Questioning the loss of a Marine
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 Wiffle 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 He became withdrawn, depressed and distant.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.
Shaun Lamory, one of Jeff’s friends since high school, figures it this way: “He was always the happiest kid in the world – he was too nice. And he was put into hell. And nice people don’t go to hell.”
But the Luceys don’t spend too much time wondering what may have happened to their son in the desert, where he told his family he was ordered to shoot two unarmed Iraqi prisoners at close range.
His parents are asking themselves what went wrong when he came home. How did their happy, well-adjusted son lose the good humor and emotional stability he always had? Did they miss too many signs of his suicidal tendencies – the red flags that were suddenly new to them? Did the military and Veterans Affairs Hospital do everything they could to help save their son?
“We’re in so many emotional places, we can’t make any decisions about who to blame,” his father, Kevin Lucey, said.
He’s not alone
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.”
Military officials say the mental health of all troops is a major concern.
“We’re always on the lookout for symptoms of anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and any symptoms that might predispose someone to PTSD,” said Dr. Thomas Burke, programs director for the Defense Department’s mental health policy.
Burke said new recruits are also screened for any psychiatric problems. If any are found, they’re referred to a specialist for further review, he said.
While they’re in the field, Burke said, troops receive constant reminders that help is available for them – whether it’s in the form of an informational meeting, fliers distributed around a camp, or cards left on a mess hall table.
Dr. Alfonso Batres, the VA’s national director for readjustment counseling, said the stresses faced by soldiers in Iraq are greater than those that weighed on military personnel in the 1991 Gulf War.
“This is urban warfare,” Batres said. “There’s no place to hide in Iraq. Whether you’re driving a truck or you’re a cook, everyone is exposed to extreme stress on a daily basis.”
Seeing the signs
With the help of their daughters – Debbie, 21 and Kelly, 25 – the Luceys have compiled a five-page timeline of key moments in Jeff’s life from the time he enlisted in December 1999 to June 22, 2004, when his father found his body.
Jeff was the first to recognize he wasn’t feeling right. When he left Iraq, he had to fill out standard forms asking if he had any traumatic experiences and whether he felt he needed help to deal with them.
On the first few forms he filled out, his parents say Jeff wrote that he had memories of seeing “dead people.” His parents say Jeff’s military buddies told him to stop saying that unless he wanted to be kept at Camp Pendleton for weeks of psychiatric evaluation.
His older sister’s wedding was coming up, and he didn’t want to risk missing it. When Jeff had the chance to ask for help before going back to Belchertown in July 2003, he didn’t take it.
“We don’t have the capacity to read minds,” Burke said. “We don’t have the objective diagnostic tests for mental health issues like we do if we’re checking for something like hepatitis. We depend strongly on the willingness of the soldier to be forthcoming and seek out help if it’s needed.”
But Jeff made going home his priority. And that made sense to his family, who hadn’t seen him for six months.
“He was really relieved to be back when he first got home,” Debbie, his younger sister, said. “He looked tired and was thinner, but he seemed fine at first.”
Then he quickly began to break down.
Depression set in, and Jeff dealt with it by going on heavy drinking binges. On Christmas Eve, he sat down with Debbie and gave his first account of being told to shoot two unarmed Iraqi soldiers.
The way he told the story, Jeff was about five feet away from two Iraqis – each about his own age – when he was ordered to shoot them. He said he looked them in their eyes before closing his own, then pulled the trigger.
“He took off two dog tags around his neck, threw them at me and said, ‘Don’t you understand? Your brother is a murderer,’ ” Debbie said.
The dog tags, which she said had Arabic letters scratched in them, were the ones her brother claimed he took from the soldiers he said he shot.
Debbie said she was too stunned – and her brother seemed too despondent – to ask any questions. She just listened.
The next day was Christmas, and Jeff acted fine.
Capt. Patrick Kerr, a spokesman for the Marine Forces Reserve, said the military’s investigation found nothing at all to back up Jeff’s claims that he shot the prisoners.
“There was no documented evidence to support that he had any engagement with the enemy, whatsoever,” Kerr said.
A few weeks after telling his sister about shooting the prisoners, he dropped to the floor in a reflexive duck for cover when someone dropped a book in a hallway at Holyoke Community College, where he was taking business classes and thinking about studying nursing. He was having nightmares and paranoid hallucinations, imagining he saw people following him. He was unable to concentrate on his classes, and stopped going to school.
By the end of March, he was having panic attacks. His relationship with his girlfriend, whom he had been dating since he was 15, became strained.
‘Friends with everybody’
It was a complete departure from the outgoing, friendly kid at Belchertown High School.
“He was the type of guy who was friends with everybody. He got along with the jocks, the chess club kids and the intellectuals,” said Shaun Lamory, who graduated a year behind Jeff.
Jeff was never much of a drinker in high school, Lamory said. But when he returned from Iraq, his drinking became “disgusting.”
The two friends were taking classes at HCC. One day, they found a place on campus to smoke a cigarette and talk. Jeff pulled out a whiskey bottle filled with wine and started drinking.
Lamory was stunned.
“What’s going on, man?” he demanded of his friend. “What are you doing to yourself?”
As he drank, Jeff told him about a small Iraqi boy he saw, riddled with bullets and lying dead in the street with an American flag clutched in his hand. Jeff said his truck was being shot at while he was driving by the boy, but he jumped out and brought the boy’s body into an alley – sparing it from more bullet holes.
When Jeff came home, he brought the bloodstained American flag with him.
“He said whenever he goes home at night he just goes into his room and cries and stares at the flag,” Lamory said. “I figured it was something Jeff had to work out. I didn’t understand it when he killed himself.”
Lamory last saw Jeff in May, just a few weeks before his suicide.
“He seemed totally hopeful and happy,” Lamory said. “I get the feeling he worked it all out.”
But for all the things that may have seemed right with Jeff, there were more signs that things were wrong.
There was his childlike behavior. He would coax his sisters into Wiffle 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.”
‘Blind faith in the VA’
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.”