An American Suicide

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On July 26, the parents of Jeffrey Lucey, an Iraq vet who committed suicide, filed suit in Massachusetts against the Department of Veterans Affairs for "wrongful death" and "medical malpractice." The Luceys could win their case. In April 2007, the VA's Inspector General concluded that the VA Medical Center in Leeds had made mistakes in dealing with Jeffrey Lucey. But the questions about this case go beyond the already well-documented incompetence of the Veterans Administration. They involve the effect of the Iraq war on the mental health of American soldiers.

Jeffrey Lucey was born in Springfield and raised in Belchertown, a small town in central Massachusetts. After graduating from Belchertown high school in 1999, he enlisted in the Marine Reserves, where he was assigned to the 6th Motor Transport Battalion. The 6th Motors, as they were called, participated in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Moving northward, they ran into heavy resistance in Nasiriyah, where a thousand Iraqis, including many civilians, died in the fighting. In April, Lucey wrote his girlfriend that he had done "immoral" things. "I have done so much immoral shit during the last month that life is never going to seem the same, and all I want is to erase the past month, pretend it didn't happen."

In July, the 6th Motors returned home. When Lucey first filled out discharge papers, he wrote that he had memories of dead people, but his friends in his unit advised him that if he wrote things like that, he would be retained for psychiatric evaluation. In the debriefing questionnaire, he checked "no" to the question asking whether he needed psychiatric help.

Lucey returned to Belchertown, where he enrolled at nearby Holyoke Community College. According to a report in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the local newspaper, Lucey began to display symptoms of mental illness on Christmas Eve. He threw the dog tags that he wore around his neck and that he claimed were from Iraqi soldiers at his sister and told her that he was a murderer. From that point, he went downhill. His symptoms now included vomiting and severe nightmares. By the spring, he was also drinking heavily and missing his classes. He couldn't sleep, he kept a flashlight by his bed to check for camel spiders (large spider-like creatures found in the Iraqi desert), he suffered from hallucinations, and he told his sister that he had picked out a rope and tree on which to hang himself.

He talked to his parents about a dead Iraqi boy clutching an American flag that he had seen on the road; of elderly people killed as they tried to run from Marine fire; and also of two unarmed Iraqi soldiers that he had killed after having been ordered to do so. "He said they were about his age," his father Kevin Lucey told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. "He looked in their eyes, and wondered if they had families." "He would just stare off," his mother Joyce Lucey said. "It was like he wasn't really here, he was still over there."

His parents convinced him to see a local therapist, who referred him to the VA hospital in Leeds. Lucey didn't want to go to the VA hospital for fear that the members of his unit would learn that he was sick, but after he threatened to punch a doctor who was examining him, he was involuntarily committed to the VA hospital over Memorial Day weekend and placed on the suicide watch. According to his parents, a VA psychiatrist told them after Lucey's death that while he was hospitalized that weekend, he had discussed killing himself. Yet on Tuesday, the VA discharged him.

As Lucey's behavior became still more erratic--he totaled the family car, and began drinking heavily--his family took him back to the VA hospital four days later. His parents hoped the hospital would commit him. They would be disappointed. Without consulting a psychiatrist, the medical doctor in charge decided that Lucey was not an imminent threat to himself or others. Seventeen days later, he hung himself from a beam in the cellar of the Lucey home.

 

Was Jeff Lucey a victim not simply of the anxiety of war, but of this war in particular? The Marines said they conducted an investigation into Lucey's claims that he had been ordered to kill two unarmed soldiers. "There was no documented evidence to support that he had any engagement with the enemy, whatsoever," Marine spokesman Patrick Kerr told the Associated Press. But there were problems with the Marine's investigation. Kerr told a foreign policy blog that Lucey had "no interaction with prisoners of war." But Lucey's father unearthed a photograph that his son had taken of prisoners of war that he was transporting.

The Marines advised the members of Lucey's unit not to talk to the press. The closest anybody seems to have come to ascertaining the truth was Christopher Buchanan, a reporter for "Frontline." Buchanan's report on Lucey aired on "Frontline" in the winter of 2005. Buchanan got the Marines to remove the gag order, and he talked to many members of Lucey's unit. They denied that Lucey had killed two Iraqi prisoners and suggested that Lucey would never have been in a position to do so by himself. Buchanan also ascertained that the dog tags that Lucey wore were probably not from Iraqi soldiers or prisoners, but were the kind sold as bizarre souvenirs by children along the road. Buchanan speculates that Lucey's memories were colored by alcoholic delusions.

That may be true. Buchanan seems to have done a thorough job. It is also possible that after they were faced with the prospect of a televised documentary of Lucey's death, the Marines reached agreement among themselves that what Lucey described could not have happened. But whether Lucey's memories of what he did were of real or imagined events, what remains striking about his story is the degree to which the fear and anxiety that are normal to war are mixed from the start with a searing guilt. Lucey may never have killed two unarmed Iraqi soldiers, but he did witness the carnage in Nasiriyah and perhaps elsewhere, and that may have fuelled his later delusions.

This toxic combination of anxiety and guilt may be a factor in the high incidence of mental illness and of suicide among Iraqi veterans. According to a study published last March in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 19.1 percent of the soldiers who returned from Iraq "met the risk criteria for a mental health concern," compared with 11.3 percent from Afghanistan and 8.5 percent from other locations. One website has tracked over 150 cases of severe mental illness that have led, among other things, to suicide and even murder by returning vets.

As for the Lucey family's legal case, the Inspector General did conclude that a psychiatrist should have examined Jeff Lucey when his parents brought him to the VA hospital a second time. That finding--buttressed by the critical report from the commission on veterans' care chaired by former Senator Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala--may outweigh the judgment last spring of Albert Gonzales's Justice Department, which ruled that no medical malpractice was involved.

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