By Jason Leopold
The federal government has settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of an Iraq war veteran who hung himself in his parents’ basement in June 2005 after being turned away by doctors at a Veterans Administration hospital in Massachusetts where he sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kevin and Joyce Lucey sued the U.S. government in federal court in Springfield, Mass in July 2007. It was the first wrongful death lawsuit filed against the U.S. government for failing to properly treat and diagnose veterans’ who suffered from mental health problems associated with the Iraq war.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice sent Luceys’ attorney, Cristobal Bonifaz, a letter acknowledging that the Veterans Administration provided Lucey with substandard care. However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen L. Goodwin said the government is not responsible for the suicide of Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey.
“Jeffrey’s suicide while under VA care was a tragedy for the VA and the individual care providers,” the DOJ’s Jan. 6, letter says. The DOJ proposed to pay $350,000 to settle the matter. The Luceys accepted the offer.
But the loss of their son and their anger at the bureaucracy that has plagued the VA under George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House still runs deep.
“The US Government killed my son,” said Kevin Lucey. “It sent him into an illegal and reckless war and then, when he returned home, it denied him the basic health care he needed. We hope that this case serves as a wake-up call to the nation that our government must be held accountable for the suffering it has caused thousands of US military families.”
Cpl. Lucey received an honorable discharge in June 2003 and immediately showed signs of PTSD upon return home from combat. He suffered from nightmares, drank heavily, and acted erratically. He eventually sought treatment for what were clear signs of PTSD at Northampton Veterans Medical Center in Leeds, Mass., in June 2004 but was turned away. The facility’s medical staff diagnosed him with alcoholism and mood swings. He apparently informed someone at the VA hospital that he was suicidal, according to official medical records his family was given, but the hospital did not take action to treat his deteriorating mental state.
Two weeks later, Cpl. Lucey committed suicide. He was 23 years old.
Joyce Lucey said her family “didn’t realize that the bullets and bombs there didn’t present the only threat to our son’s safety.”
“Our own government’s apathy and indifference are just as great a threat to our troops and veterans,” she said. “Until the Veterans Administration takes the psychological wounds of war seriously, the epidemic of military suicides will continue to grow.”
Veterans’ suicides have reached epidemic proportions due in large part to the failure of the VA to treat and diagnose cases of PTSD. The issue reached a boiling point last year when veterans advocacy groups sued the VA and several government officials in federal court over the agency’s failure to immediately treat veterans who show signs of PTSD and were at risk of suicide.
The court case included tragic stories such as that of 26-year-old Navy veteran Lucas Senescall who was found by his brother hanging by an extension cord in the garage of his home. He was the sixth veteran under the care of a Spokane, Washington Veterans Administration hospital who committed suicide in 2008.
The federal court case made national headlines after internal VA e-mails surfaced that showed how top agency officials tried to conceal the information from the public about the sudden increase in suicides and attempted suicides among veterans that were treated or sought help at VA hospitals around the country.
Paul Sullivan, the executive director of veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, whose organization sued the VA last year, said Cpl. Lucey’s suicide was the result of “systemic VA neglect and indifference.”
Our sympathy goes out to the Lucey family for the loss of their son, Jeffrey,” who died “due to President Bush’s lies to start the Iraq war and his inexcusable incompetence in failing to prepare for the return of hundreds of thousands of combat veterans to an overburdened VA.”
After Veterans for Common Sense sued the VA in July 2007, and around the same time as the Luceys filed their lawsuit, the VA set up a toll-free suicide prevention hotline for veterans in distress. So far, the VA said it has received about 85,000 calls and 2,100 rescues in the first 15 months of operation.
But Sullivan said the VA “can do more.”
“We hope VA learns the lesson that the right choice is to treat mental health conditions as equal to physical conditions and then provide prompt and high-quality healthcare,” Sullivan said. “We urge VA to quickly implement their mental health strategic plan so that this type of tragedy is less likely to be repeated.”
Cpl. Lucey’s suicide and the settlement the government paid to his family underscores the historic failure of the Bush administration to take seriously the life and death issues Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans face when they return from combat, particularly cases of PTSD.
According to a study released last year by the RAND Institute, there are more than 320,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars suffering from major depression, PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. The report found that the VA has been and continues to be ill equipped to deal with these cases when soldiers return from combat, especially after multiple tours.
An Army task force last year also found major flaws in the way the VA treated and cared for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
Antonette Zeiss, the deputy director for mental health services at the VA, said, “there’s a steeper rate of increase between each of the quarterly reports as time goes on.”
The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD by the VA stands at 105,000, said Sullivan, citing a report prepared by the Government Accountability Office he obtained last week under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Yet only about 42,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD have had their disability claim approved by VA, “a disappointingly low 40 percent, down from the recent approval rate of 50 percent,” Sullivan said. It takes about six months for veterans to receive disability benefits from the VA.
“The 63,000 veterans denied PTSD disability benefits need assistance from VA today, not more red tape and delays,” Sullivan said. Veterans for Common Sense “once again urges VA to adopt regulations to streamline PTSD benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.”
The absence of a cohesive policy to deal with the dramatic increase in PTSD cases and the backlog in benefits claims is due in large part to bureaucratic red tape at the VA. But Bush made the situation worse by stacking the agency with political cronies, such as former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, who as VA Secretary defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for healthcare and at the Board of Veterans Appeals; slashed funding for nursing home care; and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefits claims.
Last November, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
Yet, according to Bush, he “provided unprecedented resources for veterans” over the past eight years and provided “the highest level of support for veterans in American history.”
Last month, trying to change the emerging historical consensus about a failed presidency, the White House published two lengthy reports, “Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the Administration of George W. Bush,” and “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.”
One of the surprising claims that stood out among the combined 90 pages of so-called accomplishments was the White House’s glowing assessment of Bush’s record on veterans’ issues.
“The President also increased the benefits available to those who have served our Nation and transformed the veterans health care system to better serve those who have sacrificed for our freedom,” both reports claim, adding that he “instituted reforms for the care of wounded warriors … and dramatically expanded resources for mental health services.”
Simply put – White House propaganda aside – veterans’ healthcare has become worse, not better, under Bush’s leadership and veterans have suffered greatly on his watch. Instead of expediting PTSD claims, Bush’s political appointees at VA actively fought against mental health claims.
But there is a glimmer of hope for veterans.
President Barack Obama tapped retired U.S. Army Gen. and Vietnam War veteran Eric Shinseki to lead the VA. Shinseki made headlines back in February 2003 when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and predicted that several hundred thousand soldiers would likely be needed to maintain order in post-invasion Iraq.
After facing public criticism from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Shinseki was forced into early retirement. His judgment has since been vindicated, both in regard to likely ethnic strife in Iraq and on the costliness of the war.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Shinseki said his goal is to transform the VA into a 21st Century organization.
To accomplish that goal, Shinseki said he will immediately “implement the New GI Bill (Post 9/11 Veterans’ Educational Assistance Act), streamline the disability claims system, increase quality, timeliness and consistency of claims processing, and …modernize the delivery of benefits and services.”
“If confirmed, I will focus on these issues and the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request during my first 90 days in office,” Shinseki added. “The overriding challenge, which I will begin to address on my first day in office, will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st Century Organization focused on the Nation’s Veterans as its clients.”
For Kevin and Joyce Lucey, ensuring the VA provides Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans proper care is just one part of a larger goal.
“Jeffrey’s story is a story of too many military families in this country,” said Joyce Lucey. “We will continue to speak out to demand that our government immediately end this war, bring our troops home now, and provide all the necessary medical care they deserve when they return.”
But the family also expects justice.
“To those military families who have similarly suffered because of the negligence of the US Veterans Administration,” added Kevin Lucey, “we hope this case serves as an example that the government can and must be held accountable in a court of law.”