Jeff Lucey hung himself with a garden hose in his parents’ basement just eight months after returning home from a five-month tour of duty in Iraq.
Despite herculean efforts to get psychiatric help for their son through the Veterans Administration (VA), the Marine Lance Corporal succumbed to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on June 22, 2004. Lucey told friends and family of a nightmarish stint as a war-zone heavy truck driver in which he was frequently fired upon and ordered by his superiors to run over anything, or anybody, that got in the way of the convoy.
In an exclusive interview, Colorado Confidential talks with Ilona Meagher, author of Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops about the effect of the billion dollar shortfall in the VA’s 2007 health care budget and the tragic stories of the hidden costs of the War on Terror.CC: What got you interested in this subject?
IM: I was literally inspired by an article that I’d read back in August 2005 (“Homefront Casualties,” Rick Anderson/Seattle Weekly). Although I’m a veteran’s daughter, my father served before I was born; I never really felt a part of the military in any way, and — like most Americans — I’d been watching the events in Afghanistan and Iraq as an ‘outsider.’ Oh, I was keeping up with things and paying attention, but didn’t understand at the time how directly my actions and attitudes as a member of society affected the fate of those who were serving — and those who were waiting for them to get back home.
The Seattle Weekly piece caught my attention because it listed a cluster of seven or so suicides and murder/suicides that had taken place involving troops who’d recently returned to Ft. Lewis from combat in the Middle East. Rather than merely focusing on the sensational aspect, Anderson took it one step further by listing how many family members — wives, kids, parents — were affected. I was stunned.
I had an immediate empathy for their stories as a concerned citizen, of course; but also because I’d lost a family member to suicide years ago. In addition, one of the soldiers (who had earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his efforts) who’d committed suicide after serving in Iraq cranked my curiosity up. Eleven days before he’d ended his life, he’d received a brand-new award (the Combat Action Badge), Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker himself pinning it on his uniform.
I was born in the mid-60’s, so I was young when the Vietnam War ended; I really hadn’t known all that much about war trauma or what we today call PTSD. I started wondering if incidents like those listed were considered ‘normal’ — certainly it wasn’t only these troops in Fort Lewis who were winding up on a city’s police blotters. I wanted to know if the same stories were replaying themselves elsewhere across the country, so I jumped on Google and started searching for others. And there were others. Many others.
And so, I wanted to know what the military and government response was to these incidents. Where they responding appropriately? In 2005 especially, the answer appeared to be ‘no.’
Military families had been coming forward — since 2003, as a matter of fact — trying to warn us that the DoD and VA services were inadequate. While there were pockets of solid reporting going on at the time trying to bring their stories to the fore (Mark Benjamin was especially good), the media didn’t seem to be doing that good a job, either. On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, in March 2006, I noticed a real paradigm shift in the thrust of mainstream reporting on this issue — actually, I sensed that realistic war reporting started to take hold with that anniversary across the board at the time.
And so, since the media didn’t seem to be doing a good enough job of answering my questions back in 2005, I began covering the issue myself, sharing what I’d found with others in (my first post) at DailyKos.com, and asking online communities I was a member of for their thoughts on the matter.
What an education I got – and incredible opportunities as well. I’m actually still pretty amazed at the trajectory of things.
The data I began collecting became a collaborative project, the ePluribus Media PTSD Timeline, in December 2005. Universities and government offices — Sen. John Kerry’s, for example — and media have accessed our one-of-a-kind database, which is simply a small collection of a variety of press-reported incidents having to do with the return of troops following combat, just like those in the Seattle Weekly piece.
I wanted to capture these incidents so that others could use it as a springboard to learning more about some of the things happening with our troops. I also wanted to ‘capture’ them before small local news websites scrubbed them from their servers to make more room for their latest news articles.
A few months after the PTSD Timeline was created, I created my online journal, PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within. A few months after that, Ig Publishing found me and scooped me up — as so many others had before them — and offered me a chance to write Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops.
In each of these cases, people started reaching out to me and offering me more chances to advocate and write on the issue — not necessarily because I was doing anything of great quality compared to the others out there, but rather simply because everyone working on this issue is very happy to have others come in to the fold and help out in whatever way they can. Veterans and military family members and vets organizations and bloggers and authors and reporters (even from the mainstream press — a FOX News Washington Bureau reporter contacted me mere weeks after I set up my blog and interviewed me for a piece; many others have followed — all of these incredible people reached out and so desperately wanted the issue covered that they go out of their way to help anyone who is the least bit interested in shining a light on it a bit more.
I’ve really been blessed, and the experience has left me feeling very hopeful for the future of our work. It hasn’t escaped my consciousness that I’ve been very lucky to have been given such a welcoming embrace by the people I consider to be the true authorities on this subject.
CC: If there’s one concept from this book that you want readers to take-away, what would it be?
IM: That everyone single one of us — civilian and military alike — is directly tied to the issue of combat PTSD.
My research on Moving a Nation to Care led me to a number of definitions for PTSD; in almost every single instance, the societal/social aspect is included in the list of factors (which also includes the psychological and biological) that account for the incidence and prognosis of a soldier’s PTSD.
Most of us feel like we aren’t connected to the war and its aftermath if we don’t know anyone serving in it, and nothing is further from the truth. Society’s collective reactions and actions, attitudes on and acceptance of PTSD have a very real bearing on how well troops will make their adjustment once they come back home to us.
CC: What kind of reception has your book gotten from the public? the VA? Congress? Medical/mental health professionals?
IM: I’ve been very, very pleased.
VA officials have contacted me to tell me the book hits all the right notes; a top Walter Reed researcher, who subscribes to my blog, reached out and asked for a copy, local American Legion posts have voted to purchase copies to be passed out to National Guard leaders.
Veterans organizations and non-profit support groups and authors writing on this topic have all been receptive and helpful. My book blurbs aren’t anything to sneeze at, if I may say so myself. But, most importantly, many vets and military families have really embraced the work. That is the greatest gift of all.
This is a complete grassroots project, so whatever success we have will come as a result of people valuing the book and passing the word on about it to others. We don’t have a publicist or a large marketing budget, so opportunities like the one you’re giving us right now are very much appreciated.
I haven’t done a full press yet of Congress yet (oh, to have enough money to give each member a copy!), but that’s in the works for this summer. Someone told me, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” and I’ve taken that and made that my mantra. If any of your readers think highly enough about the book, I’d be very happy to hear that they contacted their elected officials and perhaps suggested they read it, too.
Ilona Meagher, author of Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops
CC: Did you get any push-back from the government or activists when you researched and wrote your book?
IM: The biggest political pushback so far had to do with a prestigious military education institution that we approached a few months back. Since I’m a first-time author and not a veteran myself, obviously there was no way that they were going to have me speak to their members — book or no book.
So, we were asked to assemble a panel.
And here comes another example of what I was talking about earlier. Remarkable, remarkable people that I’d contacted for help immediately said ‘yes.’ They included Steve Robinson, Director of Veterans Affairs of Veterans for America (VFA); Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA); Dr. Robert Roerich, Vice President of the National Gulf War Resource Center; Penny Coleman, author of Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War and wife of a former Vietnam veteran who’d committed suicide; Ellen and Randy Omvig, parents of the veteran who committed suicide in 2005 after returning home from Iraq, and whose name is attached to the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act; Kevin and Joyce Lucey, who’d lost their son Jeffrey to the same situation in 2004; and Laura Kent who’d lost her son as well to suicide after his return home from Iraq in 2005.
And me. All of these incredible people — every one different than the next politically and emotionally — said yes with no questions asked. Yet this stellar panel was turned down, and my understanding is that it revolved around one decision-makers personal opinion on whether combat PTSD is a true problem.
Other than that, people have been pretty decent. I think the Walter Reed scandal blew a bit of notions out of the water, so many more are aware that there are problems with the aftercare that troops have been receiving. Most people realize that if outpatient care has been lacking for those with physical wounds, then a high level of care probably isn’t there for the invisible wounds either (which now includes mild-to-moderate cases of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, too).
CC: Is the PTSD experienced by Iraq-Afghanistan veterans different than those in other wars/conflicts? If yes, how?
IM: Although combat veterans from one generation to the next share a bond that none of us who are outside their rank can understand, each generation experiences their war in completely different ways. There are, of course, the physical aspects of the warzone (dessert, jungle, mountain or urban landscape, for example) or the type of fighting that’s done (having front lines as they did in WWI or WWII vs. the 360 degree guerilla war zone of Vietnam or Iraq) that differentiates one from the other. But the psychological aspects and actions of said generation or society also plays a big role as well. We found that out after Vietnam, didn’t we?
Here’s another example. The World War II generation went to great lengths to make sure that their returning troops were showered with a rich GI Bill. That one element went a long way in ensuring that returning troops had the best chance of working their way back to a peaceful life after their service. The ‘Greatest Generation’ wasn’t perfect, of course, but they provided a stronger GI Bill than we are for our returning troops today although there is legislation pending that aims to fix this gap. Meanwhile, we have veterans slipping through the cracks. Iraq/Afghanistan vet unemployment is 15 percent, double the rate of the civilian population. There are as many as 1,000 Afghanistan/Iraq veterans who are estimated to already be homeless. How can this be?
We need to do better, and all signs are pointing to our moving in the right direction.
I’m very happy to finally see the reporting that’s being done now on this issue. If Moving a Nation to Care helps even one more person understand what we’re up against and what they need to do to get engaged, then the project has been a great success.
UPDATED: Ilona Meagher will hold a discussion and book signing at the Boulder Book Store (11th and Pearl Streets) on Wednesday, June 20 at 7:30 p.m. followed by a Drinking Liberally Boulder reception at The Republic of Boulder, and at the LoDo Tattered Cover Book Store (16th and Wynkoop Streets) on Thursday, June 21 at 7:30 – 9:00 p.m. Drinking Liberally Denver is also hosting a post-event reception.