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How the VA Cooked the Suicide Books
The agency hides long waits for veterans in mental-health crises.

Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Facebook)

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A VA spokesperson did not respond to NRO’s questions about this 2012 report. But other sources and articles note that delays in mental-health treatment for veterans have been attributed to multiple factors, including everything from a shortage of professionals to treat them to an increase in the number of veterans after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to backlogs in the processing of mental-health-based disability claims.

Regardless of the reasons for delays, waiting for mental-health services at the VA can be a grueling endeavor, as Paula Brown-Nichols of Waxahachie, Texas, knows all too well. “I divorced when Cory was three, and it was he and I against the world,” she tells NRO. “He had never really been away from me other than a weekend with his dad . . . until he went to boot camp.”

Paula describes her son as “Mr. Personality-Charisma,” describing how he had graduated from high school a year early. His father and maternal grandfather were both military, and when Cory turned 18, he followed in their vocation, enlisting with the National Guard. Soon after his training had finished, Cory was shipped off to Camp Taji, Iraq. He bought an Iraqi phone, and he’d call his mother every day except for those he was sent out on missions.

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During Cory’s two-week break home, he took his mother to see The Lion King in Dallas, but when he walked into the theater, “there were a lot of kids, and they were clapping and singing in the foyer before it started, and his face turned beet red, and his eyes were just going crazy back and forth and looking over and back, and he had a panic attack. All of a sudden, he could not breathe. He monkey-crawled from the foyer. . . . We got outside, and he was having a hard time breathing. . . . That was my first clue that something was going on.”

Cory returned to Iraq, finished his tour, and headed home, bringing a post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) diagnosis with him. The veteran’s grandmother was having heart surgery, so Cory missed the transitional counseling the military provides, Paula says. While Cory kept up appearances for the first few months, his mental health was quickly deteriorating, and he began self-medicating with drugs, she says.

Paula began pushing the VA to treat her son for PTSD and substance abuse, but she says she could only get him into short-term detox, where he was admitted for less than a week. His doctors changed repeatedly, she says, and one even prescribed Xanax, even though Paula had informed them that “it was his drug of choice” to abuse. The Associated Press has reported that Cory also saw a VA counselor once a month.

Paula says what her son really needed was a 30-to-90-day intensive-treatment program, but the VA repeatedly told her there were no beds available. Cory could call each day to see if a bed had opened up, she says, but the responsibility to check in daily was his, and the VA had also cautioned that if he relapsed, the process would start over again entirely.  

Finally, one night in September 2011, Cory got into an argument with his wife, whom he had married just months before after finding out she was pregnant. The police were called, and Cory was briefly handcuffed as his wife left the premises. Sitting on his lawn by a tree, “he was begging her not to leave, saying he’d kill himself if she left,” Paula says. Cory called his mother, who tried to calm him down.

Eventually, “I thought he was okay,” Paula recalls. “The next morning, I couldn’t get him on the phone. I’d usually talk to him every morning.” Concerned, she called her ex-husband, who also attempted to reach him by phone, and then drove to his house. “My ex-husband found him,” she says. “He had shot himself in the head, they said, between 12:30 and 2 a.m. . . . They say he died immediately, and I want to believe that.”

Today, Paula has custody of Cory’s son, “my angel boy. He looks like my son, and he definitely acts like him.” But despite that consolation, she deeply grieves. She has never washed his uniform, and she wonders what would have happened if Cory’s psychiatrist had been more available, or if the police had taken his suicide threats seriously that night.

But most of all, she says, she holds the VA accountable for its failure to provide her son with the mental-health services he needed. “If the VA had put him in long-term treatment,” Paula says, “we might not be having this conversation. But you just can’t get in — you can’t get in. . . . The VA has got to make some changes. They’re killing our vets.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.



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