They fought for our country, put their lives on the line but many veterans are returning to a battlefield at home. Suicides are surging and prescription drug abuse has nearly tripled in recent years. Many families blame the Veteran's Administration for not doing enough and are now demanding answers.
Ronald Lehman was a decorated Marine. He fought in Vietnam and survived two helicopter crashes.
Jordan Riddle was an Army medic. He was honored with four purple hearts and was the lone survivor of an explosion in Iraq. But neither one of these vets survived the war back home.
"He said I am going to the VA," said Sarah Huggins who was engaged to Lehman. "I am going to make them do something. I hurt and I need help."
Huggins says Lehman was desperate. He suffered from Parkinson's disease and was in constant pain. She says he drove to the Dallas VA hospital one Sunday morning in April, returned home a few hours later, and then left again, only this time with a gun. Lehman was found inside a bathroom at the VA, a single gunshot wound to the head. Huggins found a note on his computer.
"It just said the past two years had been hell and that he hurt and he couldn't get help and he didn't want to do it anymore," Huggins said.
The VA has not released any information to Huggins about that day and Lehman's medical records do not mention a visit that day. The VA knew he owned a gun but considered him a "low risk" for suicide. It also shows he was taking 8 prescribed medications, including multiple antidepressants.
Huggins questions if anyone was really monitoring all those drugs.
"He had a lot of drugs, a lot of drugs," Huggins said. "They just send them in the mail."
Huggins says the unanswered questions are tearing her up.
"Why did he go specifically to the VA? What was he trying to say?" asked Huggins. "Something happened that day and this is what I want to know."
Five months later, police responded again to the VA hospital. There was another death, in another bathroom, involving another vet. This time it was a registered nurse who also worked there.
The Dallas Police report says she was found with a "syringe" next to her, and "needle marks" in both arms. The Dallas County Medical Examiner concluded she died from "mixed drug toxicity" from pain medication and antidepressants.
"The VA is at fault for it," said a nurse who asked Fox not to show a face for fear of retaliation. "They did not protect the nurse, the patients or the staff in that situation."
The employee says it is common knowledge that drug abuse is rampant among VA staff.
"The department she was in, it was the hospice unit. Those patients are there for comfort care," the employee said. "They should never have allowed her to have access to the narcotics on the unit."
"If someone is found to be exhibiting evidence of drug use on duty, they are immediately removed from patient care," said Dr. Clark Gregg, Chief of Staff at the VA North Texas Health Care System.
Gregg says the VA tested the nurse for drugs one week before her death because of erratic behavior on duty. They did not have the results at the time she died and are uncertain if the drugs came from the hospital. It is still under review. Fox 4 asked about Lehman's case.
"Do you know what happened the first time he came down here in the morning" Fox 4 asked. "Did he check in, did he go to the emergency room?"
"I truly don't know. One could find out. He came down here for whatever purpose and this is what he did," said Dr. Gregg. "The VA steps back, every single time and looks at a situation like this and says, what could we have done better."
"This one is for depression, this one is for anxiety," said Sharon Riddle. Riddle just buried her son Jordan. He committed suicide. She blames the VA for her son's recent death.
"These guys are seeing way too much too often," said Riddle.
Riddle says her son suffered a traumatic brain injury after his unit was hit by an explosion in Iraq. He lost 9 of his men.
"He felt dishonored, that he didn't go with those guys that day," said Riddle's sister, Shannon Murphy.
Riddle's family says he was battling PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Tommy Riddle took his son to all of his psychiatric appointments but those visits didn't last long and his family was never included in the therapy.
"Their meetings would last 5 minutes, 10 minutes," said Tommy Riddle. "They'd give him another drug, take a drug off, and give him another drug."
The family does not even know if Jordan was taking his medication. They say no one was monitoring him.
"These men volunteered to be brave and fight for this country and now you are not helping them get their lives back in order?" Riddle asked.
"They dropped the ball, they really did," said Tommy Riddle.
Dr. Gregg says the Riddle case has been closely examined and Riddle was treated appropriately and was not considered a high risk for suicide.
KDFW FOX 4
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