“What you’re about to hear may be painful,” Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) warned the audience as the hearing, which can be viewed online, began.
It was so painful that the first witness had trouble getting through her statement.
Brandie Petit spoke through sobs about her brother Joseph, who injured his knees during parachute training as a U.S. Army Ranger. After he had sought the VA’s help for year, the agency finally said “the problem was in his head and sent him home with meds for his head, not his knees,” she told the panel.
At one point, Joseph, who suffered hallucinations, was forced to leave a VA facility, according to Petit, because he didn’t have an appointment.
“The VA police physically removed Joseph and put a standing order into place to arrest him if he showed up again without an appointment,” his sister said. “I’m outraged at his treatment that day.”
Joseph committed suicide in the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, Ga., in November, “locked in a hospital bathroom dead in his wheelchair, a plastic trash bag tied over his head with a blue cord around his neck,” reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
His case calls to mind my colleague Steve Vogel’s story about Daniel Somers, once a Humvee turret gunner in Iraq. He became so frustrated with his attempts to get VA medical and mental health treatment that he felt the government had “turned around and abandoned me.”
He wrote those words not long before he shot himself in the head on a Phoenix street in July. The note to his family said he was “too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.”
The VA failed him, as it has too many others.
It must do better.
“We need to make sure you’re getting the veterans’ health care you’ve been promised,” President Obama told the Disabled American Veterans convention last month. “We also need to keep improving mental health services, because we’ve got to end this epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.”
When it was time for VA officials to speak at the Pittsburgh hearing, Robert A. Petzel, undersecretary for health, turned toward Petit and others who felt victimized by the VA to “offer my absolutely sincerest condolences and sympathy and empathy.” He said he found their testimony “deeply compelling and very upsetting. I’m saddened by these stories of loss.”
Compounding the loss of Joseph Petit, the VA had previously upset Miller and other members of Congress by not informing them of Petit’s death when they visited the Atlanta facility in May to investigate inspector general reports about hospital mismanagement and patient deaths, including two other suicides.
In addition to the Georgia cases, Miller also complained that: