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EDITORIAL: VA failed to save a local vet in need

By: Gazette editorial board
May 31, 2017 Updated: May 31, 2017 at 8:54 am
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To help him cope with his PTSD, Noah Harter would sometimes climb the Manitou Incline twice a day. In 2015, Noah took his own life. His Marine boots, dog tags and hat are among his possessions that his parents have to remember him. They hold an enlargement of a photo of Noah at the base of the incline near where they hope to put a memorial bench. Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Noah Harter was so exceptional that he survived 300 combat missions as a Marine. Department of Veterans Affairs employees, by contrast, are notoriously substandard. Exhibiting typical VA underachievement, they declined to give Harter the minimal, fundamental care extended to suicidal patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The heart-wrenching details of Harter's death are spelled out in an expose Sunday by Gazette reporters Stephanie Earls and Tom Roeder, who interviewed relatives and colleagues of the Colorado Springs resident.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, responding to the story, plans to introduce a measure requiring the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine review veterans' deaths, related to drug overdoses or suicides, within the past five years. Coffman, R-Aurora, says Harter's death haunts him.

The Harter tragedy is the latest in a yearslong series of VA horror stories involving institutional corruption, incompetence, fiscal irresponsibility and apathy toward patients.

"Their goal is taking care of themselves and not taking care of the men and women who sacrificed to serve our country," Coffman said in the Sunday article.

The Gazette story documents how Harter, 25, died in 2015 after visiting the VA's Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs for depression and "suicidal ideation."

Harter was, by all accounts, a superior Marine who lived to serve other people and improve their lives.

When Harter suffered a form of depression common among those who have endured long-term exposure to battlefield death and destruction, he did exactly the right thing. He went to his assigned health care provider and asked for help.

The VA reportedly treated him like chattel. Knowing Harter was a high-risk suicide patient, the staff sent him home "with a powerful anti-depressant and no scheduled follow-up appointments."

Experts told Roeder and Earls a private- sector patient presenting with symptoms similar to Harter's would be triaged psychologically to determine his level of risk to self and/or others. The patient would not be released without a confirmed plans for ongoing support and follow-up care.

"The VA were the only ones who heard his cries for help, and they didn't listen," said Harter's father, Mark. "Noah was strong and smart and compassionate. He shouldn't have died."

The Gazette reporters unearthed an internal VA watchdog report that revealed the agency's suicide hotline fails to answer at least one-third of calls to its suicide hotline. Routing hold times are 30 minutes for those who get through.

Harter's demise, at the hands of a pathetic federal bureaucracy, serves as a devastating loss to our community. The VA owed this veteran compassionate care, including follow-up phone monitoring, appointments and counseling. Instead, the VA handed Harter a bottle and pointed him to the door. While out of sight and mind of his caregivers, Harter gave in. He took a life the VA should have helped save.

Don't give up this fight, Rep. Coffman. All other members of Colorado's congressional delegation should join with him. Take the Harter family's nightmare straight to House and Senate leadership and President Donald Trump. We need to know about all the veterans who could have been saved, had the VA done its job.

The gazette editorial board

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