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Every day in this country, according to the federal government, about 20 military veterans die by suicide. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it's making suicide prevention the No. 1 clinical priority. But to get veterans help, they first have to get them in the door, and the VA has an image problem that makes that hard. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent us a story from Murfreesboro, Tenn., about a VA hospital that's trying to turn itself around and the father of a soldier who's demanding that change.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Your kid can grow up, even join the Army and go to war, and you'll still do dad things when he comes back.
DAVID TOOMBS: I'd make my lunch every morning - maybe a sandwich or a couple things - and I always made him extra, just in case he got hungry or he wanted a snack or he was running low on money. So I made his lunch for him, too, like a typical dad. But...
LAWRENCE: Like you'd done when he was little.
D. TOOMBS: Exactly.
LAWRENCE: David Toombs worked right next to his son John at a steel die shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn. They make the tools that cut out cardboard boxes.
D. TOOMBS: If you bought a 12 pack of beer, that box - this is how they're made.
LAWRENCE: His son John did one tour in Afghanistan, got out of the Army as a sergeant and came home with what the VA now concludes was probably PTSD, and pretty soon, a drug problem, which eventually landed him in the residential treatment program at the Murfreesboro VA. That's a short drive from the shop. It's a huge campus - big lawns and old brick buildings.
D. TOOMBS: That smoking area right there's the last time I saw my son, Quil.
LAWRENCE: That was November 22, 2016. Early that morning, John had been kicked out of the program. The VA says he wasn't showing up on time for his meds. His father tried to convince him to come home.
D. TOOMBS: And he said, I'm going to be OK. And he said, I'm going to sleep in the emergency room; I'm going to see the patients' advocate and the director in the morning and try to get back in the program.
D. TOOMBS: I do remember at one point, I'd looked at him, and I said, John, you're not thinking about doing anything stupid, are you? And just real quick, he said, no.
LAWRENCE: John Toombs stayed on the VA campus all day and all night. Sometime before the dawn, Toombs recorded a video on his phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN TOOMBS: When I asked for help, they opened up a Pandora's box inside of me and just kicked me out the door. That's how they treat veterans around here.
LAWRENCE: Then he went to a construction site on the VA campus and hanged himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
J. TOOMBS: Thank you all very much. I love you all. Some of you, I love more than the whole wide world.
LAWRENCE: Murfreesboro was at the time one of the lowest rated VA medical centers in the country. In fact, it's part of a triangle of three VAs - Nashville, Memphis and Murfreesboro - that all had one star out of a possible five stars in the VA's internal rating system. Most of the complaints are more about access than care. They sound like this.
KENNY YATES: There was about a five-month window that I would show for my appointments early, and they would be canceled while I was sitting in the waiting room.
DAN STOTT: My first appointment, she had a cold or something, and they canceled while I was in the waiting room. They canceled it as they were sitting there, and then printed it and mailed it to me.
ALEX CONLEY: They told me that they couldn't help me right now because I wasn't actively homicidal or suicidal.
THERESA BOTTS: We had arrived after driving four hours, and evidently, his appointment had been canceled that morning, and nobody alerted us. This has happened, you know, on three other occasions.
LAWRENCE: That's Army veterans Kenny Yates, Dan Stott, Alex Conley (ph) and Theresa Botts, who's a caregiver to her Marine vet husband. These things happened from last year to just this month. And to be fair, after complaining, Kenny Yates and Dan Stott got a meeting with the new director, who is herself a veteran.
JENNIFER VEDRAL-BARON: Hi, this is Jennifer Vedral-Baron.
LAWRENCE: As a Navy captain, Vedral-Baron previously ran U.S. military hospitals. And VA sent her to Tennessee in 2016 to help turn the medical centers around.
VEDRAL-BARON: Study after study has shown that the VA does very well in quality measures, but across the board, we don't do so well in patient satisfaction.
LAWRENCE: Vedral-Baron says her VA has better patient outcomes than local private care. Since she's been here, her VA's rating has gone up from one star to two. She says some staff have been retrained; some had to be replaced. In particular, she hired a former Army doctor who served in Iraq to oversee mental health care. Vedral-Baron was only three months on the job when John Toombs took his life. It still makes her emotional.
VEDRAL-BARON: My heart continues to go out for this family. I did meet with the family not long after Sergeant Toombs' death, and we cried together. We talked about the future.
LAWRENCE: David Toombs says that made an impression.
D. TOOMBS: I can honestly say that I have the highest regards for her. She was a Navy captain. You know, she could only say what she was allowed to say, but she really was emotional about it.
LAWRENCE: As we drove around the VA campus, David Toombs pointed out a new building.
D. TOOMBS: You know, if they say anything, I just say, you know, I've just come to look at my son's building.
LAWRENCE: That was the construction site where John Toombs died.
D. TOOMBS: ...Because there is a bill before congress to name it after him. And actually, the director is the person that brought that up to us.
LAWRENCE: The director, Jennifer Vedral-Baron - she suggested the building be named Sergeant John Toombs Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Facility. And now that's in a bill moving through Congress, which is an awkward thing because Toombs is suing the VA for $2 million. He says that staff at the program callously kicked his son out without making sure he was safe and stable. VA denies that. Toombs wants the people responsible to lose their jobs. But he doesn't hate the VA.
D. TOOMBS: As for as saying I'm anti-VA - shut 'em down. No. There's really hardworking people out there that care, that do good jobs. But unfortunately, circumstances like his, they get overshadowed because we only hear the negative about the VA.
LAWRENCE: Vedral-Baron says she can't discuss the lawsuit, but since the incident, all the senior staff at the residential program have left. She would say she's still in favor of naming the new building after John Toombs. That might help destigmatize mental health care, and that's part of improving the VA.
VEDRAL-BARON: Since I'm from the Navy, I look at it as like a carrier. It doesn't turn quickly, but when it does start to turn, it's kind of hard to stop it. And that's where I feel like we are right now.
LAWRENCE: Congress acts at about the same speed, but the bill to name the new building after John Toombs may become law this fall. David Toombs is watching.
D. TOOMBS: My son died because of their arrogance and negligence. I can't honestly tell y'all I'll ever really have days or weeks of happiness again, but helping veterans somehow - at least I'll maybe find some peace, man.
LAWRENCE: If he wins his lawsuit, Toombs says he'll use the money to fund a scholarship and other veterans causes. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Murfreesboro, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.