When Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey returned from his tour of duty Iraq, he looked like a kid who lucked out. No visible wounds. But looks aren't everything.
He had nightmares and nausea, drank heavily and showed other signs of depression. He threw his dog tags at his sister and called himself a "murderer." He told his sister he had "a rope and tree picked out" behind the family home.
Then in June 2004, a few months after his return, he went to the basement of his parents' home in Belchertown, Mass., arranged photos of his family and his platoon on the floor, and hanged himself with a garden hose. He was 23 years old.
His parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey, filed suit last week (July 26), charging that the Department of Veterans Affairs denied help for their son's mental problems, beyond three and a half days of involuntary commitment at a local Veteran Affairs hospital.
The parents, who joined the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out after their son's death, are not seeking money damages. They only hope that their lawsuit will force the Bush administration to take swift action to overhaul the VA, they say.
I wish them luck with that. If it weren't for bad news, the Department of Veterans Affairs wouldn't have much news at all.
A few days before the Lucey lawsuit, a group called Veterans for Common Sense accused the VA of unlawfully denying disability pay and mental health treatment to injured Iraq war vets.
Both lawsuits name as defendants the U.S. government and Jim Nicholson, secretary of Veterans Affairs, who abruptly announced in mid-July that he is leaving his job soon. Few tears were shed by major veterans groups. The biggest rap against Nicholson, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, is that he didn't fight hard enough to get more money and attention from Congress for a department that has been overwhelmed by unanticipated casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those casualties include post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The VA denied its existence for years, until it became official in 1980. Today there's a new charge, that many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who might have PTSD have been urged to settle for a "personality disorder" diagnosis, which makes it more difficult for them to claim treatment or disability benefits for PTSD later.
Yet it may take years for symptoms to show up. Lucey's case sounds painfully familiar to John Erby, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Before he became one of the first black coaches in the PAC-8 conference at the University of California-Berkeley in 1968, he was a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he lost one of his legs in battle.
After years of waking up in the middle of the night, reliving his nights of "walking the perimeter" of his unit's outposts in the 'Nam, he learned he had PTSD. He goes to weekly counseling sessions and counsels other veterans from all wars.
"PTSD isn't new," the former Army first lieutenant told me after we met at the VVA's recent convention in Springfield, Ill. "In past wars, they called it shell shock or battle fatigue or something else. But those previous war veterans came home to beautiful parades. That was their medicine. There was no medicine when we came home. So we had to have doctors come up with these studies to tell us we had a problem we didn't know about."
After years of working with fellow veterans and their various disorders, Lucey's case sounds painfully familiar to Erby. The young marine had to be involuntarily committed, the parents say, because he was too embarrassed to seek help himself for fear of being labeled weak and letting down his buddies.
"Ah, that marine pride," Erby groaned. "You see it in other services, too. They're afraid they won't be allowed to go back and rejoin their unit if they admit to any weakness. I remember a sergeant in Texas who would stop the car for a string across the road. That's why I'm happy to talk to any of these young people who have doubts. They need to know when they need help and get it."
The good news about the bad news from the VA is that, at least, somebody's paying attention. The department is chronically under-funded and under-staffed. But new legislation is being debated on Capitol Hill to improve counseling and care of returning veterans, and reduce a backlog of VA claims that has grown to almost 400,000.
Veterans' groups a slogan: "Leave No Vets Behind." That's an order we Americans need to follow. It's your best way to thank a veteran.