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Arizona family helps ‘put a face’ on veteran suicides, look at VA’s role

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WASHINGTON – Iraq war veteran Daniel Somers was struggling with physical and emotional scars, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder after tours of duty that saw him in repeated action in the Gulf.

He didn’t need to struggle with his own government, too.

But in a suicide note he left last summer, the Phoenix veteran said he was taking his own life after the government that pushed him to commit “war crimes, crimes against humanity” had abandoned him and offered no help for his conditions.

Somers spent “six futile, tragic years” trying to access the Department of Veterans Affairs health system before “finally collapsing,” said his father, Howard Somers. He was one of several family members of veteran suicide victims who testified Thursday in an often-emotional hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The hearing was called to put a human face to the problem of veteran suicides, which average about 22 a day, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the committee.

“At its heart, access to care is not about numbers, it’s about people,” Miller said.

It was the latest in a string of hearings over the troubled VA, where reports this spring of delayed care were linked to the deaths of some veterans in the Phoenix area. Those reports sparked an audit of all VA health facilities in the country, which turned up evidence of “systemic” problems at facilities nationwide.

The problems came as VA administrators were receiving thousands of dollars in annual bonuses and whistleblowers complained of retaliation.

On Thursday, delays in care were repeatedly cited.

Susan and Richard Selke testified that their son, Clay Hunt, was told he would have to wait two months months before he could see a psychiatrist at the Houston VA and that medication for the former Marine was not readily available at the VA pharmacy because his prescription was “non-transferable” from his previous VA location. Hunt took his own life on March 31, 2011.

Somers killed himself on June 10, 2013.

Howard Somers said his son was turned away at one point when he sought treatment from the VA, “essentially denied therapy.” He was told there were no psychiatric beds available and “no beds in the emergency department,” his father said.

“He went into the corner, he lay down on the floor (of the VA) and he was crying,” Howard Somers said.

He said no effort was made to see if Daniel could be admitted to another facility, and no attempt was made to help even though Daniel was in crisis. It was just another example of the VA’s “lack of compassion,” the father said.

Since their son’s death, Howard and Jean Somers have worked to push for changes to the VA, in an effort to get the “hope and care to the 22 veterans a day who are presently ending their lives.”

Jean Somers, who occasionally wiped away tears during her testimony, said the family developed a 19-page report on “systemic issues at the VA.” The purpose, she said, is to “improve access to first-rate health care at the VA, to make the VA accountable to veterans it was created to serve.”

“Daniel’s story and the Somers’ tragedy is familiar to far too many military families,” Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said at the hearing, according to an email from her office. Sinema called it completely unacceptable that 22 veterans a day take their own lives.

Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, cited a 2012 Government Accountability Office report that said inconsistent implementation of VA scheduling policies “made it difficult – if not near impossible – to get patients the help they need when they need it.”

“Enough is enough,” said Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Our veterans and their families deserve a VA that delivers timely mental health service.”