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Whistle-Blower: VA Ignored Suicidal Vets, Gulf War Syndrome Study

by Wendy Innes, published

The web and social media was abuzz this past week with the story of a whistle-blower who says that Veterans' Affairs (VA) ignored more than 2,000 suicidal vets, many of whom went on to commit suicide. In addition, the agency also also suppressed research studies that showed there was indeed adverse health effects suffered by Gulf War veterans. A former VA employee accusing the agency of wrong-doing usually doesn't draw much attention, but the confirmation of some of these accusations has created a firestorm.

Dr. Steven Coughlin, the highest level whistle-blower to ever accuse the VA of wrongdoing, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC) in March 2013 that -- among other serious issues -- the VA ignored veterans who reported suicidal thoughts, as well as suppressed data from studies that have been conducted on Gulf War Syndrome, data that could have a big financial impact on the VA.

Coughlin was a senior epidemiologist with the VA's Office of Public Health (OPH) where he worked on research concerning Gulf War Illness.  During his research, he said 2,000 veterans stated on study questionnaires that they felt "they would be better off dead." He said that in at least 95 percent of those cases, the VA did not follow up with veterans or make any attempt to help them. Sadly, was reported that several went on to end their lives, though the VA says that it has no information regarding the veracity of this claim.

Coughlin also told the committee that he was ordered by his immediate supervisor to suppress data from a pair of studies he was working on regarding Gulf War Illness. The findings, he says, would have put the VA on the hook for costly medical care and disability payments to thousands of Gulf War veterans suffering from respiratory problems due to the so-called "burn pits" in Iraq at the time.

"I was told two or three times in the second half of 2012 by my immediate supervisor not to look at data," Coughlin said in an interview with Fox News. "And I found that very uncomfortable -- very unnerving."

When Coughlin tried to go to his supervisor, Dr. Aaron Schneiderman, regarding the situation, Coughlin said the supervisor threatened him.

While in the planning phases for a second study on the condition, Coughlin attempted to take steps to ensure that any vets who admitted to being suicidal would receive follow up, but instead his supervisors initiated disciplinary action against him, something that he says is common in the OPH. Coughlin left the VA in December 2012, three months before testifying.

While this may seem shocking to some, according to Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo), chairman of the House subcommittee that investigated these claims, they are all too common and he is not surprised by them. Coffman, who is himself a Gulf War vet, said that in the short time he has chaired the committee there have been numerous reports of serious ethical lapses within the VA.

"There's no reason why a Gulf War veteran should ever trust the Veterans Affairs Administration, or unfortunately, this government," Coffman told Fox News. Coffman went on to say that heads at the VA should roll if the allegations are substantiated.

Fast forward nearly one year. An internal investigation by the VA's Office of Research Oversight (ORO) found that some study results had been improperly handled, though not the same results that Coughlin spoke of in the Fox interview. His most serious allegations, those regarding suicidal vets and retribution against whistle-blowers had been substantiated as well. The ORO also assured the HVAC that those who were responsible for the failures would be held accountable. Coughlin had been vindicated.

A spokesman for the VA would not answer specific questions regarding the matter, but did give the following statement to IVN:

"The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes and respects the service, dedication and many challenges of Veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and is committed to improving the health and well-being of these Veterans. Research is a vital component in improving that treatment.   VA agrees that there are health issues associated with service in the Gulf War, and the department wants to ensure Gulf War Veterans have access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve.   VA’s highest priority is the mental health and well-being of Veterans who have served our Nation. Even one suicide is one too many.  That’s why VA has put into place an intensive, multi-pronged effort to expand its suicide prevention programs and data systems to increase understanding and prevention of suicide among Veterans."

Since every active duty service member will become a veteran one day, the DoD was also reached for comment.

Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, Defense Department spokeswoman for Personnel and Readiness, stated she was unfamiliar with the specific situation, but added:

"I can tell you that both within the Defense Department and in coordination with the VA we are deeply concerned about suicide prevention. Suicide is an extremely complex issue and the Department of Defense has a comprehensive suicide prevention program. Over the past year we have worked extensively with the Veteran's Administration to educate service members and their families about the Military Crisis Line (MCL is the same as the Veterans Crisis Line) and we have also worked with interagency partners to implement the President's Executive Order."

A year after testifying before the HVAC subcommittee, Coughlin has finally been able to move on with his life. After leaving the VA, he spent a year unemployed and living with family before finding employment in academia. He was unaware that he had been vindicated until the story made headlines this past week. Because of his unwavering ethics and his courageous actions in testifying, he has been nominated for the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology's Research Integrity Award.

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