A New Jersey veteran has died after setting himself on fire in front of a state Department of Veterans Affairs clinic. While officials have yet to find any information explaining the 51-year-old man’s suicide, veterans’ advocates say his death could be a response to the VA’s serious lack of timely, accessible medical and mental health care.
“At the very least, his actions were an expression of need. We have been asking the VA … for years for Saturday appointments and late Wednesday night appointments, and were told it was going to be taken care of,” Bob Frolow, Atlantic County Veterans Affairs director, told the Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday. “As of today, it is still not.”
Over the past few years, investigations into VA clinics across the country have unveiled a system plagued with appointment delays that have led to veterans dying from cancer or committing suicide while waiting for care. Bipartisan support from Congress to reshape the VA has sparked further investigations, firings, and reform ideas, but substantial change could take years.
In a federal report issued last year, House VA Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Senate VA Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) declared that “from delays in care and scandal cover-ups, to rampant unaccountability and a lack of leadership, the VA is an organization challenged at every level.”
This isn’t the first suicide at a VA medical facility. In 2014, a Virginia man shot himself in front of a closed VA outpatient clinic, leaving a note for his friend indicating the pain he suffered from a stroke — pain the VA refused to give him medication for — was too much. “FU VA!!! Can’t take it anymore,” it read. And last November, a veteran jumped to his death from the parking garage of a Philadelphia VA hospital.
In February, the VA announced new efforts to create an “action plan” in the coming months to address the high rate of suicides among veterans.
“We know that every day, approximately 22 veterans take their lives, and that is too many,” said VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin. “While no one knows the subject of veteran suicide better than VA, we also realize that caring for our veterans is a shared responsibility. We all have an obligation to help veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of military service that lead them to think suicide is their only option.”