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"The suicide problem is out of control," said Gordon Erspamer, an attorney representing the groups Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth in a class action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Our veterans deserve better."
Erspamer's comments came in opening arguments for what is expected to be a week-long trial, the first class action brought on behalf of 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
Early arguments were punctuated by allegations that top government officials deliberately deceived the U.S. public about the number of veterans attempting suicide.
An e-mail made public during the trial revealed that the head of the VA's Mental Health division, Dr. Ira Katz, advised a media representative not to tell reporters that 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.
"Shh!" the e-mail begins.
"Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail concludes.
According to CBS News, Katz's email was written shortly after the VA provided the network with data showing there were only 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007 -- a fraction of Katz's estimate.
Earlier this month, the city of Dallas, Texas, closed its psychiatric unit after the hospital experienced its fourth suicide of the year.
"On April 4, a man fastened a bed sheet to the bottom corner of a door frame, draped a noose over the top, and hanged himself," the Dallas Morning News reported last week. "Before that, a veteran hanged himself on a frame attached to his wheelchair. And in January, two men who met in the psychiatric ward committed suicide in Collin County days after being released."
"The system is in crisis, and unfortunately the VA is in denial," Erspamer told the court, urging U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti to appoint a special master to oversee the troubled agency. The veterans groups are also seeking a judge's order forbidding the VA from turning away any veteran who shows up at a facility seeking mental health care.
In a number of high-profile cases, Iraq war veterans have killed themselves after being turned away from the VA.
Lawyers for the government disagreed strongly with the veterans, claiming that the VA runs a "world-class health care system." Multiple times during his opening statement, Justice Department lawyer Richard Lepley portrayed the veterans' groups as "special interests" and argued the changes the groups seek in their lawsuit -- better and faster mental health care, and more rights for veterans appealing denials of benefits -- are beyond the judge's authority.
"You have no standards to judge," Lepley told Conti. "This court shouldn't be trying to be a substitute for what the medical professionals at the VA decide."
No veterans are set to testify at the trial, which focuses on the nature of the Byzantine bureaucratic system that veterans must navigate to receive health care and disability benefits. According the Department of Veterans Affairs, the average time a veteran must wait to learn if his or her disability claim has been approved is 185 days, or about six months.
Veterans' groups have asserted that the real wait is much longer, noting that if a veteran appeals the disability ruling, the appeals process can drag on for years. According to internal VA documents provided by the plaintiffs, 526 veterans have died this year while their disability claims were being reviewed.
None of this surprises Kelly Conklin of Chunchula, Ala.
Her husband Manuel became wheelchair-bound after experiencing a negative reaction to an anthrax vaccine administered as he was preparing to deploy to Iraq with the U.S. Navy in 2003. Military doctors pumped him with steroids and other medicine in hopes that he would recover, Conklin said, but in 2005 she came to realize that a recovery was unlikely, so she filed a claim with the VA for disability compensation.
After three years, the family is still waiting.
"It's an every day battle," Kelly Conklin said. "We're having grits and eggs for supper tonight and a lot of nights. Sometimes we don't eat anything but lima beans for supper -- it depends on what we have."
In the absence of a regular paycheck or a disability check, Conklin said her family of four is now living almost completely off charity, with much of the food they eat coming from the local food bank.
She said she used to be proud of her husband for his service in the Navy but has now forbidden her youngest son from joining the Armed Forces.
"If it sounds like I'm down -- yes I am down," she said. "If I sound like I'm bitter, you got that right. They've taken everything away from me. The only thing left for them to take from me is my birthday."
"When we give them our spouses, we give them whole," she said. "And if you can't make him whole [again], then you make sure he's taken care of."