Soldier Suicides: veterans are killing themselves in record numbers

But at the VA, not much has changed

But when Fickel and his girlfriend broke up in 2006, he just sort of gave up. Fickel had been through breakups before, but the stakes were higher this time, his mother remembers.

That weekend, Fickel canceled plans to march in the Memorial Day parade. Instead, he hosted a get-together at his apartment the same day his former girlfriend planned to move her stuff out. "He wanted to show her what she was missing," his mother says.

By the time everyone arrived, Fickel was drunk and out of control. He'd finished all the beer in the apartment and started guzzling rubbing alcohol. He was "nuts that day," his mother says. One minute he would act as if nothing was wrong, the next he was retching and sobbing.

Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program
courtesy of Eileen Schulze
Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program
Marine Bryan Benson of St. Paul shocked his family when he killed himself in 2005, just a year after his return from Iraq
courtesy of Matt Hinton
Marine Bryan Benson of St. Paul shocked his family when he killed himself in 2005, just a year after his return from Iraq

When his ex-girlfriend finished packing her stuff and the truck pulled away from the driveway, it was as if he couldn't take it anymore, Aanden recalls.

"He looked me in the eye, blew me a kiss, and went back inside the house. We heard a loud noise and I thought it was a door slamming," she remembers. "I thought, 'Oh, someone is pissed off,' but he had shot himself in the head."

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DESPITE THE INFLUX OF VETERANS from two new wars, the number of beds dedicated to treating combat PTSD at the St. Cloud VA had not been increased since 1995, according to an inspector general's report on Schulze's death. In the wake of the suicide, the St. Cloud VA doubled the number of psychologists providing mental health care for veterans, including the hiring of suicide prevention coordinators, a national mandate for all VA centers.

Locally, "not much has changed," says Joan Vincent, spokeswoman for the hospital, who canceled a scheduled interview with City Pages, citing ongoing litigation. She later clarified her statement, saying it was taken out of context. "Not much has changed in regards to PTSD treatment," she explained over the phone. Vincent later reiterated that the report investigating Schulze's death speaks for itself and that the VA was following appropriate protocol for PTSD programming at the time of Schulze's death. "We were doing a good job then and we're doing a good job now," she said.

During the 24 hours surrounding Schulze's visit to the VA on January 11, 2007, six beds were available in the acute psychiatry unit, a 15-bed wing at the hospital for patients who pose a risk to themselves or others. At the time, VA staffers failed to assess Schulze as suicidal, so he was put on a waiting list for elective PTSD treatment.

"They go into the military and they're promised that help will be there when they get out, but it's not," says Marianne Schulze, who thinks if her stepson was admitted that day he would be alive to tell his own story.

The Schulzes are now participating in a class-action lawsuit against the United States VA. Two groups—Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth—are accusing the VA of neglecting the psychological consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Schulze is one of several deceased veterans named in the suit, which was filed in San Francisco in July.

"The military is willing to send us off to combat at the drop of a hat, but then you come back and it's like, 'Get in line, take a number,'" says Travis Schulze, Jonathan's brother and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. Travis is currently receiving therapeutic care at the Minneapolis VA, but says he's a "special case" and doubts treatment would be as accessible if he weren't Jonathan's brother. "What if there is no time left to take a number? What if you can't wait?"

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