The family of a veteran who died by suicide in a locked mental health unit at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Florida has filed a wrongful death claim against VA.
Sgt. Brieux Dash, an Army veteran, 33, was a loving and devoted husband and father. But gruesome repeated deployments to Iraq "made him a different man and he received minimal assistance from the VA," his family said.
In March 2019, Dash was admitted to the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center because he tried to harm himself after a recent car accident, the loss of his job and the death of his father-in-law, which his family said all worsened his mental health, including his service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder.
While being held in a locked mental health unit at the VA, Dash died by suicide, and an independent VA watchdog report released last year reported multiple failings on the part of VA that may have contributed to his death.
In August, his family, including his wife Emma and their three children, ages 17, 15 and 5, filed a claim against VA over Dash's death. But they haven't heard from the department since, their attorney says.
"We filed a claim only on behalf of the estate in August 2020 and there has been absolutely no response from the VA Office of General Counsel," Peter Bertling of the Bertling Law Group told Connecting Vets Wednesday. VA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The new claim is "entirely different" from the original, Bertling said.
"It focuses solely on the damages experienced by Brieux's widow, Emma Dash, and the claim seeks compensation for damages that are unique and personal to her," he said. "This claim seeks to tell her story and what the widow of a wife with three children experiences when their husband has (died) by suicide."
The VA Inspector General's investigation and subsequent report on Dash's death found that he was appropriately screened for suicide risk, provided medication management, placed on close observation status, and had on-going assessments, interventions, and a discharge plan. But the report also revealed multiple failings by VA, including unsafe conditions, nonoperational cameras, inconsistent policies, unmet standards, a lack of oversight, and too much time between nurses' safety rounds that all could have contributed to the veteran's death.
As a result, patients may have gone as long as 25 minutes without being checked, and "had the cameras been fixed and monitored as required ... it is possible that an employee may have seen the patient (Dash) ... and possibly been able to intervene," the report said.
His family's claim revealed another act by VA that they believe contributed to his death -- that could even have been the trigger for his suicide.
On March 7, 2019, after the car accident, family death and losing his job, Dash received a notice from the VA that said he was overpaid nearly $20,000 in separation pay and his disability payments would be withheld to pay it back, the claim says. Dash had a 50% disability rating for his PTSD and depression after deployments to Iraq in 2007 and 2009. He had attempted suicide in 2016 and did so again, four days later, on March 11, 2019.
"This 'important notice' was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and sent Brieux into a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, emotional distress and fragility," the claim reads, arguing the notice from VA may have triggered his second suicide attempt.
After Dash tried to hang himself on March 11, his wife called emergency responders who took him to the VA where she worked as a pharmacy technician. Bertling says this is part of what makes the case unique.
"She knew the people who treated him," he said. "She had previously been on the ward where he (died by suicide) as part of her work duties. Since she buried Brieux, she has never been able to return to work. When Brieux attempted suicide at home, Emma believed the best place he could be taken for treatment was the West Palm Beach VA. She specifically asked the officer to take Brieux to VA instead of another location. She now regrets that decision. She wants answers to what went wrong and how to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again."
Once at the West Palm Beach VA, Dash was admitted to the 25-bed, high-intensity locked mental health unit, "red flagged" as a high suicide risk. During the days of his stay, Dash was cooperative, social, sleeping and eating well and agreed to take prescribed anti-depressants, the IG report said. He was eventually classified as "low-risk" for suicide.
But on the fourth day of his stay, when his discharge was delayed, Dash became agitated. He yelled that he wanted to go home. He isolated himself behind the closed door of room 235-1 and eventually hung himself on March 14, 2019, the family's claim reads. No one at VA had recognized or addressed the known safety risk posed by the hallway doors.
Safety and law enforcement cameras at the unit hadn't worked for "at least three years," the report revealed.
Leaders' alleged lack of knowledge or action on the cameras, doors or other safety issues "represented a deflection of responsibility and failure to perform their duties," the report said. Of senior leadership, the report said their disregard of safety risks "reflected a myopic view of the facility's responsibility to ensure patient safety."
While the unit was sufficiently staffed the day of the veteran's death, one of the nursing assistants assigned to check on patients was performing other duties during that time, the report said.
VA "was well aware of its duty to protect Brieux Dash from environmental hazards that are established risks for" suicide, the claim reads.
And an effort to fix the safety issues and other failings only began after the veteran's death, the OIG report said.
"Facility leaders and managers only started to respond aggressively to long-standing deficient conditions after" the death, according to the report.
The hospital director told investigators staff would install over-the-door alarm systems and working cameras and increase safety rounds in the unit.
Dash and Emma met at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia when they were 14, the claim reads, interspersed with photos of the smiling family. They had their first child in 2002 and were married in 2006, the same year Dash enlisted in the Army and before his first deployment to Iraq.
"Mrs. Dash is a widow with three children, who continues to struggle emotionally and financially since her husband’s death," Bertling said. "Unfortunately, the VA still refuses to accept responsibility for Brieux’s death despite a scathing report issued by the VA Office of Inspector General. This refusal only adds insult to Mrs. Dash’s emotional distress, pain and suffering."
While any veteran death by suicide is tragic, Bertling said this one is especially unsettling.
"It is unforgivable when the VA refuses to accept responsibility for that suicide when they are clearly at fault," he said. "The emotional toll on the family members of a veteran who dies by suicide is profound and irreversible."
For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.
Reach Abbie Bennett: firstname.lastname@example.org or @AbbieRBennett.
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