VA holding professionals accountable for veteran suicides is important step

James-Turner-funeral

Recent investigations by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found VA professionals could have done more to prevent suicides and took disciplinary action. Veteran advocates say veteran lives can be saved if VA national and local leadership urgently improve coordination and utilization of resources.

Justin Miller plays the national anthem on his trumpet at a Memorial Day parade in suburban Minneapolis in 2016. Photo: Chris Harrington.

Justin Miller seeks help

It was just after Valentine’s Day two years ago that Justin Miller’s girlfriend asked him to move out of the home they’d shared since 2016.

The Marine from Lino Lakes, Minnesota knew his own breaking point. He headed straight to the nearest VA Medical Center to save his own life.

Four days later, on February 24, 2018, VA staff sent him on his way. Justin made it to his car in the parking lot where he had a loaded gun.

Justin Miller, 33, a beloved son, brother, and honored veteran, took his life before ever leaving that VA parking lot. 

VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota where Justin Miller died.

More than 7,000 American veterans die from suicide each year. That’s more than twice the number of Americans who died on 9/11.

America knows few of their names.

We know Justin Miller’s name because his sister, Alissa Harrington, refused to let her brother die in vain.

Alissa Harrington at the tomb of her brother.

Her advocacy on Justin’s behalf led to Congressional hearings, investigations, and, eventually, disciplinary action against VA professionals entrusted to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle … by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”

Rep. Tim Walz, member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, questions witnesses from the Department of Veterans Affairs as the panel investigates allegations of gross mismanagement and misconduct at VA hospitals possibly leading to patient deaths on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 28, 2014. (Associated Press)

Infuriating

Congressman Tim Walz, now Governor of Minnesota, demanded an investigation into Justin’s death.

“It’s absolutely maddening to see on paper the exact places where the system failed,” Harrington said after reading the investigation report. 

“It is infuriating to know that there is a possibility that Justin’s death could have been prevented,” Walz said. 

“It should outrage us all that an entire health care system failed at something so serious and that it claimed to be their highest clinical priority,” he added.

Justin Miller is not the only veteran to take his life at a VA hospital. 

A 27-year marriage ends

Marine Col. James F. Turner, IV flew F-18s before becoming an infantry officer. He went on to spend a decade working at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

Turner’s struggles grew worse after he retired from the military, leading to the end of his 27-year marriage in October 2017.

Fourteen months later, on December 10, 2018, Col. Turner, 55, medaled up in his military blues, sat on top of his VA records, and shot himself outside the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs in Florida.

Col. Turner’s last words

Next to his body, investigators found a note with Col. Turner’s last words.

“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” James Turner had written on behalf of his fellow veterans.

Captain Ryan Spangler (left) and Gunnery Sgt. Tousnel Renaud (right), with the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, United States Marine Corps Reserve in Tampa, fold one of the two American flags that are to be presented to the family at the end of the memorial service Friday afternoon, at the Serenity Funeral Home in Largo, for retired Marine Col. James “Jim” Turner IV, who took his life at Bay Pines Dec. 10. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

Presidential Roadmap

Last March, President Trump signed an executive order titled “National Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End Suicide.” In June, VA and the White House launched a Veteran suicide-prevention task force. Three months later, Dr. Richard Stone, VA Undersecretary for Health, reported “the aggregate remains about 20 suicide deaths per day.”

Despite orders, committees, and task forces, veteran advocates in the field are exasperated that hundreds of veterans continue to die each month without VA leadership in every community treating the epidemic with increased urgency.

Seth Eisenberg, President of Purpose Built Families Foundation, a nationally accredited South Florida nonprofit that serves thousands of Florida veterans, said, “Getting potentially life saving preventative resources to veterans goes far beyond the typical responsibilities of a nine to five job; it’s life and death urgent.”

Existing resources

VA chaplains and social workers in Augusta, Georgia began a grassroots program more than a decade ago that was shown to save lives, yet is available to less than a fraction of a percent of veterans who could benefit despite recognition as a VA Best Practice, VA’s investment of millions of dollars, VA’s decade of experience, VA’s findings that the program reduces suicide flags, and practically no cost of delivery.”

“Improving coordination, leadership, and utilization of existing resources today,” Eisenberg emphasized, “can reduce the number of American veterans who die in the next 24 hours and every other 24 hours.”

As an example, he said, “VA chaplains and social workers in Augusta, Georgia began a grassroots program more than a decade ago that was shown to save lives, yet is available to less than a fraction of a percent of veterans who could benefit despite recognition as a VA Best Practice, VA’s investment of millions of dollars, VA’s decade of experience, VA’s findings that the program reduces suicide flags, and practically no cost of delivery.”

Eisenberg pointed to a recent statement from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to underline the concern.

“This month, Secretary Wilkie said, ‘Veterans with PTSD are often not able to process the emotions related to a traumatic experience in the field,’ which is something VA has been able to do for a decade,” Eisenberg said. 

“That’s both the tragedy and challenge within VA,” Eisenberg said. “VA has a program to accomplish exactly what Secretary Wilkie says is urgently needed, yet VA leadership isn’t able to get it to the field in time to save lives.”

Holding professionals accountable for the lives they’re entrusted to protect is an important step to saving veteran lives, he said.