Veterans Administration Veteran Suicides Making News Again

Veterans Administration Veteran Suicides Making News Again

Soldier suicide is a national disgrace. To highlight the tragic circumstances at many VA facilities across the county, vets are killing themselves in VA parking lots as a last protest statement.

Veteran suicide at a VA hospital parking lot breaks the hearts of everyone involved, and the trend is on the rise. I spoke about this trend of veteran suicide with Mike Fitzgerald, a reporter from the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, months ago. Thankfully, Mr. Fitzgerald was able to find me through the website here, and reached out. We spoke at length about this new protest movement, and I am thankful that he wrote this article. I’ve copied the full text of it below with his permission. Of course, the memory and protest of Mr. Crews will not go in vain to us as long as Once a Soldier can continue to raise money to create Silver Linings for the veteran families left behind. If you’d like to donate, any amount is greatly appreciated.

Phillip Crews Killed Himself in a VA Waiting Room, a ‘Parking Lot Suicide’
by Mike Fitzgerald October 10, 2018

Phillip H. Crews spent his last moments of life in a place he knew well: a room on the first floor of the sprawling John Cochran VA Hospital at 915 North Grand Avenue, just north of downtown St. Louis.

The hospital’s first-floor waiting room is officially titled “the Ambassador’s Suite.” A gently sloping ramp leads upward from the south visitor parking lot through sliding doors to the suite, which can accommodate dozens of patients and visitors at a time.

Crews, 62, a Marine Corps veteran who had served during the waning days of the Vietnam War, had been a frequent visitor to the John Cochran VA hospital for many years.

A self-employed handyman from the city’s south side, Crews suffered from severe stomach pains that eluded a medical diagnosis. VA doctors prescribed Crews powerful opioid painkillers, to which he became addicted in his later years, according to his family and friends.

As his stomach pains worsened with no end in sight, Crews grew increasingly frustrated with the hospital, says his nephew, Tim Harrison, of Herculaneum.

“He just got worse and worse,” Harrison says. “And then in the last three to four months he looked really, really bad.”

Crews earned a precarious living as a handyman and from occasional work rehabbing houses. His financial situation deteriorated in his last years of life as his health declined. The bank that held his mortgage sought to take possession of his home, while Crews found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet on the $1,200 he earned each month from Social Security.

In late March, Crews told his nephew he was going to kill himself. “He said, ‘Tim, I can’t take it no more,'” Harrison recalls.

Harrison asked his uncle if he was serious about taking his own life.

Yes, Crews replied.

“When I do it, I’m going to do it at the VA because these are the guys who failed me,” Harrison recalls his uncle saying.

Crews made his final visit to the hospital in the pre-dawn hours of March 26, 2018.

He left his modest house at 4472 Beck Avenue and drove his 1996 maroon-colored Buick Regal sedan the five miles north to the hospital.

It was just after 4 a.m. when Crews parked the Buick and walked the last few hundred feet into the Ambassador’s Suite.

In his right hand he held a pistol. All six chambers were loaded.

When he entered the Ambassador’s Suite, it was empty. He lowered his body onto a couch near the entrance.

Crews inserted the barrel of the gun, a Herman Weihrauch .38-caliber Special revolver with black polymer grip, into his mouth. The time was 4:19 a.m., according to security cameras.

Crews angled the barrel upward so that it touched the roof of his mouth. Then he squeezed the trigger. The bullet exploded out the left side of his skull, according to the St. Louis medical examiner’s report.

Apparently no one inside the hospital heard Crews’ gun go off. More than an hour elapsed before a man walked into the Ambassador’s Suite to buy a soft drink from one of its vending machines. There the man “observed a white male subject seated on the couch, unconscious, and bleeding from the head,” according to an incident report prepared by a St. Louis police officer.

The man ran into the nearby emergency room and alerted staff to the situation. Crews was rushed to the emergency room on-site.

But it was too late. A VA physician pronounced Crews dead at 5:33 a.m., according to the police report.

Phillips Crews - American hero

Phillip Crews’ family still treasures this portrait. – COURTESY OF SHERRY CREWS HARVEL

Continue Reading the Riverfront Times Soldier Suicide Article

An estimated twenty military veterans take their lives each day in the United States. But Crews’ decision to end his life at the VA hospital put him in a smaller subset of those deaths, that of veterans committing suicide at VA facilities or on public grounds. The phenomenon even has a name: parking lot suicides.

From October 2017 to June 2018, fifteen on-campus suicides occurred at VA facilities nationwide, according to figures released to the Riverfront Times by the VA headquarters in Washington.

The reasons for the phenomenon range from veterans protesting poor and long-delayed treatment to their desire to spare family members the shock of discovering their corpses.

The phenomenon of parking lot suicides gained the attention of Dr. David Shulkin, who, in early 2017, was still serving as the VA secretary. He described these suicides as part of a growing, if tragic, trend.

“As some of you may know, veterans tend to come to a VA — either drive a car or come to the VA — and actually commit suicide on our property,” Shulkin said in a speech at Georgetown University. “There are a number of reasons, not all of which I completely understand, but one of them being they don’t want their families to have to discover them.”

These veterans know that “if they’re discovered at a VA, that we will handle it in an appropriate way and take care of them,” including the handling of paperwork for military burials and benefits for survivors, Shulkin said.

Shulkin made the reduction of veteran suicides his top clinical priority when he took the VA’s reins. At the time, he said he didn’t know how many parking lot suicides had occurred at VA facilities. “But every day I am notified of more and more of these that happen. So we just have to do more, we have to do better, we have to innovate,” Shulkin said.

On March 28, 2018, two days after Crews’ suicide, Shulkin was fired by President Donald Trump as part of a dispute over the privatization of VA health care.

For David Barbush, who runs a nonprofit that raises money to help family members of veterans who commit suicide, the motivation behind these parking lot suicides makes a certain kind of sense. “They obviously want to make a statement, a political statement,” he says.

But committing suicide at a VA hospital can also signal another message.

“It’s a cry for help,” Barbush says. “And they don’t want their families to clean up the mess, so to speak.”

Although the problem of parking lot suicides was an issue of special concern for former VA director Shulkin, the VA does not keep comprehensive figures on suicides at agency facilities nationwide, according Gina Jackson, an agency spokeswoman.

The agency provided the tally of fifteen suicides in nine months at the Riverfront Times’ request, but offered little additional information.

“That information is available at each individual facility, but is not something we have compiled (other than what we have provided to you),” Jackson wrote in an email in August.

The Riverfront Times reached out repeatedly to the VA to determine how the agency had arrived at its figures, as well as to determine the dates and locations of each veteran suicide. The agency, however, declined to provide the information.

“Due to the low total number of on-campus suicides, we are unable to provide further detail as doing so could jeopardize patient privacy,” Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote.

News accounts, however, abound of VA patients taking their lives at VA facilities or other public property over the past two years. These cases include:

• An unidentified 76-year-old Navy veteran who killed himself in August 2016 in the parking lot of the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Long Island, New York, where he had been a patient.

• Peter A. Kaisen, of Islip, Long Island, a former police officer, died after he shot himself at the Long Island VA center. The veteran had reportedly been frustrated that he was unable to see an emergency-room physician for reasons related to his mental health.

• In November 2016, the body of John Toombs, a former Army sergeant and Afghanistan veteran, was discovered in a vacant building on the campus of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Toombs, who hanged himself, left behind a video in which he stated, “Earlier today, I was discharged for trivial reasons. They knew the extent of my problems. When I asked for help, they opened up a Pandora’s box inside of me and kicked me out the door.”

• In February 2017, the body of 63-year-old Navy veteran Paul Shuping was found in the parking garage of the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center in North Carolina, six days after he took his own life. Police announced that Shuping had used a .22-caliber rifle to kill himself inside a parked car.

• In March 2017, Hank Brandon Lee, 35, a former U.S. Marine lance corporal who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, fatally overdosed on fentanyl while under lockdown at the Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatric facility in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Fitting the pattern, but not happening on site, in June 2018, an Air Force veteran upset with the VA set himself on fire outside the Georgia state capitol in Atlanta. He died soon afterward. “He was strapped with some homemade incendiary devices, some firecrackers and doused himself with some kind of flammable liquid and attempted to set himself on fire,” an Atlanta fire department captain told reporters.

A major aspect to veterans’ on-campus suicides is the fact their health is deteriorating, says Barbush, who runs the nonprofit website to help survivors of veteran suicide.

“Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, they’re convinced they’re done,” Barbush says. “So this is their last kind of service to their country. And that breaks my heart.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY EVAN SULT; PHOTOS BY TOM HELLAUER
PHOTO OF MR. CREWS COURTESY OF SHERRY CREWS HARVEL

© 2018 Riverfront Times

3 Reasons for Soldier Suicides in VA Parking Lots

3 Reasons for Soldier Suicides in VA Parking Lots

Solider suicide isn’t what you think. The overwhelming majority – 14 out of 22 – are not committed by young kids who lose their nerve in battle. Or by an active duty lifer who just can’t deal one more day. These tragic events do happen every day, and that’s a real shame, but what soldier suicide really looks like is a white man, color doesn’t matter here, over the age of 50 who can’t stand the PTSD anymore, the VA visits that go nowhere, and a thousand other reasons I have no insight into. But what I do know now is that these suicides are happening in the parking lot of their VA and still no great leap forward. Mission not yet accomplished.

Once a Soldier knows that the Veterans Administration can’t keep up with the need. We are not here to fix or even understand what the problems or offer a solution. We are here because like so many others, we just can’t escape the hard reality of veteran soldier suicide. Our mission is to aid their families, but we now realize that that is just a small part of a bigger whole. We remain happy in our mission, but we have to face the facts of veteran soldier suicide.

In short, stop soldier suicide and stop doing it in the VA parking lot. It’s not working and it’s too sad to continue. That’s not an order, that’s a plea. I have no solution and can only ask. Up until today, I had no knowledge of these types of soldier suicide. Sad to say, the reasons that are listed as to why in one of the following stories actually makes sense. Twisted and sorrowful, but very practical.

Here’s a comment we received that prompted our discovery process into the VA suicides and that offers an insider’s view of the situation. I’ve edited it very slightly to better highlight what I think the author’s points are:

U** R****** on February 4, 2018 at 2:55 pm 

Seen as an inside observer of the medical community and also as a VA patient.

1. Parking lot suicides are done for two reasons. 

Veterans do not want their loved ones to find their bodies and know the VA will dispose of them. The other reason is that it is the final FU to a government which is so full of bureaucracy it has rendered itself useless. However, in all fairness, this trend has extended itself to the civilian sector as well for quite some time where medical care is a form of Russian Roulette. Some are lucky to escape without harm, others end up damaged or dead. The word is collateral damage in medical care.

2. Too Much Papework

Dropping the ball in delivering medical care to veterans and civilians is becoming the norm. Health care workers are undulated (sic) with so much paper work for documentation and rules they have to follow as guidelines for the delivery of each aspect of care, they are utilizing the time they used to spend of patient care to document each and every move they make. If a time and motion study was implemented it would amaze people to know that more then (sic) 90 per cent of their time is spend documenting and covering their asses. If you are a VA patient, the time you spend with your provide (sic) is less than a few minutes because the rest of what they provide is looking at the computer screen, charting.

3. Profits over People

The patient has been considered the “consumer” in the medical field for over 20 years, whereby in civilian sectors they are called consumers. The word alone indicates that the patient has been placed on the Back 40, because the definition of consumer is purchaser, buyer, customer, shopper and patron. This enforces everything we read and know about medical care, it is a profit making organization and nothing more. The VA is blatant about their desire to make profit at the cost of the veterans who rely on their care. There are more and more job descriptions placed on each healthcare worker, and when there is a hiring freeze, they delegate the empty slots between the health care workers left, to carry the load, which frustrates and stresses them out because of work overload. The VA figures their health care providers and workers can function doing the workload of those they did not replace. The workers who are left trying their best to do their jobs, end up leaving, or are so overworked, the ball in medical care is dropped. The bottom line: profit.

Inasmuch as the VA is trying to curtail the numbers of suicides of their veterans, the task is equivalent to the war on drugs. A waste of time and money because the war on drugs was lost a long time ago and cost the tax payers more money than the fight was worth. One can not prevent intentional suicide. Impossible. Each case is different and each person is different. What goes through the human mind when the person reaches the final stage of ending his/her life can not be controlled.

Thank you for your time,

UR

(URs name is edited for privacy reasons. Although he posted this comment, I don’t want to use it as his content is being repurposed.)

Here’s more insight and stories from these VA parking lot suicides.

63-year-old Paul Shuping was found in the parking lot by Durham VA police. A six-year Navy vet, Mr. Shuping’s act was discovered six days after it was committed. Offered partial benefits, he was denied full benefits due to a paperwork error. On top of his PTSD and depression, that was the final straw. Read the rest of the news story here.

A 76-year-old veteran committed suicide on Sunday, August 23,2016, in the parking lot of the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Long Island, New York. Mr. Peter A. Kaisen “went to the E.R. and was denied service,” one of the people, who currently works at the hospital, said. “And then he went to his car and shot himself.” The rest of that New York Times article is here. 

Mr. Kaisen’s was a big story that was heard around the country because at the time, it was considered shocking. “At the time” means as recent as a year and a half ago.

One last one:

Police say the 53-year-old veteran, Thomas Murphy, drove to the Phoenix VA regional office with a goodbye note and gun. Interestingly, a whistleblower at the VA, Brandon Coleman, has been put on leave, as of May 11, 2015, for trying to shed some light on the problems of at-risk vets. That news story is here.

Three reasons why vets are killing themselves in the VA parking lot and three stories of veteran soldier suicides that drive home the point. Also, they were all older white men who picked up a gun to solve the problems of PTSD, an overwhelmed VA system, and not enough benefits. There’s probably not an official tally of how many vets have killed themselves at a VA parking lot. There doesn’t need to be. One is enough to send the message. All of these and the message is clear: the message isn’t getting through.

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Jamie Brunette

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