As I write this Friday, just two days after authorities say Army Spc. Ivan Lopez gunned down Sgt. First Class Daniel Michael Ferguson, Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazaney Rodriguez and Sgt. Timothy Wayne Owens at Fort Hood before killing himself, I have no idea what motivated Lopez, what led to the mental health issues Army officials say he had, or whether the Army did enough to help him.
But I do know this.
If you are a service member dealing with mental health or stress issues, or love someone who is, please reach out for help.
The military and Department of Veterans Affairs struggle to cope with a suicide rate that sees 22 active duty or veterans kill themselves every day. Efforts are being made to reduce the stigma of seeking help. But the stigma still exists.
“It is sad, but the first question (spouses) ask is, ‘Will this be held against them?’” Carole Moore Adamczyk told me Thursday afternoon as I was researching a local follow up to the Fort Hood story.
I didn’t use those comments in the story because I still think it is too early to ascribe service connection to Lopez’s maladies or his rampage.
But I have written all too often about suicides and Adamczyk, who served as family readiness coordinator for Special Operations Command Central, has some useful advice that comes from years of working with military families, of which she is one.
“Spouses do not want to say anything,” says Adamczyk. “Here we are, years and years later and they think it will be held against them or that it will go on their record if they seek help. I am worried about that.”
MacDill Air Force Base, she says, has several military family life counselors, who are there for the asking.
“I dealt with this all the time,” says Adamczyk. “I took spouses to counseling. They are paid for by the (Department of Defense) and anybody can go to them. They will meet you anyplace. You can go to a coffee shop, you can meet them off base.”
So if you or someone you know needs help, please call the counselors at (813) 373-2529.
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The effort to identify VA medical facilities had delays in screenings or diagnoses leading to at least 19 deaths and 63 injuries took a couple of unusual turns last week, with the governor sending out state inspectors to a VA hospital, only to have them turned away empty handed.
Five patients died, and nine others sustained injuries because of delays in diagnosis or treatment somewhere in the VA’s Sunshine Healthcare Network, which includes all of Florida, southern Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands according to documents I obtained. VA officials have refused to say which facilities are involved and denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the information.
The diagnoses, according to the documents, involved patients with gastrointestinal malignancies and took place between October 2009 and September 2011.
We know that the deaths were not the result of any issues at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa or the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, thanks to an earlier visit by Sen. Bill Nelson, reacting to stories and an editorial in The Tampa Tribune and the original story that appeared on CNN. Nelson went on a “fact-finding tour” of Haley, where he was told no deaths there. Later, Mary Kay Hollingsworth, a spokeswoman for the Sunshine Healthcare Network, confirmed the same news at the Young.
Not to be outdone, on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott also reacted to the coverage and jumped into the fray. Intoning outrage, he ordered the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration, to inspect VA hospitals in Florida and publicly report those findings.
So Thursday morning, Lorna Howell and Patricia Kaczmarek showed up at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center asking to conduct an inspection of the facility’s risk management program.
They got what my friends from South Philly call “ungotz.”
“This morning, two surveyors went to the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center at 10:15 a.m. and were escorted out around 11:15 after being declined the opportunity to review any records at that time,” AHCA honcha Liz Dudek said in a media release. “They were told an official response would be provided from the VA’s national office in Washington, D.C.”
Scott, not surprisingly, was not a happy governor.
“Florida veterans deserve quality health care and I am disappointed the VA turned away the agency’s surveyors who were trying to bring transparency to the processes of federal VA hospitals,” he said in a media release. “This is outrageous and unacceptable to the brave men and women who have defended our nation. We expect the federal government to do what’s best for our veterans and answer the many outstanding questions important to improving their health care.”
The VA is citing patient privacy as the reason it turned away the AHCA surveyors.
“VA is working with Governor Scott’s office to address his concerns and was unaware of [Thursday’s] unannounced visit to the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center,” said Susan Wentzell, a Sunshine Healthcare Network spokeswoman. “Due to federal guidelines and Privacy Act considerations, we cannot disclose patient or employee information.”
The bottom line is that AHCA can huff and puff, but it can’t blow any doors open.
“We have no authority to request or demand anything,” AHCA spokeswoman Shelisha Durden told me.
Durden said she couldn’t say what the next step will be, because that would, well, ruin the surprise of surprise visits.
Meanwhile, at about the same time the AHCA folks were being shown the door in West Palm, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee were grilling Sloan Gibson, the VA’s No. 2, during a hearing titled “Trials in Transparency II: Is VA Responding to Congressional Requests in a Timely Manner?” Among many questions, Gibson was asked if he could provide information about which facilities had diagnostic and treatment delays leading to death.
It sparked this tense exchange, between Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Gibson after Huelskamp asked for the locations, something the committee has been seeking from the VA, with no success, since last September.
“Anytime an adverse event occurs, anywhere in VA, and veterans are harmed, that is a very serious matter to us,” said Gibson, who used to be the president of the USO and was probably wishing he was back there, at an organization everybody loves. “There are extensive processes we go through in VHA to investigate and document and understand the circumstances surrounding those adverse events, and to ensure they don’t occur elsewhere in the organization subsequently, I do not have particulars as it relates to those specific events. I would be glad to arrange for a member of the staff to brief your staff or come by and brief you as well, sir.”
Huelskamp was not satisfied.
“Will you commit to providing the information to the committee before the close of business today?” he demanded.
“Sir, what I want to do is provide you the information we can provide when we can provide it and so I’m not familiar with the workings on the homework that’s being done on that particular issue,” said Gibson.
Huelskamp was even less satisfied.
“The VA has refused to reveal those locations,” he said. “I think our veterans deserve to know where there was a delay in care that led to the death of a veteran and as I understand it, the VA has refused to release those locations. So I will ask you by the end of the day. I will make another request. Will you please provide that to the committee?”
As with the AHCA folks, the committee got a heaping dose of ungotz from Gibson, too.
Neither Gibson, nor anyone else, provided the answers, said committee spokesman Curt Cashour.
Nelson, speaking in the parking lot of a convenience store near Haley two weeks ago because VA officials wouldn’t let him speak on the taxpayer-funded hospital campus, said that he was told the VA won’t cough up the details until it releases its report to the HVAC in May or June.
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After a month of no U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Pentagon reported the death of a soldier last week.
Capt. James E. Chaffin III, 27, of West Columbia, S.C., died April 1, in Kandahar, of a noncombat related incident. The incident is under investigation. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.
There have now been 2,303 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.