An Egg Harbor Township veteran who died after setting himself on fire Saturday outside a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Northfield has drawn attention to problems in the VA system.
Charles R. Ingram III, 51, was airlifted to the Temple Burn Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, where he died later that night, Northfield police said.
No note of explanation was left at the scene or at Ingram’s home, said Northfield acting Police Chief Paul Newman.
NORTHFIELD - An Egg Harbor Township man set himself on fire Saturday, police said.
Ingram’s family members have declined to speak to The Press.
But the public nature and location of the suicide is causing veterans’ advocates to redouble efforts to improve access to medical and mental health care.
“We have been asking the VA in Wilmington for years for Saturday appointments and late Wednesday night appointments, and were told it was going to be taken care of,” said Atlantic County Veterans Affairs Director Bob Frolow, who works at the county Vet Center in Ventnor. “As of today, it is still not.”
The Northfield clinic is part of the Wilmington VA Medical Center system.
“At the very least, his actions were an expression of need,” said Frolow, adding that people can’t get in to talk to doctors or nurses when their problems need to be addressed. “It’s a shame and sign of desperation and need. This might open a window on that need.”
The clinic was closed at the time of the incident. Its daytime Monday-to-Friday schedule causes a hardship for many who cannot get there during work hours, he said.
Frolow said Ingram was not a client of his in Ventnor, but he believed Ingram had an association with the Northfield clinic.
Veterans were being seen at the clinic Tuesday afternoon, where a memorial has been set up at the site of the fire.
“I’ve never seen anyone do this,” said Lou Hodac, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran. “I’ve seen guys turn to alcohol and drugs.”
He said he likes the clinic but wishes it would provide more services. If he wakes up with a fever, he has to see his private doctor or go to an urgent-care clinic, he said.
The Wilmington VA Medical Center issued a statement saying it was “saddened to learn about the tragic incident that took place outside of the Atlantic County Community Based Outpatient Clinic. ... Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family, friends and neighbors.”
It said the medical center was cooperating with an investigation by Northfield police.
“Due to the open investigation and patient privacy concerns, we will not be commenting further at this time,” the statement said.
Veterans’ advocate Marco Polo Smigliani, of Egg Harbor Township, has been working with others to help vets for about 14 years, he said.
“More than ever, we are determined — no, emboldened — to carry on our quest to provide every veteran with the health care they need, when they need it and where they need it,” said Smigliani. “Hearts are deeply saddened today, and our mission continues so that one among us will not have died in vain.”
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, has been trying to get the VA to allow a pilot program in Atlantic County for veterans to get care from community-based providers with the VA paying the bills, rather than traveling to the Wilmington hospital.
“First and foremost, it would be best for health care and it would prove cost effective for the VA,” said LoBiondo. But he said he met recently with the secretary of the VA, who told him it will never happen, without giving a reason.
There have been some successes, he said, such as the opening of the Northfield clinic and allowing veterans to get kidney dialysis closer to home rather than traveling to Wilmington or Philadelphia.
“But nowhere near the degree to which veterans deserve,” he said.
Veterans who have physical or psychological hardships that prevent them from traveling to Wilmington can apply for a waiver program that allows them to get care from providers at home. But LoBiondo said only a small number of veterans has applied and gotten the waiver.
“I’m told many veterans — especially older ones — are very proud. They don’t want to ask for a waiver and have to say they have a hardship,” said LoBiondo. “But if they don’t say they have a problem, I can’t make it happen.”
He and his Mays Landing office staff member Michael R. Francis, who works as a liaison to veterans, are trying to get more vets to apply for the waiver, he said.
Ingram used gasoline as an accelerant and set himself on fire at the clinic at 1901 New Road. He was evacuated by helicopter from the Northfield Community School to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia just before 2 p.m., police said.
There have been other suicides at VA clinics.
In July 2014, Navy veteran Kevin Keller, 52, shot himself in front of a closed VA clinic in Wytheville, Virgnia. He left a note blaming the VA for leaving him in terrible pain after weaning him off prescription painkillers, according to a Sept. 7, 2014, story in the Roanoke Times.
Earlier this month, the VA announced it was taking new steps to prevent veteran suicide.
“We know that every day, approximately 22 veterans take their lives, and that is too many,” said VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin. “While no one knows the subject of veteran suicide better than VA, we also realize that caring for our veterans is a shared responsibility. We all have an obligation to help veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of military service that lead them to think suicide is their only option.”
The VA said it would elevate its Suicide Prevention Program with additional resources, provide veterans with same-day evaluations and access by the end of 2016, use predictive modeling to guide early interventions for suicide prevention, enhance mental health access by establishing three regional tele-mental health hubs and more.
Staff Writer John DeRosier contributed to this report.