On Feb. 13, 2008, Ira Katz, the VA’s mental health director, and Ev Chasen, the agency’s chief communications director, exchanged e-mails discussing P.R. strategy for handling this troubling news, according to evidence made public Monday in a federal court case in Northern California.
The exchange came in the context of how to handle inquiries from CBS News, which was reporting on the surge of suicides among U.S. veterans – reaching an average of 18 per day – with part of that rise attributed to soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an e-mail headlined “Not for the CBS News Interview Request,” Katz notified Chasen that the VA had identified some 1,000 suicide attempts per month among war veterans treated by the VA.
“Shh!” Katz wrote to Chasen. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
Chasen responded to Katz with suggestions about how to avoid too much negative attention to the data.
“Is the fact that we’re stopping [suicides] good news, or is the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we’ve ever seen before?” Chasen wrote to Katz, adding:
“It might be something we drop into a general release about our suicide prevention efforts, which (as you know far better than I) prominently include training employees to recognize the warning signs of suicide.”
In testimony to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Dec. 12, 2007 – just two months before the e-mail exchange – Katz had stressed the VA’s successes in treating mental health problems and preventing suicides.
He also disputed that veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan face any special risk of suicide.
“VA's latest data do not demonstrate an increased risk of suicide among [Afghan and Iraqi theatre] veterans compared to the age and gender matched American population as a whole,” Katz said.
Three days after the testimony, on Dec. 15, Katz painted a grimmer picture in an e-mail to Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kussman, the Veteran Health Administration’s undersecretary for health.
Katz’s e-mail said that from the total population of U.S. veterans from all wars, an average of 18 vets commit suicide each day. Katz said the data, which the VA obtained from the Center for Disease Control, showed that 20 percent of suicides in the United States are identified as war veterans.
“VA’s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us,” Katz wrote.
On March 20, 2008, CBS News reported that it had obtained an internal VA study showing that 1,784 vets who received VA services still committed suicide in 2005, an increase from 1,403 such suicides in 2001.
CBS News also quoted Rep. Bob Filner, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, complaining that the VA had withheld this important data from Congress.
“Given the fact that we keep asking for data and they say, ‘we don’t have any,’ yes, it surprises me,” Filner told CBS News. “If we can’t get the correct information, we can’t do our job. We can’t prevent every suicide but you can prevent a whole lot of them and it’s our duty as a nation to do that.”
The internal VA e-mail exchange discussing P.R. strategy was disclosed at a federal trial in Northern California where two veterans’ advocacy groups – Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth – have filed a class-action lawsuit against the VA.
The lawsuit alleges that a systematic breakdown at the VA has led to an epidemic of suicides among war veterans. The suit claims the VA has turned away veterans who have sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder and were suicidal.
Some of these veterans, the lawsuit claims, later took their own lives.
Underscoring just how under-prepared the VA was for the number of PTSD cases that would emerge from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, documents released to support the veterans’ lawsuit show that prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq the VA believed it would likely see a maximum of 8,000 cases where veterans showed signs of PTSD.
Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many soldiers have completed more than two tours of duty meaning they are exposed to prolonged periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events.
“Unless they receive appropriate and effective care for these mental health conditions, there will be long-term consequences for them and for the nation. Unfortunately, we found there are many barriers preventing them from getting the high-quality treatment they need.”
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, has been warning lawmakers about this problem for several years.
“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.”
Meanwhile, a backlog of veterans’ benefits claims continue to pile up at the VA.
“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.”
Rather, the VA argued, medical treatment for the war veterans was discretionary based on the level of funding available in the VA's budget.
“I believe a soldier should be afforded the opportunity to a second opinion via teleconference with a civilian mental healthcare provider of their own choice.”
Investigative reporter Jason Leopold is the author of News Junkie, a memoir. Visit http://www.newsjunkiebook.com for a preview.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Consortiumnews.com is a product of The Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc., a non-profit organization that relies on donations from its readers to produce these stories and keep alive this Web publication.