Parents of Two Soldiers Who Took Their Own Lives Still Waiting for a Letter from Obama
Democracy Now! Co-host Juan Gonzalez: Soldier suicides are on the rise in America. In June alone, at least thirty-two active-duty and reserve officers took their own lives, the highest monthly figure since record keeping began. Meanwhile, a new US Army report has found that the rate of suicide by soldiers in the Army has risen above the civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. In 2009, 160 soldiers committed suicide; another 146 died by other violent means, such as murder, drug abuse or reckless driving while drunk; another 1,700 attempted suicide. The report faulted commanders for ignoring rising mental health, drug and crime issues among soldiers. One-third of soldiers take at least one prescription drug, and 14 percent are on some form of powerful painkiller.
President Obama briefly addressed the issue of soldier suicides and post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, in a speech on Monday at the Disabled American Veterans national convention in Atlanta.
President Barack Obama: And as so many of you know, PTSD is a pain like no other—the nightmares that keep coming back, the rage that strikes suddenly, the hopelessness that’s led too many of our troops and veterans to take their own lives. So today I want to say, in very personal terms, to anyone who is struggling, don’t suffer in silence. It’s not a sign of weakness to reach out for support. It’s a sign of strength. Your country needs you. We are here for you. We are here to help you stand tall. Don’t give up. Reach out. We’re making major investments in awareness, outreach and suicide prevention, hiring more mental health professionals, improving care and treatment. For those of you suffering from PTSD, we’re making it a whole lot easier to qualify for VA benefits. From now on, if a VA doctor confirms a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, that is enough, no matter what war you served in.
Amy Goodman: But the families of soldiers who took their own lives say President Obama’s words ring hollow. Today we talk to the parents of two soldiers who committed suicide. Even though their sons died in the military, they’ve yet to receive condolence letters from the President—not because of an oversight, but because of a longstanding US policy to deny presidential condolence letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide.
Gregg Keesling was among the first to raise awareness of this issue. He’s the father of Chancellor Keesling, a US soldier who took his own life June 19th, 2009, on his second tour of duty in Iraq. During his first deployment, Chancellor suffered mental health issues so severe he was placed on suicide watch. After getting back to the United States, Chance turned down a bonus offer to return to Iraq in the hopes that he wouldn’t be redeployed and could get his life together. But he was called back in May. One month later, he committed suicide in Iraq. Gregg Keesling joins us from Indianapolis.
And joining us also from Chicopee, Massachusetts, are Kevin and Joyce Lucey. Their son, Jeff Lucey, took his own life June 22nd, 2004, after returning home from military duty in Iraq. Just a month earlier, Kevin and Joyce Lucey had Jeff involuntarily committed to a VA hospital. But the hospital discharged him after a few days. Two weeks later, Kevin Lucey came home to find his son hanging from a hose in the cellar. Lying on his bed were the dog tags of two unarmed Iraqi prisoners Jeffrey had said he was forced to shoot. The Luceys sued the VA for negligence, and the US government settled the case for $350,000. The Luceys are now plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Prudential that claims the insurance giant cheated the families of dead soldiers out of more than $100 million in interest on their life insurance policies.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
Joyce Lucey: Thank you.
Goodman: And I don’t think giving condolences, even though it is six years later and one year later, can—we can never give too many, because of the sorry of losing your child.
Gregg, I want to begin with you in Indianapolis. We spoke to you several times, along with your wife, about Chancellor and about the fact that you have not gotten a letter of condolence from President Obama. What were your thoughts as he gave that speech to the Disabled Veterans of America?
Gregg Keesling: Well, I think the most important thing is that when he says it is not a sign of weakness to seek help—but for a soldier who does not get that help and does succumb to his illness, it is a sign of weakness. The President considers it a sign of weakness, because he will not write a letter of condolence. So I think it’s hypocritical to say, "Seek help. It’s not a sign of weakness," when it’s still—it’s acknowledged that it’s a sign of weakness by the fact they will not acknowledge the family left behind.
Goodman: Quickly, if you might, if you could tell us—we described briefly, but about your son, about Chancellor Keesling.
Keesling: Chancellor Keesling was a good soldier. He signed up for the military, the Army, in 2003, when he was eighteen years old. He was still in high school. He was caught up with the patriotic fervor that was going on after 9/11, and he wanted to serve his country. His first deployment, he was married. His marriage broke up, and that was a very traumatic experience for him, and he decided to leave the military. And he decided the war in Iraq was not what he thought it was going to be when he signed up in 2003. But he was a good soldier. The investigation into his death showed that. He was the head of physical training for his unit. They all loved him. They were completely shocked and taken off guard that he died this way. His unit just got back in April, and Chance was the only soldier who died with the 961st Engineering Brigade.
Gonzalez: And the problems that he encountered during his first deployment and being put on a suicide watch, what—the discussions that you had with him after his first deployment and his state of mind and the things that he was going through, if you could talk about that?
Keesling: Well, I think he—when he came home, he began to get very healthy again. His marriage had broken up, and he began to move on with his life. But I think he had made a decision that the Army was not for him any longer, and he wanted to get into civilian life. But, of course, when you sign up for a four-year enlistment in the Army, it includes a four-year commitment to the Reserves. So he turned down a bonus to be deployed earlier, because they needed soldiers, and because he said he did not want to go back and was not prepared to go back. And when he finally got the call to return, we had great discussions about whether—other options that he could use. We even talked with him about going, because he was working with the VA and going to his commanders and going to his leaders and saying, you know, "I’ve got this mental health issue. I can’t go back." But Chance told us that it would be a complete waste of time to do that, because they would think he was just trying to fake it to get out of being deployed back to Iraq. And I think that that’s really the issue, is the pressures that our troops are under from these multiple deployments that they’ve had in these two long wars that our country is engaged in.
Goodman: I want to turn now to the Luceys. Kevin Lucey’s son—we’re joined right now by Kevin and Joyce Lucey. Their son, Jeff Lucey, hanged himself June 22nd, 2004. Before we get to the issue of the condolence letter, first your response to President Obama’s speech?
Kevin Lucey: Well, I agree with Gregg. I think that it’s hypocritical. How can a person advocate that everybody should go running, seeking mental health, when the stigma in the military has been so prolonged that you don’t do that because that’s a sign of weakness? But the other thing is the hypocrisy. I mean, I think that the soldiers are going to be looking at the behavior of the President, as opposed to the words of the President. And if he will not extend condolences and acknowledge the suffering of the families, because these are from hidden wounds, then, I’m sorry, but I don’t put any weight on what the President has said on this matter.
Gonzalez: And Joyce Lucey, if you can, if you could tell us about your son and what he shared with you about his experiences in the war?
Joyce Lucey: Well, Jeffrey signed with the Marines right from college, and he was involved in the initial invasion in March of 2003. And when he returned, he returned in July, and he seemed fine. By the following spring, he started what would have been—would be a spiral, downhill spiral, and he started talking about what happened over in Iraq, bits and pieces of what he went through over there. Then there was—I mean, it’s kind of hard to go through everything that he was saying, because, again, it was in bits and pieces about Nasiriyah, about how he felt. I think a lot was noted in the letters that he sent back to his girlfriend in April of 2003, in which he said he felt he did immoral things and that he never wanted to be involved in a war again.
And I don’t think, at the time that Jeffrey was going through all this in the following eleven months that he came home, I don’t think we realized how bad this whole situation is. We never thought it was going to be something that would be lethal. So I think that was one thing we learned. We learned that this is—PTSD is not something that—is just something that just goes through—I’m sorry, I can’t even think right now. I’m sorry.
Kevin Lucey: Well, I mean, what Joyce, I believe, is trying—
Goodman: Well, let me ask—let me ask Kevin, on the issue—
Kevin Lucey: I’m sorry.
Goodman: —of you bringing him to the hospital, to be involuntarily committed, can you talk about that experience? Also the experience of his grandfather trying to bring him back to the hospital?
Kevin Lucey: I think when we decided to try to bring him to the hospital, we had been trying to negotiate with him for over a month. We had actually hired a therapist to be able to help us get them into the hospital. On Friday, May 28th, 2004, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, Jeff finally went to the hospital. He had no intention of staying. And they did say that he needed to stay. And so, finally, we did an involuntary commitment. It took about six hours to do it.
During the three-and-a-half days that he spent there, we thought that he was being assessed, assessed for PTSD and assessed for treatment, but regretfully, they didn’t assess him. What they stated was that he had to be detoxed, and they were just trying to detox him. And then he was going to have to stay sober, completely substance-free, for a period of three to six months. And I looked at him, and, in this age of dual diagnosis, I couldn’t understand how they could even say that, because I went with the naive belief that the VA were the experts in regards to PTSD.
Despite Jeff divulging how he had bought a hose to kill himself, that he had plans, what happened is that they ended up discharging Jeff three-and-a-half days later. Two days after that, Jeff got into a single car accident, totaled our family car. He was unscathed. And he saved the two coffees that he went to get for his mother and for himself. And then, that weekend, we tried to bring him back, because it had gotten much more severe. And the VA, they didn’t even bother calling a person who had the authority to enter him involuntarily. And he just came back home. And at that point, I was furious. I lost faith in the VA.
Joyce Lucey: And I’d like to say that my dad did go along with Jeffrey on that second time, along with my daughters, and that he begged. He begged the VA to do something to help his grandson. My dad lost his brother in World War II at twenty-two years old, and he was now seeing his grandson going downhill right before his eyes. And nobody was there to help. So, to me, that—that’s heartbreaking. It really is.
Gonzalez: And you, obviously, had no doubt from the beginning that the changes in his behavior, in his activities, his destructive activities, were as a result of being in the war, that he was—he had been fine before he enlisted and went to Iraq?
Joyce Lucey: Absolutely, absolutely. His girlfriend said that, a year prior to this, he would never, never have thought about taking his life. I mean, that wasn’t Jeffrey. That wasn’t Jeffrey at all. And to listen to him when he came back and to sit on the deck—and I remember sitting there going, "Who is this person? This isn’t my son." I didn’t understand what he was saying. It just seemed like it was my son’s body, but the person was no longer my child. He was totally changed, and he was lost. He was in his own world, of everything going through his head, not really looking at me, just kind of staring out and reliving things, you know, saying things in fragments, so that you never really got the whole story. But you knew whatever he had gone through was horrific to him.
Goodman: This issue of the dog tags that he left on the bed, that—Kevin, that you found on his bed after finding your son in this—in the basement, saying that he killed two Iraqis, saying that he was forced to do that?
Kevin Lucey: Yes. I found the dog tags. Jeff had worn those dog tags from the moment he had come home, no doubt beforehand. His girlfriend was the one who brought it to our attention, that she really felt ill at ease, because he refused to take them off. He only took them off two times. He took them off on December 24th, 2003, when his younger sister went in to check on him on Christmas Eve, and he had tears in his eyes, and he tossed the dog tags at her, saying that he was nothing more than a murderer. And then the second time that any of us know that he took off the dog tags was when I found them on June 22nd in the evening, resting on his bed.
Goodman: And these, he said, were the dog tags of Iraqi soldiers?
Kevin Lucey: Yeah. He identified them as the dog tags of two men that he had killed, two unarmed Iraqi soldiers. Now, that story has never been verified by the military, but we believe it in our hearts. We know that that’s the truth.
Gonzalez: You settled with the military for $350,000, and you’ve joined a class action suit on insurance for dead soldiers. Can you explain that suit?
Kevin Lucey: The suit is based on the fact that—well, just talking about our son, when our son died, he was given—we were given the life insurance, and—we thought we were given the life insurance. And we received a kit. I think it was within ten days to two weeks after Jeff died. But at that time, I’ll be honest with you, we weren’t about to sit down and read it. As we had stated, we felt that that money was tainted, because of the way it came. And there was a checkbook, but again, we just put it into a drawer, because we had enough to deal with. And I think that that’s one of the things that’s very upsetting, that a kit comes with a lot of fine print and possible disclaimers, and yet, they expect you to read that, experienced such a loss?
Then it came to our knowledge recently that the money was never placed into a bank or a protected account. By "protected," I mean FDIC. So, therefore, we found out that it was placed in a corporate investment account. And what was happening is that the company was actually making profit off of our son’s death. The account people have estimated it was earning at 5.69 percent, and they were giving us one percent. But we also discovered that in many other families, they were earning 0.5 percent. I mean, whether it’s illegal, that’s up to a court to prove. But it’s morally, ethically repugnant. It truly is. I can’t understand how any company, especially Prudential, would ever try to make profit off of our son’s death.
Gonzalez: And this was an insurance policy, a military insurance policy? Iin other words, that the government had a contract with Prudential to provide this insurance?
Kevin Lucey: Correct.
Joyce Lucey: Correct.
Goodman: Gregg Keesling, have you also joined this lawsuit?
Keesling: No, I have not. I’m hearing about it for the first time here this morning.
Goodman: Kevin, on this issue, it’s just getting play right now, just really becoming public. What has the insurance company responded?
Kevin Lucey: From the little bit that we’ve seen, they’ve responded that this is common practice, that they have done nothing wrong. And as Joyce and I were talking, if this is truly common practice, then that speaks for corporate America, then we’re in trouble. We are really in trouble. So, at this point, what we want to do is try to get all the knowledge to all the families that we can and have them make their own decisions. But it’s outrageous. It enraged us.
Goodman: Finally, Gregg Keesling, the Obama administration, congressional hearings, they all say they’re deeply alarmed by this extremely high rate of suicide—surpassed the civilian rate right now—and are investigating and trying to figure out what to do. You lost your son in Iraq. Have they come to you? Have they begun to talk to you? What do you feel the Pentagon, the Obama administration, American society needs to do around this issue of soldier suicides?
Keesling: Well, for four years in a row, the military suicide rate has set a record. And each time, military leaders have come out and said basically the same things, that we’re trying to get our hands around it, we’re trying to get more mental health treatment to the soldiers, we’re trying to destigmatize reaching out for help. And that’s what the President said in his speech earlier this week. But the actions don’t match the words, and I think that the words are not filtering down to the rank-and-file. And there are good people. Admiral Mullen and General Chiarelli are really working hard; I believe they’re committed. But I think you need to have the President lend his voice to this in a much stronger way, and the Secretary of Defense and other top Pentagon brass, to really come out forcefully on this, because in that same speech, the President said that there was a sacred trust, a moral commitment to the soldiers and their families. And in our case, we really feel that that sacred trust and that moral obligation has been broken.
We’re not asking for a lot. We’re asking for the simple acknowledgment that our son was correct in joining the military and serving his country and trying to do the right thing in betterment of his country. And that silence now for over a year, I think, speaks a lot to the true commitment to try to really reach down deep and to address this issue of mental health and soldier suicide. And we just really appeal to the President. The only thing that I can figure is he does not know this is his policy, that for some reason it’s not gotten to him, because I just can’t imagine President Obama knowing that there’s families like the Luceys and ourselves out there, and hundreds and hundreds more families, that are sitting here and not getting that sacred trust and that moral obligation shown to us by the commander-in-chief. And I think it’s time for him to address this issue.