US

3 Veterans Commit Suicide at VA Facilities in Less Than One Week

By Zachary Stieber

Three military veterans committed suicide at Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities in less than one week across two states, Georgia and Texas.

Gary Pressley, 28, was found inside a car in the parking lot of the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia, on April 5.

According to a police report obtained by WMAZ, officers found Pressley with a gunshot wound in his chest.

Family members said that they warned the VA. Lisa Johnson, Pressley’s sister, said that she called them and said that her brother was threatening suicide from the parking lot moments before he shot himself.

After helping with search and rescue in aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Pressley struggled and was medically discharged in 2012 after a car accident. That’s when the trouble started with the VA, according to his mother Michelle Wilson.

“It was just a battle with the medication, the doctors, and just, I watched him cry, because he couldn’t get the help he needed,” Wilson said. “He started saying, ‘Mama, I don’t have the fight in me anymore.”

The next day, Olen Hancock, 68, committed suicide outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center, also in Georgia.

According to WSB-TV, Hancock was seen pacing in the lobby of the medical center before he killed himself.

“It tells me that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Veterans Advocate Brandi Petit-Robinson said. “They’re human beings with real life issues, with feelings and emotions.”

I was saddened to learn of the suicide deaths of two veterans at two VA medical centers in our state. My prayers are with the families and loved ones of these two veterans,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a statement. “I am in touch with the VA as investigations into each incident are ongoing, but these are tragedies that we hear about far too often. While we have taken a number of steps to address and prevent veteran suicide, this weekend’s tragic deaths clearly indicate that we must do better.”

Three days later, a man who has not yet been identified shot himself in front of a crowd in a waiting room of Austin’s Veteran Affairs Clinic in Texas.

“All of a sudden, over the intercom, they have this statement about everyone must clear the building including staff, so it was a little surprising,” Ken Walker, who has been going to the clinic for more than two years, told KXAN.

Jack Swope, a licensed professional counselor with Austin’s Samaritan Center, said that he believes veterans struggle to get mental health help because the services aren’t easy to access.

“There’s a scheduling problem,” Swope said. “Part of it is a matter of accessibility, getting there, and frankly part of it is a matter of finances and costs.”

Data from the VA indicates that more than 200 veterans in Georgia committed suicide in 2016. Data indicates that 530 veterans committed suicide in Texas that year, tying the state with Florida for the most from any state.

Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told Stars and Stripes that there have been more than 260 suicide attempts on VA property, 240 of which were interrupted and prevented. He didn’t specify a time period for the attempts. According to the latest VA data, 20 veterans commit suicide every day; 14 of those, on average, are not receiving care from the VA.

Stone told senators on April 10 that the issue is complex.

“I wish it was as simple as me saying I could do more patrols in a parking lot that would stop this epidemic,” Stone said. “Where we as a community and society have failed that veteran is a very complex answer.”

In response to the three suicides, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said that he would schedule a hearing later this month.

“Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access, but with three incidents on VA property in just five days, and six this year alone, it’s critical we do more to stop this epidemic,” Takano said in a statement. “I have called for a full committee hearing … to hear from VA about the recent tragedies and spark a larger discussion about what actions we can take together as a nation.”