U.S. veterans have been taking their own lives, in growing numbers, on property owned by the United States Veterans Association (VA). In 2016, Georgia alone saw 202 veteran suicides at VA facilities.
The statistics are sobering:
- Between 2008 and 2016, more than 6,000 U.S. veterans committed suicide
- The veteran suicide rate increased by 26 percent between 2005 and 2016. Even though the number of military service members and veterans in the U.S. is declining, their suicide rates are increasing
- The veteran suicide rate is 50 percent higher than the general population
- Suicides among U.S. Special Operations Command tripled in 2018 while the rate for active-duty Marine Corps and Navy personnel reached a 10-year high
In early April 2019, in separate incidents over the same weekend, two veterans committed suicide in Georgia VA hospitals.
On Friday, April 5, the first of the two suicides occurred in a parking garage at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia.
The second veteran to take his own life did so the following day, on Saturday, April 6, just outside the main entrance of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, Georgia on Clairmont Road. An undisclosed source said the victim was a 68-year-old male who had shot himself.
In a statement to the press, the VA claimed it is prioritizing treating the symptom (suicide) rather than the root of the problem (long waiting times, difficulty scheduling appointments and procedures, and denial of mental health services):
“We are working alongside dozens of partners, including [the Department of Defense], to deploy suicide prevention programming that supports all current and former service members — even those who do not come to VA for care.”
The identities of the two victims have not yet been disclosed:
“The VA declined to identify the victims or describe the circumstances of their deaths, citing privacy concerns.”
An email from VA to the Georgia Department of Veterans Service did indicate that the Atlanta veteran was given aid by the clinical staff at the Decatur VA Medical Center, called 911, and then transported to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
This was not the first time the Decatur VA clinic made news headlines. In 2013, the VA announced that three of its officials had been reprimanded, two more had retired, and others awaited unspecified “actions” in response to reports of gross mismanagement and a high number of patient deaths at the VA facility. “Federal inspectors issued scathing audits that linked mismanagement to the deaths of three veterans there.”
The first of those three vets was a man who was prevented from seeing a VA psychiatrist who was unavailable and instructed by hospital workers to take public transportation to an emergency room. The vet opted instead for suicide the following day.
The second veteran linked to the Decatur, Georgia, VA clinic was pronounced dead of an apparent drug overdose after federal healthcare providers denied him access to a psychiatrist.
The third Decatur VA clinic patient died of an overdose of drugs he got from another patient.
A fourth veteran ended his own life in a hospital bathroom after the preceding three incidents were made public.
On April 9, the Tuesday after the horrific self-inflicted gunshot veteran suicide in Austin, Texas, in the waiting room of an Austin, Texas, VA clinic, hundreds of witnesses watched in horror as a veteran shot himself to death in front of a large American flag.
“Suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority,” the VA said in a statement following the two unrelated veteran suicides in Georgia.
In December 2018, 55-year-old Marine Colonel Jim Turner drove to the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs, and, wearing his service uniform, shot himself outside the medical center. A note was found next to his body.
Between October 2017 and November 2018, 19 veterans committed suicide on VA medical facility grounds. Many regard the desperate and violent self-inflicted deaths as a cry for help for the survivors who continue to endure the hardships of poor healthcare treatment in the very country whose borders they served to protect.
On April 10, 2019, after the double suicides of the previous weekend, Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, during questioning from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, expressed rather a defeatist attitude about the slew of suicides on real estate he is responsible for:
“I wish it was as simple as me saying I could do more patrols in a parking lot that would stop this.”
On a more practical note, Dr. Stone said we can all pitch in to help with veterans’ suicide prevention by contacting the Veterans Crisis Line which is staffed ’round-the-clock by specially-trained responders:
“If you’ve got a cellphone in your hand, take that cell phone out and put in the following number: 1-800-273-8255.”
It is notable that the VA seems more focused on keeping alive veterans who have abandoned all hope that the national system in place to provide for their health and well-being is a miserable failure, according to them – and underscored by their life-terminating actions.
The American Humane Society (AHS) has proposed a positive solution to the problem of suicidal veterans: service dogs. Its Pups4Patriots program “finds dogs in need of homes and trains them to become service animals for military veterans struggling with the invisible wounds of war, potentially saving lives at both ends of the leash.”
Service dogs comfort people with mental health afflictions and “can be trained to perform countless tasks that mitigate these conditions, including retrieving medication, searching homes for perceived threats, grounding handlers during a stressful episode, aiding with memory-related tasks, and even turning on lights during a night terror.”
Considering that about one in six veterans suffers from PTSD, therapy and service dogs sound like a great idea.