WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to do more to find and treat returning soldiers who're at risk of killing themselves if the country is going to avert a rash of veterans' suicides, lawmakers and witnesses told a congressional hearing Wednesday.
In an often-combative hearing of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, the parents of a National Guardsman told how their son had slipped quickly from the war zone in Iraq to his old life in rural Illinois with virtually no attention paid to his precarious mental health.
Timothy Bowman, 23, killed himself at his family's business on Thanksgiving Day as his relatives gathered for an extended-family dinner in 2005.
Bowman's story was featured in an article that ran in McClatchy newspapers nationwide last February, detailing how the soldier's National Guard unit had returned from treacherous duty in Iraq and scattered to dozens of towns spread across five states. In the process, many were left to languish.
The McClatchy story also detailed how the VA, even by its own measures, wasn't prepared to give returning veterans the care that could best help them overcome destructive, and sometimes fatal, mental health ailments. VA mental-health care is uneven across the country, with some clinics offering little or no specialized mental-health care and many of the VA's hospital networks not offering special programs for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Timothy Bowman's parents, Mike and Kim, captivated the committee, and the audience erupted in applause as they testified.
"The VA mental-health system is broken in function and understaffed in operation," Mike Bowman said.
"We have the technology to create the most highly advanced military system, but when these veterans come home they find an understaffed, under-funded and under-equipped VA mental-health system that has so many challenges to get through it that many just give up trying," he added.
Among the key issues raised at the hearing was the breakdown when soldiers transition from service in the Department of Defense to life as veterans. The government needs to do more to prevent people from slipping through the cracks as they leave active duty, Bowman and several lawmakers said.
Another key issue was the extent of veteran suicides, with the VA attacking a recent CBS News study that attempted to quantify the scope of the problem. While the agency criticized CBS's methodology, the key Democrat on the committee lambasted the VA as trying to sidestep the issue. CBS News told McClatchy that it stands by its story.
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bob Filner of California, blasted the agency's top mental-health official as downplaying the problem and trying to obscure the issue with a series of mind-numbing numbers.
"I have to say, you're ignoring the whole problem," Filner said.
The VA official, Ira Katz, said his agency had boosted mental health funding substantially, that it had new suicide-prevention programs in place and that it had enough resources to care for veterans' mental-health needs adequately.