The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general has opened an investigation into the May 2010 death of William Hamilton, an Iraq war veteran who stepped in front of a train three days after being turned away from the VA hospital in Palo Alto.
The investigation into Hamilton’s death comes after The Bay Citizen reported the 26-year-old veteran was refused entry into the hospital psychiatric ward, with a VA social worker writing in his notes at 4:39 p.m. that the Palo Alto facility “would not accept a transfer of a veteran for admittance this late in day.”
Hamilton, who had previously been admitted nine times to the Palo Alto VA’s psychiatric ward, saw demon women and regularly talked to a man he had killed in Iraq.
His family traced his deteriorating condition to an episode in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq. In 2005, Hamilton was guarding a rooftop when his best friend, Christopher Pusateri, was shot to death by insurgents.
The inspector general’s move was prompted by a request by Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Pleasanton Democrat who serves on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. McNerney said he expected that the inspector general would produce its report in approximately six months.
“We’ll get some answers,” the congressman said. “We need to know what their policies are, and if there are problems, how we can put policies in place to keep this from happening again.”
In Washington, a spokesperson for the VA’s inspector general declined to comment, citing a policy prohibiting speaking to the press about an ongoing investigation.
In an emailed response to questions from The Bay Citizen, Kerri Childress, a spokeswoman for the VA Palo Alto Heath Care System, argued the VA was not at fault because “we were not involved in Mr. Hamilton’s care at the time of his death,” but said that the hospital would nonetheless “gladly assist the IG in any way we can to better understand” why Hamilton died.
Hamilton’s mother, Modesto schoolteacher Dianne Hamilton, said she was relieved to hear the inspector general had begun a review of her son’s death.
"Until now, nobody has taken responsibility. If they are responsible they need to take that and be accountable for it,” she said.
The VA faces growing criticism for its handling of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, The Bay Citizen reported that the agency is aware of 4,194 veterans who have died after returning home from the two wars. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Friday, a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators wrote a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki calling on him to do more to stem the “unacceptable” level of suicides among veterans of all wars, estimated at 18 per day.
The letter, which was coordinated by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), states that “the only measure of success on this issue will be a substantial reduction in the rate of veteran suicides.”
The senators “ask that you provide us with your plan to address this grave concern,” the letter read.
VA spokeswoman Kerri Childress said her agency shares the senators’ concerns.
“Every Veteran suicide is a tragic outcome,” she said in her email. “Though we understand why some Veterans may be at increased risk, we continue to investigate and take proactive steps to reduce these risks with the ultimate goal of eliminating suicides.”