"Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge"

From one of the veterans’ lists I’m on, a cri de couer from Placido Salazar, retired USAF who served in Vietnam:

This Wednesday morning, I heard that DOD/VA were holding Suicide Prevention “hearings” at the most luxurious hotel (Grand Hyatt) in downtown San Antonio. I was able to get there for the afternoon session. I read through the agenda – and heard some briefings, with all the talk focused on seeking help or helping your buddy if he feels suicidal.

Dr. Ira Katz, the VA top-doc for mental health was the last speaker. When he finished, he was trying to rush out the door without taking questions. I yelled out, “Just a minute, I have a question, specifically for Dr Katz.” There were several hundred GIs from Ft Sam present in the auditorium, from PFC to Generals. You could hear a pin drop. I then took the mic and started real soft and mellow… “You know, Dr. Katz, three days ago, I woke up with a high fever, hard cough and severe pain below my rib cage. I went to see my doctor who did the routine and then ordered Xrays, informing me that I have pneumonia and placed me on antibiotics.”

Katz asked, “What is your point?” I replied, “The point is that, in order to treat my cough, the doctor first checked to determine what the root of the illness was. Once he determined the presence of pneumonia, he put me on antibiotics, to treat the cause and the symptoms. I have checked the agenda for these ‘hearings’ and I find FOUR very important words missing entirely.

Dr. Katz, why don’t you tell these young soldiers who just returned from Iraq THE TRUTH . Why don’t you tell them that THE REASON behind their suicidal tendencies, after risking their lives in combat, is a VA-recognized illness called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ – known as PTSD, and not “a READJUSTMENT PROBLEM”…. Tell them that PTSD is treatable, but not curable…. And that if they returned with serious PTSD problems from Iraq or Afghanistan, that they should fight for DISABILITY RETIREMENT, instead of allowing the military to kick them out the Base Gate, perhaps to possibly commit suicide or to live on the streets. Tell them that if their PTSD (or mental problem) was ‘pre-existing’, they would not have made it past the recruiter.” I added, “Approximately two years ago, I was allowed to speak at the Congressional PTSD Committee in DC and Representative Bob Filner (House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair) chastised you on this same subject, but apparently NOTHING has changed…. VA is still trying to evade the truth.”

At that point, Dr. Katz dismissed the audience and came and sat face to face with me and asked, “What do you suggest?” Again, I insisted, why not try THE TRUTH. He suggested that, “More advocates as yourself need to come to DC to light a fire under us.” I reminded him that when he comes to San Antonio, the government pays for him to fly first-class, to stay at the most luxurious hotel, with a generous per diem to pay for his meals. When other Veterans and I travel to Washington, to fight for all our Veterans’ medical care and other needs, which should not be necessary, we have to travel AT OUR OWN EXPENSE – and stay in visitors’ quarters at a military base, five to a room, if we are lucky to find vacancy. I departed by saying, “Besides, why should we have to travel to DC to get a Government employees to do your job, when you guys get paid a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year?”

Are repercussions possible? Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about vets’ suicide rates from 1812 on — not being able to decide if it’s some sort of tipping point or if, like desertion, it’s important but kind of perpedicular to dissent. Salazar’s letter is all of the above, I think.

The tipping point is coming. I don’t know if it’ll be like the Ron Kovic era above,  but I can feel the pressure mounting.

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One thought on “"Let’s hope I don’t have to call you from under a freeway bridge"

  1. A little over a year ago I was doing some of my own research on veteran suicides, particularly among OIF/OEF vets. DOD at the time listed somewhere aroung 150 suicides related to Iraq. However, a VA psychologist told me that (unofficially) the number was probably between 700 and 1000 at that time. Unless the veteran is a patient of the VA, the government doesn’t track veteran suicides. The suicide rate among ALL veterans, as tracked by the VA, is around 5000 a month, in terms of percentages roughly twice that of the civilian population. While I’ve met many fine & responsible psychologists in the VA, my suspicion is that those higher up the chain have not wanted the real numbers to get out for fear of bad PR. DOD certainly doesn’t want to admit to any suicides it doesn’t have to: it would be difficult to defend its inability or refusal to treat emotionally wounded servicemembers, as well as make it more difficult to recruit new ones.

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