This article, by William H. McMichael, about the aftermath of the suicide of Jeffrey Lucie (whose parents testified at the Winter Soldier hearings), was published in the Marine Corps Times, January 17, 2009.
The government has agreed to pay $350,000 to the family of a Marine combat veteran who committed suicide after what his family alleged was negligent mental-health care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in Massachusetts.
Former Marine Reserve Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey hanged himself in the cellar of his family home cellar on June 22, 2004, two weeks after being turned away from the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he had gone for treatment after a combat tour in Iraq.
A spokeswoman for Michael Sullivan, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, verified Jan. 15 that both parties have reached a negotiated settlement but noted that the agreement must still be accepted by the court.
“Jeffrey’s suicide while under VA care was a tragedy for VA and the individual care providers,” Sullivan wrote in the settlement letter. “It also spawned a number of important changes in the hospital’s procedures and outreach to Iraqi veterans.”
Lucey enlisted in December 1999, was mobilized and served in Iraq through May 2003 and came home a month later, according to the complaint.
He filled out a post-deployment health assessment that noted he “had some feelings of depression or hopelessness but no thoughts of suicide, and had declined help for stress, emotional or alcohol-related problems.” Lucey was cleared for demobilization by a physician’s assistant and a psychiatrist, and honorably discharged in August.
That fall, he began behaving abnormally, the lawsuit states, calling himself a murderer because of his war service and experiencing severe nightmares. He began missing community college classes, having bouts of depression and drinking heavily.
Lucey agreed to visit a private therapist, but after he took a turn for the worse, his parents contacted the local VA hospital. A nurse there recommended he see a psychiatrist. After a 20-minute counseling session, he ran from the hospital and was caught, restrained, sedated and kept involuntarily for three days, as is permitted under state law.
A different psychiatrist saw Lucey on the fourth day and, deciding he was “not dangerous to himself and others,” suspended his medications and released him without providing suggested prescriptions for his condition. No one contacted his private therapist, the complaint states.
Two days later, he totaled his family’s car. On June 5, after he showed up drunk at his sister’s graduation, the family returned him to the VA hospital. He was seen and evaluated by a nurse, but personnel refused to admit him, the complaint states.
He continued drinking heavily and became combative and erratic. At one point, he left the house armed with knives and a .38-caliber pistol, according to the complaint. His mother called the Springfield Veterans Center on June 15; Lucey met with a therapist four days later and related plans to hang himself.
The therapist’s assessment, according to the complaint, was “depression and intrusive memories” of his war experience and “plans of suicide.” He returned home and continued drinking heavily.
A VA therapist at Springfield talked to Lucey on the afternoon of June 22 and decided to make the half-hour drive to see him, but got lost and never arrived. That evening, his father found his son hanging from a beam in the basement.
The Luceys’ lawsuit charged personnel at both VA centers with wrongful death and negligence on several counts.
In the settlement letter, Sullivan wrote that VA has since made nationwide changes in its mental health programs, to include hiring suicide prevention coordinators for each VA medical center, 100 new adjustment counselors for VA’s 207 Vet Centers, and 100 new medical center employees to advocate for the severely wounded.
“Jeffrey’s case, among others, fostered awareness and led to improvements in the VA’s approach to the new generation of war veterans,” Sullivan said.
Jeffrey Lucey’s father, Kevin, agreed, saying that while VA did not assume total responsibility for his son’s death, a “tremendous amount” of changes have taken place within VA since 2004.
But he said he has lost faith in his government. “When I saw what was happening, and I heard from other families what they were going through, I couldn’t believe this was the United States. Is this how we’re going to treat our soldiers, our loved ones?” he said. “It’s not right.”
Kevin, a therapist, and his wife Joyce, a registered nurse, plan to become advocates for better mental health care for returning troops. “We don’t want any more Jeffreys,” he said. “There are so many Jeffreys out there right now. Let’s all work together and make the best system we can.”