Recently I was in Louisville, KY for the AMVETS National Convention. I attended several different committee meetings learning all I could. One of the meetings I attended was the Suicide Prevention Committee.
It was led by Sherman Gillums, Jr., a Marine Veteran and chief strategy officer for AMVETS. I have gotten to know Sherman over the last couple years and after the meeting he mentioned the attempt to re-name the Murfreesboro, TN’s mental health facility and the “Op Ed” he pinned in February. Sherman sent me a link to his “op-ed” and other information covered in this column.
Since March I have written about the three Veterans around the country who have committed suicide on VA property. There was another suicide prior to these that was here in Tennessee, Army National Guard Sgt. John Toombs, an Afghanistan War veteran.
SGT John Toombs was in a 90-day Residential Recovery Treatment Program at Alvin C York VA in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he had sought counseling and treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction.
On November 22, 2016, “because he was late to take his medication” he was abruptly kicked out of the facility. Shortly after being ejected, he posted a video to his Facebook page that said, “I came for help and they just threw me out like a stray dog in the rain.”
The following shares the brief remaining hours of his life and how it has encouraged change:
In the “Op-Ed” printed in the “Hill”, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, Sherman described the issues John faced at the VA and actions taken since.
“On Nov. 22, 2016, he (John) was removed from an inpatient treatment program for “being late to take his medications.” Despite having been sober for nearly two and a half months, his six years in the Army National Guard and 2011 deployment to Afghanistan had left psychological scars that weren’t healing so well, so he sought help.
That help not only never came but was substituted by apathy and a “tough love” approach to healing, according to an affidavit submitted by a licensed nurse who spoke out about the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Toombs’s mental health treatment and suicide.”
SGT Toombs was left to wander the campus until the morning of November. He hung himself in a building that was under construction on the Alvin C. York VA Medical Campus.
In 2018 the House of Representatives unanimously passed Tennessee’s Representative Scott DesJarlais’ bill to rename the Murfreesboro Veterans Affairs mental health facility to honor Sgt Toombs, bringing it one step closer to enacting the formal name change. This went on deaf ears in the Senate but has been re-introduce into the 2019 agenda.
Speaking of Sgt Toombs, the Congressman said, “He was a war veteran. He was a constituent. I’ve worked closely with David Toombs, his father, to recognize his son’s struggles, and to prevent another tragic ending like John’s. Suicide and substance abuse are nationwide problems affecting a disproportionate number of U.S. military veterans.
“We need to give them our full support, whether they’re fighting for our country abroad or fighting to recover when they return home. Many families, like the Toombs, have suffered personal losses, and this designation will symbolize our continuing commitment to helping them and their loved ones receive the support they need.”
If the bill is passed by the Senate, the facility will be renamed the Sergeant John Toombs Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Facility, in remembrance of Tennessee Army National Guard Sgt. John Toombs, an Afghanistan War veteran. Toombs sought counseling and treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and addiction, but said in a video he posted to Facebook before his death that he was refused the help he needed.
I feel Sherman’s words describing this and the issue of Veteran suicides meaningful and on-point, so I re-print the following with his permission.
“As I watched the last Facebook video made by U.S. Army Sgt. John Toombs before he took his own life, I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of the seemingly ubiquitous “buddy check” memes or “stop the 22 a day” ( the number of veterans that kill themselves every day, according to a 2012 VA report) messaging mattered much in his mind.
I make it a habit in my work as a veteran advocate to remind clinicians that there are no professional patients. That doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and administrators are the professionals; and patients don’t present before them because they’re feeling at their best.
I remind these health-care workers that they chose their professions, but patients don’t choose to be patients and, therefore, should not be labeled as unwelcome when their behavior reflects a person in need. I only wish I had that opportunity to tell that to Sgt. Toombs’s providers before he literally took matters into his own hands.
But I cannot. No one can. All we’re left to wonder is whether we’ve learned anything by his story. Whether a hashtag or catchphrase, a Facebook meme or tweet, a compelling statistic or broad intervention strategy will be enough to fend off, or even just compete, with the inner voices and torment that embed themselves in the hippocampus, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex of a brain impacted by trauma and its downstream effects.
Or how veterans in crisis are treated by their “healers,” within a system ostensibly designed to heal them, and how this experience colors the way they value themselves.
The best takeaway, if we can call it that, is the opportunity to do better when we know better. Sgt Toombs’s life is a cautionary tale that must be heeded if we truly want to confront veteran suicide in this country. One way to do this is to put in place a stark reminder of what ill-equipped and understaffed healthcare systems do to combat veterans, military sexual trauma survivors, and other veterans coping with “invisible” injuries.
My organization (AMVETS) recently helped Sgt. Toombs’s parents, David and Susan Toombs, distribute a petition that sought to have a member of Congress reintroduce the bill and asked each and every member of the House and Senate to vote in favor of renaming the Murfreesboro building in memory of their son. That petition rendered 26,000+ signatures in two weeks and counting. This bill, if passed, would serve as an enduring scar healed only with progress in how our country deals with veterans who feel so diminished by their circumstances that living life feels worse than the prospect of death.
A soldier dies twice: once wherever he takes his last breath; and he dies again when he’s forgotten. Naming the Murfreesboro VA residential treatment facility after Sgt. John Toombs will ensure those Veterans, we lose to suicide do not die twice and are indeed never forgotten.”
Murfreesboro is located just south of Nashville about four hours from Newport. It is where the DAV holds its quarterly meetings and annual conference. I know of three local Veterans that have stayed on that campus. This is one piece of legislation all Tennessee Veterans and those that read my column in other states should contact their Senators and garner their support for its passage.
Yard Sale Fundraiser
DAV Chapter 102 is holding a Yard Sale Fundraiser on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 13, 14, and 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The yard sale will be held in the parking lot of the Chapter hall at 148 Pine Street in Newport. Commander Larry Hartsell said the Chapter is accepting donations of new or gently used items (no clothes please) on Wednesday September 11 from 9 to noon. To have something picked up call 423-608-9385. If no answer, please leave a message. All funds raised by the DAV during this yard sale goes directly to help Chapter 102 provide services to Cocke County Veterans. Please come out and support our efforts.
American Legion Post 41 is planning a memorial program to commemorate National POW-MIA Recognition Day, September 20. The program beginning at 10 a.m. will feature the installation of a POW-MIA Flag on the pole at the Cocke County Memorial Building. The building is located at the corner of West Broadway and Cosby Highway (across from Walgreens). There will also be a presentation by the Parrottsville Quilt Guild, Quilts of Valor. Veterans from all local organizations will be involved and the community is invited to the ceremony. There will be more in next week’s column or contact Dave Mills, Commander (423) 2376896.
NEWS OF NOTE:
American Legion Post 41 meets the second Tuesday of each month at the American Legion’s Cocke County Memorial Building 103 N. Cosby Highway. The next meeting will be tonight, Tuesday September 10 at 5 p.m. with a potluck meal, followed by the business meeting at 6 p.m. Entry will be on C Avenue across from the Newport Fire Department. You can call David Mills, Commander at (423) 237-6896 for directions or more information.
Disabled American Veterans Chapter 102 at 148 Pine Street. Chapter 102 meets the third Thursday of each month. The next meeting will be Thursday, September 19 at 148 Pine Street. Opens at 6 p.m. with a potluck meal and meeting at 7 p.m. For more information contact Larry Hartsell, Commander at 423-623-5112.
Rob Watkins is a totally disabled, Air Force, Vietnam combat veteran. He has worked with Veterans for over 40 years. As a member of local organizations, he continues his path to help others. Please send information, dates for events, two weeks in advance, questions or suggestion; by mail to 565 Caney Creek Road Cosby, TN 37722 or c/o Newport Plain Talk, email; firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook/View from the Bunker, or call 423-721-8918.