Her Son Survived Two Tours In War Zones But Attempted ‘Suicide By Cop’ After Being Rebuffed By Veterans Administration

Dear Pete,

I want to tell you about my son and how the Veterans Administration failed to treat him, contributed to him having a mental breakdown, and then refused to help him.

As you know, as many as twenty veterans a day choose to end their own lives. In our son’s case, we believe the VA’s failure to help our son caused him to attempt “suicide by cop” with tragic results.

My son was the third of five children. He grew up in a happy home, was intelligent and friendly, independent, and enjoyed finding the exception to the rule. He worked construction jobs while a teen, which provided a good income and enabled him to buy a car before his older siblings.

At 17, he joined the National Guard and tested in the 90% range. They wanted him to go into military intelligence, but he chose to be a regular soldier. His unit was sent to Iraq. He later volunteered to go to Afghanistan with another unit.

While deployed, he was involved in multiple violent conflicts. Our son was always able to remain calm, and he saved lives due to his training and ability to provide medical first aid. He was awarded an ARCOM – an Army Commendation Medal for heroism.

We were proud of him and his service to our nation.

His problems began after he returned home and showed symptoms of PTSD. The VA prescribed multiple medications and he was eventually declared 100% disabled. Like so many others with PTSD, who are young, he used small amounts of marijuana and meth to cope. He settled into a quiet, reclusive life.

Two years ago, his twenty-two year old sister died suddenly of a heart condition. He served as a pallbearer at her funeral and soon became despondent.

We were still reeling from our daughter’s sudden death when we learned our son had gone to the VA for help. He was there for about a week, during which time the doctors began changing his medication. He checked himself out because he didn’t believe he was getting any better.

A week later, he had what we now know was his first major psychotic breakdown.

It was as if a stranger had entered his body.

He became paranoid about the VA. He thought it was conducting secret therapy on him.  I called the VA and expressed my concern about his drastic change in behavior, but I was told there was nothing they could do unless he threatened to harm himself or others because he had voluntarily left the hospital.

Even after I described his delusions, they said we had to wait.

A few days later, we received a call from the police. They’d received a complaint from someone who said our son was threatening to harm people at the VA. The police urged us to take him to the nearest hospital emergency room because the VA had issued an Involuntary Commitment Order, seeking his immediate hospitalization, based on that complaint.

We woke him up from bed and drove him to an ER. The hospital kept him until morning when it sent him to the VA hospital. We arrived just as a VA treatment team was evaluating him.

Our son did not want us to be present during this interview so we were asked to stay outside. During that evaluation, he apparently became aggressive and threatening enough that they decided to hold him for an involuntary commitment hearing. Our son asked the hearing officer to let us back in to speak to him, but the officer refused and we were sent away.

Our son was held at the VA hospital for three days, at which time, a hearing was held. The VA psychiatrist who had evaluated our son blamed his breakdown on his drug use. We disagreed. Our son had never been delusional or threatening before when he was self medicating. The paranoid and delusions had started after his first visit to the VA.

We had our doubts about the psychiatrist’s conclusions and we no longer trusted the VA so the judge agreed to send our son to a private treatment center that we had found. The hearing happened a day before the Veterans Day holiday, which was a three day weekend. We thought the VA would transfer our son to the private treatment center, but because it was a holiday, no one wanted to bother.

We had to get the judge to force them to move him. It was only after he was transferred that we discovered the VA had abruptly stopped giving him Xanax after our daughter’s death when he first sought help even though he had taking it for years. We immediately wondered if that sudden stop had sparked his breakdown and caused his paranoia about the VA and his delusions about how it was engaged in a secret treatment that was harming him.

Over the next several months he was hospitalized for severe anxiety. He often was curled up in a fetal position, barely able to speak.

We avoided the VA, taking him to private hospitals. He improved during treatments, but was unable to regain the stability that he had experienced before our daughter’s death. We eventually learned about a Vet Center that offered help to veterans with PTSD, including supportive outpatient treatment. The director of the Center and a VA psychiatrist who met with him thought it would be very helpful for our son.

He agreed to go – despite his paranoia about the VA – and we were hopeful, but he was told that he wouldn’t be accepted because the VA had put a PRF – Patient Record Flag – in his file identifying him as being disruptive and a potentially dangerous patient.

When we asked why, we were told it was based on the report of his threat and his involuntary commitment that had occurred six months earlier. Our son was no longer threatening and he appealed through a Patient Advocate, asking that the PRF be removed so he could begin attending the Vet Center. The agency refused to remove the PRF even though its own policy said a PRF should not be based on a single episode. His actions were a single episode but the VA still would not lift it.

Unable to get into the VA Center, our son again relapsed. We searched and finally found a private pay treatment facility in Florida. He went there for several weeks before returning home and having another relapse.

We contacted the VA but it refused to help him because he was still self-medicating. He explained that the small amount of drugs that he was using was the only way for him to overcome his anxiety.

In October 2017, he threatened to “blow his brains out.”

Once again, we got him into a private hospital. He was there for two weeks. I visited him every day. He remained paranoid and delusional. Because he had checked himself in, he was free to leave. I begged them not to let him leave, due to his persistent paranoia and delusions, but they said he was not threatening to hurt himself or others and he had the right to leave.

Three days later, he became so despondent that he announced he was going to commit suicide by cop. He took off in his car. The police chased him and when he stopped, he stepped outside holding a pistol. When he didn’t drop the gun, the police shot him in the shoulder, severing the brachial artery, and damaging the brachial nerve.

After being life-flighted for life-saving surgery, he was hospitalized, transferred to adjoining psychiatric hospital, then to jail for 10 months. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.

By this time, he had become stable enough to express great remorse for his actions. He wanted help, but as soon as he was released from jail, the VA placed a second PRF in his file, denying him treatment without reassessing his state of mind.

Our son now lives with us. He has been free of his paranoid/delusions since December 2017, but continues to struggle with depression and anxiety. His gunshot resulted in him having limited use of his right hand.

I know that it is easy to blame others. I teach NAMI’s Family-to-Family class and have read extensively about mental health, especially duo-diagnosis.I know it was our daughter’s death that caused him to seek help from the VA. But I also know that when the doctors there took him off his Xanax and changed his medications, he began showing signs of paranoia and delusions and after that break, the VA abandoned him.

My son deserved better. VA doctors should be experts on treating PTSD. They should recognize co-occurring problems. Instead, they said his delusions and paranoia were his fault because of his drug use.

My son survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was given a medal for heroism. He returned home and ended up being critically shot, nearly dying and losing the use of his arm, in my opinion, because the VA  failed to treat his PTSD.

He deserved better.

Sign me a frustrated and angry mother.

(Are you a veteran or have had experience with the VA? Tell me about it on my facebook page.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.