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Monday, January 19, 2009

PTSD, the VA and Suicide: Massachusetts Family Settles Government Lawsuit

On the heels of last week's news that the U.S. Marine Corps suicide rate is the highest seen since 2003, came the close of a chapter on one of the Iraq War's first such casualties. It was a case that received national exposure and made many stand at attention, wondering how the system that was meant to take care of our returning troops could fail so desperately.

Kevin and Joyce Lucey were at the leading edge of military families coping with the loss of a loved one returning home forever changed following deployment to the Middle East. Their pain moved them to go public, shining a light on the grave consequences of shortfalls at the VA at the time.

By sharing the story of their son Jeffrey's 2004 suicide, they went far to drag post-combat suicide out of the darkened corners of our military family homes and into the lap of the civilian population, asking if what was happening to our returning troops was right or just. The verdict to the family's 2007 VA lawsuit came last Friday.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Jonathan Saltzman, the Boston Globe:

The US government has agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a federal claim by a Belchertown family who blamed Northampton VA Medical Center for the suicide of their son, an Iraq war veteran who hanged himself after he allegedly was denied mental healthcare.

A lawyer from the office of US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said in a letter filed yesterday at US District Court in Springfield that the June 2004 suicide of Jeffrey Lucey, a 23-year-old Marine, "while under VA care was a tragedy for the VA and the individual care providers."

The lawyer, Assistant US Attorney Karen L. Goodwin, said the suicide had led to improvements in how Veterans Administration medical centers treat veterans. Changes included the hiring of suicide-prevention coordinators and 100 new adjustment counselors at 207 Vet Centers.

These new hires are greatly needed. Continuing:

"VA, both nationally and locally, has been challenged to appreciate and meet the healthcare needs of veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Goodwin wrote Jan. 6 to the lawyer for Lucey's parents in a letter calling the $350,000 settlement a final offer.

"Jeffrey's case, among others, fostered awareness and led to improvements in the VA's approach to the new generation of war veterans."

The government admitted no responsibility in the suicide, and Goodwin wrote that the Veterans Affairs administration would have had a strong legal defense at trial.

The Marine's father, Kevin Lucey, said he and his wife, Joyce, believe their son was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. They settled, he said, because the steps that the Department of Veterans Affairs has taken amount to an admission that medical treatment provided to veterans was deficient.

"When I brought Jeff to the VA, I really thought I was bringing him into the arms of angels," said his father, a therapist. "I thought they'd help us help him save himself, and, regretfully, because of how broken and how dysfunctional the system is, that never was."

Unfortunately, even with families like the Luceys (and the Omvigs, the Schulzes, the Bowmans and far too many others) first coming forward so many years ago, the suicides continue. Reporter Chris Dark writes of one that took place just a little over a year ago in an extensive piece, "Diary of a Suicide," featured in last month's Salk Lake Weekly:

It was just after midnight on Dec. 31, 2007, and bitterly cold outside, when two Ogden police officers knocked on the door of Jason Ermer’s home.

Earlier that night, Danny Murchie, an addictions counselor at the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Salt Lake City office, had called Ogden police and asked for a courtesy check on Ermer, his 28-year-old client, a recent Iraq war veteran. Murchie had talked with Ermer and feared he might harm himself.

When no one answered at the Ermer home, police followed footprints in the snow a few blocks into the Ogden Canyon foothills. Near a large boulder, a man’s body lay in the snow, blood pooling near his head. His breathing was slow and gargly.

Ermer was dressed in a black leather jacket and a baseball hat with the logo “Airborne.” When paramedics moved Ermer, barely breathing, to a stretcher, they found his black Ruger .45 pistol beneath him. Hours later, Ermer died at McKay-Dee Hospital Center.

A native of Roy, Utah, Jason Ermer served his country for a year in the northern Iraq city of Mosul in 2003. He was a soldier in the 37th Engineering Battalion of the 82nd Airborne division, later of the 101st Airborne. He was redeployed to Fort Bragg, N.C., in March 2005 and discharged from the Army seven months later. On Nov. 11, 2005, he returned to Utah with his wife Brandi and their newborn daughter Marley.

But Jason was scarcely the same man who had enlisted three and a half years earlier. He brought back to Utah constant pain from a parachuting injury to his neck and lower back, a growing addiction to painkillers and Iraq-fueled nightmares that wouldn’t let him sleep at night. One particularly graphic flashback plagued him—the last terrified look of an Iraqi child, who fell beneath the wheels of a Humvee Jason was driving near Mosul.

When he could hardly function anymore, Jason’s family says, he voluntarily entered the VA system for treatment. But the VA, after helping him with counseling, ultimately added insult to his injuries. In the early hours of Thanksgiving Day 2007, staff members suspected the confused veteran was high. In the emergency room, Jason later told his parents, he was held down and forcibly catheterized by several nurses and security personnel to obtain a urine sample for a drug test. His parents later obtained medical records from the VA that confirmed Jason’s story. The test, his parents add, came back negative. “Now I know what a woman feels like being raped,” he told his wife afterwards in tears. One month later, Jason was dead.

On a recent rainy night, 28-year-old Brandi Ermer stands beside the boulder where her husband shot himself. She looks toward her former home and says of Jason’s two-block journey to his suicide site: “It’s the longest walk anyone ever does.”

Jason’s suicide is a bitter symbol, a summation of issues that many Iraq veterans reportedly struggle with—marital and financial difficulties, health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction. His is also a journey that many other Iraq veterans in Utah are all too familiar with. Since the end of 2007, 130 Utah veterans have attempted suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of the seven Utah veterans who succeeded in taking their own lives since Jason’s death—down from 13 in 2007—six were from the Korean or Vietnam War era. Only Jason served in Iraq. Of the 130 attempts, however, almost a third were by veterans young enough to have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mike Koplin, suicide-prevention coordinator for the Salt Lake City VA office, is one of 150 such specialists appointed nationwide in April 2007. “The problem is increasing as vets come home and try to make the transition,” from soldier to civilian, Koplin says. For Iraq veteran and Salt Lake City antiwar activist Andy Figorski, Jason’s life and death offer a painful mirror of what might have been, indeed what still might be for other soldiers returning from the Middle East. “I could see myself in that kid, looking for a warm place, for acceptance in society,” he says. “He went to war thinking he was doing right in the world, promoting human rights, peace­—then he ran over a kid in a Humvee and the downward spiral began.”

Please read the rest, for it is long and instructive. While the VA continues to make improvements, and while one facility may provide better service over another, we are still not where we should be when it comes to caring for our returning veterans.

Ermer's family provided this recording of Jason's funeral, which included a military honor guard. We often don't get to see such services on our television screens. Heartbreaking. My thoughts go out to the Ermers and the Lucey and all other families who have sacrificed so much for our country.

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