Advocates Say A VA Suicide-Reduction Program Isn't Reaching Veterans In Need
Last year, the VA began offering mental health treatment to vets who don't normally qualify for V-A care. Since then, fewer than 200 people have used the program.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Onan was in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.
"I remember laying down in the truck," Onan said. "Waking up, there is dust and debris all over me, and there was an Iraqi colonel, and he's just screaming, screaming and I don't understand what he's saying."
Onan suffered a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. During the next year, he was in and out of trouble with military officials, mainly for small infractions, which he chalks up to the medications he was taking. Then, while on leave, he was caught with a small amount of cocaine and was kicked out of the Marines.
Onan is one of the thousands of veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges. They don't typically qualify for VA benefits, even though they have a high suicide rate.
To address that, the VA last summer started a new program. It allows that group of veterans to come into the VA and be treated for mental health issues at least for 90 days.
Onan is taking advantage of the program. After years of being rejected by the VA, Onan now is getting his PTSD treatment paid for by the agency, and he hopes it helps him get back to being the person he was before the injury.
I'm 32 years old now, and this guy is 20, and I look up to this guy," he said as he looked at a old photo of himself. "I know it's me, but I miss everything about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find this guy.”
Advocates fault VA for inadequate outreach
The VA says nationally 115 veterans have used the program, a figure that's disappointing to veterans advocates. They say it represents just a small fraction of the veterans who now qualify for mental health care. The VA last year estimated that more than 500,000 veterans have other-than-honorable discharges.
"It's not possible that that's the number of people who need help," said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq vet who works with the Vietnam Veterans of America. "It's a failure to contact them, to fully inform them, and to break the stigma."
Vietnam Veterans of America lobbied the VA to help veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.
"It's a program that most people who are eligible for haven't heard of, and the reason for that is the VA refused to do any outreach," said Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director Rick Weidman.
Weidman said there was an internal debate over whether the VA could pay to reach out to veterans who normally don't qualify for VA care.
Illness Related To Service
Of the 115 people who took advantage of the program, 25 were in San Diego, according to the VA.
"They came in saying they had an urgent need, and they were evaluated and received care for that urgent need - whether it was a substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts," said Dr. Neal Doran of the San Diego VA.
Earlier this year, Congress expanded the program to take in even more former service members.
Bi-partisan language inserted into a recent budget bill turned the VA program into law, making all vets with other-than-honorable discharges eligible for mental health care if their illnesses are related to their service.
The VA has not released details about how the new program will operate.
"VA is currently in the process of writing implementation regulations which will provide further guidance on expanding mental health care outreach to service members in need," the agency said in a written statement.
The VA is also required to actively seek out the veterans who qualify.
But Onan said finding those veterans - and persuading them to seek out VA care - will still be difficult.
"I felt shunned. I still feel shunned," Onan said.
He said treatment has been a lifesaver for him, but he fears the alienation he felt will make it difficult for other vets to seek help.
"I wouldn't be surprised that a lot of them aren't alive," he said. "And the reason I say that, is without treatment and without proper care, even loved ones. I don't think I could have done it without God and my family."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.