The family of an Iraq war veteran from Belchertown who took his own life after allegedly being turned away for treatment at the Northampton VA medical center filed a federal lawsuit yesterday accusing the government and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson of negligence in the death.
The medical malpractice suit contends that the VA is to blame for the death of Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, a 23-year-old Marine who hanged himself in June 2004, the family asserts, after he was denied mental health care while exhibiting signs of posttraumatic stress disorder that arose from a tour of duty in Iraq.
The legal challenge to the VA and the federal government was cited yesterday by veterans' advocates as a new and unprecedented attempt to hold the government accountable for what is widely seen as a systematic failure to provide adequate and timely healthcare for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A day earlier, a bipartisan presidential commission concluded that the system was failing to meet the demand for medical treatment, particularly mental health counseling, for returning combat veterans and made a series of recommendations to improve care.
Lucey's parents have become staunch advocates for veterans and have spoken out at conferences and testified before Congress about their son's suicide and what they perceive as a system that is too strained to handle the large influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are coming home with severe mental health problems.
"What happened to Jeff never should have happened," Kevin Lucey, Jeffrey's father, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "And we have committed ourselves to doing everything we can to ensure that it never happens again to another veteran. We don't know what will happen with this suit, but we hope it sends a strong message."
Jeffrey Lucey served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and, according to his family, returned home a changed person. He had nightmares, insomnia, and deep depression and began drinking heavily.
His family said he became suicidal and told his sister, Debbie, that he had picked out the rope and the tree from which he planned to hang himself. They persuaded him to seek care at the VA, where he admitted himself on May 28, 2004.
He was placed in a locked psychiatric ward, but was released three days later. Two days after he was out, he totaled the family car in what his family believed was a suicide attempt. They persuaded Jeffrey to return to the VA on June 5 and this time, his family says, he was denied treatment and they were told no psychiatrist was available to meet with him.
On June 22, he hanged himself in the basement of the family home in Belchertown.
Cristobal Bonifaz, the Amherst-based lawyer who filed the case on behalf of the family, said that the VA's failure to recognize Jeffrey Lucey's suicidal tendency amounted to medical malpractice and negligence by a system that was overstressed and understaffed.
Mary Rodowicz, a spokeswoman for the Northampton VA, declined to comment about the lawsuit. VA public affairs officials in Washington were unavailable for comment.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Springfield seeks unspecified damages and names the US government and specifically Nicholson, who oversees the sprawling VA system of medical centers and benefits programs for wounded veterans.
Earlier this month Nicholson announced he would be leaving his job after being criticized by veterans' advocacy groups and highlighted in media reports focusing on the VA's failure to plan adequately for the strain that two wars have placed on the system.
"The Lucey family has been an inspiration, a one-family advocacy group that has tried to bring a lot of visibility to suicide and to mental health issues for veterans," said Paul Riechkhoff, an Iraq war veteran and the executive director of a New York-based advocacy group called Veterans of America. "The lawsuit is a new approach in this struggle, and it will be watched very closely by all of us."
The government does not keep track of how many veterans have committed suicide once they leave the service, but groups like Veterans of America have estimated, based on website and media reports, that 117 Iraq war veterans have killed themselves.
In an interview in their home in May, Kevin and Joyce Lucey spoke of their son's death and their struggle to fight for better care for veterans.
They showed the basement rafter from which they found him hanging. They said they had hidden all ropes and electrical cords and knives, but their son had managed to tie a garden hose through the rafters and took his life.
"We decided we were not going to stop fighting this until we were sure that no one else lost a son or a daughter this way," Kevin Lucey said.