Veterans

Veteran’s suicide at Florida cemetery raises additional concerns over VA outreach, response

Another suicide on a Veterans Affairs campus in Florida earlier this month was the 35th such death at a public department space in less than two years, but officials insist it still does not represent a trend among struggling veterans.

The death, which happened at the Bay Pines National Cemetery, occurred the week of Oct. 7, less than 20 days after VA facilities nationwide conducted a “stand down” to discuss new outreach and emergency response protocols with staff. Part of that work was designed to help employees intervene with veterans in public spaces on VA campuses who may be showing signs of suicidal behavior.

The cemetery sits on the sprawling VA campus just northwest of St. Petersburg and is about a 10-minute walk from the Bay Pines VA medical center. The two sites share security and emergency response staff, with personnel conducting rounds throughout the area for signs of problematic activity or veterans in need of assistance.

Local officials released few details of the suicide but said they are reviewing site procedures to see if improvements need to be made. But they added that “proper monitoring and response procedures were followed” in this case.

At least six veterans have died by suicide in public areas at Bay Pines in the last six years. The frequency of the incidents — and the face that the deaths are more visible than veterans suicides that occur at home or while in medical care — have drawn increased scrutiny from lawmakers, who are pushing legislation to ensure Congress is informed when any such death occurs.

In the most recent case, that alert did not happen. Officials at the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said they were not made aware of the Bay Pines cemetery suicide until being contacted by Military Times.

Members of Congress have also expressed concern that the seemingly increasing number of deaths on VA campuses may point to problems in how employees interact with veterans. But VA officials note that the number of on-campus suicides has decreased in the last few years, even if the number happening in public areas has grown.

VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said since the start of 2018, staff at department campuses have successfully intervened in almost 90 percent of suicide attempts on VA campuses (419 of 466 attempts). Of the 47 deaths, 12 occurred during inpatient care.

“At this time, there is no identified trend demonstrating increasing suicide deaths among veterans in active inpatient care, seeking or recently treated for care, and veterans who die by suicide on VA grounds who are not seeking care,” she said.

Earlier this summer, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie testified on Capitol Hill that investigators have found many of the veterans who die by suicide on department campuses choose the site not as a protest against VA, but instead because their know staff will be able to handle response to the deaths in a professional manner.

But that’s not true in all cases. A suicide note left by a retired Marine Corps colonel who died by suicide at Bay Pines in December 2018 made clear he had multiple complaints against the department, and earlier this year a veteran killed himself in front of dozens of witnesses in the waiting room of a VA outpatient clinic in Austin, Texas.

About 17 veterans die by suicide each day, according to the latest data released by the department. About four more active-duty, guard and reserve also take their own lives daily.

Mandreucci said the department is currently updating the guidance for staff following a suicide on campus, to assist future response and prevention efforts. In addition, “for all events that occur on VA medical facility grounds, VA reviews each event to identify opportunities for further enhancing veteran safety.”

That is part of the review still going on at Bay Pines, where officials said they are investigating “to see if changes are warranted” in the wake of the latest death. No timeline has been released for that work.

Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

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