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Parents of Arizona vet work to ‘put a face’ on veteran suicide epidemic

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Helping the VA

Based on their son Daniel's experiences, the Somers family recommends a range of ways to reform veterans' health care. The issues, in conversations and in a "white paper," range from what they call "obstacles" to mental health care to "broader failures" across the Veterans Affairs Department:

Mental health care:
• Failure to prioritize treatment based on suicide risk and severity of condition. The Somerses say Daniel was refused treatment more than once due to "resource limitations," despite having a higher risk of suicide.
• Inadequate transition from one doctor to another. The Somerses say that after Daniel's VA psychiatrist retired, he was "left in limbo" with no "smooth transition" to a new doctor. He never got an assignment to a new provider.
• Lack of accommodation for classified-mission veterans who can only discuss their experiences with people with security clearances. Due to Daniel's classified missions, he could not discuss some experiences in group sessions; the Somerses say that impeded his access to VA-system mental health care.

Broader issues:
• Months-long delays in getting treatment appointments.
• Antiquated appointment system.
• Incompatibility between information technology systems.
• Need for better accountability. Howard Somers said the VA budget went from $72 billion to $150 billion over eight years, while the number of vets served rose from 5.5 million to 5.6 million veterans.
• A need for the Defense Department to document a service members' "support network" before he or she goes to war and to then include that network in reintegrating the person when he returns.

Help for veterans:

• If you or someone you know is in need of help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or click to the Veterans Crisis Line website.

Special report

“Back Home: The Enduring Battles Facing Post-9/11 Veterans” is the 2013 project of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multimedia, investigative reporting project produced by the nation’s top journalism students. The project is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The complete project investigates VA failings, profiles veterans struggling to reintegrate with society - or just survive - looks at the special challenges faced by women veterans and profiles the families and communities trying to help the veterans in their midst.

WASHINGTON – Daniel Somers’ parents said they had “no idea” about the struggles their son was facing before the Phoenix Army veteran took his own life in June.

Now, Howard and Jean Somers are working to raise awareness about veterans’ mental health issues and to advocate for changes to the way the Department of Veterans Affairs handles benefits claims and mental-health treatments.

They brought their campaign this week to Washington, where the couple met with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and took part Wednesday in a round-table discussion for House lawmakers hosted by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff.

“His parents contacted me about his story and I was so moved by that that I want the rest of the (House Veterans’ Affairs) committee to hear that,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick called suicide a “huge problem” for the military, citing an estimated 22 veteran suicides each day.

“We hope that this is the beginning of working toward a common-sense solution,” she said.

Jean Somers said she and her husband wanted to “put a face” on the issue of veterans’ mental health to show lawmakers how it affects veterans and their families.

“They look at it in terms of generalities,” she said. “This can make it real for everybody.”

Daniel Somers served on hundreds of combat missions as a Humvee turret gunner during his service in Iraq, experiences that left him “broken,” his mother said. He was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and what his father called “full-blown Gulf War syndrome.”

But Daniel was not only afflicted by health problems – Jean Somers said that before he killed himself, her son, in a “very explicit letter … indicated there were innumerable deficiencies in the VA system.”

“We felt that was a call to arms for us to take up,” she said. “We certainly wouldn’t want any other parent to go through what we’ve been through.”

In the letter, Daniel wrote that he had been “trying to hang on, for more than a decade now” through physical pain and “unceasing depressing and crippling anxiety.” The government abandoned him, he said, and he decided the best course was suicide, which he described at that point in his life as “mercy killing.”

Chris Williams is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan and who attended Wednesday’s round table.

“It raises awareness,” he said of the meeting. “And not just feel-good, people talk for a little bit and go back to their offices and call it a day (awareness).”

Williams, a Washington, D.C., resident, said he, too, had recently lost a fellow Marine to suicide, which “hit me really hard.”

The round-table meeting came on the heels of a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing in which Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers that vets would stop receiving benefits checks Nov. 1, if Congress does not agree on a deal to end the government shutdown by late October.

Shinseki also said the shutdown forced an end to overtime hours the VA had been paying benefits claims processors, causing an already staggering backlog of claims reviews to fall further behind. Efforts to implement an electronic claims system to speed up the process were also at risk of being sidetracked, he said.

After the hearing, the Somerses spoke to Shinseki briefly and gave him a copy of what Jean Somers called a “white paper” of recommendations for the department.

“He expressed his condolences and we just wanted to get that in his hand,” she said. “It is a very brief synopsis of what we feel were the major stumbling blocks that Daniel had that we really don’t see that there’s been much resolution to at this point.”