WASHINGTON - A New Mexico veteran's suicide this month
might have been linked to a government review of disability benefits for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,
Rep. Tom Udall and New Mexico Veterans Services Secretary John Garcia told a congressional hearing.
"He believed, as so many veterans do, that he was being forced to prove
himself again," Udall, a Santa Fe Democrat, said during Thursday's hearing.
Another veteran had to be talked out of committing suicide because of the
benefits review, Garcia told the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance.
Udall urged Bush administration officials to halt the 2,100 cases already
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to re-examine the cases of
72,000 veterans who are receiving 100 percent disability because the disorder has made them unemployable.
The deputy undersecretary of Veterans Affairs, Ronald Aument, said the reviews
would continue "until someone tells us to stop," but there would be greater efforts to tell veterans their benefits are not
likely to be jeopardized.
Aument said the Albuquerque VA office prematurely sent out letters "prior
to getting complete guidance."
Garcia said 300 New Mexico veterans received letters threatening to cut
their benefits unless they could prove again they had suffered a service-related stress injury.
Garcia read a letter from a woman whose husband was told his case would
be reviewed. The husband told her he was going to "fix everything" and called his brother to pick up two guns he owns. A VA
doctor calmed him down.
Another man was a "casualty of this review," though his case had not been
selected yet for re-examination, Garcia said.
Garcia was referring to Greg Morris, 57, of Chama, who was found shot dead
with his own gun on Oct. 8. His Purple Heart medal from Vietnam and a folder of information about the reviews of the disorder
were found at his side, Garcia said.
Jake Martinez, a veteran's services officer for the state, said Morris told
him that he was concerned about losing benefits. Martinez said he tried to reassure Morris that he had little to worry about
because he had been wounded.
Martinez said Morris was experiencing flashbacks as a result of counseling.
His wife, Ginger Morris, was away tending a sick relative at the time of Morris' death. She said, "It's hard to put a finger
on any one thing."
Morris belonged to AMVETS Post 15 in Los Ojos. The post commander, J. Lance
Andrews, said he's heard from five other members who are worried and angry about the reviews.
Post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans has been highlighted in New Mexico
by the case of Jason Kerns, 29, a Marine sniper in Afghanistan who is accused of shooting down a Bernalillo County sheriff's
helicopter in August, injuring the pilot.
The review was triggered by an investigation by the inspector general at
the VA into why disability payments vary from state to state, from a low of $6,961 in Illinois to a high of $12,004 in New
One reason is the veteran population varies from state to state, acting
inspector general Jon Wooditch told the committee. Only 2.8 percent of the Illinois veterans getting benefits are receiving
100 percent disability for the disorder. That number in New Mexico is 12.4 percent of veterans.
The review also found a 25 percent error rate in post-traumatic stress disorder
cases. Wooditch stressed that was not evidence of fraud but a lack of documentation from department officials in the case
Wooditch said he never expected a review of those cases would result in
veterans losing benefits.
Udall said while it might seem like a "paperwork review" to administration
officials, veterans with the disorder see it as a "personal attack" that will force them to relive the trauma to justify continued
Last year, the VA spent $4.3 billion on post-traumatic stress disorder disability
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