Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kussman, the undersecretary for health at the VA,
sent the email, dated Dec. 15, 2007. Kussman had inquired about the
accuracy of a news report published that month claiming the suicide rate
among veterans was 18 per day.
“McClatchy [Newspapers] alleges that 18 veterans kill themselves
everyday and this is confirmed by the VA’s own statistics,” Kussman
wrote. “Is that true? Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million
In an email response to Kussman, Ira Katz, the head of mental health at
the VA, confirmed the statistics and added “VA’s own data demonstrate
4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us.”
This week, in a federal courthouse in San Francisco, that email will be
cited as evidence that the VA has failed to properly treat veterans who
suffer from PTSD and veterans who are suicidal. Those allegations were
made in a class-action lawsuit filed against the VA by two veterans
advocacy groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for
Truth, alleging a systematic breakdown at the VA has led to an epidemic
The organizations claim the VA, which has a backlog of 600,000
benefits claims to sort through, is unprepared to deal with cases of
posttraumatic stress disorder among veterans returning from Iraq and
Afghanistan, and has turned away veterans who have sought help for
depression at VA hospitals. Some of those veterans later committed
suicide, according to the lawsuit.
The groups want a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction to
force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show signs of PTSD and
are at risk of suicide.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who
witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is said to be
the most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat.
According to a copy of the lawsuit filed in July 2007, “more than any
previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to produce a
high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD,” due to the widespread
use of improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity
of fighting combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National
Guard members and Reservists.
Those claims are now supported by a comprehensive study released by the
RAND Corporation last week stating that about 300,000 U.S. troops sent
to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from major depression or
PTSD, and 320,000 received traumatic brain injuries.
Early Warnings Ignored
Prior to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the VA issued a report
to Pentagon and White House officials saying that it expected that the
number of U.S. troops who would suffer from PTSD would reach a maximum
of about 8,000.
But Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense,
told lawmakers those estimates were extremely low. He continued to sound
early warning alarms about the extent of PTSD cases and the likelihood
of veteran suicides during numerous appearances before Congress over the
“The scope of PTSD in the long term is enormous and must be taken
seriously. When all of our 1.6 million service members eventually
return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, based on the current rate of 20
percent, VA may face up 320,000 total new veterans diagnosed with PTSD,”
Sullivan told a Congressional committee in July 2007. If America fails
to act now and overhaul the broken DoD and VA disability systems, there
may a social catastrophe among many of our returning Iraq and
Afghanistan war veterans. That is why VCS reluctantly filed suit
against VA in Federal Court...Time is running out.”
Sullivan has urged Congress to enact legislation to overhaul the VA.
“Congress should legislate a presumption of service connection for
veterans diagnosed [with] PTSD who deployed to a war zone after 9/11,”
Sullivan told lawmakers last year. “A presumption makes it easier for
dedicated and hard-working VA employees to process veterans’ claims.
This results in faster medical treatment and benefits for our veterans.”
Yet despite Sullivan’s dire predictions and calls for
legislative action the issue has not been given priority treatment by
lawmakers. Instead, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq to the
tune of about $200 billion and will likely pour another $108 billion
into Iraq later next month. Meanwhile, a backlog of veterans’ benefits
claims continue to pile up at the VA.
The VA said it has hired more than 3,000 mental healthcare professionals
over the past two years to deal with the increasing number of PTSD
cases, but the problems persist.
VA Says Vets Not ‘Entitled’ to Healthcare
The lawsuit alleges that numerous VA practices stemming from a 1998 law
violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans suffering
from PTSD by denying veterans mandated medical care.
“Seeking help from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs... involves a
two-track system,” says a copy of the plaintiff’s trial brief filed in
federal court last week.
“A veteran will go to the Veterans’ Health Administration for diagnosis
and medical care; and a veteran goes to the Veterans’ Benefits
Administration to apply for service-connection and disability
“VA is failing these veterans as they move along both of these parallel
tracks. They are not receiving the healthcare to which they are entitled
(and where they do receive it, it is unreasonably delayed) and they are
not able to get timely compensation for their disabilities, which means
that they have no safety net. These two problems combine to create a
perfect storm for PTSD veterans: they receive no treatment, so their
symptoms get worse; and they receive no compensation, so they cannot go
elsewhere for treatment. The failings of these two separate but
interrelated systems are what this action seeks to address.”
Justice Department attorneys had argued in court papers filed last month
that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not "entitled" to the five-years
of free healthcare upon their return from combat as mandated by Congress
in the "Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act." Rather, the VA argued,
medical treatment for the war veterans was discretionary based on the
level of funding available in the VA's budget.
But during a court hearing hearing last month before U.S. District Court
Judge Samuel Conti, Dr. Gerald Cross, the Principal Deputy Under
Secretary for Health, Veterans Health Administration, said that veterans
of Iraq and Afghanistan were not only entitled to free healthcare, but
he said "there is no co-pay."
Additionally, Cross testified that of the 300,000 veterans of the Iraq
and Afghanistan wars treated at VA hospitals, more than half were
diagnosed with a serious mental condition, 68,000 of which were cases of
His testimony marked the first time a Bush administration official has
provided detailed information about the psychological impact of the Iraq
and Afghanistan wars on combat veterans. Cross testified that five years
after the invasion of Iraq, the VA has still not completed a study on
the link between suicides and PTSD among combat veterans. However, he
said such a study is currently in the works and may be published soon.
Gordon Erspamer, an attorney representing the veterans groups, said in
an interview that the VA has said publicly it is doing everything it can
for veterans, but the Bush administration’s true position is “veterans
are not entitled to healthcare if that is what we decide.”
“The agency is very hostile to most of these guys on mental health
issues,” Erspamer said. “A lot of them who work at the VA are veterans
themselves and it's the suck it up mentality. It’s a total failure of
leadership and management. They were totally unprepared for this many
casualties and totally unprepared for PTSD.”
Soldier’s Suicide Warnings Ignored
Chris Scheuerman, a retired Special Forces masters sergeant, testified
before a Congressional committee last month that there is an urgent need
for mental health reform in the military.
Scheuerman said his son, Pfc. Jason Scheuerman, went to see an Army
psychologist because he had been suicidal.
The Army psychologist wrote up a report saying Jason Scheuerman “was
capable of (faking) mental illness in order to manipulate his command,”
according to documents the soldiers father turned over to Congress.
“Jason desperately needed a second opinion after his
encounter with the Army psychologist,” Chris Scheuerman testified in
mid-March before the Armed Services Committee’s Military Personnel
“The Army did offer him that option, but at his own expense. How is a
PFC (private first class) in the middle of Iraq supposed to get to a
civilian mental health care provider at his own expense?” he said. “I
believe a soldier should be afforded the opportunity to a second opinion
via teleconference with a civilian mental health care provider of their
Jason Scheuerman shot himself with a rifle on July 30, 2005. The
20-year-old’s suicide note was nailed to the close in his barracks. It
said, “Maybe now I can get some peace.”
Dr. Arthur Blank, a renowned expert on PTSD who has worked closely with
the VA, testified during the federal court hearing in San Francisco last
month that multiple deployments are largely responsible for an increase
in veterans suicides.
"I think it's because of multiple deployments, which means one is
exposed to trauma over and over again," Blank testified.
Jason Leopold is the author of the National Bestseller, "News
Junkie," a memoir. Visit www.newsjunkiebook.com for a preview.
He is also a two-time winner of the Project Censored award, most
recently, in 2007, for an investigative story related to
Halliburton's work in Iran. He was recently named the recipient
of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation's Thomas Jefferson
Award for a series of stories he wrote that exposed how soldiers
in Iraq and Afghanistan have been pressured to accept
fundamentalist Christianity. Leopold is working on a new
nonprofit online publication, expected to launch soon.