Why Are We Failing Our Veterans?

I just happened upon this article, written by Melinda Henneberger for the Washington Post on July 14, 2014, and was overwhelmed with sadness for the parents of Daniel Somers, as they testified about their son's suicide. And there are so many others grieving.

Did you know that 22 vets a day commit suicide?  

Why are we failing our veterans? 

Mental health is an issue that has been shoved aside for so many years in this country. The taboo subject that is too tainted to be given merit. 

We simply cannot let these soldiers die by their own hand just because we are failing to give them adequate mental health services. What an atrocity.

Howard and Jean Somers, parents of Daniel Somers, testify about their son's suicide during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing about the VA's Mental Health Care procedures. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Parents of military veterans who took their own lives after surviving combat told a congressional panel on Thursday how not to prevent suicide:
●Turn away a veteran of some 400 combat missions in Iraq because he’s no longer active in the National Guard.
●Then turn him away because he was previously in the Guard and refer him to a military facility where he’s promptly referred back to VA.

●Now tell him to wait for a postcard with his appointment time.
●Either don’t send that postcard, or send it to the wrong address.
●Refuse to refer him outside the Veterans Affairs health-care system.
●When he finally does get his first VA date with a psychiatrist, have that doctor inform him that he’s retiring and won’t be able to see him a second time. Emphasize that he will, however, be seen by another doctor — just as soon as one becomes available.
●Never get back in touch, and let him run up considerable debt getting what help he can in the private sector.
●And, finally, watch that veteran sprawled on the floor, crying in the corner of a VA hospital where he’s gone while having flashbacks and begging to be admitted. Refuse to see him again, but assure him he’s free to stick around until he feels well enough to drive himself home.
After all that, Daniel Somers committed suicide last summer, his parents tearfully testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday. Their son was 23.

Sitting close together, Harold and Jean Somers took turns reading their statement, peering through almost matching wire-rimmed glasses. A few times, he finished her sentence when she started to cry. Once, she did the same for him.
In 2011, Daniel Somers wrote about the crushing guilt he felt over having been "called upon to employ deadly force on a regular basis - often in situations where noncombatants ended up in the crossfire. To this day, I am unable to provide even a rough approximation as to the number of civilian deaths in which I may be complicit."
In his final months, Somers suffered from post-traumatic stress so severe he wore a towel around his head that he said helped keep out the voices, the light and the sound.
Clay Hunt, a Marine who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, took his own life in 2011. His parents, Richard and Susan Selke, added more to the “what not to do” list.
●Tell someone who has at last found an antidepressant that works well that he has to change drugs because there’s no generic version available.
●Once that hurdle is cleared, tell him the VA pharmacy doesn’t stock that drug, but it will be mailed to him in seven to 10 days. Ignore all medical advice against stopping anti-depressants cold.
●Now tell him the prescription can’t be refilled because it was written in Colorado rather than Houston, where he’s just moved — and thus he must start all over in the system, and wait to be reevaluated.
●Classify him as only entitled to 30 percent disability pay even though he is so compromised by the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress that he isn’t able to work.
●Lose his paperwork for 18 months, and then five weeks after his death, finally review his appeal and conclude that he should be on full disability. Notify his survivors of the good news.

Brian Portwine’s mom, Peggy, said he should have gotten an automatic mental health evaluation after a fellow soldier he’d just switched seats with in their Humvee in Iraq was blown to bits. That didn’t happen, though.
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 killed himself in May of 2011.
“I’m begging this committee” to do something, Portwine said, in keeping with what “I promised my son at his funeral.’’
She has kept that promise, as have 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 in 2010, up from 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures from VA.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), introduced a bill on Thursday called the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which would require the National Guard and VA to work together. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.), a retired Army colonel and Iraq veteran, has proposed similar legislation to financially reward psychiatrists who stay in the VA system. 

It’s unclear what VA could offer to doctors to stay on in a place that would leave a man who fought for us, and then couldn’t forgive himself, crying on the floor.


  1. OMG, Brenda. How very, very horrible. What a terrible end to a person's life-to be ignored and treated as unimportant when they were there protecting the freedom of all of us...including those that treat them. It makes my heart ache. xo Diana

  2. We treat those in our country illegally, 100% better than we treat our Veterans. What a horrible tragedy. This is unacceptable, when are we (as a country) going to change this?

  3. My son has lost several comrades to suicide since they came back from Iraq

    He and his brigade had casualties over there to get over and then when they came home there were more.
    Maybe a lot of it has to do with the support system you had when going and returning. I know that there are things that he never told me that I found out from others that he went through.../ for instance they took care of the vehicles. So when a friend was blown up in one, they had to clean it / perform maintenance on it afterwards. Enough said. :(

  4. Brenda this is a much needed post! I too am distressed at the lack of mental health services available in our country and especially for the men and women who put their lives on the line for us. They deserve so much more and the suicide rates show this. How tragic for the veterans, the families and us as a country! I'm going to post a link to this on my FB page! Great information that needs to be shared.

  5. Brenda, Thank you so much for sharing this. My heart aches for these men and their families. God Bless our Military/Veterans Dawn

  6. Sad at the lack of comments here regarding this article. And sad at the general apathy overall in our country regarding our vets. They fight for our lives, but we can't be bothered to fight for theirs once they return home. Sad. Very sad. Thank you so much, Brenda, for sharing this with us.

  7. It is inexcusable how we are treating our returning vets. We spend billions of dollars sending them into war and then refuse to take care of them when they return. I am ashamed of our country. My father was a WWII vet, a prisoner of war. I know now that he had PTSD when he returned. Taking care of our vets should be at the top of our priorities list. xo Laura

  8. Yes, it is sad at the lack of comments regarding this article. Maybe, it is because of apathy or maybe it is because of ignorance of the issues. I am the wife of a veteran who served two tours in Vietnam. I am the aunt of a nephew who died in Afghanistan. I certainly understand why we are where we are concerning our veterans and their families. We all have a voice, as these parents did, and we all have opportunities to use those voices to be heard. But first, we have to care enough to use those voices. Maybe that is the problem. Brenda, thank you for caring.

    Take care.

  9. Brenda, this is so sad...so outrageous! Id love to share it on facebook for more people to see but I dont know how. Im going to try something..

  10. I did it...wasnt hard afterall!

  11. I too am surprised at how few comments there are on this post. I don't get your updates until the next day, but I know most of your readers get them the minute they're published.

    There are so many things that are broken in this country. Health care in general, and the care of our veterans, are at the top of this list. It sounds like through the advocacy of these parents strides are being made. At least let's hope so.

  12. Thank you Brenda for a beautiful and informative post..
    I do appreciate these parents up there fighting for those who are still alive and suffering through similar pain as the children they lost..
    It wont be enough to change things.. Their words will be heard by Few and acted on by Fewer.. I am not a pessimist but I am a realist.. Until the masses take time out of their cushy lives, gather together, and scream till all the world hears and it becomes so embarrassing to our government-- there will be no change.

    We are always so busy spending money and resources and energy that would best be spent warring against the injustices and inequality we face right here in our own country. We must find a way to Gather and Revolt inn numbers that could not be ignored~~~!!! For a country who constantly TALKS religion and being under GOD, we show very littlle LOVE, COMPASSION and Kindness to each other, which was supposed to be the Greatest Teaching. Its spoken a lot but rarely shown.. Actions speak louder than words~! and we have far too many words and far too little action.

  13. Brenda, this is such an important topic to share. Frankly, those percentages on that chart for the numbers of veterans who experience PTSD seems low to me! Thanks for doing a great service by reminding people of this situation.

  14. It is so sad . Go back to Viet Nam. Remember how those soldiers were treated when they came home. I am surprised how many tours some soldiers have. My son had two tours in the Middle East......each a year. Too long. When he came home he struggled. Just being out in the public, he would always be on alert. He was one of the ones that could move on. But in his current job, he is reminded of the past. We need to support these soldiers that come bsck wounded but physically and mentally. Their families go through so much as well. They also need support. Thanks for bringing this to the surface.

  15. This entire situation is so very sad to me but unfortunately it is not as simple as we would all like for it to be. Being the wife of a USAF veteran who served for 12 years and now is 90% disabled after his service I have seen up front and center what he has had to face. I've also had to deal with the VA. I am not one who will sit here and say the system is perfect by any means, were it perfect we wouldn't have these that are falling through the cracks and taking their own lives.

    But I will say that it is my humble opinion that it is not only the fault of the VA - it is not that simple. I will also add that my husband being disabled has received tremendous care from the VA, their staff and doctors in TX and in AR for many years. Perfect? Absolutely not but is the care received in a public hospital perfect?

    As many here have said the healthcare system in this country is broken to begin with. When a soldier serves in the military regardless of whether he served in combat or not he is given benefits for the time that he served. For many of these young men and women coming home from war today they have only served one tour of duty and many of them have not retired from the military, they have chosen to get out of the military because of their experiences.

    When a soldier gets out of the military without retirement benefits are limited just as they would be in the private sector. Anyone who has served in the military can receive medical care at the VA hospital in an emergency situation. Otherwise they are given medical care at the facility based on their injuries or illnesses that were caused while in service in the military. I'm not saying this is the way it should be I'm only saying that this is how the system is set up.

    A soldier is also rated on disability based on the injuries he received while in service. Yes the claim system takes a long time for there are many veterans filing claims each day. Personnel cannot keep up with the claims and therefore the time is long to wait for a ruling on the claim.

    As most coming back from the Middle East today are certain to have PTSD YES claims should be expedited but again it's just not that simple. But let me add that expedited claims has been put in place in recent months for these soldiers.

    I've also experienced mental health issues myself, with my son and my husband. I know how pressing it can be to seek immediate care.

    My only point in all of this is it's not solely the fault of our government, our military, and the VA. When it comes right down to it every situation is different. Blame can be laid on many different people, organizations, situations, etc. I personally believe that the beginning of change for these young men and women is the public healthcare system. The system they have to use while the process is being gone through for the care they deserve from the VA. We all know our healthcare system in American is broken whether everyone wants to admit it or not. That is where the change needs to begin IMO.

    Thank you for this post Brenda. God bless these soldiers and their families. May we all take a stand where it is needed to make the changes happen.

  16. This just makes me want to cry! Not only are we failing to give any help to veterans, the medical help we have for the mentally ill is often failing. Case in point--Robin Williams had the best help he could find and had more than one anti depressants in his system when he killed himself. One of the warnings on anti depressants is----suicide.

  17. Belinda's comments above are excellent. We should be embarrassed by how our Vets are treated, but the answer is so complicated. When my Dad and others returned from WW II, because of the times, and how men responded to any crisis, little to nothing was talked about. I lived through Vietnam and it, too, isn't simply a right or wrong answer. Again, the times were reflected in how EVERYONE acted and reacted. Then we had the more recent wars. We went in totally unprepared for what we thought was going to be a simple "Shock and Awe" extravaganza and were dealt a horrific blow. A war that lasts more than a decade has repercussions which we never anticipated and we are experiencing that blow-back now in these totally shocking stories of how Vets are treated. We sent them off to war and didn't plan for the after-war in the 21st century to help them re-enter into society. The world, the technology, the terrorist complexities are all new and we are trying to deal with things the same way we did following WW II. The answers are complex and sadly aren't coming fast enough to combat the horrors of these recent wars.

  18. We must do better. For not only regular armed forces, but our National Guard as well. People who denigrate the National Guard, as part time or not real soldiers have no idea what our Guard troops face. In Idaho our National Guard was formed to go fight the Spanish American War, and the Guard has been called up in every war since. The government now is relying more and more on the Guard, as combat troops, but they aren't getting the services they need when they come home. The economy is bad, jobs are scarce, and our troops come home to an apathetic public. Things need to change.

  19. After reading this tragic story, I am even more sickened that this Obama administration plans to let 5 MILLION more illegals stay here in this country when our own service men and women are in a horrible situation of not being given proper care when returning home after serving our country. We need to take care of our own first and securing our own borders should be paramount in the step to better care for our own citizens, especially American Vets.
    Wonderful post.


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