Health, News

Veteran Suicides At VA Campuses Prompt Call For Federal Investigation

An American flag flies in front of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Atlanta. The executive director of a veterans' advocacy group wrote a letter last week asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate the “veteran and service member suicide epidemic.”
An American flag flies in front of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Atlanta. The executive director of a veterans' advocacy group wrote a letter last week asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate the “veteran and service member suicide epidemic.”
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press

For Keely Youngblood a bustling Starbucks in midtown Atlanta is a second office of sorts.

“This is where I meet a lot of my clients,” she said. “I try to meet veterans where they’re most comfortable.”

Youngblood works with the Emory Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans, which helps former service members with disability and pension claims before Veterans Affairs.

“The waiting I think is brutal for a lot of veterans,” she said. “The waiting for benefits, the waiting for financial support, the waiting for appointments, the waiting on hold.”

Youngblood points out the Atlanta VA Medical Center is just one part of a big, complex health system that treats millions of former service members.

It’s not always quick or easy for veterans to get the care they need, and that can have serious consequences.

“What we’re seeing now is something of a protest by some of these veterans, and they’re actually taking their own lives on Veterans Affairs campuses,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of the advocacy group American Veterans, said.

He sent a letter to Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies last week asking them to investigate the “veteran and service member suicide epidemic.”

“The federal government has spent billions and billions of dollars each year [on the VA], yet the suicide rate has not gone down. We’re still losing at least 20 veterans by suicide every day,” Chenelly said.

American Veterans said 19 of those suicides happened on VA campuses between October 2017 and November 2018.

That doesn’t include the two earlier this month in Georgia at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin. Both facilities say they’re investigating their policies and procedures.

The deaths have not gone unnoticed by Richard Stone, executive in charge of the VA health system.

“Some of those suicides have occurred with suicide notes saying, ‘I’ve come to here to the [VA] campus because I know you’ll take care of me,’” he said at a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Where we as a community and society [have] failed that veteran is a complex answer.”

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson chairs the committee and has stressed multiple times that suicide prevention is a top priority for the VA, which offers services like the Veterans Crisis Line.

“While we have taken a number of steps to address and prevent veteran suicide, [these] tragic deaths clearly indicate that we must do better,” Isakson said in a statement last week.

A recent federal oversight report highlighted one opportunity for improvement.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said late last year the VA had failed to spend millions of dollars earmarked for suicide prevention campaigns.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.