Secrecy News

Classification May Impede Treatment for Vets

National security secrecy can be an impediment to veterans who are seeking treatment for traumas suffered during military service yet who are technically prohibited from disclosing classified information related to their experience to uncleared physicians or therapists.

The problem was epitomized by the case of U.S. Army Sgt. Daniel Somers, who participated in classified Special Operations missions in Iraq. He returned with significant physical, mental and psychological damage. He killed himself in June 2013.

Secrecy, among other factors, appears to have exacerbated his condition, according to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

“One of the struggles Daniel faced was as an individual who had served in classified service,” Rep. Sinema said at a hearing last July. “He was unable to participate in group therapy because he was not able to share [what] he experienced while in service.”

To address this problem, Rep. Sinema last week re-introduced the Classified Veterans Access to Care Act, HR 421.

“The Classified Veterans Access to Care Act ensures that veterans with classified experiences have appropriate access to mental health services from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” she said in a release.

The bill itself would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “to ensure that each covered veteran may access mental health care provided by the Secretary in a manner that fully accommodates the obligation of the veteran to not improperly disclose classified information.”

The Classified Veterans Access to Care Act was originally introduced in October 2013 (as HR 3387). But although it had, and has, bipartisan support, it was not acted on in the 113th Congress. Nor are its prospects for passage in the new Congress clear. Still, there is nothing to prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from addressing the underlying issue, and fixing the problem, without awaiting the formal enactment of Rep. Sinema’s legislation.

“The V.A. welcomes criticism but also needs constructive ideas to succeed,” wrote Drs. Marsden McGuire and Paula Schnurr in a letter to the New York Times last week. “The V.A. is actively engaging community partners, academia, advocates, the private sector and, most important, veterans and their families, to improve services.”

The parents of Sgt. Daniel Somers described his experience, and theirs, in “On Losing a Veteran Son to a Broken System,” New York Times, November 11, 2013.

According to the latest Department of Defense annual report on suicide, “The suicide rate per 100,000 [military personnel] in 2013 was 18.7 for active component service members, 23.4 for reserve component and 28.9 for National Guard.”

That is a decline from the annual suicide rate year before. But the figures from the first quarters of 2014 indicate a further increase in suicide among active duty service members.