Amy Goodman / Democracy Now! & Adam Levine / CNN – 2010-08-07 19:19:06
With Military Suicides on the Rise, Parents of Two Soldiers Who Took Their Own Lives Say Obama’s Words Ring Hollow
Amy Goodman / Democracy Now!
NEW YORK (August 6, 2010) — A new US Army report finds the rate of suicide by soldiers in the Army has risen above the civilian rate for the first time since Vietnam.
We talk to the parents of two soldiers who committed suicide: Gregg Keesling, the father of Chancellor Keesling, a US soldier who took his own life on June 19, 2009, while on his second tour of duty in Iraq, and Kevin and Joyce Lucey, whose son Jeffrey Lucey took his own life on June 22, 2004, after returning home from military duty in Iraq. They’re still waiting for letters of condolence from President Obama.
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 thatâ€™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, donâ€™t suffer in silence. Itâ€™s not a sign of weakness to reach out for support. Itâ€™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.
AMY GOODMAN: And I donâ€™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 itâ€™s hypocritical to say, “Seek help. Itâ€™s not a sign of weakness,” when itâ€™s still — it’s acknowledged that it’s a sign of weakness by the fact they will not acknowledge the family left behind.
AMY GOODMAN: Quickly, if you might, if you could tell us — we described briefly, but about your son, about Chancellor Keesling.
GREGG 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.
JUAN 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?
GREGG 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 theyâ€™ve had in these two long wars that our country is engaged in.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to the Luceys. Kevin Luceyâ€™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 Obamaâ€™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 thatâ€™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.
JUAN 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 canâ€™t even think right now. I’m sorry.
KEVIN LUCEY: Well, I mean, what Joyce, I believe, is trying —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask — let me ask Kevin, on the issue —
KEVIN LUCEY: I’m sorry.
AMY 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 — thatâ€™s heartbreaking. It really is.
JUAN 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 wasnâ€™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 isnâ€™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.
AMY 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.
AMY 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.
JUAN 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 werenâ€™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 thatâ€™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.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this was an insurance policy, a military insurance policy? In other words, that the government had a contract with Prudential to provide this insurance?
KEVIN LUCEY: Correct.
JOYCE LUCEY: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Gregg Keesling, have you also joined this lawsuit?
GREGG KEESLING: No, I have not. I’m hearing about it for the first time here this morning.
AMY 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 weâ€™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.
AMY 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?
GREGG 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.
Weâ€™re not asking for a lot. Weâ€™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.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for joining us. Gregg, give our regards to Janet, your wife.
GREGG KEESLING: I will. I will.
AMY GOODMAN: We will link to the conversations weâ€™ve had with both of you on Democracy Now! Gregg and Janet Keesling are the parents of Chancellor Keesling, who committed suicide June 19th, 2009, while serving in a second deployment in Iraq. And Kevin and Joyce Lucey, thanks so much for being with us again. Their son, former Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, hanged himself June 22nd, 2004, after returning home from Iraq. We will, of course, continue to follow this story.
White House Policy: No Letter to Families of Military Suicides
Adam Levine / CNN
WASHINGTON (November 27, 2009) — Gregg Keesling chooses his words carefully when he talks about the death of his son, Spc. Chancellor Keesling. As far as he’s concerned, the soldier didn’t “take his own life” or “commit suicide.” His son “died by suicide,” Keesling insists — and he has his reasons why.
When 25-year old Chancellor Keesling shot himself in Iraq on June 19, his family received much support from the military and local officials. Gregg Keesling’s son was given the honor afforded to a fallen service member. The Keesling family went to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to watch as his body was flown back to Indiana six days later. At his burial, seven rifles fired three times each, in true military tradition.
Later, the soldier’s aunt created a memorial wall in the family’s Indianapolis living room. On the wall hangs Spc. Keesling’s uniform, the US flag that was handed to his mother, Jannett, after the service and the Indianapolis flag that flew over the state Capitol in his honor.
Yet there’s an empty spot on the wall for an honor that never arrived: a letter from the president.
Gregg Keesling wanted to know why, especially after hearing President Obama talk about how he struggled to write letters to the families of each and every soldier killed in the war.
After pressing for an answer, the family found out the truth: There would be no condolence letter. It’s a matter of policy dating to the Clinton era, according to the White House. The commander in chief sends such letters to the families of troops who have died in combat, but not if they committed suicide, Gregg was told.
The policy felt wrong to Gregg and Jannett Keesling. Their son was a hero, and his country should be proud of him, they said. So Gregg Keesling wrote to Obama and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., imploring them to rethink the policy. “The recognition of the president could have profound impact on the family of the suicide victim,” Keesling wrote in August.
“The lack of acknowledgment and condolences from the President, who our family admires greatly, leaves us with an emotional vacuum and a feeling that we his family have somehow [made] less of a sacrifice,” he wrote in another letter to Casey. A White House spokesman said the administration is reviewing the “inherited” policy.
“The President’s thoughts and prayers are with every military family who has lost a loved one in service to our country. As Commander-in-Chief, he has worked with Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen to address the mental health needs of our service members,” spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote in an e-mail.
Spc. Keesling completed two tours of duty in Iraq. When he enlisted in 2003, the family struggled with his decision. But the young soldier was convinced that he made the right decision, telling his family, “We must have a military, and somebody’s got to be in it.”
Before he deployed 2005, he was anxious but excited, his mother remembered. However, toward the end of his deployment, the stress of a failing marriage and the shock of war “began to wear on him terribly,” Gregg Keesling said. In anger, he threw his wedding ring into the Tigris River, his parents said. He was put under suicide watch, and his ammunition was taken away for several days.
At home, though, he was “back to his old self,” his father said, adding that his son found a job at FedEx and a new girlfriend. He was treated at the Veterans Affairs clinic for a shoulder injury and burn he suffered during his deployment. His parents assumed he was being treated for everything he needed.
In 2009, he received new deployment orders. His family suggested that he move to his mother’s native Jamaica to avoid service, but the soldier insisted that it was his obligation to see it through, his parents said.
When Keesling deployed again, this time as a reservist, he wasn’t with his original comrades. Instead, he and 10 other Indiana reserves shipped off with a 300-member unit from Tennessee, with just two months of training together.
His mental health records were not passed on either, leaving Spc. Keesling to share his past problems with his unit if he so chose. He never did.
“I understand that, but it is a very big burden to put on a soldier to self-identify,” Gregg Keesling said.
In e-mails to his family, Spc. Keesling wrote about how distant he felt from his new brothers in arms. “I hate going to war with people I don’t know,” he said to his father.
Gregg Keesling said his son struggled with members of his unit who joked about troops who committed suicide, oblivious to his struggles.
It became too much to bear.
After a long-distance fight with his girlfriend, the soldier said in an e-mail that he wanted to shoot himself.
After several phone calls, Spc. Keesling told his mother that he would talk to the Army chaplain. He never did. Instead, 12 hours after that e-mail, he went into a latrine and shot himself.
The family believes that his suicide was brought on by the stress of war and the distance from loved ones. To them, it is death by injury like any other incident.
“He died by suicide,” Gregg said. “He just had an injury that we just did not recognize.”
And that’s why they want a letter from the president.
“We don’t want to force the president to write a letter of condolence. We hope he would want to,” Gregg said. “We hope the president of the United States would want to show the appreciation to a family like ours for the sacrifice we made in allowing our son to become a soldier and defend his country.”
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