Sunday, February 04, 2007

Akaka Demands Investigation Into Suicide of Iraq War Veteran

I reported on Wednesday about Jonathan Schulze, the 25-year-old Iraq war Veteran from Minnesota, who committed suicide after being denied immediate treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at two Veterans Administration medical facilities.

Fortunately, Democrats are now in charge of the Congress and action is already being taken.

Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, is looking into the incident and sent a letter this week to VA Acting Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Michael Kussman. In the letter, Akaka asked for an expedited analysis of the events preceding Schulze's death, as well as a description of what actions the VA is taking to ensure that delays for vital mental health care do not occur in the future.

Here's an excerpt from Akaka's letter to the VA:
"I ask that you provide me, in my capacity as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, with an expedited analysis of the events preceding Mr. Schulze's death, at both the Minneapolis and St. Cloud facilities, and the steps VA is taking to address any problems in these facilities to ensure that such a delay or denial of inpatient care does not occur in the future. To the extent there is material that you believe should not be shared beyond me and Committee staff, please so indicate.

"I am concerned that reports of VA's failure to respond to Mr. Schulze's request for help may indicate systemic problems in VA's capacity to identify, monitor, and treat veterans who are suicidal. You will recall the statement of Dr. Fran Murphy, the former Deputy Under Secretary for Health, when she noted last year that the promise of the best medical care is 'a hollow one if veterans who are struggling with the aftermath of severe trauma do not have timely access to quality mental health... '

"For a veteran at risk of suicide, contact with VA must trigger a response that will prevent suicide and provide ongoing monitoring and care. VA must have in place rigorous protocols to help veterans who self-identify as having suicidal thoughts, and VA must have the resources to provide intensive care for these veterans when they need it.

"For veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there may be additional risks for suicide. I have been advised that epidemiological findings indicate that rates of suicide are greatest in the first five to ten years after diagnosis of most serious mental disorders, which suggests that new veterans receiving mental health services may be at greater risk for suicide than the population of those with earlier military service. VA must be vigilant in its monitoring and support of our recent veterans who may be at risk of suicide."
It's bad enough that American troops are still even being sent into the Iraq quagmire, but it is unconscionable to have them returning home, badly in need of help, and unable to get it from the very government responsible for their condition.

This is a relatively small bit of Congressional oversight, but it's what we've waited the entire Bush presidency to see -- and way more than we ever saw under the do-nothing, Republican Congress.