A mentally-ill, former marine sniper is suing the Veterans Administration and the Carl Hayden VA Medical Center for $15 million after getting run over two years ago following his discharge from the facility.
Jason Cooper, 41, a California man who served in the Marine Corps for 11 years before his honorable discharge in 2002, still suffers from traumatic injuries received in the collision, his lawyer tells New Times. A skull fracture left his brain injured, reducing his ability to speak. He can walk only with the assistance of a cane.
His story reflects not only the bad state of affairs at the Carl Hayden facility and at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs before serious problems were exposed last year by CNN but also the challenges or providing long-term care for schizophrenic patients.
Several key people have come to Cooper's aid over the years as he's struggled with his mental illness, despite the fact that he occasionally turns violent. But his luck ran out when he was brought to the Phoenix VA hospital.
Three years ago, Cooper made national news after an Oregon State Police Trooper — and fellow marine vet — saved the disoriented man from freezing to death in a snowy Oregon forest. But Cooper continued to battle his inner demons, failing to take his medications regularly and living homeless in Southern California.
A year later, on November 29, 2013, Cooper boarded a bus in San Diego bound from Phoenix "while in a psychotic state," according to the federal complaint. He didn't know anyone in the Phoenix area and was found by a Phoenix police officer at 8:30 p.m. that evening wandering around near 25th Street and Edgemont in an obviously confused manner.
Cooper had been listed as a missing person, and the officer called Thumbelina Hinshaw, a VA psychiatric nurse who acted as Cooper's caregiver. She told him to take Cooper to the nearest VA facility. Officers escorted Cooper in handcuffs into the Carl Hayden center at 7th Street and Indian School Road.
Hinshaw then contacted officials at the facility and told them not to discharge Cooper because he was a danger to himself and might "get run over by a car," says a notice of claim filed against the VA in December. She told them she'd leave for Phoenix immediately to pick up Cooper.
At 11:09 p.m., the VA hospital "discharged Mr. Cooper to the street," records state.
Cooper was found six hours later in the middle of Indian School Road, just west of 7th Street, "unconscious and near death, lying in a fetal position in the middle of the street with tire marks over his body in a puddle of blood..."
The hit-and-run driver never was found or identified.
Cooper was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where he was diagnosed with multiple skull and face fractures, a shattered leg, and worst of all, a brain injury that left him with serious cognitive and speech impairments, records state.
Hinshaw, as Cooper's legal conservator, is working on the lawsuit with Phoenix attorney Gregory Patton.
The notice of claim says Cooper needs a full-time attendant, rehabilitation and other medical care for the rest of his life, which would cost about $6 million. For his pain, disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment of life, Patton is asking for an additional $9 million.
The VA denied the claim in June. The medical-negligence lawsuit was filed in federal court on Wednesday, alleging that the VA failed to provide Cooper with proper care and negligently discharged him.
Patton says the treatment of Cooper was egregious for several reasons, including that the VA facility's own computer records showed Cooper had been treated by the VA for mental illness for years. Even without that, he says, the staff should have realized that Cooper was in no shape to be "dumped" in the middle of the night with no help.
The incident occurred months before the scandal of poor care and excessive, sometimes fatal wait times at VA facilities hit the news and sparked some reform. An ER physician at the Carl Hayden facility in 2013 testified before Congress last year, Patton says, that "it was total chaos in the emergency room" because of under-staffing and that "patients were many times not evaluated properly and discharged."
Cooper received "numerous" medals and awards for his time in the service and worked in a sniper platoon in Okinawa, Japan, for four years, records state. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the VA hospital in La Jolla, California, in 2009, where he lived for several months. He was monitored by and received medication from the Loma Linda VA over the following years. But he had problems with taking his medications regularly, records state.
One afternoon in 2012, Cooper fled his vehicle after a non-injury highway crash. He'd been seen acting strangely, according to witnesses, and had dashed into the woods wearing only a light jacket, shorts, and sandals. Two officers, including ex-marine Dave Randall, followed tracks in the snow for a mile until it got dark, then patrolled the area until midnight to see if he'd emerge. Police were able to contact his sister, who told them the former staff sergeant suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder and panic attacks and that the former sniper "was very dangerous due to his training and ongoing instability," according to an April 2012 article in Trooper News , a publication of the Oregon State Police Officers Association. "Additionally, he had a history of police assaults and could be armed."
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Randall and another officer took off on snowmobiles the next day, riding five miles before finding the vet lying on the cold ground. As reported on TV news at the time, Randall called out to Cooper: "Hey Staff Sergeant, how's it going?" He then told the shivering vet that "one marine always knows another marine."
Jean Schaefer, spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA facility, says the agency's policy is to deny comment about specific, pending legal matters.
"I can say we've made a number of improvements to the care we deliver in our emergency department, Schaefer says, "including better tools for our nurses to triage patients, a more robust social-work staff," and additional training for ER nurses.
Importantly, the ER at Carl Hayden is undergoing major renovation that will double its size, she says. That project is expected to be finished next year.