Over and Over … and Over Again, Veterans Keep Telling America VA is Broken, Must Change

The V.A.’s Shameful Betrayal

by Mike Scotti
New York Times, May 27, 2012

Former Marine Capt. Mike Scotti

The Department of Veterans Affairs, already under enormous strain from the aging of the Vietnam generation, the end of the Iraq war and the continuing return of combat troops from Afghanistan, announced in April that it would increase its mental health staff by about 10 percent. But too many veterans waging a lonely and emotional struggle to resume a normal life continue to find the agency a source of disappointment rather than healing.

The new hiring is intended to address the infuriating delay veterans face in getting appointments. The V.A. says it tries to complete full mental health evaluations within 14 days of an initial screening. But a review by the department’s inspector general found that schedulers were entering misleading information into their computer system.

They were recording the next available appointment date as the patient’s desired appointment date. As a result, a veteran who might have had to wait weeks for an appointment would appear in the computer system as having been seen “without a wait.” That allowed the agency to claim that the two-week target was being reached in 95 percent of cases, when the real rate was 49 percent. The rest waited an average of 50 days.

My image of the V.A., formed while I was on active duty, was of an ineffective, uncaring institution. Tales circulated among my fellow Marines of its institutional indifference, and those impressions were confirmed when I left Iraq for home. — Former Marine Capt. Mike Scotti

As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I found that news maddening. While the schedulers played games with the numbers, veterans were dealing with mental wounds so serious that getting proper attention at the right time might have made the difference between life and death. Even worse was that the V.A. had failed twice before to change; the inspector general found similar problems in 2005 and in 2007. This suggests a systematic misrepresentation of data and an unwillingness to stop it.

Unfortunately, the problem goes even deeper. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of veterans who are struggling with post-combat mental health issues who never ask the V.A. for help. Some, hamstrung by fear of stigma, are too proud or too ashamed to ask for help. Others don’t ask because they’ve heard too many stories from peers who have received poor care or been ignored.

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Program Providing Support, Activities to Military Suicide Survivors Through Memorial Day Weekend

Survivors of Military Suicide Victims Come Together to Grieve

by Rebecca Ruiz
MSNBC, May 25, 2012

For the family and friends of service members who died by suicide, Memorial Day can be not only a solemn day, but also a painful reminder that military suicides are not treated the same as combat deaths. 

Kim Ruocco, the national director of suicide education and outreach at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, has experienced this isolating grief firsthand.

Kim Ruocco lost her Marine Corps husband to suicide in 2005. Ruocco serves other military family members as national director of suicide education and outreach at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. (Charlie Mahoney / Prime)

This weekend, she is bringing together about 100 suicide survivors at TAPS’ annual Memorial Day weekend National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors.

“[Suicide survivors] are surrounded by people whose loved ones were killed in action,” Ruocco said. “There’s a real sense that their loved one’s death was not an honorable death.”

Ruocco’s husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself seven years ago. He was a Cobra helicopter pilot who ran 75 combat missions during a five-month deployment in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He had struggled with depression in the past, particularly after a training accident in the 1990s when two Cobras collided in midair, and he lost four friends.

In February 2005, while living temporarily in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton in California, awaiting a redeployment to Iraq and considering mental health counseling, John Ruocco hanged himself. 

“He was so ashamed of being depressed and not being able to do his job,” Kim Ruocco, 49, said. He was going to seek treatment, but she believes that “when he sat there and thought about what it meant to get help, how people would see you, how young Marines viewed him, how his peers viewed him … he thought the problem was him.”

Kim Ruocco, who has a master’s degree in social work, provides counseling resources to suicide survivors, helps family members secure benefits and facilitates support groups.

TAPS also tries to change procedures and policies that can be hurtful to suicide survivors, such as the exclusion of service members who died by suicide from state memorials and the distribution to suicide survivors of different Gold Star pins than the ones given to families when a service member dies in action.

This weekend’s four-day event for survivors is expected to draw more than 2,000 participants. It will feature panels and peer support groups on dealing with grief, sessions on spirituality and meditation, and events for children.

In 2011, 301 active-duty service members died by suicide, according to the Department of Defense. More than half of those deaths occurred in the Army, where the suicide rate last year was projected at 24.1 per 100,000, outpacing the national rate adjusted for the comparison of 18.6 people per 100,000. 

A study released earlier this year by the U.S. Army Public Health Command found that the number of active-duty soldiers who committed suicide increased 80 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Though the Department of Defense has worked to de-stigmatize mental illness in recent years through various initiatives and training programs, challenges remain.

On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, retracted a blog piece he posted on Jan. 19 in which he called suicide “an absolutely selfish act.” 

“I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess,” he wrote. 

Dennis R. Swanson, a public affairs officer at Fort Bliss, told msnbc.com that the post was written in an emotional moment after Pittard had attended two memorial services for soldiers who killed themselves, and then learned of a third suicide.

In the 2012 fiscal year, there have been six suicides at Fort Bliss. 

In his retraction, Pittard apologized for his “hurtful statement,” which he said was “not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide.” 

“We must continue to do better each and every day, reaching out, encouraging and helping those in need,” he wrote. 

Ruocco worries that Pittard’s original comments, which were removed from his blog, may have done damage. “By saying those words, he is telling the troops and their families that thinking about suicide is a weakness, it’s not a mental illness,” she said. 

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Vice President Biden Shares Personal Story of Grief, Tells Military Families He Understands Loss and Suicide

“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told military families and supporters attending the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors seminar in Crystal City,VA on May 25, 2012. (DoD)

Biden Shares Tales of Loss With Families, Friends of Military Casualties

by David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post, May 25, 2012

Vice President Biden, speaking Friday to families and friends of military personnel killed in action, gave a powerful retelling of the death of his wife and daughter 40 years ago — saying he’d realized then how grief might push a person to suicide.

“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” Biden told a meeting of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors at a hotel in Crystal City. The group offers counseling to relatives and friends of military personnel who have died. It was holding its 18th annual military survivor seminar.

Link to TAPS Program for families

“Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts,” Biden continued, according to a transcript. “Because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get — never going to be that way ever again. That’s how an awful lot of you feel.”

In 1972, just after the Delaware Democrat was first elected to the Senate, his wife, Neilia, and his 13 month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash. Biden’s two sons — Beau, then 3, and Hunter, 2 — were grievously injured but survived.

On Friday, Biden told the military families how low the crash had brought him. “I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but — no, it’s more important — you’re more important,” he said.

Biden had actually told the story before, on page 80 of his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.”

“I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in,” Biden wrote.

On Friday, that story was a powerful section of a speech that illustrated Biden’s particular style of rhetoric: frequently meandering, slightly pompous but movingly personal.

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Listen to Vice President Biden speak about understanding suicide ideation: