There are few ways to die that elicit as much fear as being burned alive. Still, a handful of people have purposely set themselves ablaze, not as an act of suicide, but as the most powerful political statement a human being can make. The most well-known of these incidents happened in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown Saigon on June 11, 1963, when Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc sat cross-legged and motionless as his flesh melted from his bones. President John F. Kennedy announced soon after: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
You might not be aware that a similar incident happened here in the United States on June 26, 2018, when a 58-year-old Air Force veteran and Veterans Affairs Department health care patient named John Watts walked onto the front lawn of the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta, doused himself in gasoline and ignited a homemade vest fixed with highly flammable fireworks. Gasoline burns at temperatures up to 1,800 degrees. Third-degree burns begin when the skin is exposed to temperature exceeding 160 degrees. (The white phosphorus mortar rounds that our country dropped on people in Afghanistan and Iraq burned at over 5,000 degrees.)
Watts died later the same day at Grady Memorial Hospital with third-degree burns over 90% of his body. He couldn’t speak a single word before he passed. His Veterans Affairs medical records have never been released to the public and his family has never spoken about Watts’ grievances with the department.
But I know why John Watts is dead.
I know why he did the same thing that an average of about 20 veterans do each day, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Brown University. Since the War on Terrorism began in 2001, there have been 30,177 veteran suicides, compared to 7,057 soldiers killed in combat. Something to think about before you or your child sign that dotted enlistment line: a soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine is four times more likely to die by their own hand than by the enemy’s.
Of the 15 federal executive branch departments, Veterans Affairs received the third-most funding in 2021 at $243.3 billion — behind only the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. This department is singularly tasked with handling veteran affairs — including taking care of the health and mental health of those injured during their service.
So how is an entity that receives close to a quarter of a trillion dollars a year letting our veterans die in such staggering numbers?
If my experience is any indication, incompetence bordering on criminality is the answer.
I left the military in May 2006 after serving in the infantry for four years and doing three tours with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. I began receiving regular “care” from the VA almost three years ago for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
It hasn’t gone well.
I’m the first to admit that I waited way too long to seek the help I needed the very day I left active duty. But I was intently discouraged from doing so. In the last few weeks before my end of service date, my platoon sergeant, first sergeant and company commander all stressed the importance of getting one last physical evaluation. Any problems residing in the mind were looked upon, at best, as an inevitability of the profession we all knowingly signed up for.
But none of us really knew what we were getting ourselves into.
I volunteered to fight what I thought were legitimate terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. I didn’t volunteer to shoot farmers or stage raids at weddings and funerals. I didn’t sign up to invade and illegally occupy Iraq. I didn’t volunteer to run assassination missions during my last tour in Ramadi.
I didn’t sign up for what the United States asked me to do.
Yet, for years, I fought the notion that I needed help. For whatever reason, perhaps institutional conditioning, I thought it my duty to silently live with what I had done. It was only after three of my veteran friends took their own lives — and after countless nights of considering doing the same — that I finally sought help through the Oakland Veterans Affairs office.
But, as I learned, asking for help from the VA didn’t actually mean I would get it.
It took a little over a year before I was even evaluated for PTSD, after which point Veterans Affairs admitted I had the disorder but deemed it “unrelated to my combat experience.” This was before President Obama eventually made the process for veterans claiming PTSD much easier. In the Bush years, you had to have Cormac McCarthy levels of macabre in your service record to be diagnosed with the disorder.
The questionnaire to determine if I was ill gave me three blank pages to write about my experiences. That wasn’t even close to enough — so I wrote about what I considered the three most traumatic incidents in my military career.
On the first page, I wrote about when my squad was ambushed in Ramadi, and my vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive and immediately disabled. The ensuing 30-minute firefight was part of a coordinated enemy attack. Trapped and immobilized by an enemy lying in wait, those were undoubtedly among the most terrifying moments of my life.
The second page was dedicated to the time I saw five of my fellow soldiers burned alive in a Humvee when the incendiary grenades inside cooked off, quite literally melting everyone inside.
I don’t remember if the third page was dedicated to the beheading of our Afghan interpreter in 2003 or to the boy we shot on his way to our medical tent after a stray mortar round ripped a hole through his intestines.
Whatever I wrote about, it apparently wasn’t enough for the VA.
Maybe I should have mentioned the kidnappings. The illegal killings. The way our convoys never slowed down after running over children. Or the young girls soliciting their starving bodies for food. Maybe then, Veterans Affairs would have classified my PTSD to be “combat related.”
It took years before my appeal was eventually accepted, and my disorder was found to be “service connected.” This meant I could finally get free treatment from the VA.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m on a cocktail of four psychiatric medications that keep me in the delicate balance I need to live a life resembling a normal human being. My panic attacks and anxiety are so bad that I actually need two medications to ensure that I don’t suffer from shock-induced seizures.
I always thought these facts would supersede whatever bureaucratic nonsense might stand in the way of picking up my prescriptions. But last month, when the Korean War veteran in front of me was told he would have to wait to receive his blood pressure medication — because “their system was having problems” — I knew I was in trouble.
Even after the spindly old man in brown slacks explained that two days without his pills left him at a high risk of death from heart attack or stroke, the disinterested cherub-faced pharmacist, who had quite obviously never served a day of his life in the military, said without ever looking up: “We’re doing the best we can.” He then raised his head from the safety of his plexiglass partition with his cell phone resting in his left hand and gave what could only have been interpreted as a grin.
I won’t name names, but the young man wore a name tag that pedantically announced himself as a recipient of an MBA, a degree that could not be less related to administering health care and medications to veterans.
If the Oakland VA intends to run its office like a business, it is an epic failure. Instead, they have created an environment of overworked and underpaid staff members who have relinquished whatever sense of duty they may have once had in favor of going through obligatory motions. And that’s fine if you work at Taco Bell or Walmart. But it’s not OK if you willingly accept the responsibility of caring for the people who have sacrificed the most.
On this particular day, the office made a mistake for which they refused to accept responsibility, and I refused to bear the burden of their mistake.
They tried to wait me out. I had an hour-and-a-half break in the middle of my day — and they used every bit of that time ignoring me and everyone else in the growing line snaking down the hall behind me.
The MBA eventually sauntered to the window where the prescriptions are handed out and told me he’d be right back. He didn’t return for 48 minutes. I waited as long as I could before I had to go back to work.
As I left, the police showed up. Well, one officer. Approaching my car on foot, he waved for me to stop. I rolled down my window and we greeted each other.
You know there is a serious problem when my associations with the police who were called to investigate me are immeasurably better than with the employees of the Veterans Affairs office. The gracious officer asked me where and when I served. We then shared in a laugh that the pharmacist had alerted him for the simple reason that I “forcibly knocked” on their door on my way out.
While the officer joked about the idea of knocking on a door being an illegal act, I couldn’t help but think how grossly irresponsible it was for them to call the police on a patient in these circumstances. I couldn’t help but think what might have happened had I been a few more days off my pills, or sadly, if I wasn’t a clean cut professionally dressed white man.
The officer sympathized with my plight and took down my information. He gave me his name and told me to return to the VA after I was off work, and to give him a heads up on his cell phone. He’d personally retrieve my medications and deliver them to me by hand.
That evening, he did exactly what he said he would do — and I walked away with a feeling that at least some public service members actually care about the people they volunteered to serve.
I wonder what happened to that old Korean War veteran in front of me that day? Did he make it long enough for a fix to the clerical errors that deprived us of our medications? What would my fate have been if I hadn’t been so stubborn? If I hadn’t refused to leave without the medications my doctor prescribed me? How long would I have waited with gritted teeth, hoping my physiological dependence didn’t cause me to stroke out? And if I did die, or if that old Korean War vet died, who would tell our stories? Would we ever be known to our country as anything more than a single black mark on a piece of white paper?
The war didn’t kill us. But I often fear the VA will.
This commentary was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Joseph Holsworth is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is the author of two novels and holds a masters in fine arts in writing from California College of the Arts.