Clint Eastwood’s hit movie American Sniper has brought home to Americans the trauma that many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars bring back with them. An astonishing 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. A disturbing and growing number are younger vets, many haunted by their experiences and poorly reintegrated into civilian life. In a 2014 survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, half said they knew another veteran who had attempted suicide.
Investigator James O’Keefe, whose previous undercover videos have exposed scandals involving ACORN, PBS, and voter fraud, has interviewed people who raise disturbing questions about the VA’s inability to treat the underlying causes of veterans’ emotional problems, as it falls back on a regime of drug therapies that often mask the problems or have serious side effects that make matters worse. A video from his group Project Veritas asks why an increasing number of military graveyards are being filled with people who died at their own hands rather than in combat.
A bill to improve suicide-prevention and mental-health programs at the VA has passed both houses of Congress, but many critics believe it papers over the VA’s real shortcomings — which were put in sharp focus by a 2013 scandal in which 40 vets died at a Phoenix facility waiting for care. Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign.
During a recent visit to National Review, former senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) told me that the VA continues to suffer from poor patient care, unreasonably long wait times, and data failures. The medical records are often horribly kept and inadequate. Dr. Maureen McCarthy, deputy chief patient-care-services officer at the VA, told a congressional hearing last year that she had no faith in the numbers her own department provides, so she couldn’t provide an estimate of how long veterans wait for mental-health appointments. Retired Army sergeant Josh Renschler, who has suffered from traumatic brain injury, told the same hearing that he would become confused or lost in chaotic VA facilities and couldn’t find a friendly staff member to help direct him.
“I get better customer service at Best Buy,” he concluded.
Dr. McCarthy testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee that “we truly believe that one death by suicide is one too many.” She went on to say: “Veterans who reach out for help deserve to receive that help. A veteran in emotional distress deserves to find there are no wrong doors when seeking help.”
But in statements she made to an O’Keefe investigator who was posing as a graduate student researching a paper earlier this month, she cast doubt on just how much the VA is cleaning up its own house.
She suggested that the VA might be helping turn vets into drug addicts:
Dr. Maureen McCarthy: You know, it’s not you know what people think of as sick patients, so much. It’s people that have drug problems, some of which are caused by us and our prescribing. . . . We also look at the combination of patients on opiates, like morphine and benzodiazepine, like Ativan and Klonopin.
Project Veritas: Is that the anxiety . . . ?
McCarthy: Yes. That combination in particular is like candy for some people. It’s like they want it, they want it, they want it.
I contacted the Veterans Affairs Department yesterday and was told that Dr. McCarthy was traveling. The department had no comment on her remarks.
O’Keefe tells the story of David Cranmer, a Marine who fought in Iraq and returned home with a severe back injury. Cranmer’s father, Bob, says: “It took him over a year to be seen. He was diagnosed that he would require surgery to have his discs repaired. But they never scheduled the surgery, they just gave him, gave him painkillers. And that went on for a number of years. The primary drug that he was given was OxyContin.” He finally entered a drug-addiction treatment center after he became an addict.
The VA finally called Cranmer in and after an hour with a psychologist at a local hospital diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was given the anti-depressant Zoloft and two mood stabilizers. But Zoloft has been proven to increase suicidal thoughts or actions. His father believes that ultimately the drugs did far more harm than good. A month after he was diagnosed, David Cranmer used a ladder to hang himself. He left behind a wife and a five-year-old daughter.
Nor is Cranmer’s course of treatment unusual. O’Keefe’s investigators interviewed Joe Salomon, a VA nurse-anesthetist in Little Rock, Ark.:
Joe Salomon: I think that, I’ll be honest with you. I think, you know, you’re a resident for six months and you’re a resident for six months and you’re a resident, and so you put on the pills. And you review it the next six months and you think, you know, this other pill may help. Then you do it, and you think, ahh, this other pill might help.
Project Veritas: They don’t even know what the pills are actually doing though and they are giving pills.
Joe Salomon: I do think that happens.
Project Veritas: Right?
Joe Salomon: Yes.
Tom Coburn, a medical doctor who has treated suicidal patients, says the VA needs a “top-to-bottom review and reorganization.” He says the bill passed by Congress that is designed to prevent veteran suicides “throws money at the problem while not demanding true reform” – and that the real issue is not whether Congress should help these patients, but whether Congress can force the VA to become a more accountable agency.
Sean Parnell, a former Army Ranger and an adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, wrote recently in the Military Times that the problem “won’t be solved with simply ‘more funding’ or ‘more programs’ aimed at preventing veterans’ suicides.”
Indeed, what the VA really needs is to be taken by the scruff of its bureaucratic neck and given a thorough shakeout. A great country can’t ask its young people to serve bravely on battlefields and then too often treat them like bothersome discards when they return home.
– John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review.