John E. Toczydlowski, Esquire
Mr. Chairman and Honorable Members of the Committee:
My name is John Toczydlowski. I am not a veteran, but I am from a military family, my father, my grandfather and my uncles having proudly served. Today, I am here to speak with you specifically about my father, who served in Vietnam from 1964-1970. He committed suicide on December 17, 2010 as the result of post-traumatic stress disorder and physical ailments directly related to his service in Vietnam.
Three specific questions need answers. One, how and why did this happen? Two, how can we prevent or reduce the number of incidences of veteran suicide in the future? Three, how can we aid surviving family members if and when veteran suicide occurs?
Little did I know my father’s death on December 17, 2010 was set in motion in 1964. My father volunteered for service in Vietnam, and entered the conflict in army security. I know very little about his specific activities in the war; as you will hear later, he did not often speak of these events. I do know that he provided bombing coordinates for American offensives and worked in/on special operations.
When my father returned home in 1970, it was to an unpopular war, a wife, the thought of a soon-to-be adopted son (me), and no knowledge, instruction or education on benefits or help from the Department of Defense or the Veterans Administration, aside from the GI bill. For years and years, my father suffered with the memories of war without solace or outlet. Except for anger. And temper. And smoking. And alcoholism. In fact, every night, my father drank between 6-12 beers trying to drown out his memories.
In 1992, my father first tried to kill himself, overdosing on prescription drugs. Luckily for him, and for my mother, brother and I, he survived. We did not, however, all live happily ever after. Still not realizing the scope of the problem, still not being aware of potential treatment and support options, and with my father still not discussing the core of the problem, we made it only four (4) short years before he once again attempted suicide. This time, he went into a program and began seeing a psychiatrist, Timothy C. Smith, M.D.
From 1996 until my father’s employment with the Veterans Administration in 2003, he treated with Dr. Smith and never once mentioned his Vietnam service. Call it denial or call it guilt – whichever, he was either too proud or too wounded to talk. I attach to this record a letter from Dr. Smith outlining his treatment and diagnosis in 2003; I find it instructive as to the depth both of my father’s post traumatic stress disorder and his efforts to hide it, bury it and deny it.
Once my father began working in the Philadelphia office of the Veterans Administration, he learned that he was not alone, as the thought for over 33 years. He began to speak with other veterans, learn of the benefits and services available to him, and realize that help would and could be had. Of course, work at the VA was a double-edged sword for my father; while he found a built-in support group, each and every story from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan worsened his PTSD symptoms. But he rallied.
The rally slowly came to an end as my father’s physical limitations began to catch up with him. After several hospitalizations and with a clearly declining mental faculty, my mother came home on December 17, 2010 to find my father dead from two bullet wounds. This fight, many years longer than the one in Vietnam, was over.
- How and Why Did This Happen?
We will never know for sure exactly what happened to my father. The evidence, however, leads to a few simple conclusions. One, my father certainly endured the “horrors of war,” both with regard to his own activities that might have resulted in collateral damage to the civilian population in Vietnam and seeing his own army-mates die. As time went on, the few people he held close from Vietnam also wasted away and died from illness, some related to the war and some not. Two, upon his return to the United States, his feelings of guilt and isolation were increased and ratified. He came home as an unpopular soldier in an unpopular war. He knew little or nothing of potential benefits available to him, other than the G.I. Bill, which he used to complete his college education at night. He never spoke to my mother or anyone else about what he did in Vietnam, where he went or what he saw, internalizing it all and “protecting” us from it. Three, once my father began applying for benefits, there were impediments at every step. He filed multiple appeals to obtain his 100% disability rating for a service-connected disability. He fought for recognition of the ill effects of Agent Orange. At every turn, there were obstacles…it was as though he was fighting another war.
- How do we Help Reduce the Number of Veterans’ Suicides?
In order to reduce the number of veteran suicides, the first step is better record-keeping. We all know the statistics put out by the Veterans Administration: an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran kills himself every 80 minutes. Vietnam-era suicides were once thought to be in the 50,000-100,000 range, though testimony on the subject from the CDC and others estimates the number to be approximately 9,000. On the other hand, the data points being used in any such studies are old, are based on limited tracking statistics, fail to account for new understanding of the impact of Agent Orange, PTSD, and other illnesses, and generally need to be extrapolated from unreliable data. We need a better record-keeping system in order to specifically identify the causes of death among veterans.
The second step requires a better support group for veterans, whether from the military itself, the government or both. Isolation is clearly at the heart of many veterans’ issues, including suicide. From the weeks just before discharge through the return home, all efforts should be made to keep the veteran engaged. Counseling. Benefit instruction. Support groups. Even before discharge, perhaps military cohesion units would be of benefit. We thrust our military back into civilian society ill-equipped to deal with the many issues confronting them: employment, disability, family…how do we possibly expect them to transition well?
Step three is to ease the obstacles placed in front of veterans in applying for and receiving their benefits. As this Committee is aware, the long-standing view of the process is one of benevolence and paternalism between the Veterans Administration and the veterans. This view, in light of budgetary constraints and more complex claims, is no longer valid or appropriate. In terms of disability claims alone (ignoring, for the moment, any other claims, including surviving spouse claims, death benefit claims, etc.), the backlog of cases has risen to approximately 756,000 (as of April 2011). The number of claims over 125 days old totals approximately 450,000. Veterans wait an average of six months to receive entitled benefits. My mother is nearly one year out from her husband’s death, and she is still no closer to receiving a decision on her DIC benefits. Thankfully, she has social security and life insurance to keep her afloat in the meantime, a luxury many other widows do not have.
The nightmare does not end there. Over 20% of these claims are on appeal Appeals take an average of 527 days to forward to the initial appellate level (the BVA), with another 274 days for the BVA to process the appeal. The remand rate of cases going forward from the BVA to the CAVC approaches an astonishing 80%.
In an effort to allow for the earlier intervention of lawyers into the process, Congress passed The Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act of 2007. Interestingly, the Veterans Administration and Disabled American Veterans were two of the most ardent opposers of this legislation. Why? The reasons are too numerous to count, but the simplistic belief is the veterans’ organizations want to keep control, keeping claims out of the hands of lawyers, and the Veterans Administration is consistently working at counter-purposes with its own veterans. Veterans are entitled to due process, and, frankly, it is not the reality for most. More efforts need to be made to appropriately and fairly evaluate claims in a more efficient and effective manner.
- How Surviving Families Cope?
As the son of a man who committed suicide, I can tell you that the questions never go away. Why didn’t I see? What could I have done? What if I made one more call, or came by the house one more time? The last thing survivors need to cope with is the morass of an outdated, outmoded and unfriendly bureaucracy.
My father had the benefit of working for the Veterans Administration. Had he not, I am not sure I would have been able to get off the ground in terms of identifying proper benefits. Death benefits. DIC. Funeral benefits. Life Insurance. TSP. The list goes on and on, and each winds up in a different location with different forms. Can you image the barriers to those with limited technological access, little education, and little experience dealing with the government? Those with no money get no help from the lawyers either, as fees are not applicable until the first level of appeal.
The requirements to receive these benefits can be onerous as well. The DIC requires, for example, that a veteran die of a service-related disability for which he was 100% disabled for a period of ten years or longer. Well, what about the veteran who commits suicide as the result of PTSD but did not receive his 100% disability rating until 8 years before his death due to filing 4 appeals? Is that system fair to the memory of the injured veteran? To his family?
- Conclusory Remarks
Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, said: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Our Veterans Administration, our non-profit support organizations and our government need to do eliminate the feelings of isolation and abandonment our veterans feel when returning from service; educating our veterans in the financial, medical and other benefits available to them; and removing unnecessary and unfair impediments to receipt of those benefits and the due process due veterans. While we will likely never eliminate veteran suicide, a more friendly, more caring process will certainly go a long way in reducing the increased risk factors. Thank you.