Widow Sues Tennessee Veterans Hospital Over Husband’s Suicide

By Kristin M. Hall | October 14, 2011

The widow of an Iraq war veteran from Tennessee claims in a lawsuit that the Veterans Affairs was negligent in failing to diagnose and treat his post-traumatic stress disorder before he committed suicide in 2008.

The suit filed in federal court in Greeneville says staff at the VA hospital in Mountain Home did not adequately treat Scott Walter Eiswert, of Greeneville, before his suicide at the age of 31. Eiswert, who served with the Tennessee National Guard, served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

The family’s lawsuit is the latest criticism of the VA’s response to preventing suicide among veterans and dealing with a massive backlog of benefits claims. Similar lawsuits have been filed against the VA by families of veterans who have committed suicide after seeking help at VA facilities.

In a class action lawsuit in California, a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an opinion in May that many veterans with severe depression or PTSD have to wait weeks for mental health referrals and the influx of younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is overwhelming the VA’s medical system.

The panel ruled that the delays violated veterans’ due process rights to receive the care and benefits they deserve. The VA is petitioning for a rehearing in the case, said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, one of the veterans groups who brought the lawsuit.

Sullivan, who has reviewed Eiswert’s case, said in a statement Wednesday that he was outraged at the VA’s failure to provide prompt and adequate medical care to Eiswert.

“The Eiswert lawsuit reveals there is still strong evidence VA is improperly denying care, delaying care, and misdiagnosing veterans, the main complaint in our landmark class action lawsuit,” Sullivan said.

Eiswert began seeking help for his symptoms after he was honorably discharged in 2005 at private mental health facility in Greeneville. His symptoms, according to his medical records detailed in the lawsuit, included insomnia, irritability, stress and depression. A counselor at Nolachuckey-Holston Center wrote a letter to the VA saying he had been diagnosed with PTSD.

He applied to the VA for service-connected PTSD benefits and noted that during his Iraq deployment he worked on various route clearance missions and saw civilian fatalities including body parts. He also told the VA that some of his fellow soldiers had been killed in a bombing while he had been talking to them on a radio.

His benefit claims were denied a total of three times by the VA prior to his death, according to the lawsuit. The VA hospital gave him medications for depression and insomnia, but he did not tolerate them well, according to the lawsuit.

In 2007, a VA doctor determined he was not at risk for suicide, although he had referred to past thoughts of suicide. Eiswert told the doctor that he would not do that to his children.

He was referred to a veterans center in Johnson City, where they reported he had continuing problems with depression, anxiety and anger.

Early in 2008, the VA again denied his claim for a service-connected PTSD and stated that there was no “objective evidence” to verify his stressors. In March he missed a scheduled appointment at the VA facility in Mountain Home. He later called to tell them he didn’t want any more medication and he didn’t want any more appointments, the lawsuit said. He shot himself less than two months later at his home.

After his death, the VA reversed its decision and found that Eiswert was entitled to a service-connected disability for PTSD. Two psychiatric experts analyzed Eiswert’s medical records and concluded that the VA was derelict in their duty to diagnose him with PTSD and gave him substandard medical care.

A VA center representative in Mountain Home did not immediately return a message left Wednesday morning seeking comment.

The lawsuit was filed by his wife, Tracy Lynn Reece Eiswert, and her three children. They now live in Florida. The family’s attorney, Cristobal Bonifaz, said Eiswert’s wife was desperate to get her husband help for his PTSD and was left destitute after he died.

Bonifaz argues that mental health care is not being funded adequately by Congress so the VA doesn’t have the resources to treat these troops with anything beyond a pill.

“This lawsuit establishes the fact that the VA is not treating mental or psychiatric damages as they would treat physical damages,” Bonifaz said.

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