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LANALLAH __Islamic BlogZine__
Friday, December 10, 2004

Nice people don't go to hell

Adam Gorlick, Associated Press
November 13, 2004 MARINESUICIDE14

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 ballgames in this quiet, picturesque community bordering the Quabbin Reservoir.

Even his decision to enlist in the Marine Reserves - two years before the burst of patriotism following the 2001 terrorist attacks - was run-of-the-mill.

``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 He became withdrawn, depressed and distant.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, Kevin, 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, five months after his suicide, the Luceys are trying to make sense of how Jeff unraveled.

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.''

As of late October, 31 troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom had killed themselves while in Iraq. Figures for suicides soon after coming home from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan are less clear, but the Marines count 12.

``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. In the field, he added, troops are reminded that help is available.

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.''

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 his death on June 22, 2004.

Jeff was the first to recognize he wasn't feeling right. When he left Iraq, he had to fill out 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.'' Military buddies told him to stop saying that, his parents say, 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 home, he didn't take it.

``We don't have the capacity to read minds,'' Burke said. ``We depend strongly on the willingness of the soldier to be forthcoming and seek out help if it's needed.''

Depression set in, and Jeff dealt with it by going on drinking binges. On Christmas Eve, he sat down with Debbie and, for the first time, told a chilling story.

In it, Jeff was about five feet away from two unarmed Iraqi soldier-prisoners - 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.

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.

If Jeff was indeed delusional, it's unlikely he realized his ``memories'' were false.

``When people start having delusions, they're very believable,'' said Michael Addis, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester.

He said psychotic episodes such as hallucinations and delusions are often triggered by stressful situations. Those who experience them are usually around Jeff's age - somewhere between late adolescence and early adulthood - and have a genetic vulnerability to mental illness, Addis said.

In the weeks after telling his sister the story, he showed other signs of a breakdown: ducking for cover at the sound of someone dropping a book at Holyoke Community College, where he was taking classes; having nightmares and paranoid hallucinations, imagining he saw people following him. Eventually, he stopped going to school.

A friend, Shaun Lamory, saw other changes in the once-outgoing, friendly kid he'd known in high school - ``the type of guy who was friends with everybody'' and not a drinker back then.

When he returned from Iraq, his drinking became ``disgusting.'' During a chat one day between classes at the college, Lucey pulled out a whiskey bottle filled with wine and started drinking.

``What's going on, man?'' Lamory says he asked his friend. ``What are you doing to yourself?''

As he drank, Lucey 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. He said he brought the bloodstained 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.

He believed his friend was working through his war experience, and the last time he saw Lucey, in May, ``He seemed totally hopeful and happy. I got the feeling he worked it all out.''

But other signs pointed in a different direction, including childlike behavior - coaxing his sisters into Whiffle ball games and asking his father if he could sit in his lap. The last time he did that was the night before he died.

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 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 the 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 insisted on driving to the graduation alone, and was drunk when he got there.

``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 he 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.''

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