Soldier’s suicide note goes viral; family demands better for veterans
By Chelsea C. Cook
(CNN) — “Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war.”
These are the words of post-traumatic stress disorder.
They are the words of Daniel Somers, an Iraq War veteran who took his life last month. He left behind a powerful suicide note that went viral on the Internet after his family shared it with media in Phoenix, where he was from.
His note gives readers a clear understanding of what it’s like to suffer from crippling depression and war-related psychosis. It also slams the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which he characterized as careless.
“My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure,” Somers wrote in his note.
“All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety.”
Somers was a sergeant in an intelligence unit, where he ran 400 combat missions as a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee. According to his parents, Howard and Jean Somers, their son was diagnosed with PTSD, a brain injury, Gulf War syndrome, fibromyalgia and a host of other medical problems in 2008, one year after the end of his second deployment.
The VA and nonprofit support groups, such as Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, insist that there are mental health programs to help soldiers suffering as Somers did — that suicide is not the solution.
But Somers’ parents feel the military failed to help their son, who they say was more than just a sum of his wartime injuries.
He was a sharp mind, constantly dreaming up the next big thing. He had a strong memory and could pick up new skills quickly. He was great with computers, and for a while pursued a career as a car mechanic.
Somers played guitar. He wrote his first song when he was 12 years old, right around the time he first began dating Angel, the woman who would become his wife.
He joined the Army for the same reasons many others do: he wanted to provide for his family. He and his wife had dreams of one day leaving Arizona, and moving to a cooler climate — maybe Seattle.
Those dreams never came true.
‘Could it be better? Yes.’
In February, the VA released findings of a study that has saturated national op-eds and Washington news conferences ever since: 22 U.S. military veterans commit suicide every day.
Somers was outraged by the statistic.
“Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day? That is more veterans than children killed at Sandy Hook, every single day,” he wrote.
“Where are the huge policy initiatives? Why isn’t the president standing with those families at the state of the union? Perhaps because we were not killed by a single lunatic, but rather by his own system of dehumanization, neglect, and indifference.”
An increase in PTSD diagnoses and military suicides among U.S. veterans has prompted a national critique of the VA system, and in response, the Obama administration allocated more funding to improve its resources. In August, the president signed an order to improve veterans’ and service members’ access to mental health services.
According to Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the VA, the department has exceeded the goal, set by that executive order, of hiring at least 1,600 new mental health professionals.
In addition to more mental health hires, Ballesteros said, the VA plans to expand the type of technology available to veterans, such as “tele-mental health services.” As of March, a 24-hour crisis line had handled more than 814,000 calls, some 94,000 chats, and 7,200 texts, and “helped more than 28,000 veterans in imminent danger,” Ballesteros said.
VA resources are better than they have ever been, said Dr. Joseph Boscarino, a senior scientist with the Geisinger Health Center in Pennsylvania who specializes in PTSD and military suicide research. And, he added, the VA’s expertise in PTSD treatment exceeds that of the private sector.
Still, there are issues.
“The funding has been dramatically increased, but there’s always going to be delivery problems. Could it be better? Yes. It’s government, so it’s not going to be perfect,” he told CNN.
Boscarino, a Vietnam veteran, said he was unfamiliar with Somers’ case, but read his suicide note online.
“For Daniel, he needed more and it wasn’t there for him,” he said. “He fell through the cracks.”
‘Lance at the end of the spear’
Shortly after Somers’ note hit the Internet, TAPS released a statement discouraging media from publishing it, fearing it could foster future suicide attempts.
“The note written by Somers and being reprinted in the news media is dangerous because it implies that suicide can end pain and that the service member or veteran is now ‘free.’ This analogy may encourage other vulnerable individuals to die by suicide,” it read.
In response, Jean and Howard Somers insisted that their son’s story should be shared.
“I think what Daniel has asked us to do, which we will not stop doing, is to address the systemic issues at the VA that led to him writing that letter,” said Jean Somers, who spoke by phone from her home in Coronado, California.
“And in that respect, I think it would be very helpful for vets in crises. This is an area that, if we let it go, there’s just going to be more people who do this,” she said. “I think, what we’re hoping for is kind of a ground swell of ‘O.M.G.’ — and people contacting their leadership and people who can make these changes to get them done.”
“Our message is (about) what drove him to it — not the suicide itself,” said her husband. “The lance at the end of the spear is the letter. I just want it to open up the opportunity to drive in and proceed with what we can do to change the system.”
The Somerses reached out and spoke with Ami Neiberger-Miller, a TAPS representative, after the group issued its first statement after the suicide note went viral in late June. The family was concerned that TAPS would shift attention away from the significance of their son’s message.
After that conversation, the organization revised and re-released its statement, simply asking media to be “mindful” when re-publishing or excerpting the suicide note.
“There are many things in the note that point out deficiencies within our system of how we care for veterans,” Neiberger-Miller told CNN. “And that’s really important information that the family wants to share and that they are being courageous about sharing.”
Members of Somers’ family are frustrated by what they see as the VA’s bureaucratic process. They feel the system could be fixed by a more organized patient database and better communication among health professionals.
“The way the Phoenix VA works, and we don’t know if they all work like this, but, when you call and ask for an appointment, they say, ‘OK, well, we’ll send you a postcard when we have it scheduled.’ So then you have to sit there and wait for a postcard,” Jean Somers said.
It took months for her son’s postcard to arrive. His change of address form was never received. The VA called Angel to discuss her husband’s suicide about two weeks after it happened. The department still had the wrong address on file.
Paul Coupaud, a spokesman for the VA in Phoenix, verified the postcard process, but said it is primarily used for confirming appointments, not making them. He said he could see how the mishap with Somers’ address might happen.
“There are so many people who have access to the system, and if the new information doesn’t get approved, it doesn’t get stored. It’s all one national system,” Coupaud said.
He was familiar with Somers’ suicide note, but said he could not release specifics about his file because of privacy concerns.
While Somers waited for an appointment postcard, his wife found him a psychiatrist in the private sector. The couple paid for most of Somers’ medication, treatment and therapy sessions out of pocket.
They waited on a benefits claim for more than two years.
Such long waiting periods were common in the past, Coupaud said. But clearing backlogged cases is a top priority for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, he added.
A little more than a week after Somers committed suicide, Shinseki announced an end to the two-year waiting period.
“Over the past two months, VA has been dedicated to providing earned benefits to the veterans who have waited the longest,” the secretary said in a prepared statement. “Thanks to our hard-working VBA employees, we have completed nearly all claims that have been pending two years or longer. We’ve made great progress, but know much work remains to be done to eliminate the backlog in 2015.”
But the backlog wasn’t Somers’ only obstacle.
“Additionally, the VA told him he had to be in group therapy or no therapy at all. And he couldn’t go to group therapy, because of his security clearance,” Jean Somers said. “He had a top-level of security clearance because he was involved in some very high-level intelligence missions, and he would not be allowed to discuss that within a group.”
Coupaud declined to comment on what type of therapy Somers did or did not receive.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of someone being denied private therapy,” he said.
‘So much to give’
Somers also sought therapy from other parts of his life. He started and fronted Lisa Savidge — a progressive rock band that played on independent radio stations and performed all over the Southwest. The band often gave its proceeds to a group that donates blood to those wounded in conflicts in the Middle East.
Somers also was in the final stages of producing a documentary related to his time in Iraq — “Project Shai.” “Shai” means “tea” in Arabic. He had met and hired a director in New York and was making travel plans to begin filming in Baghdad.
“He was such a smart person, the most well-rounded person. It’s just such a loss, not only to us as a family, but to lose this human being who had so much to offer, and so much to give — and who knows, who knows, maybe the demons who drove him were incurable, who knows,” Howard Somers said.
“But on the other hand, we won’t know because he never had the chance to get that help.”
He and his wife have several ideas on how to break down the bureaucracy and communication obstacles they feel prevented their son from getting the help he needed.
“We know this is going to be a long process,” Howard Somers said. “We don’t want this to be something that flames up and flames out. We really want this to persist.”
The Somerses plan to investigate how the Phoenix VA treated their son. Afterward, they hope to build political support and propose legislation that would change the process.
“Outsource the psychiatric treatment. If they don’t have enough mental health professionals within the VA, let them see somebody in the community. Don’t just put them off, and put them off and put them off,” Howard Somers said.
He also hopes to propose a 1-800 number that hospital staff could call to verify whether a patient is a veteran, so that veterans in need could be seen right away.
“It’s the one thing keeping us somewhat sane at this point — that we do have the opportunity to effectuate some sort of positive change,” Somers’ father said. “This was a young man who had so much intelligence and so much sensitivity and so much to give the world. I always told him that I thought he could change the world. I really did. I really, really did.”
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