Military Father: VA, Pentagon Ignore 'Veterans Suicide Epidemic'

Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 07:20 PM

By Sean Piccoli

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The U.S. military could take immediate steps to combat a "veterans suicide epidemic," but seems reluctant to confront a plague that claims 8,000 of its own every year, the father of a veteran who killed himself while awaiting medical care told Newsmax TV on Tuesday.

"It's sort of, 'Thank you very much for your service; have a nice life, and you get to deal with the problems that come as a result of war,' " Bruce Landsberg, president of the Coalition to End Veteran Suicide (CEVS), told "MidPoint" host Ed Berliner.

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The death of his son, former Air Force Capt. Neil Landsberg, followed a mental breakdown, stays in two civilian hospitals, and an urgent family appeal for admission to a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility, said Landsberg.

A rejection letter from the VA arrived three weeks after the suicide occurred, he said.

The VA and the Department of Defense have measures they could begin to implement now that would make a difference to people like his son, he said.

"Why is it that their two computer systems can't talk to one another?" said Landsberg. "Why is it when somebody becomes a member of the military armed services they aren't automatically enrolled in the VA system, so as soon as they get out it's seamless?"

Landsberg acknowledged the scandal surrounding wait times for treatment at VA medical facilities and said the nomination of a new VA secretary is no guarantee of improvements in veterans' care.

But he said: "We have come up with a couple of what we think are easy-to-implement suggestions while the bureaucracy sorts itself out. I realize the difficulty of melding computer systems . . . but [in the meantime] maybe every veteran, before they out-process [from] the military, should be required to log in and spend an hour getting into the VA system."

"That takes no bureaucracy and it's easy to do," said Landsberg.

Landsberg's son served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a combat controller working behind enemy lines alongside Special Forces teams. "Quite a number" of his team members died in both countries, said Landsberg.

A 2002 graduate of the Citadel, Neil Landsberg left the service in 2007 and "reintegtrated as best he could into our society," his father said.

He had high-level security clearance through his work for a defense contractor, and was active in veterans groups. He volunteered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in suburban Washington, D.C., where he worked with a surviving teammate who had lost both legs in combat.

"Unbenownst to us was, he was having real problems with post-traumatic stress," said Bruce Landsberg said.

Neil Landsberg killed himself in May 2013 at age 33.

Since then, the Landsberg family has lobbied Americans to mobilize against an epidemic that is killing more veterans each year than did a decade of combined combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the resistance to recognizing military suicide as a health crisis is cultural, he said.

Despite "tremendous strides in helping people with [physical] war injuries," said Landsberg, "traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress are not things that we can see. So, if we can't see it, we sort of think, well, maybe it isn't real or it indicates some kind of weakness on the part of the individual."

Landsberg said he hesitates to call post-traumatic stress a "disorder" because the label, in his view, understates how widespread PTS is among combat veterans.

"This isn't really a disorder," he said. "This is a byproduct for anybody who has served in combat. Most people have it to varying degrees. Some cope with it successfully and, unfortunately, 8,000 of them every year do not."

The country's pressing mental health needs are not confined to the military, he said, "and we see this in some of our mass shootings and things of that nature."

Landsberg said he wants "a lot more effort put into mental health in the country, not just for veterans, but across the board."

Asked if he thought the VA bore responsibility for his son's death, Landsberg said, "It's not easy to assess blame in this, but they could've done a far better job."

"We shouldn't have been turned down when we called for help, desperately asked for it and didn't receive it," he said. "We were told, 'Well, there's a process, we'll work through the process and then we'll get to you, maybe.'

"In fact, they didn't," said Landsberg. "When we got the letter — which, of course, was too late — even at that [point] they said, 'Sorry, he doesn't qualify.'"

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