The US government has agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a federal claim by a Belchertown family who blamed Northampton VA Medical Center for the suicide of their son, an Iraq war veteran who hanged himself after he allegedly was denied mental healthcare.
A lawyer from the office of US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said in a letter filed yesterday at US District Court in Springfield that the June 2004 suicide of Jeffrey Lucey, a 23-year-old Marine, "while under VA care was a tragedy for the VA and the individual care providers."
The lawyer, Assistant US Attorney Karen L. Goodwin, said the suicide had led to improvements in how Veterans Administration medical centers treat veterans. Changes included the hiring of suicide-prevention coordinators and 100 new adjustment counselors at 207 Vet Centers.
"VA, both nationally and locally, has been challenged to appreciate and meet the healthcare needs of veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," Goodwin wrote Jan. 6 to the lawyer for Lucey's parents in a letter calling the $350,000 settlement a final offer.
"Jeffrey's case, among others, fostered awareness and led to improvements in the VA's approach to the new generation of war veterans."
The government admitted no responsibility in the suicide, and Goodwin wrote that the Veterans Affairs administration would have had a strong legal defense at trial.
The Marine's father, Kevin Lucey, said he and his wife, Joyce, believe their son was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. They settled, he said, because the steps that the Department of Veterans Affairs has taken amount to an admission that medical treatment provided to veterans was deficient.
"When I brought Jeff to the VA, I really thought I was bringing him into the arms of angels," said his father, a therapist. "I thought they'd help us help him save himself, and, regretfully, because of how broken and how dysfunctional the system is, that never was."
In a statement issued by an antiwar group, Military Families Speak Out, Kevin Lucey said, "The government killed my son. It sent him into an illegal and reckless war and then, when he returned home, it denied him the basic healthcare he needed."
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Cristobal Bonifaz, the Conway lawyer representing Lucey's parents, accepted the offer in a Jan. 9 letter also filed yesterday. He said in an interview that an estimated 300,000 veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of their service in Afghanistan or Iraq. The settlement, he said, marks the first time the government has paid damages to one of those veterans, or their estates, for their injuries.
Northampton VA Medical Center, in Leeds, issued a statement saying it has increased its mental health staff and created new programs for war veterans. "We were greatly saddened at the death of this young veteran, and we again express our deep sorrow for the family's loss," the center said.
Lucey served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and, according to his family, returned home a changed man. He began to have nightmares, insomnia, and severe depression and drank heavily, alarming his relatives.
His family said he became suicidal and told a sister that he had picked out the rope and the tree from which he planned to hang himself. They took him to the VA, and he was involuntarily committed on May 28, 2004, Bonifaz said.
Lucey was placed in a locked psychiatric ward, given psychotropic drugs, and released three days later, Bonifaz said. Two days afterward, he totaled the family car in what his family believed was a suicide attempt. His family took him back to the VA on June 5. A nurse interviewed him in the parking lot but turned Lucey away without contacting a psychiatrist, Bonifaz said.
He hanged himself on June 22 in the basement of his family's home in Belchertown.
In her letter offering the settlement, Goodwin disputed allegations by the family. She said, for example, that Lucey was reluctant to talk to hospital staff on the evening of June 5. She also said that a suicide specialist retained by the defense concluded that "Jeffrey did not come close to meeting the standard for involuntary commitment."
Goodwin said the $350,000 offer reflected a "dispassionate risk analysis" and was "not an attempt to put a money value on Jeffrey Lucey's life or the family's suffering."