‘Something happened to Jeff’
Jeff Lucey returned from Iraq a changed man. Then he killed himself.
By Irene Sege, Globe Staff | March 1, 2005
BELCHERTOWN — Less than three weeks before he committed suicide, Jeffrey Lucey, lance corporal in the Marine Reserves, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, totaled his parents’ Nissan Altima.
He wasn’t drunk when he ran the car off the road and landed between two trees, which was surprising given how much he used alcohol to dull the torment roiling inside his head. But he’d taken the Klonopin prescribed to ease his anxiety.
So when Kevin and Joyce Lucey visit their only son’s grave, they drive his Hyundai, with the Marine Corps decal Jeff put on the back window and the Marine seal he affixed to the bumper and the ”Support Our Troops” magnet and Kerry-Edwards sticker they added after he died. They pass yellow ribbons still fluttering from trees in front of the house where they raised three children, and when they arrive at the Ludlow cemetery, an expanse of small, fluttering American flags tells them Jeff finds his final rest in the company of scores of other veterans.
Jeffrey Michael Lucey was 23 and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when he hanged himself with a garden hose in the cellar of his family’s home last June 22. His family shares his story in hope of helping those, among the hundreds of thousands who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who will battle similar demons.
”He wasn’t an important person, but he was very important to us,” his mother says. ”What’s important is what happened to him when he came back.”
On the TV in the Lucey living room, beside a teddy bear Marine, is a photograph of Jeff as a Cub Scout, his face impish enough it’s possible to imagine the day, when he was about 13, that his father came home to find him tobogganing off the roof into deep snow. On the piano is a prom picture of him and Julie Proulx, his girlfriend since high school.
”He was your everyday kid,” says Kevin Lucey, a 54-year-old therapist for sex offenders. ”He wasn’t a saint. He snuck out of his window. He’d be meeting up with his friends, and we thought he was sleeping. He started calming down when he and Julie started going out.”
Jeff joined the Marine Reserves in 1999, in part to pay for schooling his parents were prepared to finance. ”He also wanted to prove something to himself,” Kevin says. ”He knew the Marines were the toughest branch.”
In May 2000, Jeff left his Western Massachusetts hometown for boot camp, then was assigned to the Sixth Motor Transport Battalion in New Haven. In January 2003, the unit was activated. Lucey arrived in Kuwait in February, in advance of a war he opposed. In a tiny notebook with a camouflage print cover, he kept a journal that ends as the invasion of Iraq begins.
”Emotions such as anger towards our anything but wise commander in chief for ripping us out of our daily lives and pasteing us into a waste depository named Kuwait,” he wrote on March 8, 2003, ”or pain and heartache from missing the loved ones we left behind and of course the depression that forms when these two emotions are mixed together. With the deep thought associated with depression blooms uncertainty. Uncertainty can drive any man crazy, the uncertainty about what’s going to change about your life upon your arrival home.”
The journal ends March 20, apparently in Iraq, with news of a scud missile landing nearby. ”The noise was just short of blowing out your eardrums. Everyone’s heart truly skipped a beat and the reality of where we are and what’s truly happening hit home,” he wrote. ”We now just had a gas alert and it is past midnight. We will not sleep. Nerves are on edge.”
In July 2003 — after serving in Iraq in a light transport company that his comrades say ferried such cargo as ammunition, food, and Iraqi prisoners of war — Lucey, tan, thinner, and smiling, arrived by bus at the Marine reservist center in New Haven.
”We felt so good,” his father says. ”He survived.”
Although it’s unclear what proportion of Iraq veterans will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the numbers will undoubtedly surge as more troops come home. A 2003 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last summer found that about 15 percent of returning soldiers have PTSD, anxiety, or depression. Among Vietnam veterans, 25 to 30 percent developed PTSD. ”In the nature of the disease, onset is delayed,” says Dr. Thomas Burke, director of mental health policy for the Department of Defense. ”It remains to be seen whether early intervention and the treatments that are available today will catch some of it early and result in these vets having only 15 percent.”
The department counts 32 suicides among American forces while serving in Iraq and another 10 in Afghanistan. How many killed themselves after returning home is harder to pinpoint, but the Army and Marines report at least 29 have.
Beginning last March, as winter gave way to spring, Jeff seemed increasingly distressed. By mid-May, he was spiraling downward. He heard voices, hallucinated, rarely left his room, drank alone. He pushed his girlfriend away. Seeing these changes, his family hid dog leashes and removed combat knives from their home. They disabled Jeff’s car after he crashed theirs. They took him to the Northampton VA Medical Center and the Veterans Center in Springfield. They barely slept.
They had attributed earlier changes they’d noticed to the readjustment period the military told families to expect. ”Julie noticed a distance. Sometimes he would get lost in a daze,” Kevin says. ”He was drinking, but nothing to where it ended up being, and it wasn’t continual.”
Lance Corporal Pablo Chaverri, a childhood friend who enlisted with Jeff, rarely ran into him in Iraq but saw him again back home. ”He just seemed down,” Chaverri writes in an e-mail from Iraq, where he’s been redeployed. ”We ended up going to Maine for a weekend during October of 2003. I didn’t notice anything until we started driving back home. He was very quiet and didn’t say much. That was not like him. He was the type to talk and get into conversations. He seemed zoned out and just didn’t seem right. He was not the type of guy that would admit he is weak.”
On Christmas Eve, in a sign of the despair to come, Jeff begged off the family’s traditional visit to his grandparents. His sister Debra, 21, came back early. As they talked in the kitchen, Jeff threw two Iraqi dog tags he wore at her. ”He said, ‘Don’t you know your brother’s a murderer?’ ” Debra recalls. ”I didn’t know what to say. I said, ‘You’re my brother.’ “
The most chilling story Jeff told his family was of being ordered to shoot two Iraqi prisoners and then keeping their dog tags, a claim the Marines investigated and determined did not happen. A Marine buddy, Lance Corporal David Samen, remembers seeing Jeff find one dog tag in the sand. Jeff also talked of running from his truck and scooping up a dead child. Jeff was buried with the small, bloodied American flag he said the child clutched.
”Something happened to Jeff that had him totally fall apart and be destroyed. What it was I don’t know,” Kevin says. ”Whatever happened — whether it was a collection of things, whether he assumed collective guilt — there is no question his experiences there planted something within him that was almost like a cancer.”
The bed in Jeff’s room is neatly covered with a Marine blanket, unlike in his last weeks, when it stayed unmade. Otherwise, the room is much as he left it. Under the window are several pairs of military boots and folded uniforms. On the door is a poster of a Marine ready for battle. Empty bottles of beer and brandy rest on his bureau. His handprint smudges the window.
The house carries the sweet scent of lit aromatic candles, and a blaze crackles in the living room fireplace. Here, last spring, Jeff found his dad’s copy of ”Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” by Matthew Friedman. He turned to a list of symptoms — ”recurrent distressing dreams,” ”reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes,” ”estrangement from others,” ”difficulty falling or staying asleep,” ”outbursts of anger.” Repeatedly Jeff said, ”I have that.”
After he returned from Iraq, Jeff had resumed his studies at Holyoke Community College, where he befriended Shaun Lamory, a fellow Belchertown High graduate recently discharged from the Air Force. ”We shared the same sentiments about the war,” says Lamory, 22. ”We were both against it.” Jeff planned to transfer to the University of Massachusetts in the fall and talked, in the last months of his life, of switching his major from business to nursing. ”He told me he had been involved in taking lives long enough,” Lamory says. ”He wanted to do something that would make him sleep better at night.”
Jeff once asked Lamory to join him for a cigarette. ”When he was telling me that story about the dead child, he was drinking wine out of an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle,” Lamory says. ”He said he drinks in solitude in his room and stares at the flag and thinks of that child.”
Jeff had been deteriorating since March, when he complained of being easily startled. ”He said when somebody slammed a door in the hall he would drop his books and crouch down real quick,” says Joyce, who worked as a nurse. ”He was very embarrassed.” By April, he skipped classes. He didn’t take his final exams.
Yet Jeff resisted suggestions that he seek help. He feared the VA would tell the Marines his problems and worried he’d have trouble getting a job if he was labeled with post-traumatic stress disorder. His drinking worsened. ”We didn’t want to take away his ‘medicine’ until he got help,” Kevin says.
Finally, in May, Jeff started seeing a private therapist, who diagnosed him with PTSD.
Jeff frightened his family, telling Debra in May he’d chosen a rope and a tree — probably a favorite maple with a rope swing. ”I would never do it,” Debra says he reassured her, ”because it would hurt Mom and Dad.” Walking with his mother one sunny day, he handed her his headphones and asked her to listen. What Joyce heard alarmed her. ”I’m staring down the barrel of a 45, swimming through the ashes of another life,” went the lyrics to ”45″ by Shinedown.
”He said, ‘Don’t take it that way. I don’t think of it as looking down a .45. I look at it as a dark tunnel,’ ” Joyce says. ”When you think about it, it’s the same thing — no light.”
By late May, Jeff had so deteriorated that his family, assured his medical records would be private, took him to the Northampton VA Medical Center. He expressed enough suicidal tendencies — talking, according to progress notes his family shares, of overdosing or hanging himself — that he was admitted for three days. He refused to stay longer. ”He felt like he was a prisoner,” Kevin says.
Jeff was told, his family says, that the VA couldn’t treat the PTSD until he quit drinking, in contrast to what they have since learned from the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder website (www.ncptsd.org), which recommends treating PTSD and alcohol abuse simultaneously. VA officials won’t comment on Jeff’s case, but Dr. Gonzalo Vera, a psychiatrist at the Northampton hospital, says most medications used to treat PTSD don’t mix with alcohol. ”PTSD,” he says, ”is not something you can really treat with somebody who’s drinking, because it takes a lot of insight.”
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.”