A local veteran is dead and his wife says the VA did not do enough to help him.
Kevin Higgins, 37, was one of many service men and women who struggled with PTSD or mental illness after being discharged.
According to his death certificate, Higgins died in a suicide by cop scenario that unfolded last month at a Sheboygan bar.
As Kevin is laid to rest, his wife wants everyone to know he was not a monster. She says he was simply a veteran who needed mental help.
Investigators say on July 17, 2016, Higgins was armed with a rifle, scope and silencer and walked into the Union Avenue Tap and demanded cash.
As police arrived, Higgins was exiting through the side door. Surveillance video released to TODAY’S TMJ4 shows Higgins raising his rifle and police opening fire.
“This incident was not about robbing a bar,” Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco said during a recent news conference. “I think the deceased, knowing the police were on the way was leaving
the bar to find a shooting spot to shoot police.”
Nicole does not believe her husband wanted to hurt anyone beyond himself.
We asked Nicole, “Do you believe Kevin was capable of murder?
“Oh hell no,” Nicole replied. “Kevin would never kill anyone.”
Nicole points to the fact that he didn't hurt anyone inside the bar that night. She thinks her husband was only trying to get police to carry out his wish to die.
“At the beginning of this year he said it’s just so hard for me to try to live this life,” Nicole said.
Kevin served our country for a decade. After being discharged in 2007, VA doctors diagnosed him with PTSD.
“He had mood swings and was very, very depressed,” Nicole said.
Nicole says her husband tried to get care from the VA.
"There are times where he would show up to appointments and they'd say your appointment has been canceled,” Nicole said.
We took her concerns to Jon Lehrmann, Associate Chief of Staff for the Milwaukee VA.
“Mrs. Higgins claims numerous appointments were canceled or rescheduled by the VA,” I-TEAM reporter Eric Ross said. “Is that true?”
“There were two canceled (appointments) I believe in 2014 and one canceled in 2016,” Lehrmann replied. “The one canceled in 2016 was due to the mental health care provider being ill that day.”
Lehrmann went on to say Kevin missed the last four of his six appointments prior to his death, a sign he says shows Kevin was in distress.
“Here, the standard policy and procedure is to place a phone call immediately if the patient doesn’t show and try to connect with the patient,” Lehrmann said. “If we can’t reach them, we call again two more times. If we still can’t reach them we send them a letter so there are four different attempts to try and engage them (the veteran) and get them to come back and reschedule the appointment.”
It’s unclear why Kevin did not attend the last four VA appointments, but we do know he did try to get inpatient mental health treatment back in February.
“He agreed he needed inpatient care because the outpatient care he was receiving through a clinic wasn’t doing anything,” Nicole said.
Kevin was admitted into the hospital but a day later, the VA confirms Kevin was discharged.
“The excuse we were given was that he wasn’t deemed suicidal or homicidal and it wasn’t appropriate for him to be there,” Nicole said.
Nicole did not have hospital discharge papers from the VA, but Lehrmann told TODAY’S TMJ4 Kevin was voluntarily discharged.
A few days after Kevin returned home, his condition deteriorated. When he started to talk about suicide, Nicole called 9-1-1.
“Just please sent someone out here that’s sensitive to veterans with PTSD who are going to kill themselves,” Nicole told the 9-1-1 dispatcher.
Police arrived and took Kevin to a Sheboygan hospital.
According to Nicole, he was prescribed new medication and was doing well for several months after that hospital visit.
However, Nicole says the VA would not cover expenses for Kevin to see an outside doctor.
“Kevin was told he was not eligible because he was already being seen at the VA clinic,” Nicole said.
However, Nicole claims the medication prescribed by VA doctors consistently arrived late.
“Two days after Kevin passed away, his medication arrived in the mail,” she said.
We asked Lehrmann whether this was true.
“I don’t know if his medication arrived two days after his death but it’s very possible,” he replied. “There is a mail delay and our veterans are aware of that. I will say from our review, there was no evidence that there were any delays on our end. I do not know what led to him not getting his medications on time if he did not.”
Lehrmann did say veterans can pick up their medication from the VA and says if veterans choose to have their medication refilled by mail, the pharmacy allows them to refill their prescription about a week before they run out. However, Lehrmann adds they do not control or monitor potential shipping delays from postal carriers.
“These men and women sign their lives away to defend this country and can’t get the help they need,” Nicole said as she wiped away tears.
We asked Lehrmann whether he believes the VA is failing veterans with mental health issues.
“The answer is no,” he said. “I believe the VA has the best mental health care in the world. Many of our veterans benefit from it. No mental health care system is perfect. My condolences and sympathies go out to Mrs. Higgins. No matter how hard we try, even with what I believe is the best system, we can’t engage all veterans and we can’t prevent all bad outcomes. We believe that no suicide is acceptable and we’re trying to do our best to prevent suicide all together.”
Gary Kunich, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee VA said in the last decade, the VA has tripled the number of mental health care workers.
Health care outside the VA:
On August 7, 2014, President Obama signed into law the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act to help the VA provide timely health care for Veterans.
Under the CHOICE program, veterans can seek outside care from the VA.
Nicole wanted to take advantage of this program for her husband, who lived in Glenbeulah, WI.
The VA confirmed to TODAY’S TMJ4 Kevin did not qualify to be part of this program. You can read more about eligibility requirements here.
Suicide epidemic among Veterans:
The VA released new numbers last month about veteran suicide rates in the United States.
According to the VA, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide everyday in 2014.
Also that year, veterans accounted for 18-percent of all deaths from suicide among adults.
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is available to help veterans 24/7. They can be reached by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and then press “1”.
Since the establishment of the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL):
-Call takers have answered over 2.3 million calls, made over 289,000 chat connections and over 55,000 texts
-Emergency services were dispatched over 61,000 times
-Call takers have provided over 376,000 referrals to a VA suicide prevention coordinator
Veterans can also reach out for help using an online chat service through VeteransCrisisLine.net. If you’re not comfortable calling the crisis line or chatting online, you can also send a text message to 838255.
Kevin's military history:
From 1997 to 2001, Kevin was serving in the United States Army. According to his obituary, he was a decorated solider of the 1st Cavalry Infantry in Bosnia. After that, Kevin went into the Air Force Reserves.
"Kevin was an active member of the VFW Post 1230 in Sheboygan," his obituary states. "He was currently serving as the Jr. Vice Commander and was next in line to become Post Commander. He spent countless hours volunteering his time and helping other disabled veterans who were returning from service."