GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (CN) - Neglect and unreasonable demands from the Veterans Administration caused another Iraq war veteran to kill himself, his widow claims in Federal Court. She says that despite a doctor's "clear diagnosis" of post-traumatic stress disorder, from roadside bombs, including one that killed 93 people, the VA refused to admit he suffered from PTSD, with excuses such as "the diagnosis 'does not specify which Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was used'"; and that he "'failed to provide dates of the incidents or names of any casualties.'"
Tracy Eiswert says her husband Scott suffered substandard care from the VA hospital in Mountain Home, Tenn., before he killed himself in 2008. He was 31. She survives, with their two young children.
It's the latest in a string of lawsuits from families of veterans nationwide, who say the VA was less than helpful after veterans returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The VA in July 2010 relaxed requirements for veterans seeking service-connected PTSD benefits, but the agency still faces criticism for its mental health services.
The 9th Circuit ruled this year in a California class action that the "VA's failure to provide adequate procedures for veterans facing prejudicial delays in the delivery of mental health care violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment," according to Tracy Eiswert's complaint.
Scott Eiswert joined the National Guard in 2001 and served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
Tracy Eiswert says her husband first sought help for his symptoms after he was honorably discharged in November 2005.
She says Scott saw a professional counselor at a private mental health facility in Greeneville for almost 4 months. Scott's symptoms included depression, acute insomnia, extreme stress and irritability, according to medical records described in the complaint.
His counselor recommended individual psychotherapy and reported to Scott's physician that he "certainly appears to meet the criteria for PTSD," the complaint states.
According to the medical records, in May 2006, Scott's counselor wrote a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs, stating: "After meeting with Mr. Eiswert for several appointments, we have established a diagnosis of PTSD, per the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual Criteria."
The widow says her husband applied to the VA for service-connected PTSD benefits based on the counselor's diagnosis.
The complaint states:
"In the application Scott describes a number of incidents in Iraq as follows:
"Various Route Clearances - Roadside Bombs, Raids
"Convoy Escorts, all the Outside Wire Dangers and Stresses.
"Close Calls on Roadside Bombs
"Car Bombs and the Destruction they Cause, Including Civilian Fatalities (Body Parts)
"'I was on a Raid with Fellow Soldiers when they got Blown-Up by a Massive Roadside Bomb. (93 Dead, 1 Crippled)" [Punctuation as in complaint.]
But the VA denied his claims three times before he killed himself, his widow says.
In its September 2006 denial, the VA stated that Scott's counselor "does not specify which Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was used.' The denial analysis also states that even though Scott provided 'sufficient details concerning a stressor ...' it 'failed to provide dates of the incidents or names of any casualties.'" (Ellipsis in complaint).
Tracy Eiswert says the VA doctor who assessed Scott did not have access to the records of Scott's private counselor and "relied entirely on Scott's narrative to make his assessment." She says the VA doctor "concluded that 'veteran has current diagnosis of depression, NOS. He does describe symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, however not enough to meet criteria.'"
(NOS apparently indicates "not otherwise specified.")
The VA denied Scott's claim a second time in November 2006, after receiving additional medical records from the Tennessee National Guard.
Tracy Eiswert says VA doctors gave Scott medications for depression and insomnia, but he did not tolerate them well.
By early 2007, Scott reported increased marital and family problems, increased irritability, nightmares, night sweats and difficulty sleeping, according to medical records in the complaint.
A doctor at the VA medical center in Mountain Home acknowledged that Scott presented PTSD symptoms, but concluded on March 28, 2007 that "the only stressor is the financial situation and that patient is not at risk for suicide," according to the complaint.
But Tracy Eiswert cites these notes from the VA doctor's March 28 interview with Scott: "Problems with sleeping on bunk beds, which remind him of Iraq. Couple of nightmares recently. Walking in the middle of the night. Denies suicidal ideation/homicidal ideation but refers to past fleeting thoughts of suicide. States he would not do that to his children. Continues with hyper-vigilance."
After the VA hospital finally diagnosed him with PTSD, Scott asked the VA to reconsider his disability benefits application.
Despite his continuing problems with depression, anxiety and anger, and his inability to keep a job and communicate with his wife, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied his claim again in 2008.
The complaint states: "DVA reconfirms prior denial of service-connected disability for PTSD. DVA basis: 'Although we recognize your contentions and conceded the 2 rating decisions you have a diagnosis of PTSD, there is no objective evidence submitted from you that will allow the VA to attempt verification of the stressors from research facilities.'"
Scott missed an appointment with the VA facility in March 2008, then called the clinic to tell them he didn't want any more medication or appointments, according to the complaint. He killed himself less than 2 months later, on May 16, 2008.
After his death, the VA reversed its decision, finding that Scott had been entitled to service-connected benefits for PTSD. Two psychiatric experts who analyzed Scott's medical records concluded that the VA was negligent in diagnosing and treating Scott's PTSD and gave him substandard medical care, which contributed to his premature death, according to his widow's complaint.
The experts noted that the VA failed "to properly assign a PTSD disability for Scott Walter Eiswert on September 8, 2006 and November 9, 2006 even though a competent medical facility had provided a clear diagnosis of PTSD to the VA as early as May 5, 2006".
The experts said the VA failed again "to properly assign a PTSD disability for Scott Walter Eiswert on February 4, 2008 even after the VA itself had recognized the PTSD condition of Scott Walter Eiswert on March 28, 2007, June 18, 2007 and July 20, 2007".
Finally, in April this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Tracy Eiswert's claim for compensation and gave her 6 months to file a claim in Federal Court.
Eiswert and her children seek damages for medical malpractice, wrongful death, negligent supervision, pain and suffering and loss of consortium.
Their lead counsel is Bruce Shine of Kingsport, Tenn.
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