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Following veteran murder-suicide, family says they never received VA benefits for orphaned children

"Because he wasn't documented as having PTSD, he didn't qualify for benefits"
Following veteran murder-suicide, family says they never received VA benefits for orphaned children
Posted at 2:28 AM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 18:29:03-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — A Colorado Springs family is speaking out about a trauma that still haunts every day of their lives.

A murder-suicide left two young children orphaned, and their grandmother says PTSD caused by combat is to blame.

Those with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said every situation is different, but if a suicide can be connected to a service-related illness or injury, then surviving family members could be eligible for certain benefits.

Kathleen Price said that was not the case for her family. Price has lived in Colorado Springs for around 40 years, and has two children. One of them, her daughter Colleen, married Russell Dwyer in 2000.

Price said Russell retired after 20 years of military service. Russell and Colleen had two children together, in addition to two kids Colleen had from a previous relationship. Price said Russell was a good soldier, husband, and father. She said Colleen did absolutely everything for her children.

However, Price noticed changes in Russell, stemming from his time in combat. "He would come over here and sit on the sofa and cry about what he had seen and what he had to do in Iraq... The PTSD had just gotten control of him, and he was having these horrid nightmares where he would wake up and hit the wall and make holes in the wall, and my daughter had to sleep in a different room," said Price.

According to Price, the PTSD was the reason Russell and Colleen separated.

On March 19, 2008, Colleen's birthday, she stopped by Russell's home to pick up their young children. "He [Russell] met her at the door and killed her. And then my grandson was four-years-old, and he was standing next to him, and he grabbed my granddaughter and ran upstairs. As a four-year-old, he had the wherewithal to lock himself in the bathroom, which is where the police found them. And as soon as he left, Russell killed himself... I heard a blip on TV say there was a murder-suicide on Flintridge and Academy, and I knew exactly who it was," said Price.

"We love him to death. We mourn him just like my daughter, and to me, he was my son."

Russell never sought mental health help for his PTSD, according to Price. "It was a totally different person. It was the disease that took hold of him, but he wouldn't get any kind of help or anything, so none of it was documented. And that's the problem with the VA: it's not documented," explained Price.

Price said she has had custody of Russell and Colleen's two children since that day. One of the children is now 18-years-old, and the other is 15-years old. "Now that she's a teenager, she misses having a mother that will help her with prom, or having a father that's going to walk her down the aisle," said Price.

Price told News5 she and her husband had the means to raise the children, but do not have the money to pay for higher education. Since Russell was not documented as having PTSD, he did not qualify for VA benefits, Price said.

Price said each of the two children get a $500 stipend from the Army once a month. She also said other organizations have stepped in to help, like Angels of America's Fallen.

For Price, sharing her story is not about receiving VA benefits. She said it is to raise awareness about benefits related to suicides being denied, and to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation.

The Chair of the El Paso County Colorado Progressive Veterans, Kent Jarnig, served as a combat medic in Vietnam. Jarnig is determined to change the policy surrounding benefits for service members who die by suicide. "Within the military, you still hear people say 'oh, we have to have this policy or everybody's going to be killing themselves so they can give benefits to the spouse and kids.' First of all, that's insane... What we need to do, in my opinion, is start looking at the survivors and ensuring that they're taken care of. It wasn't the spouse's fault, it wasn't the children's fault, and it wasn't the soldier's fault," said Jarnig.

Those with the VA said if Congress wants the department to find any veteran suicide related to time in the service, then a law would have to be passed. "I don't think they would overrule this policy with a sweep of the hand, but there must be a way to incrementally change this," said Jarnig.

If the VA determines a suicide is not service-connected, the family can appeal their decision. Price said they have not appealed Russell's decision, and she knows they should have followed up, but there comes a time when things are just "too tiring to pursue." Price lives with a handful of health issues.

Jarnig said he has been in contact with both offices of Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.

Those with Senator Hickenlooper's office said they are looking into how often families of service members who die by suicide are being denied benefits.

Veteran suicide is an epidemic in this country and Michael has long fought for expanding access to and increasing funding for suicide prevention resources. As he has consistently throughout his time in the U.S. Senate, Michael and his team are actively exploring avenues to address veteran suicide and support survivors at the federal level, including prevention measures and access to benefits for survivors. He believes that families should not have to fight for benefits during one of the most difficult times of life. Michael is planning to address the grave issue of veteran suicide with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He’s grateful to the leaders across Colorado who consistently advocate for our nation’s heroes and to Kent Jarnig of the El Paso County Colorado Progressive Veterans for bringing this issue to the forefront.
Spokesperson, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s office

News5 also reached out to the VA with a handful of questions on the subject. The following are the exact answers received:

1. Is it accurate that family members do not get survivor benefits if they die by suicide?

No, this is not accurate. Every situation is different. If VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered to be related, or “service connected.” The surviving spouse and dependent children could then be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Education Benefits, Home Loan Guaranty and other survivor benefits.

2. What are the different VA survivor benefits a family would receive?

Survivor benefits include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, survivors pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran).

Here is a link to more information: https://www.va.gov/opa/persona/dependent_survivor.asp [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

3. If a family is denied benefits because of a suicide, what is the appeals process?

To clarify, a survivor would not be denied benefits “because of a suicide”; however, if VA determines that the death is not service connected, the survivor may appeal that decision. The appeals process is standardized for every type of claim. Through the Appeals Modernization Act, the survivor may disagree with VA’s decision by filing a supplemental claim (opportunity to submit more evidence), a higher-level review (closed-record review of the previous decision by a more senior adjudicator) or appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (with a review by, and opportunity for a hearing before, a Veterans Law Judge). Information regarding appeals rights is provided to every claimant in VA’s decision notification letters.

Here is a link to more information: Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 (va.gov) [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

4. Is this a policy or law? How would this policy be changed?

Title 38, Code of Federal Regulations §3.302; §3.302 Service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide. [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com] Service connection for mental unsoundness in suicide. This section discusses suicide is not a service-connected disability. If the VA can connect the suicide to a service-connected illness or injury, then the death is considered service connected. If Congress wanted VA to determine any Veteran suicide is related to service – regardless of whether the suicide was related to a service-connected disability – then Congress would have to pass a law on this matter.

5. Is depression considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the service member is active duty for it to be considered service-related, or could that determination be made after?

Major Depressive Disorder and Persistent Depressive Disorder are examples of mental health diagnoses that can be assigned disability ratings by VBA. They do not need to be secondary to a physical injury or traumatic event to be recognized. For the purposes of disability compensation benefits, depression, when diagnosed, is considered a disability and Veterans may be eligible to receive benefits based on this condition. A diagnosis of or treatment for depression does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all the evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s disability is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.

Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are mental health disorders. PTSD can occur after a traumatic event such as military combat, a physical assault, or a natural disaster. Depression can be caused by many factors to include stress, life altering events, genetics and the brain’s inability to regulate one’s mood resulting. Either of these conditions may result in a disability.

6. Is PTSD considered a disability or injury? Does it have to be documented while the service member is active duty for it to be considered service-related, or could that determination be made after?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered a disability and Veterans can be assigned a disability rating by VBA. Like Major Depressive Disorder or Persistent Depressive Disorder, a diagnosis of, or treatment for PTSD, does not need to be explicitly documented in the Veteran’s service records for VA to grant benefits. VA will review and consider all evidence of record, which may include other types of evidence such as lay testimony and private treatment records subsequent to the Veteran’s active duty service. If the evidence of record shows that a Veteran’s PTSD is related to their military service, VA would grant service connection and subsequently disability compensation benefits.

Unlike claims for other mental health diagnoses, a claim for service connection for PTSD requires association with an in-service stressor/event. There are different types of events that constitute an in-service stressor that include:

1) Engaging in combat with enemy forces

2) Fear of hostile military or terrorist activity

3) Prisoner-of-war

4) In-service personal assault

5) Traumatic event

7. If a death is determined to be not service connected, are survivor benefits initially denied?

If a death is determined not to be service connected, some survivor benefits are denied. However, not all benefits would be denied; for example, if a Veteran served at least one day during a war time period and financial need is demonstrated, a survivor may still be eligible for some benefits. Other benefits, such as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) would be initially denied.

Benefits a survivor may apply for include Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, burial allowance, survivors’ pension, education benefits, home loan guaranty, burial benefits and CHAMPVA (i.e., health care for the spouse or child of a deceased or disabled Veteran). Additional information can be found at:

· https://www.va.gov/opa/persona/dependent_survivor.asp [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

· https://www.va.gov/disability/dependency-indemnity-compensation/ [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

· https://www.va.gov/pension/survivors-pension/ [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

· https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/veterans-burial-allowance/ [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]

8. How long on average does an appeals process take? A few weeks, months, years?

Under the Appeals Modernization Act framework implemented in 2019, VBA has been deciding requests for Higher-Level Reviews of decisions and related work in less than 90 days on average this fiscal year; compared to the legacy appeals process, which often took three to seven years for resolution.