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After guardsman son's suicide, parents work to save others

Apr. 8, 2014 - 02:22PM   |  
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Former Army National Guard Sgt. Daniel Somers served as a turret gunner and tactical human intelligence team member during two deployments to Iraq.

His parents, Dr. Howard and Jean Somers, say Daniel was bright and talented, a songwriter and musician who studied Arabic and could argue nearly any issue.

But the California guardsman carried demons from his service, having had a hand in deeds he described in a note to his family as “war crimes, crimes against humanity”: civilians who died in his crossfire, of Iraqis interrogated under his watch.

“Though I did not participate willingly ... there are some things that a person simply cannot come back from,” he wrote.

Somers sought help from the Veterans Affairs Department for post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury — the overbearing guilt, sorrow and anger some troops feel after participating in, witnessing or failing to prevent acts that conflict with one’s own moral beliefs.

But as a guardsman, Somers’ status was in limbo. And once eligible for VA care, he fell victim to an antiquated appointment system, missing notifications. When he finally gained access, he was offered only group therapy, not the one-on-one counseling he felt he needed.

On June 10, Somers ended his life, leaving behind a suicide note his parents published online:

“Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war ... not only am I better off dead, but the world is better without me in it,” he wrote.

Since Daniel’s death, Howard and Jean Somers have made improving VA mental health care their life’s work. In nine months, they have met with VA officials and members of Congress, spoken at local facilities and organized suicide awareness campaigns.

Thanks largely to those efforts, their son’s tragic death is the basis for two proposed bills: the Classified Veterans Access to Care Act, HR 3387, sponsored by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, S 2182, sponsored by Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont.

“We keep thinking of the other families. This shouldn’t happen to anyone,” Jean Somers said.

Her son did not want to attend group therapy because he feared discussing classified information.

Sinema’s bill would guarantee appropriate mental health treatment for veterans regardless of the nature of their mission, mandating that VA establish procedures to ensure that veterans have access to care they are comfortable with.

Walsh’s bill is more comprehensive, attempting to address the roots of veteran suicide through annual reviews of DoD and VA suicide programs, improved training for mental health care providers, and increased collaboration between the departments.

Veterans’ groups, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, support the proposals.

“A veteran should never be forced to opt out of mental health treatment due to a lack of feasible treatment options,” IAVA said in a statement.

VA has not offered a formal opinion on either bill. But Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, deputy undersecretary of health for policy and services, said at a March 27 hearing that she agrees with the intent of Sinema’s legislation.

“We need to provide services in the context of what information the veterans can provide to us. Our strategic goal is to be proactive to offer personalized and patient-driven service,” Agarwal said.

At that time, Walsh’s bill had not yet been introduced.

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