VA under scrutiny for veteran suicides

March 3, 2008 9:18:48 PM PST
There is pressure on the Veterans Administration to do more to prevent suicides. The number of vets returning from Iraq and taking their own lives is reaching an epidemic level. That's what veterans groups claim and they are taking the VA to court to force it to do more.

This is the first salvo of a major class action lawsuit filed by veterans groups, challenging what they call "the failure of the VA to properly treat returning veterans."

They say there are long waiting lists for veterans who need mental health care and a huge backlog of more than 600,000 disability claims. In the meantime, veterans are said to be committing suicide in unprecedented numbers.

Former Marine Guido Gualco fought in the late 80's in Operation Desert Storm. VA doctors failed to diagnose his PTSD until 2005 -- 14 years after he was discharged. It got so bad, he begged his friend to kill him.

"I was questioning God, 'why was I alive?' I didn't want to live," says Gualco.

Army specialist Tim Chapman was a Humvee gunner in the Middle East. He was discharged after he fell into a deep depression in 2006.

"I was sitting in Roseville with my gas on the pedal and I was going to drive my car off this cliff at a truck stop," says Chapman.

Paul Sullivan heads Veterans for Common Sense. He says the VA has failed to deal with the growing problem of veteran suicides.

"There are cases around the country of veterans who said they were suicidal in front of VA employees and they were placed on waiting lists and otherwise turned away," says Sullivan.

Veterans for Common Sense is one of two veterans groups asking federal courts to order the VA to immediately screen and treat all potentially suicidal veterans.

Dr. Arthur Blank once headed the VA's veterans centers and is a renowned expert on PTSD. He testified that up to 30 percent of returning Iraqi veterans are suffering from post traumatic stress disorders, which can lead to suicide.

"I think because of multiple deployments, which means one is exposed to trauma over and over again," says Blank.

Lawyers for the government declined our request for an interview.

In court, they argued, the VA was taking the problem of suicides seriously and denied that veterans were being turned away from treatment.

"We've increased substantially our mental health practitioner -- 3,700 new mental health practitioners since 2005," says Kerri Childress, spokesperson for Palo Alto Veterans Hospital.

Childress says the VA now has a suicide prevention hotline that is helping.

"They've established a hotline only six months ago and they've had 8,000 calls from veterans and their families on potential suicides. This doesn't show the VA is doing anything. Quite the contrary. It shows that there's a vast unmet need and we're not honoring this nation's commitment to our returning soldiers," says Sid Wolinsky, attorney for the veterans groups

The lawsuit covers a range of issues dealing with the VA's health care system. The veterans groups say there was an urgency to deal with the suicides first because of the alarming increase in the numbers of veterans taking their own lives. Testimony continues through this week.