Suicide may lead to loss of benefits for some veteran families

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs more than 6,400 veterans complete suicide every year. But the ripple effect of their decision impacts many others, like their families who are left behind not just without their loved one’s love and support but also without their income and potentially without their military benefits too.

In 2008, highly decorated army veteran Russell Dwyer shot and killed his estranged wife, Colleen.

“It was her 34th birthday,” said Kathleen Price, her mother. “She had taken the two children to him for the weekend and she was on her way to go pick them up for her birthday party and he met her at the door and he fired the gun.”

Dwyer then turned the gun on himself.

“He had severe PTSD and that’s what caused all of the problems,” said Price.

Dwyer served in the Army for 20 years and deployed to Iraq in 2003. That’s when Price said everything changed.

“Before the war they just did everything together, hikes and zoos and did everything that normal families would do,” she said.

But then the nightmares started.

“He would have horrible dreams at night,” said Price. “When he was in Iraq, according to his records that we have, he had to do some very horrid things to women and children and he never got over that. And he would have these terrible dreams to where he would wake up and just start flinging and so my daughter would have to sleep in another room.”

Price said she and her daughter begged him to get help.

“Back then it was in the early parts of the war and if you said you had a problem, the Army kicked you out,” said Price. “He didn’t want to lose that so he didn’t get any help and then after he got out of the Army there was no help.”

At the time of the murder-suicide the Dwyers had two children.

“My grandson, who was four at the time, was standing next to him and he grabbed my granddaughter who was 18 months old and took her up into the bathroom and locked the door,” said Price.

Custody of the kids was granted to Colleen’s parents and at the ages of 60 and 71 Price and her husband found themselves starting over, without very much support from the government.

“They got his social security every month and then they get a small army annuity, but that’s all, and because he wasn’t clinically diagnosed with PTSD that eliminates his veterans benefits and everything,” said Price.

In most situations, the VA provides Dependency and Indemnity or DIC to surviving spouses and/or minor children of a veteran who dies of a service-connected disability. But if that death is caused by suicide the support can be denied, unless the suicide can be connected to a service-connected illness or injury.

“He’s not documented and that’s the big reason,” said Price. “I just know how Russ was and it wasn’t him. He was a good, good, man and a devoted father. He lived for those kids and it just wasn’t him. I knew it and the disease, it ate him alive.”

Kent Jarnig, the chair of the El Paso County Colorado Progressive Veterans told FOX21 he has seen benefits be denied after a suicide more than once.

“It’s a policy that dates back to the civil war and there’s two schools of though in the military, one is if you kill yourself you’re a person of bad character,” said Jarnig. “The second thing is the military thinks that if they take away benefits it will prevent people from killing themselves, which is insanity.”

“It doesn’t make any sense to punish the spouse and minor kids,” said Jarnig. “It just doesn’t make any sense in today’s knowledge of mental health.”

Joe Lewis, CEO of Angels of America’s Fallen, said he has also seen benefits be denied for the same reason.

“Right now about a quarter of the children that we support nationwide lost their parent to suicide and of those it’s around 30 to 40 percent of those that don’t qualify for the benefits,” he said.

Lewis said Angels of America’s Fallen currently serves more than 400 children each year nationwide and there are hundreds more on the waiting list. They are a 501C-3 nonprofit that supports children of fallen military and first responders by engaging them in positive activities throughout their whole childhood.

“When we first started the organization we had families applying, we had looked at this and said, it doesn’t matter to the child whether they lose their parent in a combat fatality, a training accident, a suicide, or illness from their service, it is 100 percent loss of mom or dad,” said Lewis. “So we said all it takes to qualify is that mom or dad served and gave all.”

He said news spread quickly about their organization and their acceptance policy.

“I’ve had some of them just start weeping and saying even if my child never gets picked up by your organization thank you for just saying we count.”

He said that based of the numbers of families impacted by suicide that Angels of America’s Fallen serves this problem is not just a one off situation.

“This tells me that there’s a very large gap in the system and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” said Lewis. “There are many families falling through the cracks in the system.”

“Russell was a very decorated soldier and he put his whole life into it, that was his life,” said Price. “He was a good good man and an equally good soldier and he paid his price by going to Iraq and seeing these things.”

FOX21 reached out to the VA who said if a death is determined to not be service connected, the survivor may appeal that decision.

“We’ve tried that and they say unless it’s on paper, and he never got help so it’s not on paper,” said Price.

Lewis said denying benefits to the families is like a slap in the face.

“There’s really a lot asked of our military and our first responders,” he said. “So when we lose somebody because of those stressors and the family is told ‘No, you don’t count,’ or ‘that didn’t count enough because it wasn’t documented’ and that’s the primary issue is that it wasn’t documented, it’s really just a very rude slap in the face to them.”

Lewis said the United States has a responsibility to stand by these families and both he and Jarnig agree that an appeal process is the last thing those families need to go through.

“If the person who survives does not work, they’re taking care of minor children and all of the sudden they lose all income, they go on food stamps and it can take months even years on appeals before you get any positive results from that,” said Jarnig.

“When there is a suicide and it’s traumatic and the breadwinner is lost and the mom has to go into survival mode and take care of the children and then has to fight the system to try to show a service connection and that they qualify for these benefits it’s way, way too much to push on somebody,” said Lewis.

Lewis said there are also several reasons why a service member doesn’t want to admit that they have mental health problems.

“There’s concerns about not making the next promotion, if you’ve got a security clearance then there’s concerns about that,” he said. “It can still be seen as a weakness as opposed to an injury.”

Regardless he said a lack of documentation is not a good enough reason to deny benefits.

“This is not families trying to get something from the government, these are families that deserve these benefits that their loved one earned and they’re continuing to sacrifice without their loved one so as a nation it just doesn’t make any sense to say no to them,” said Lewis. “It’s not a lot that we give them even if they qualify for everything, so we’re not breaking the bank of the treasury.”

The current DIC rate is just slightly above poverty level.

“These benefits are for those who are left behind and it’s for the people who have lost their primary wage earner and they’ve gone through the stress and the trauma and some of the kids have seen this happen in front of them and in their home and they’ve got their own PTSD from the event” said Lewis. “So the the idea that there’s not a good reason to pay it I think goes out the window when you’re thinking about these are the children and the spouse who had no say in this, they are the ones affected by it.”

“I really think the government should do something for children like this,” said Price. “It might be too late for mine and that’s fine but other people have to be in this situation too, it’s not just me.”

The VA told FOX21 it does not have a record of how many survivors have been denied benefits for this reason and in order to change the code, congress would have to pass a law on the matter.

FOX21 reached out to Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper who then sent a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on October 27th, asking him to look further into this issue.

The VA provided the following answers to our questions:

  1. Is it accurate that family members do not get survivor benefits if they die by suicide?

No, this is not accurate. Every situation is different. If VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered to be related, or “service connected.” The surviving spouse and dependent children could then be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Education Benefits, Home Loan Guaranty and other survivor benefits.

  1. What are the different VA survivor benefits a family would receive?

Survivor benefits include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, survivors pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran).
Here is a link to more information: https://www.va.gov/opa/persona/dependent_survivor.asp

  1. If a family is denied benefits because of a suicide, what is the appeals process?

To clarify, a survivor would not be denied benefits “because of a suicide”; however, if VA determines that the death is not service connected, the survivor may appeal that decision. The appeals process is standardized for every type of claim. Through the Appeals Modernization Act, the survivor may disagree with VA’s decision by filing a supplemental claim (opportunity to submit more evidence), a higher-level review (closed-record review of the previous decision by a more senior adjudicator) or appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (with a review by, and opportunity for a hearing before, a Veterans Law Judge). Information regarding appeals rights is provided to every claimant in VA’s decision notification letters

  1. Is this a policy or law? How would this policy be changed?

Title 38, Code of Federal Regulations §3.302; §3.302 Service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide.

This section discusses suicide is not a service-connected disability. If the VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered service connected. If Congress wanted VA to determine any Veteran suicide is related to service – regardless of whether the suicide was related to a service-connected disability – then Congress would have to pass a law on this matter.

5. Is depression considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the servicemember is active duty for it to be considered service-related or could that determination be made after?

Major Depressive Disorder and Persistent Depressive Disorder are examples of mental health diagnoses that can be assigned disability ratings by VBA. They do not need to be secondary to a physical injury or traumatic event to be recognized. For the purposes of disability compensation benefits, depression, when diagnosed, is considered a disability and Veterans may be eligible to receive benefits based on this condition. A diagnosis of or treatment for depression does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all the evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s disability is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.

Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are mental health disorders. PTSD can occur after a traumatic event such as military combat, a physical assault, or a natural disaster. Depression can be caused by many factors to include stress, life altering events, genetics and the brain’s inability to regulate one’s mood resulting. Either of these conditions may result in a disability.

6. Is PTSD considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the servicemember is active duty for it to be considered service-related or could that determination be made after?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered a disability and Veterans can be assigned a disability rating by VBA. Like Major Depressive Disorder or Persistent Depressive Disorder, a diagnosis of, or treatment for PTSD, does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s PTSD is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.

Unlike claims for other mental health diagnoses, a claim for service connection for PTSD requires association with an in-service stressor/event. There are different types of events that constitute an in-service stressor that include:

1) Engaging in combat with enemy forces

2) Fear of hostile military or terrorist activity

3) Prisoner-of-war

4) In-service personal assault

5) traumatic event

7. If a death is determined to be not service connected are survivor benefits initially denied?

If a death is determined not to be service connected, some survivor benefits are denied. However, not all benefits would be denied; for example, if a Veteran served at least one day during a war time period and financial need is demonstrated, a survivor may still be eligible for some benefits. Other benefits, such as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) would be initially denied.

Benefits a survivor may apply for include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, burial allowance, survivors’ pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran). Additional information can be found at:

· https://www.va.gov/opa/persona/dependent_survivor.asp

· https://www.va.gov/disability/dependency-indemnity-compensation/

· https://www.va.gov/pension/survivors-pension/

· https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/veterans-burial-allowance/

8. How long on average does an appeals process take? A few weeks, months, years?

Under the Appeals Modernization Act framework implemented in 2019, VBA has been deciding requests for Higher-Level Reviews of decisions and related work in less than 90 days on average this fiscal year; compared to the legacy appeals process, which often took three to seven years for resolution.

Q1. How many families currently receive survivor benefits due to a service-related death?

A1. 457,576 beneficiaries, related to 450,325 distinct deceased Veterans, who are in receipt of DIC benefits.

Q2. How many families have been denied survivor benefits following a self-inflicted death that was determined not to be service related?

A2. VA does not have definitive data to attribute the cause of death to be self-inflicted.

Q3. How many families are currently appealing a benefit denial due to a non-service-connected death that they believe is service related? (specifically involving suicide)

A3. Information on the Boards inventory and appeal timelines can be found here : The Board of Veterans Appeals Quarterly Reports – Board of Veterans’ Appeals (va.gov)
https://www.bva.va.gov/Quarterly_Reports.asp

At the end of the 3rd quarter for the 2021 fiscal year there were 197,792 appeals cases pending

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