Veteran's suicide reveals problems in VA system

February 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Three hundred thousand of the military veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a recent study. But many are not getting the care they need and the results can be tragic. New data shows that veterans are more than twice as likely as other Californians to commit suicide.

William Hamilton enlisted in the Army at 19 and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. His mother Diane says he loved the discipline and camaraderie.

"Every time he came back the commander said he did such a wonderful job," she said.

Hamilton was guarding a rooftop in Mosul in 2005 with his best friend Christopher Pusateri when insurgents attacked.

"His best friend was killed, his very best friend, and I remember the day he called me, and he said, 'Mom,' it was his second tour and he says, 'Mom, I've never been in battle without him,'" Diane Hamilton said.

Back at Fort Bragg, Hamilton was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He got a general discharge from the Army, but his problems got worse. He developed an eating disorder and started taking drugs.

"He was tormented by it; when he first came home he didn't sleep, I could hear him crying at night," Diane Hamilton said.

Doctors at the VA hospital diagnosed Hamilton with schizoaffective disorder and he was hospitalized nine times at the Palo Alto VA's psychiatric ward, often for weeks at a time.

That is what his parents thought was going to happen last May when his father called local sheriff's to take Hamilton in on a 51-50 involuntary psychiatric hold. Staff at the Calaveras County hospital, where Hamilton was taken, wrote that he was "delusional" having "hallucinations...speaking of demon women and flashes of light." They attempted to contact the Palo Alto VA, but were told "they do not start transfers this late in the day."

Veterans' rights advocate Amy Fairweather says that is not acceptable.

"If a vet is in that kind of need of care 24-7, we've got to get it to them," Fairweather said. "The idea that after 4:20 in the afternoon you will not accept transfers of our soldiers who have been deployed repeatedly is absurd. It's absolutely absurd."

Hospital staff attempted admits at three VA hospitals before they finally found Hamilton a bed at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. His parents say they asked the hospital to extend Hamilton's stay to two weeks, as the Palo Alto VA had done at least four times before. But the hospital discharged Hamilton after just three days.

"That's the last time I saw him," Diane Hamilton said.

That night, Hamilton stepped in front of a train in Salida. The coroner's report says he died instantly.

Officials at David Grant Medical Center and the Palo Alto VA both refused to talk to the I-Team on camera. But Diane Hamilton says Colonel Hayes, the man in charge at David Grant, called her after her son's death.

"'I don't know if you know this,' he said, 'but your son tried to commit suicide twice before,'" Diane Hamilton said. "My question I thought was, 'Well why'd you let him go?'"

Mark Foxworthy is the California commander for the American Legion. He says veteran suicides are a big problem.

"This was not a one-time or isolated incident; there are many veterans who have committed suicide after returning home from nearly a decade of combat," he said.

New statistics from the VA show that veterans make up 20 percent of the 30,000 suicides in the United States each year. An average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day and five of those 18 are already getting treatment at the VA.

Foxworthy says there are good mental health services for veterans outside the VA system, like "The Pathway Home" in Yountville, which offers counseling and group therapy.

"This is a problem that is not going to go away; the huge numbers of suicides are not going to go away," Amy Fairweather said.

Fairweather says there needs to be an investigation to find out what went wrong in Hamilton's case and make sure it does not happen again.

"There has to be a thorough investigation; I would like to see Congress look into this," Fairweather said.

Diane Hamilton says she just wants to make sure other veterans get the help they need.

"I think William might have been in the VA with mental help so many times that they just gave up, they gave up," she said.

Coming up Wednesday, two local congressmen give the I-Team their reactions to the investigation and tell the I-Team what they plan to do to help stop veteran suicides.