Shortly before his death on June 10, Army veteran Daniel Somers wrote a note for his family, asking his wife, Angel, to share it as she saw fit.
“I am left with basically nothing,” he typed on his laptop at their Phoenix townhouse. “Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.”
His service in Iraq, including multiple combat missions as a turret gunner, left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. But the government, he wrote, had “turned around and abandoned me.”
Somers felt frustrated in his efforts to get mental health and medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. An antiquated scheduling system at the Phoenix medical center left him waiting, often in vain, for a postcard with the date of his next mental health appointment.
Caught in VA’s disability claims backlog
And he was caught in VA’s notorious disability claims backlog, which at its peak in March included more than 900,000 compensation requests from veterans, two-thirds of them waiting for more than 125 days. When Somers died, his case seeking full disability for his PTSD had been awaiting resolution for 20 months.
“Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day?” Somers asked in his note.
Around 9 p.m. June 10, while his wife, a nurse, was working, Somers took a handgun from his home and walked to a street several blocks away. When Phoenix police arrived at the scene, he shot himself in the head, police and family members said. He was 30.
Now his parents, Jean and Howard Somers, are determined to use their son’s death to expose what they see as critical deficiencies in the VA system for treating mental illness. They met with congressional and VA officials in Washington this month and opened his records to The Washington Post. It is an effort, they said, to show how the agency failed their son and a way, maybe, to help someone else.
“He was one of those million vets who didn’t get the care they needed,” said Jean Somers, 62, a former health care administrator.
Suicides among active-duty troops reached 349 last year, the most since the Pentagon began closely tracking the number in 2001.
‘Turned upside down’
Howard and Jean Somers were in New Jersey visiting family when Angel called with the news. “Our whole lives have been turned upside down,” said Howard Somers, 65, a retired urologist who lives with his wife in San Diego.
After arriving in Phoenix, their grief turned to anger as they read through Daniel’s papers documenting his interactions with VA.
For veterans’ organizations, Daniel Somers’s death is a case study in how federal agencies continue to fail veterans.
“It shines a light on these issues,” said Kim Ruocco, director of suicide-prevention programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group for military families that organized the Somerses’ Washington visit.
In a statement expressing condolences for Somers’s death, VA said that it “has made strong progress in the treatment of mental health disorders” in recent years, including hiring more than 1,600 mental health professionals in the past year, developing a suicide-prevention program to identify those at risk and bolstering its 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line.
“Still, more must be done,” the department said.
Looking back on their son’s experience, the Somerses ask basic questions.
“If your system is so difficult to get into,” Howard Somers asked, “how the hell are you going to prevent suicides?”
If Daniel missed an appointment, why didn’t someone call?
“Don’t you think a phone call was in order?” his father asked.
When the Somerses told this story during their meeting at VA headquarters with Jan Kemp, the department’s director of suicide-prevention programs, the official showed the parents a memo recently sent to facilities around the country, reiterating that all patients who miss mental health appointments should be called.
Kemp spoke with the Somerses for 90 minutes, well over the allotted time.
“She seemed frustrated and sympathetic,” Howard Somers said. “It ended up with her apologizing profusely.”
“The steps we identified are there,” Jean Somers said. “But there’s not follow-through, no oversight. We’re letting the VA monitor themselves.”
Disability benefits awarded
On July 23 — having learned of Daniel Somers’ death six weeks earlier — the Phoenix VA notified Angel Somers that her husband’s PTSD claim had been approved and that he had been granted 100 percent disability retroactively to 2008, a benefit that will now be paid to his wife.
The response from VA has left the family hopeful that changes are being made but angry that problems recognized for years continue to plague veterans.
Jean Somers put it plainly: “We are not going to go away.”