Mother files $8.2 million claim against VA after veteran son’s suicide

VA says suicide prevention is its highest clinical priority

The mother of a U.S. Navy Reservist who killed himself outside the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin last year has filed an $8.2 million wrongful death claim against the Veterans Affairs Department.

Rhonda Wilson said a VA doctor abruptly stopped refilling an opioid painkiller prescription for her 28-year-old son, Gary Pressley, causing him to go into a painful withdrawal.

Pressley shot himself to death in the hospital parking lot on April 5, one of three veterans who, over a five-day span, committed suicide outside of VA facilities. One died outside the main entrance of the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur the next day. Three days later, a veteran killed himself in front of hundreds of people in a waiting room at a VA clinic in Austin, Texas.

» Related: Two veterans kill themselves at separate VA medical centers in Georgia

More than 45,000 American adults died from suicide in 2017, including 6,139 veterans, according to a 2019 VA report.

The VA declined to comment on Wilson’s claim. But the agency said “suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority, and the department is taking significant steps to address the issue.”

“All VA health care facilities now provide same-day services in primary and mental health for veterans who need them,” said David Whitmer, director of the Dublin hospital.

"We encourage any veteran, family member or friend concerned about a veteran's mental health to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. Trained professionals are also available to chat at The lines are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Wilson also alleges in her claim that her son’s pain doctor quit serving veterans because the agency hadn’t paid. The VA, Wilson added, did not assign him a new pain management specialist quickly enough and that VA officials did nothing to help him when his sister reported that he had a loaded gun and was planning to kill himself in the parking lot of the Dublin hospital.

Her claim encourages the VA to “learn from this tragedy and institute appropriate corrective action, so it never happens again.”

“I would like to see some changes made,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “I’m really trying to bring awareness to this. It is just crazy how many veterans are taking their lives over this kind of stuff.”

Pressley graduated from Mary Persons High School in Forsyth and enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 2008. He was honorably discharged in 2012 after he narrowly survived a motor vehicle accident that left him disabled with a fractured hip, broken pelvis and chronic back pain.

Doctors prescribed him hydrocodone for his pain. Without it, his mother said, he could not walk or work. He was studying business administration at Gordon State College in Barnesville and working at an auto parts store before his death. His mother’s claim says he couldn’t get his prescription, though there was no evidence that he was diverting, misusing or abusing his medication.

The VA could choose to pay the claim, negotiate it over the next six months or deny it, which could prompt his mother to sue in federal court, said her attorney, Peter Bertling.

“To their credit, I think that the VA has the best suicide prevention policies that exist,” Bertling said. “The problem is they are frequently understaffed. They are frequently staffed with people who really aren’t that competent. And they don’t follow those policies and procedures. And it is because of simple things like that — not following your own policies and procedures – that we have a tragedy like Gary Pressley’s.”