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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Veteran suicides: Families haunted - Depression follows tragedy

Veteran suicides: Families haunted
Daniel V. Ryan, public affairs officer for the Canandaigua, N.Y.-based Department of Veterans Affairs, said while there are no official statistics on veteran suicides, there are on the number of telephone calls made to the VA’s National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Since the summer 2007, he said, 281,679 calls were received as of June 21. Of those callers, 9,192 were rescued.

“These were people with guns in their hand or ropes around their neck,” Mr. Ryan said.

Mr. Lucey contends there are more veteran suicides than troops killed in action.

“Suicide is one of the major problems in the U.S, and the number of military suicides is increasing every year,” Mr. Lucey said. “And for every suicide, there are at least five attempted suicides.”

He said his son did not show overt signs of depression until Christmas Eve of 2003, when he did not want to join the annual family celebration at his nearby grandparent’s house, something out of character for him. At one point, Jeff flung his dog tags at his younger sister, with whom he shared some of his dark war memories. But on Christmas Day, Jeff seemed back to normal. However, as his March 18 birthday approached — which coincided with the anniversary of the Iraq invasion — Jeff began spiraling down. His father said he was not sleeping or eating well, drinking heavily, and isolating himself.

The family tried to get him to go to the Northampton VA hospital, but Jeff refused, fearing a mental health record would end his dream of becoming a state police trooper.

Memorial Day rolled around and things were worse. Mr. Lucey got Jeff involuntarily committed to the hospital for three days, but said Jeff was not assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder during his stay, even though he had threatened to kill himself three times. Mr. Lucey said the family was told Jeff needed to be sober for a certain period of time before he could be assessed.

“The system itself is broken,” he said.

A week after his release, Jeff crashed his car between two trees, but was not seriously injured. Two days after that, he was taken to the VA hospital by his grandfather, but was not admitted. On June 15, Jeff’s mother, Joyce Lucey, called the VA and told whoever would listen that they were “watching our son die.” Three days later, Jeff was assessed at the hospital but not admitted. The family then took him to Camp Sunshine, a camp for terminally-ill children and their families in Maine, because Jeff had volunteered there previously, and enjoyed it.

They returned on Fathers Day. That night, an exhausted and emotionally drained Mr. Lucey yelled at his son, telling him how angry he was. They later made up.

On the evening of June 21, Jeff suddenly asked if he could sit in his father’s lap.

“I felt really awkward about it, but I had never given up,” Mr. Lucey said. “He was trying to say goodbye, but I did not know that.”

He soon found out. At 6:45 p.m. the next day, Mr. Lucey walked by his son’s room and saw the dog tags on his bed. Then, he noticed the cellar door was ajar and the lights were on. He got a glimpse of some sort of shrine made out of family photographs.

“I walked down the stairs, and then I saw the blood. And that was the last time I held my son in my lap,” Mr. Lucey said.

A year later, a letter arrived for Jeff. It was from the state police, informing him of his acceptance into its academy.

According to Michael M. Lawson, medical director of the VA Boston Healthcare System, 45 percent of returning troops are receiving health care from the VA, and mental health care is the most sought-after form of treatment. Furthermore, Mr. Lawson said, mild concussions and more serious traumatic brain injuries, very common in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, can produce the same symptoms as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, repeated tours of duty in these conflicts increase the likelihood of post traumatic stress, he said. Mr. Lawson, a Vietnam combat veteran, said while new medications and increased mental health services can lessen the effects of stress, veterans need jobs.

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