An Outrage: V.A. Official Who Covered Up Veterans' Suicides Won't Lose Job

A week of hearings in Washington on the alarming spike in suicides among veterans of the Iraq war, and an official cover-up of the numbers, has ended with both the Veterans Affairs chief and the V.A. mental health director whose advice on the matter was "Shh," still holding their jobs.

Meanwhile, the returning soldiers "are dropping like flies." That's how one soldier characterized the spike in suicides among servicemen coming home from war, according to Greg Dobbs, who is completing a documentary on PTSD for HDNet and wrote an op-ed today for the Rocky Mountain News of Denver.

Dr. Ira Katz, the mental health official who ordered "Shh!" on revelations of the alarming number of suicides among U.S. veterans, won't lose his job over it, his boss told Congress. The poor fellow, like all of us from time to time, just wrote without thinking in an e-mail, V.A. Secretary James Peake testified.

Katz agreed that it was just a bad choice of words when he sent his colleagues an e-mail about suicide data that started out with "Shh!" in the subject line. The e-mail (which I covered in-depth last week) went on to admit that 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment -- but this number should be kept from CBS News, which was studying the issue. "Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail asked.

Dr. Katz told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the e-mail had a poor tone -- even though the body contained "appropriate, healthy dialogue" about the data. "I deeply regret the subject line," Katz said. "It was an error and I apologize for that."

After the hearing, Peake told reporters he did not plan to fire Katz or other officials over the e-mails. He said everyone has sent an embarrassing e-mail at some point. "It truly was an unfortunate set of words," Peake said. Peake said the reason the data discussed in the e-mail about the number of suicide attempts was not released was because of concerns about its accuracy.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said President Bush has "full confidence in Secretary Peake and believes that he is handling it appropriately."

The committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) accused Katz of being more concerned about how data was interpreted than the health of veterans. He also said Katz -- as well as others involved -- should be fired. He accused the agency of criminal negligence in the handling of data about the number of veterans who have committed suicide, and of having a history of cover-ups.

Dobbs, in his op-ed today, reveals that in his HDNet documentary he interviewed one young infantryman who went to Iraq from Fort Carson, and had seen friends blown up and himself crushed by "survivor's guilt." He "came home diagnosed with PTSD. But when I asked him to describe his treatment, he laughed and said, 'Didn't exist.' Even when he got 'mental health' appointments, his line commanders made him work so he'd miss them. Eventually, he took a kitchen knife and cut his wrists. He was saved, but six hours after being released from the psych ward, he was sent back to his unit to train for redeployment to Iraq.

"A Marine out of Camp Pendleton told us he came back with PTSD and was put on overnight guard duty - armed. He called his mother one night with a gun in his mouth, telling her he had killed so many innocent Iraqis, he didn't deserve to live. She kept him on the phone, praying neither battery would die, as she drove six hours to save him."

Greg Mitchell's new book has several chapters on the suicide issue. It is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Fails on Iraq. It features a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway.