Millions of military veterans get their medical care through the Veterans Administration or VA. You’ve probably heard over the years about systemic problems in the VA system that have caused scandals led to calls for reforms.
I recently dug into one issue brought to light by a VA whistleblower named James DeNofrio.
DeNofrio, an Army vet, worked as an administrator at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He told me he was shocked to discover in 2013 a long list of vets with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) who were languishing on a list without a treatment plan.
"There were, I believe, 600 patients on that list,” DeNofrio told me. “Out of that 600, as I drilled down, six had committed suicide, one veteran had gone and shot up a local Subway,” shooting three people.
The vet who “shot up” the Subway restaurant was named Nick Horner. I did a little research and learned that Horner was convicted of murder for the crime, and was serving time in prison. But, as DeNofrio indicated, there was a lot more to Horner’s story.
After suffering injuries in multiple explosions during three tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, the 28-year old Horner was discharged with TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder. His family says the Army had prescribed him no fewer than 11 drugs, and he reported suffering hallucinations, seizures, depression, anxiety and flashbacks. Horner reportedly begged for in-patient treatment at the Altoona VA Center but was never admitted.
I was hoping to interview Horner on camera, but the prison where he was serving his life sentence would not allow it. His parents, Karen and Daniel, did do an interview with me. They told me that their son went on the shooting rampage not long after a last desperate visit to the Altoona VA Center.
“He was at the VA hospital crying to them,” Nick Horner’s father told me. “He even told me, ‘I cried to them,’ Dad, ‘I got to be an in-patient. You got to put me in. I'm having all kinds of problems, you know?’ And he listed them all down for them— everything you could imagine— and they told him to come back in a month.”
DeNofrio says he blew the whistle on the waitlist of TBI vets, but instead of fixing the problem, he says leaders at the VA Center launched a retaliatory campaign against him. A year later when DeNofrio checked, he says there were more vets on the waitlist and another had committed suicide.
“These are high-risk patients that have homicidal, suicidal behavior, self-destructive behavior, so they're supposed to be one-to-one closely monitored,” DeNofrio told me.
The Altoona VA Center denied my interview requests and issued a written statement saying:
“VA conducted an in-depth review of these allegations, which date back to the previous administration, and determined all of the most serious charges were not substantiated.” The VA added that the inspector general “determined VA adequately addressed the allegations and closed its case in 2016.” And officials deny retaliating against DeNofrio “just because someone identifies as a whistleblower,” they say, “doesn’t automatically give credence to their claims.”
While I was investigating this report in August, Nick Horner reportedly committed suicide in prison by stabbing himself with a pen. He was 39.
Experts say that since 2001 as many as 750,000 U.S. military service members have suffered a traumatic brain injury or TBI from concussive blasts.