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Howard Altman: Families disgusted at VA failure to spend suicide-prevention money

Col. James Flynn Turner, left, in a photograph taken at his retirement from the Marines, with his then-wife Jenn Turner, 51, son James Flynn Tuner V, 22, and daughter Kaylee Ann Turner, 18. [Courtesy of Jenn Turner]
Published Dec. 21, 2018

A week after retired Marine colonel James Turner took his life at the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs campus, news broke that the Government Accountability Office had blasted VA for failing to spend millions dedicated to a suicide prevention outreach campaign.

Here in the Tampa area, survivors of veterans who took their own lives say they were disgusted and disappointed by the failure.

"Sad and disappointed," is how Turner's ex-wife Jennifer Turner described her feelings when she heard about the GAO report. "I do find it disgusting that the VA has been allotted so much money and they can get away with spending it elsewhere …"

On Dec. 10, Turner, 55, a decorated combat veteran, put on his dress uniform and medals, drove to Bay Pines, sat on top of his military papers and ended his life with his father's vintage military rifle. A suicide note blamed the VA, in part, for his troubles. He was the fifth veteran since 2013 to take his life at Bay Pines.

The GAO report findings are "absolutely disgraceful and clearly a sign of poor management or lack of concern or care for our troops," said Carol Rasor-Cordero, whose son Joseph Ryan Rasor, a Marine combat veteran, was 31 when he fatally shot himself in Oregon on April 21, 2017.

A graduate of Indian Rocks Christian School, Rasor played on the baseball team there with Matt Sitton and Frankie Gross, two young men who would later join the Army and die in Afghanistan.

According to the report, the VA had a total budget of $17.7 million for its suicide prevention and mental health media outreach for fiscal year 2018, $6.2 million of it was obligated for suicide prevention paid media.

But as of September, the VA said it had spent $57,000, or less than 1 percent, of its $6.2 million paid media budget.

VA officials blamed that shortfall in spending on "leadership and organizational realignment of the suicide prevention program."

During a Dec. 19 congressional hearing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie promised that department suicide prevention funds won't go unspent again, according to Military Times.

"I'll probably ask for more or allocate more (to the effort)," Wilkie told lawmakers during a sometimes tense Capitol Hill. hearing on the issue this week. "This is a national tragedy."

Wilkie's statement was not enough for U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis. The Tarpon Springs Republican, who is co-chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sent Wilkie a letter demanding more answers in the wake of Turner's death.

"The GAO report concluding that the VA outreach activities have dropped significantly in the past two years is insufficient and unacceptable," Bilirakis wrote." Why haven't you spent the dollars that we've allocated to you? Why isn't VA hiring more mental health counselors? Why are hurting Veterans being turned away? Can you outline a specific action plan for VA to address veteran suicide prevention in the upcoming year?"

VA officials did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

But while the national office dropped the ball on the outreach effort, there is some good news from the VA office overseeing Florida centers.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has received a $1 million contract from the VA to improve services provided to Florida veterans through the Florida Veterans Support Line (1-844-MyFLVet).

The funding pays to place veteran resource management staff and veteran peers at local, non-profit organizations throughout Florida to answer calls from the Florida Veterans Support Line, according to a news release. It also pays to provide technical assistance to those local organizations. A database of VA and non-VA community resources will be created and maintained through this project. Veteran peers follow-up with short-term support to veterans who call 1-844-MyFLVet and 2-1-1.

Rasor-Cordero, who lost her son to suicide last year, said more remains to be done. A retired deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, she suggested the creation of an oversight board, akin to the kind that oversee police operations. It's an idea she said she will bring up with Veterans Counseling Veterans, a local non-profit dedicated to preventing veteran suicide.

Ellsworth Williams, an Army veteran who founded Veterans Counseling Veterans, attended the congressional hearing and said he was "discouraged and angered" by what he saw.

"Wilkie admitted he had no metrics nor goals to prevent violence suicide," Williams said. " His inaction is unacceptable."

To get help

If you are a veteran in crisis, you are not alone. Veterans can call the Veterans crisis line 24-hours a day, 365-days a year at (800) 273-8255. Press 1

• • •

The Pentagon announced no new deaths in ongoing operations last week.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 61 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow@haltman

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