Marine Widow files suit against the VA
Just a sad, sad story this one.
When I first read this story yesterday I knew I would write about it, and started doing some preliminary research. Interestingly enough, the first thing I pulled up was this:
Cameron Matthew Anestis, 21, Georgetown, KY, loving husband of Tiffany Elaine Anestis and father of Isabelle Skye Anestis, died Mon, Aug 17, 2009. Born in Manchester, NH, he was the son of Emmanuel John and Dawn Sidway Anestis of Lexington, KY. Cameron attended The Citadel Military College of South Carolina and served in the Iraq War for 8 months as a U.S. Marine.
In addition to sharing the name Cameron (my middle name), LCPL Anestis chose the same college I did, The Citadel. Not an easy choice to make for anyone, since your four years there will not be easy. I don't stay as active in tracking Citadel deaths as I perhaps ought to, but it makes me sad everytime I read of one of my brothers leaving our ranks. But the story itself is what truly had my blood boiling.
The young widow and 2-year-old daughter of a Marine Corps combat veteran have sued the federal government for $22.5 million, claiming that Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Lexington turned away the man when he sought psychiatric help hours before he took his own life.
Cameron Anestis, a Marine Corps reservist who spent several months in Iraq, fatally shot himself at his Scott County home on Aug. 17, 2009, hours after he left the VA medical facilities on Leestown Road and the VA hospital on Cooper Drive, according to the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Lexington and attorney Al Grasch, who represents Anestis' widow and daughter.
Here's a video laying out the basic elements:
Before I move on to the lawsuit itself, a little more about our brother Cameron, from his English professor at The Citadel:
The news came to me from Citadel cadets via Facebook about an hour before midnight: LCpl Anestis had died.
I immediately went through several stages, from thinking it was some sort of sick joke to hoping it was someone other than my former student Cameron Matthew Anestis — selfishly hoping it was the loss of a young man I didn’t know rather than one I’d grown to respect so deeply.
After midnight, I had the confirmation I feared via a brief online obituary.
I met Cameron in my first semester here at The Citadel, in the Fall of 2006, in one of my English 101 courses. In a sea of trimmed hair, grey uniforms, and slightly shell-shocked faces, he impressed me at once. There was a self-confidence in the way he carried himself, a strength that made itself apparent on the very first day. I remember that there were two female cadets in the class, and one of them decided to sit right up front, right under my nose. When no one else would sit at the table beside her — because of her gender or my looming proximity, I don’t know — it was Mr. Anestis who did so. I liked him right away, of course, but I found even more cause to like him as the semester went on. Whenever there was a question or a call for volunteers, no matter the task, I could count on Cameron to raise his hand. Whenever a fellow student needed help, I could be sure that he would do whatever he could to help them. No matter the day, no matter the occasion, I could count on him to be, in every sense of the word, present. Cameron was a “red badger” — as I fondly call our Marine-contract cadets — and you could see the aspiration to serve his country well in nearly every aspect of what he did in my class, in every occasion we sat down to chat in my office. Disciplined, controlled, kind, and clever, he was, in a word, professional. For a new professor, lost at sea here in so many ways, Anestis provided a steady anchor. He could not possibly have known how much easier he made my life that first year.
If you have the time I strongly encourage you to go read more. It is a fitting tribute to a man who gave his life in the cause of freedom. No, he didn't die facing the insurgents in the heat of battle, but his death came as a result of that battle no matter how you dice it.
Anyway, I had the pleasure to speaking with the Anestis' lawyer, Al Grasch, at some length this morning. Although he doesn't "speak military" is seems to be an incredibly good attorney from my discussion with him, and other testimonials I found online. I have a whole slew of questions about this case, most of which I fear will await further explanation from the VA. But, let's start with the Complaint filed on behalf of Tiffany. It alleges:
16. Upon presenting at the VA facility on Cooper Drive, on or about August 17, 2009, Anestis informed one or more employees, agents or representatives of the VA that he was seeking mental and emotional health evaluation and treatment.
17. Anestis was advised by one or more employees, agents or representatives of the VA that it did not have sufficient information in its computer system or admission system to entitle Anestis to evaluation and treatment. The VA facility on Cooper Drive therefore refused to evaluate or treat Anestis.
18. A few hours after Anestis was denied treatment at the VA facilities, Anestis committed suicide.
The Complaint contains three counts: Negligence, loss of companionship on behalf of Tiffany, and the same for Cameron's daughter Isabelle. The first is the most pertinent:
21. Defendant’s employees, agents, and representatives failed to satisfy Defendant’s duty to provide proper and appropriate medical care to Cameron Anestis and thus were negligent. The aforesaid negligence included, but is not limited to the following:
(a) failure to adequately evaluate and treat the causes of Anestis’s illnesses and disorders;
(b) failure to properly evaluate, treat and take appropriate steps to reduce and prevent the suicide by Anestis;
(d) failure to treat the emergency before them; and
(e) failure to properly and timely provide follow-up care and treatment for Anestis.
22. Anestis’s death is a direct and proximate result of the aforementioned acts and omissions by Defendant’s employees, representatives and agents.
23. As a direct and proximate result of the aforementioned acts and omissions by Defendant’s agents, Anestis endured pain and suffering and his estate incurred funeral expenses and a loss of his earnings, for which his estate is entitled to recover herein.
Now, I'm not going to claim to be a Tort Law expert by any stretch of the imagination, so I honestly have no idea how this claim will go. My suspicion would be that the added publicity that has been generated this past week will put increasing pressure on the VA's General Counsel to settle. From speaking with Mr. Grasch, it will have to be a decent settlement and not some pittance to buy off the family. But he also told me that one reason the family is pursuing this route is to get results; to ensure that this doesn't happen to others like Cameron.
Although subsequent remedial measures won't be admissable, it seems that this VA, at the least, got the message. In a posting on a VA Intranet blog dated August 21, 2009 the poster "Lexington Admin" addressed the failures in procedure that led to LCPL Anestis' untimely demise:
A young reservist, recently returned from Iraq, comes to the Lexington VAMC for help, at the urging of friends and family. He has never been seen by us before. Because we have no system to enroll him at the Leestown Division, and no system there for mental health triage, he is directed and encouraged to go to the Cooper Division where help is immediately available. He goes home and kills himself.
I don't know if different systems could have prevented this untimely death, but I do know that I want us never again to lose an opportunity to try.
The individual posting this goes on to address the change in procedures percipitated by this event:
A veteran in need shows up at any of our locations. He (or she) may not yet be enrolled, but asks the first person they run into -- could be a volunteer or any employee -- how to see a mental health professional. Here's where the "warm hand-off" comes in. That volunteer or employee doesn't point down the hall or send the veteran upstairs somewhere, but calls pager 639 for the Mental Health Immediate Response Team (MHIRT), and either takes the veteran to the person that answers, or waits with the veteran for the clinician to arrive. Enrollment will be available at either of our divisions and any of our CBOCs, but the priority is getting the veteran to a clinician who can provide an immediate assessment.
He ends with a heartfelt commitment to ensure this doesn't happen again:
I know you join me in sorrowing over this young soldier's unnecessary death, but let his death also drive us to recommit to using every means we have to reach out a helping hand to other veterans in need.
Now, in discussing the case with Mr. Grasch I had about a million questions, and he kindly answered what he could, but some of it is knowable only to the VA at this point I guess. One media report (I forget where now) had stated that LCPL Anestis received some work at a VA Dental Clinic. That seems to be erroneous, as it now appears it may have been his wisdom teeth, and they were taken out while he was on active duty.
The most perplexing this to me is that Mr. Grasch was told that there was an error on Cameron's DD214, and that was the difficulty in enrolling him. Further, it was something to do with an incorrect date, or no date. Unfortunately, after his death, the VA or DoD corrected the DD214. But even assuming a date was missing, he should still have had a OIF medal annotated on the form, making his actual dates of service somewhat superfluous. Even assuming that there was no DD214 available, wouldn't the default in an emergency situation like this be: "Let's get you rolling on treatment, and we'll worry about the other stuff fixed later"? I mean, worst case scenario he wasn't entitled to treatment. They would figure that out and not give any further treatment. You lose out on an hour of mental health counselling, but you still potentially save a life, yea though it might not be someone entitled to that treatment.
I'm glad the VA is making the changes, but I still want to see justice served by ensuring that this man's child and widow are recompensed for their loss. After all, is that not why the VA exists?
"To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." -- Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address
As a side note: If there is anyone out there with knowledge of how VA Administration is handled, vis-a-vis the enrollment process, I would love to talk to you. My email is at the top. Also, I understand that Mr. Grasch will need experts on PTS(d) and similiar issues if anyone has expertise in that field.
Parting question to be answered in the comments: Since at least 2005, VA and DoD have placed the highest premium on the so-called "Seamless Transition". If DoD doesn't automatically forward the DD214's of redeployed service-members, what exactly is "Seamless Transition"? My service has been excellent at the VA (especially here in Indy) but come on guys....shouldn't this be a matter of course to send along the documents that a troop will need to enroll?