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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Killed by guilt

Enough of this can drive you to suicide

Marine returns from Iraq to emotional ruin, suicide

By Adam Gorlick, Associated Press Writer | October 16, 2004

BELCHERTOWN, Mass. -- Jeffrey Lucey was just an ordinary kid from small-town America. He grew up loving his parents, his high school sweetheart and backyard whiffle ball games in this quiet, picturesque community bordering the Quabbin Reservoir.

Even his decision to enlist in the Marine Reserves in 1999 was run-of-the-mill, uncluttered by the anxious sense of patriotism that inspired many others to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"He just wanted to prove he could cut it," his mother, Joyce Lucey, said.

But when Jeff returned to his parents' home in July 2003 after serving six months in Iraq as a truck driver, there was nothing ordinary left about him.

He started drinking too much. He became withdrawn, depressed and distant.

In June, after what his parents describe as months of mental and emotional torment, the lance corporal went down to the basement and hanged himself.

He was 23.

Just a few feet from where his father found him with a garden hose wrapped around his neck, Jeff had arranged a semicircle of family photos on the floor. The note he left said he could no longer deal with his emotional pain.

Upstairs, a pair of dog tags rested on his bed. His Marine-issue boots stood next to them.

Now, nearly four months after his suicide, the Luceys are trying to make sense of how Jeff became unraveled after serving in Iraq.


As of early September, 29 troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom had killed themselves while in Iraq. Air Force officials say they're sure of only one airman -- Sgt. David Guindon, 48, of Merrimack, N.H. -- who took his life soon after coming home. Spokesmen for the Navy and Army as well as the Pentagon say they don't track such numbers.

But the Marines say there have been 12 known suicides among soldiers who had recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Military people are heavily vetted for any psychological problems before they enter the service," said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "They're screened very well when they come in, and they're supposed to be screened very well when they leave. So when a Marine takes the ultimate step of checking out by taking his own life, it should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. These are the guys who aren't supposed to do that."


There was his childlike behavior. He would coax his sisters into whiffle ball games and refuse to do certain things unless Debbie would hit several balls in a row. A few times he asked his father if he could sit in his lap. The last time he did that was the night before he died.

His parents say they have since learned those were signs of regression, symptoms shown by suicidal people trying to cling to an emotionally safe memory.

In early May, Jeff told Debbie the only thing preventing him from killing himself was that he didn't want to hurt their parents.

"He said he didn't see a future for himself," Debbie said. "He said he didn't want to stick around any longer."

He began seeing a private therapist, but his family was also urging him to go to the Veterans Affairs Hospital, about 20 miles away in Northampton.

He refused. He expected that his Marine Reserve unit would be activated again, and he didn't want anyone to find out he was having problems. Neither Jeff nor his parents realized that the military would never be told about any treatment he received at the VA.

"He pleaded with us not to contact his unit or the VA," his father said. "Here he is, hurting like hell, and he was caught between his humanity to help himself and his training to not show weakness."


On the Friday before Memorial Day, his family finally persuaded him to go to the VA, where they had him involuntarily committed because he was showing violent and suicidal tendencies. Four days later, the Luceys received a call from Jeff asking to be picked up at the hospital. He had just been discharged, he told them.

"Nobody from the VA said anything to us," Kevin Lucey said. "Jeff said a counselor spoke to him for a little bit before he was discharged, and that was it. We didn't meet with anyone during his discharge meeting. We put our blind faith in the VA, and they just let him leave without telling us anything about his condition."

Dr. Gonzalo Vera, chief of inpatient mental health at the Northampton VA, said confidentiality laws prevent him from discussing Jeff's case. But he said families that are actively involved with a veteran's care are usually involved in their treatment.

"That includes involving them in the discharge planning," he said.

However, if a patient who has been involuntarily committed requests to be discharged and the hospital staff finds that he is no longer at risk, they are required to let him leave as soon as possible.

A few days later -- on Debbie's graduation day from Holyoke Community College -- Jeff deteriorated even more. He would have graduated with her, had he not stopped going to classes.

Jeff insisted on driving to the graduation alone, and was drunk when he got there. A firefighter who spotted him in the parking lot had to escort him to his family.

"Jeff was totally gone," Debbie said.

Back at the Luceys' home, Jeff became more despondent and his family brought him back to the VA that evening.

But Jeff wouldn't admit himself, and because he didn't appear to be a danger to himself or others, the VA refused to take him as an involuntary commitment.

In mid-June, Jeff had learned through the Northampton hospital about a counseling service called the Vet Center in Springfield run by the VA.

He met with a counselor and set up some more sessions. The Luceys took it as a sign of progress.

But about a week after getting in touch with the counselor, Jeff laced a garden hose around the wooden rafters in his parents' basement and hanged himself.

"Maybe we should've done so many different things," Kevin Lucey said. "But you start rationalizing things -- we thought that if he stopped drinking, he'd be OK. You don't want to admit there's a problem. And then it's just too late."

posted by Steve @ 10:46:00 AM

10:46:00 AM

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