, referring to problems with short staffing and resources. “Others are stunning and new, and if you walk into one that’s awe-inspiring, it gives you hope.”
The Murfreesboro VA hospital, where Toombs took his life, was ranked among the worst in the nation for mental health, according to the agency’s 2016 internal ratings. It has since improved to two out of a possible five stars.
The program, “while nurturing in some ways, also has strict rules for picking up medications on time and attending group therapy,” said Rosalinde Burch, a nurse who worked closely with Toombs in the VA program. She believes she was transferred and later fired from the program for being outspoken that “his death was totally preventable.”
He had been late several times to pick up his medications, and occasionally left group sessions early because he was suffering from anxiety, Burch said.
“But those shouldn’t have been reasons for kicking him out,” she said. “He was making real progress.”
Toombs’s substance abuse screenings were clear, and he was starting to counsel other veterans, she said. Burch wrote an email to the hospital’s program director, saying, “We all have the blood of this veteran on our hands.”
Since Toombs’s death, the program has a new leadership team, including a new program chief and nurse manager, the hospital spokeswoman said. Burch has filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims, to get her job back.
For Miller’s family, their son’s death has motivated them to speak out about how VA can improve.
“The VA didn’t cause his suicide,” Harrington said. “But they could have done more to prevent that, and that’s just so maddening.”
On the snowy burial grounds behind St. Joseph of the Lakes Catholic Church in a quiet suburb of the Twin Cities, she huddled with her parents around his grave. Nearby stood the special in-ground trumpet stand that his father designed.
The family sipped from a tiny bottle of Grand Marnier, a drink that Miller liked. His mother shook her head in despair as she recalled the sounds of her son’s music.
“Justin used to play his trumpet for all of the funerals,” his father said. “But he wasn’t here to play for his own.”
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Veteran dies by suicide in Charles George VA Medical Center parking lot
ASHEVILLE — At about 8:48 a.m. Sunday, a veteran died by suicide in the visitor parking lot of Charles George VA Medical Center.
The Asheville Police Department is investigating.
In a statement today, VA officials said suicide prevention is its No. 1 one clinical priority.
“We are saddened by this loss and extend our deepest condolences to the the veteran’s family, friends and caregivers,” the statement reads.
Charles George VA Medical Center and its community outpatient clinics at Hickory, Rutherford County and Franklin have many services for veterans struggling with mental health concerns, such as depression, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, military sexual trauma and substance use disorders.
Veterans, their family members and their caregivers may contact Dr. Laura Tugman, assistant chief of mental health, at 828-298-7911, ext. 2009, for information on services and programs.
The Veteran Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255. Users may also text the hotline at 838255 or go to www.VeteransCrisisLine.net for a confidential chat with a caring, qualified responder.
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