‘Just sad’: Sister details local veteran's struggle for care after returning from war

TACOMA -- Nearly a year after Army private Justin Norton took his life under a bridge in rural Washington state, the Veteran’s Health Administration sent him a letter.

“Dear Veteran,” it began.

The letter went on to ask Norton to rate the level of care he received from the VA.

“Nine months after he died,” said Norton’s sister, Misty, who opened the letter when it came in the mail. “That’s … that’s just comical.”

Misty Norton had informed the VA of her brother’s passing almost immediately after he died. The Department of Veteran Affairs even helped to coordinate his funeral at Tahoma National Cemetery.

The letter was just the latest chapter in a series of personal disappointments involving Norton and the VA, many of which he detailed in a journal he kept in the days leading up to his suicide on Sept. 11, 2013.

Since that time, the VA has been thrust in nationwide ridicule and scandal — much if it surrounding long wait times for care.

In a way, Norton exposed problems with the VA long before they were front-page news.

Justin Norton joined the Army at the age of 18, shortly after 9/11. His sister and mother had reservations, but Norton wasn’t at all scared about the prospect of going to war.

“I’m sure he didn’t know what was going on. He just thought he would go join the military and take on this adventure,” Misty said.

But after a tour in Iraq, Misty said her brother was met with his own “personal hell” when he returned to civilian life in the states. Suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depressed, and struggling with a failing marriage, he checked himself into a PTSD treatment program at the American Lake VA in Tacoma on Aug. 7, 2013.

A month later, Norton checked himself out of the program early.

“Mr. Norton has elected to leave the PTSD (sic) early prior to completion. He is uncertain whether he is ready to begin intensive treatment for PTSD,” the discharge papers read.

“Veteran does not endorse any current homicidal or suicidal ideation. There is no indication of any acute danger to self or others and is safe for hospital discharge,” the hospital concluded.

Norton committed suicide two days later.

In a suicide note pinned to his Army-issued backpack, left atop the bridge were he hanged himself, Norton left a message for the person who would find his body.

“Thank you for getting the police,” he wrote. ”I’m sure my family appreciates it. If you need counseling for this traumatic event, don’t go to the VA … they are booked solid.”

It was Sept. 11, 2013, a full year before President Barack Obama would vow to overhaul the broken VA system.

In his journal, which Norton also left in the backpack, he wrote about his frustrations with the VA – which extended beyond long wait times for care.

Norton complained of tooth pain and trouble getting the VA to perform a root canal. He expressed dismay that he couldn’t get more one-on-one time with counselors, something he thought may have helped him cope with the lasting impacts of war.

“I think that a lot of times, these veterans are thrown into this VA system and it’s so big and so short-handed,” said Misty, who hopes that sharing her brother’s story can shed light on the challenges soldiers face long after returning from war. “It seems like we have a lot of resources for sending these guys off to war, but not a lot of resources when it comes to bringing them back with a system that’s actually working.”

While the VA would not comment of the specifics of Norton’s case, Greg Reger, acting director of suicide prevention for the VA Puget Sound, wrote this statement:

“In all of our inpatient and residential treatment programs, suicide risk-assessment is a continuous, dynamic process. Suicide risk is assessed and repeatedly reassessed throughout the course of a Veteran’s treatment, up until the moment he/she is discharged.  Every effort is made to ensure that any Veteran who is discharged from an intensive treatment program is discharged with a comprehensive outpatient treatment plan already in place, one which is specifically tailored to the Veteran to provide a safe and therapeutic environment that supports his/her wellness, and ongoing recovery.”

While much has changed at the VA since Norton’s death, the rate of suicide among soldiers is high and many continue to wait for care.

“Our servicemembers and their families sacrifice so much for our country, and I believe we have a solemn duty to care for them long after they return from battle—for as long as it takes,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “As the daughter of a World War II veteran, I have fought for years to make sure the VA has the resources it needs to support our veterans and make sure they have access to high quality physical and mental health care—but I know that work is far from over. It’s always heartbreaking to hear about veterans who have lost all hope—and I am going to keep working to be a voice in Congress for them and their families to make sure no servicemember or veteran is left behind.”

The VA Puget Sound stressed on Thursday that despite concerns over wait times, veterans who are in crisis or suicidal can get immediate care at the Seattle Division (1660 S. Columbian Way Seattle, WA, 98108) or the American Lake Division (9600 Veterans Drive SW Tacoma, WA 98493) without an appointment.

“When Veterans are in one of their darkest moments, moments that include questions of whether to continue living or choosing to die, it can be an incredibly vulnerable thing to seek help.  It is difficult to do,” VA Puget Sound wrote in a statement. “But mental health treatment can help reduce the risk of suicide for many and can also help Veterans reconnect to what’s important and meaningful to them.  Many Veterans who previously attempted suicide but engaged in effective mental health treatment look back with gratitude that they did not die. Veterans need to know they can have immediate access to help at the VA to prevent further tragedies from occurring.”

Veterans are encouraged to call the Veterans Crisis Line if they need help or want someone to talk to.  The hotline is available to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1). Veterans can also text 838255 to get help or chat online https://www.veteranscrisisline.net

Q13 FOX has set up an email account for those who would like to join the conversation. If you have thoughts on this story, you can email us at Veterans@Q13FOX.com.