• ‘It is appalling': Congressman calls for action after vet's death at VA hospital

    By: Allison Latos

    Updated:

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    COLUMBIA, S.C. - A South Carolina family is suing the United States over the death of their son.

    Luke Smyth, 37, served in the military from 1999 to 2004.

    He was diagnosed with a mental illness that was related to his service and he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, officials said.

    His family claims he turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for care but died at the hands of the medical staff who were supposed to help him.

    Smyth's death happened Sept. 8, 2017, inside the Wm. Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina.


    (Smyth)

    ‘It is appalling’: Congressman calls for action after vet’s death at VA hospital

    U.S. Rep. Seth Moultan, D-Massachusetts, said Smyth’s death may stop other veterans from seeking help.

    “It is appalling,” Moultan said.

    Moultan is a U.S. Marine veteran and served four tours in Iraq.

    “This is not just about the fact that a man died,” the congressman said. “This is going to scare other veterans from going to the VA to get the help that they need.”

    Smyth was receiving care near Charleston when impending Hurricane Irma forced him to be evacuated to Columbia.

    Video from inside the VA facility shows Smyth entering a room with other patients.

    Then seconds later, there was an altercation, and medical staff rushed in.

    Two men immediately tackled Smyth to the ground, and one could be seen putting him in a headlock.

    "He is pressed flat on this floor with someone who has their arm around his throat, pressing on his carotid (artery)," said Randy Hood, an attorney for Smyth's family. "Another person is on his back pressing his belly into the floor, which means it is going up into his body cavity and pressing on his diaphragm. That's how we breathe."

    Hood said Smyth's family is devastated and outraged by what happened next.

    The video shows VA employees restrained Smyth at 2:39 p.m.

    At 2:49 p.m., an employee checked for a pulse, and less than a minute later, they began CPR.

    The Navy veteran did not survive.

    The coroner's report lists his manner of death as a homicide.

    "No one was charged with a crime, none, zero, zip," said Hood. "A homicide and no one was charged.

    Who is going to be held accountable?"

    Smyth's family filed a civil lawsuit against the United States over their son's death.

    Congressman Moulton said veterans deserve the best health care in the world, but they're not getting it.

    He's now pushing for change and told Channel 9 there must be more mental health resources for veterans.

    “There is a stigma against getting treatment and now that stigma is even worsened by the fact that veterans are going to fear that they could go to the VA and literally die,” Moultan said after watching the video.

    Moulton said he wants all veterans to regularly have mental health checks like they would a normal physical.

    He believes that will reduce the stigma and potentially save veterans lives.

    Jeremy Butler is a Navy veteran and CEO of a veterans’ advocacy organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

    "I am incredibly angry," said Butler. "This is a veteran who turned to the group that is supposed to be taking care of veterans, to the VA, and that is where all of our veterans should feel safe turning to for help."

    Butler said Smyth's death is a horrific example of the lack of adequate mental health care veterans nationwide.

    "We are already at 20 a day dying by suicide. We have a hugely unmet mental health crisis that's going on in the veteran community," said Butler.

    Concerns over veterans' care go beyond mental health.

    In Arkansas, a former VA doctor, Robert Levy, faces involuntary manslaughter charges.

    The pathologist is accused of entering false test results contributing to the deaths of three men.

    In West Virginia, the FBI is investigating 11 suspicious deaths. One veteran's family claims he died of a fatal dose of insulin.

    [PAST COVERAGE: Channel 9 questions VA doctor about accusations of being under the influence while seeing patient]

    In August in Salisbury, Channel 9 reported that Dr. Gregory Earl Scott got his license back after losing it for seeing a patient while intoxicated.

    Veterans advocates said there must be change so that our country's heroes are treated with honor.

    "We're going to continue to work with the VA, to work with Congress, to work with other veterans service organizations to make sure that what Luke Smyth went through, no other veteran needs to go through," said Butler.

    Anchor Allison Latos contacted the VA.

    A spokesperson said they don't comment on litigation but provided a statement saying: "Thousands of South Carolina veterans choose to be treated at the Columbia VA Health Care System. In addition to operating one of the largest and most complex facilities in the nation, the facility maintains combined inpatient and outpatient quality standards that are in the top 15 percent of the nation.”

    Latos also reached out to the solicitor's office to explain this case.

    An employee said the office has had staff changes since 2017, and they could not immediately answer Channel 9’s questions.

    Latos has also reached back out to the VA.

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