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.”

(19) comments

sheri

Mamma I never said you didn't know anything read what I wrote. I never said you I said people, and thank you for doing what you do that a wonderful deal. I am speaking from the educational aspect. I am a councilor for PTSD/TBI and had to go to school for years to be able to do so. That is where I am speaking from also from being in the military myself. People can be very ugly when it comes to this subject and only because it becomes personal and feel they are being attacked.. I will never change my mind that medication is the answer. It is only a band aide to the problem.

sheri

Mamma Griz what I am saying is, all that is happening is some of the veterans are being over medicated and it is not the answer, Yes there is a place for that but not the answer. It is not a cure all. It takes more the medications to solve/help with PTSD. I understand people have their own opinions on things and a lot of them don't have the knowledge to back it up. Medications can help to a point, but it takes a lot more than pills to help with PTSD. If they do get into the VA they say here take these and make a appointment which maybe 3 to 6 months out.

Mamma Griz

sheri:: I guess after volunteering for 20+ years at a V A hospital I don't know anything about PTSD. And at the present time I am around veterans, some with PTSD, and they are on medications and none of them have gone off their rockers. Oh, that is four evenings a week. Not just occasionally. I am taking an evening off this week-- gotta celebrate my 79th birthday. Hope the cats will enjoy the cat food I am going to give them.

Mamma Griz

sheri:: Did I say anything about drugs? I said "prescribed medications"-- I am on prescribed medications and NONE of them are classed as drugs. I take that back-- I take low-dose aspirin, one a night. And it can be an answer-- except when the patient abuses them. It is like doctoring an animal. If one pill makes it feel better then five would make it feel very much better. Sometimes giving it the wrong dosage can kill it.

sheri

Drugs are not the answer!

Mamma Griz

I have known of veterans who discontinued taking their prescribed medications-- and went off their rocker and committed suicide. So you can't always blame the V A medical center. If they live in the dom, they have to go to the clinic in the dom and take their meds in front of the medical staff. But when they live out, the med staff can't supervise the taking of the meds.

sheri

Bubba you are right to a point. I don't know where you are from, but the is a VA around her that turns veterans away at the door even if they are suicidal. Because of that I know personally veterans have taken their lives because of it. My son asked for help repeatedly and got screwed on the base in Hood. Bottom line it is dollar and cents. It is cheaper for the military if our babies take their lives than to help them. That is why I do what I do know I will not stand by and let this keep happening if I can help it.

Mamma Griz

Sheri, where is there a V A around here that turns veterans away at the door. I don't know of one that does that.

sheri

St Coud Mn

Mamma Griz

Just in case you don't know it, St. Cloud, MN, is not around here. You said "Bubba you are right to a point. I don't know where you are from, but the is a VA around her that turns veterans away at the door even if they are suicidal". Or are you from St. Cloud, MN? If so, you should have pointed that out. We are in Texas, not Minnesota.

Bubba
Bubba

I am from the Fort Hood area. I could not disagree with you more, and accept my condolences for your loss.

sheri

My son Trever went to his commanders 3 separate times at FT. Hood and was suicidal and asked for help! He even told them how he was going to do it. They shoved him out the door and my son lost his battle with PTSD last year June 21, 2012. I have been fighting for our veterans ever since. They killed my son and I will be dammed if I just sit around and let others die by suicide. Every veteran is somebodies baby!

7gentxn

While our Vets are suffering Emperor Obama and his family are living in the lap of luxury. What's wrong with this picture?!?

Mamma Griz

What's wrong with this picture? Well, if we hadn't been hoodwinked into going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan we wouldn't have all that many suffering vets. The older vets-- from WW2-- are dying out.

Bubba
Bubba

Please. This kind of comment betrays your intellectual failures. Time will find that the decision to fight terrorism was the right thing to do. Those of you who continue to deny this, only because of your lack of judgment and ideological fanatical dogma, are actually siding with our enemies.

Mamma Griz

I wonder why the V A is behind on claims (a sarcastic statement)! If we hadn't had two wars-- at least one of them is over but the V A is having people filing claims because of it. And there are veterans dying and leaving survivors-- and the V A has those claims to take care of also.

Sometimes I wonder if the veteran himself should be more responsible about doctor's appointments. That is why someone invented calendars to hang on the wall or put in your pocket. It is so much easier for one veteran to call and do a check on an appointment than for two clerks to have to call a hundred veterans to remind them.

The main word::RESPONSIBILITY.

Bubba
Bubba

Because veterans are filing claims at record rates. That is why there is a "backlog" of processing. There are only so many hours in a day, and the claims process is a quasi-legal one that many veterans do not understand well nor participate in.

sheri

You and I both know what is wrong with this picture. The only way it will change is if we don't take it anymore, but until then it is going to have to be civilians helping our veterans. I never ever wanted to be a gold star mother ever. No mother does! Over 25 a day are becoming one!

Bubba
Bubba

This is certainly a tragedy.

However, a veteran, in obvious distress, had access to a firearm. These are the results. Why weren't steps taken to prevent this act by the veteran, by his family?

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