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'Something happened to Jeff'

Page 5 of 5 -- On June 5, Jeff arrived drunk at his sister's graduation from Holyoke Community College. With difficulty, his family persuaded him to return to the VA medical center. This time, however, Jeff voiced no suicidal thoughts. He was not admitted.

Jeff kept a flashlight by his bed because he imagined he heard the camel spiders he'd hated in Iraq. Once, after his parents disabled his car, he climbed out his window, dressed in fatigues, and persuaded neighbors to drive him to the liquor store. His father smashed the bottles of beer he bought there.

His relationship with his girlfriend became so difficult that they separated. ''I was really upset and frustrated," Proulx tells PBS's ''Frontline" in a documentary airing tonight. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) ''We were kind of taking some space because it was, it was hard for me."

On June 14, Jeff, sober and crying, sat on the living room floor. ''He said, 'I don't know why I'm feeling like this. I feel like I'm going crazy,' " Kevin recalls. ''We jumped on that. We said, 'Do you want help?' " His mother immediately telephoned the VA and the Veterans Center and told them, ''My son is slowly dying." Jeff called the Veterans Center himself and went to one appointment.

The night before he died, Jeff climbed into his father's lap, and his father held him. ''I really felt awkward, but he was hurting so much," Kevin says. ''I'm so glad I did, because the next time I held him I was getting the hose from around his neck."

Kevin came home the next evening to find the TV on and the Iraqi dog tags on his son's bed. The basement door was open. Kevin walked downstairs. He saw Jeff's platoon picture on the floor and his battalion coin, and, finally, Jeff.

''He really looked peaceful. I put my knee underneath him. I was howling his name," Kevin says. ''I got the hose off of him and I held him. I remembered the night before I'd held him. He was cold, and I started rubbing him. I folded up the rug for a pillow for him. I laid him down."

At the Marine center overlooking New Haven Harbor, in a monthly drill much like the ones Jeff attended through last May, reservists check a row of trucks. ''You definitely come back different," says Lance Corporal Robert Hoyt, a 21-year-old truck driver from Norwalk, Conn. ''When you come here everyone knows what you've been through."

About half the unit is back in Iraq now. Some who returned with Jeff sought help themselves after his death.

''The drill month before he committed suicide I shared a tent with him. We would confide our problems. I knew he had a problem. He wouldn't seek help," says Samen, 23, a security guard from North Haven, Conn. ''He didn't feel right around people. He just didn't fit in. Everybody loved the guy. You won't find a person here who has a bad thing to say about him." In August 2003, Jeff had been a groomsman in Samen's wedding.

''I really wish I took him somewhere to get help," Samen says. ''I won't let that happen again."

Since Jeff's death, Holyoke Community College has convened a meeting of other colleges to talk about veterans' issues, and local therapists have started to meet about post-traumatic stress disorder. The Luceys donated a pair of Jeff's boots and one of his uniforms to Eyes Wide Open, the American Friends Service Committee's traveling exhibit displaying a pair of military boots for each American soldier killed in Iraq. Jeff's, Debra says, are ''for the ones who come back with their souls dead." On March 18, which would have been Jeff's 24th birthday, his parents will arrive in North Carolina for a rally by the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out.

''We don't want people to make the same mistakes we did," Kevin says.

''We focused too much on the drinking and not what caused it. We weren't aggressive enough," Joyce says. ''You have this false feeling of hope when he's having a good day."

By Memorial Day, Jeff's grave will have a tombstone bearing an epitaph from the Shinedown song he listened to again and again: ''What ever happened to the young man's heart/ Swallowed by pain, as he slowly fell apart." 

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