KRWG

Fort Bliss Shooting Highlights Broader VA Dysfunction

Jan 21, 2015

El Paso Veteran Nick D' Amico passed away in 2013 while waiting for medical care from the El Paso VA .
Credit Simon Thompson

Every day 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide. The recent murder-suicide that took two lives at Fort Bliss is raising questions about the VA’s ability to manage ongoing mental health issues facing returning soldiers Simon Thompson reports.

Fort Bliss went on lockdown as authorities moved to contain an active shooter. The gunman was an Iraqi veteran and former El Paso VA employee Jerry Serrato.  He shot and killed VA psychiatrist Doctor Timothy Fjordbak before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life.  The FBI reported that Serrato had threatened Fjordbak in 2013 when both men were working at the El Paso clinic. 

But there may have been another trigger.  In a Washington post report- A former clinic employee said that Serrato was frustrated that the clinic had found his claim of post-traumatic stress disorder unwarranted and wasn’t going to give him the medical treatment he was expecting.

Lillian D’ Amico says it wouldn’t be the first time the El Paso VA has denied a veteran’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder she says the El Paso VA rejected treatment for her son Nick…who was diagnosed with PTSD years earlier at the VA in Phoenix, Arizona.  In fact, she says they even rejected Nick’s PTSD diagnosis.

“The first time he brought his records with him  and they said ‘We are not interested in theses , we make our own diagnoses’. So Nick had been in Albuquerque they looked at the records. they looked at the records, come here and they don’t want to look at the records They don’t want to  treat the mental ill because they don’t have the doctors  and they don’t have the money, there is too many of them” she says

D’Amico says the VA reluctance to diagnose PTSD, meant her son was labeled with every other mental illness that could plausibly fit; Bi polar, anxiety and major depression. Meaning even the limited treatment he was getting wasn’t addressing the major mental issue he did have.

“He stopped taking his medications by himself and he said I know I need something but what I am taking is not helping it is making me worse” she says

Nick D’Amico spent time with a VA social worker a few times a month, but he fought in vain to see get follow up appointments with a psychiatrist- which was the only way to get his medication changed and have his mental health diagnosis re-evaluated.  

As scheduled psychiatrist appointment after psychiatrist appointment was cancelled. D’ Amico says she saw her son’s mental health deteriorate and spiral further and further out of control, to the point that he became dangerous and was no longer safe to be around.

“He said I am a trained combat military I don’t  need a gun, I could break your neck so  quick that you wouldn’t know it,  there would be no pain and that’s when  I said he can’t stay here any more he just can’t stay here but I have never forgiven my self for putting him out” she says

Nick became homeless and spent the next four months sleeping on the streets of El Paso.

D’Amico says before he joined the army her son was hardworking, religious, studious and popular.   She says his PTSD resulted from 4 years of decorated service in Nuclear biological chemical warfare protection and operation of patriot missiles. 

Service that Lillian says his country forgot all too quickly. 

“He said I want to tell you something we gave up our life for our country maybe we weren’t buried but a part of us got buried, we expect you to honor what we have done don’t treat us like  we are here for a handout these are things that we were promised when we took the oath and we are warriors” she says

The El Paso VA was claiming wait times were in line with national standards at an average of 15 days.  Until Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke commissioned an outside study that surveyed close to 700 veterans in his district. Results found veterans were waiting an average of 71 days to see a mental-health provider.

“The VA forever has said that the VA is doing ok, and so we have learned  you can’t ask the VA how the VA is doing because the VA will always tell you the VA-  is doing alright you need to ask the veterans.” he says

KRWG requested an interview with- The El Paso VA, but they did not make themselves available for comment

Since the survey…O’Rourke has been leading a campaign to hold the VA accountable and make a higher quality of care accessible to the 80,000 El Paso County and Dona Ana County veterans it serves.

“Where we are no longer accepting good enough you know this is good enough for El Paso you’re a border town you are miles away from your state and national capitals  and other large cities around  what else would you expect than to have this kind of care" he says "There is a sea change in El Paso  that is reflected in attitude that we will from now on only expect the very best of  ourselves”

O’Rourke acknowledged El Paso has long way to go particularly in securing qualified mental health professionals…but he says some progress has been made with more psychiatrists on site and a program outsourcing patient care when it is overloaded. He says both measures have reduced wait times.

But those improvements are too late for veterans like Nick  D’ Amico. In 2013, 5 months into a 8 month lapse between psychiatric appointments D’Amico drove his jeep off the edge of Trans-Mountain near El Paso taking his own life, hours before a planned dinner at home with his mother and sister Jo.

“She found his desert storm hat folded on his bed, and she picked it up – inside was his telephone, his watch , his wallet  with his drivers license and all his identification-she said he’s not coming back " she says

D’Amico says no US soldier should die waiting for battle wounds to be tended.

She says she will never be able to forgive herself for what happened to her son – but it still could have been a lot worse.

“I told my counselor.. he said to me, 'Your son was really brave I said how can you say that he took his own life and he said but he didn’t  take yours and he didn’t take your daughters and he didn’t go over to the VA and shoot up a bunch of people and for the rest of your life you had to feel that your son destroyed other peoples lives he just took himself” she says

D’Amico coordinates a support group to help veterans like her son – who need more medical attention than they’re getting from the El Paso VA.

The Fort Bliss shooting incident marks the 13th  shooting to take place on a US military facility in the space of 5 years.