Nationwide - November 13 -
Members of Military Families Speak Out are condemning comments by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs suggesting that the dramatic increase in the suicide rate among young veterans is not connected to the war in Iraq. The suicide rate among male veterans under the age of 29 is now twice that of the general population.
In an interview aired Monday November 10th on PBS's NewsHour, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake said that Veterans' suicides are the result of:
"the same kinds of issues that have to do with suicide in the general population. It is issues of failed relationships, senses of hopelessness, transitions in life, that are at the root cause . . . we're not making a direct correlation with combat."
Specialist Scott Eiswert committed suicide in May after being told by a friend that his unit of the Tennessee National Guard would be returning to Iraq. His widow, Tracy Eiswert, a member of Military Families Speak Out, expressed outrage at Secretary Peake's comments:
"I am not a statistic. We are a military family. We are real people with real experiences as a result of my husband's PTSD and his suicide. He wasn't that way before he went to Iraq, he came back changed."
After returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Spc. Eiswert had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by civilian doctors, but the Veterans Administration denied that his condition was the result of his experiences in Iraq. The Veterans Administration reversed that ruling in August. Tracy Eiswert said:
"It took him having to put a gun in his mouth for the military to admit that the changes in my husband were a result of the war. If they had admitted that earlier he might still be alive."
Kevin and Joyce Lucey are members of Military Families Speak Out and the parents of Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine Corps Reservist who suffered severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service in Iraq in 2003. Shortly after being turned away from a Veterans Administration hospital, Corporal Lucey killed himself on June 22, 2004. Kevin Lucey said:
"Secretary Peake's words are the kind of self serving comments that this nation does not need to hear from the Veterans Administration and its leadership. This is why many regard this VA administration to be steeped in disgrace and dishonor when it comes to our loved ones. They feel that they need to explain away, rationalize, justify or minimize - instead of committing their resources, time and efforts to create the best healthcare system on God's earth."
Joyce Lucey also had strong words for Secretary Peake:
"This is dishonorable, disgraceful and shameful behavior from someone who is charged with giving the best of care to our warriors. With this type of message and thinking, Is it any wonder that many of our troops and veterans don't seek help from those who are so callous and uncaring?"
Specialist Joe Hafley, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out who has had to fight to get treatment for his own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, agreed. Hafley served in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserves from 2004-2005, and his brother, a Major with the U.S. Army Reserves is scheduled to deploy to Iraq early next year.
When Hafley returned from Iraq, the Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and severe depression -- but ruled that none of those conditions were the result of his service in Iraq. He said:
"My treatment at the VA was belittling and frustrating. To have them diagnose me with PTSD and not attribute it to my service in Iraq is a slap in the face. To have them tell me the problems could be the result of failed relationships rather than the result of my experiences in combat makes me feel that as a veteran I have no place at the VA.
"The thing that is most baffling to me is this 800 pound gorilla in the room not being addressed. Why are we feeling hopeless? Why do we have failed relationships? The common denominator is we all served in Iraq. Maybe my feeling of hopelessness is that I served my country with honor and I am still trying to figure out for what reason? For what just cause?
"Secretary Peake, it doesn't matter how many additional mental health workers you hire if you as the person at the top still feel we are just losers that failed to adjust or that we entered our military service unfit. No amount of false support will help us."