Sunday, March 18, 2007

BOB HERBERT: Death of a Marine

Jeffrey Lucey was 18 when he signed up for the Marine Reserves in December 1999. His parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey of Belchertown, Mass., were not happy. They had hoped their son would go to college.

Jeffrey himself was ambivalent.

“The recruiter was a very smooth talker and very, very persistent,” Ms. Lucey told me in a call from Orlando, Fla., where she was on vacation with her husband and their two grown daughters last week. The conversation was difficult. Ms. Lucey would talk for a while, and then her husband would get on the phone.

“We see him everywhere,” Ms. Lucey said. “Every little dark-haired boy you see, it looks like Jeff. If we see a parent reprimanding a child, it’s like you want to go up and say, ‘Oh, don’t do that, because you don’t know how long you’re going to have him.’ ”

The war in Iraq began four years ago today. Fans at sporting events around the U.S. greeted the war and its early “shock and awe” bombing campaign with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Jeffrey Lucey, who turned 22 the day before the war began, had a different perspective. He had no illusions about the glory or glamour of warfare. His unit had been activated and he was part of the first wave of troops to head into the combat zone.

A diary entry noted the explosion of a Scud missile near his unit: “The noise was just short of blowing out your eardrums. Everyone’s heart truly skipped a beat. ... Nerves are on edge.”

By the time he came home, Jeffrey Lucey was a mess. He had gruesome stories to tell. They could not all be verified, but there was no doubt that this once-healthy young man had been shattered by his experiences.

He had nightmares. He drank furiously. He withdrew from his friends. He wrecked his parents’ car. He began to hallucinate.

In a moment of deep despair on the Christmas Eve after his return from Iraq, Jeffrey hurled his dogtags at his sister Debra and cried out, “Don’t you know your brother’s a murderer?”

Jeffrey exhibited all the signs of deep depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Wars do that to people. They rip apart the mind and the soul in the same way that bullets and bombs mutilate the body. The war in Iraq is inflicting a much greater emotional toll on U.S. troops than most Americans realize.

The Luceys tried desperately to get help for Jeffrey, but neither the military nor the Veterans Administration is equipped to cope with the war’s mounting emotional and psychological casualties.

On the evening of June 22, 2004, Kevin Lucey came home and called out to Jeffrey. There was no answer. He noticed that the door leading to the basement was open and that the light in the basement was on. He did not see the two notes that Jeffrey had left on the first floor for his parents:

“It’s 4:35 p.m. and I am near completing my death.”

“Dad, please don’t look. Mom, just call the police — Love, Jeff.”

The first thing Mr. Lucey saw as he walked down to the basement was that Jeff had set up an arrangement of photos. There was a picture of his platoon, and photos of his sisters, Debra and Kelly, his parents, the family dog and himself.

“Then I could see, through the corner of my eye, Jeff,” said Mr. Lucey. “And he was, I thought, standing there. Then I noticed the hose around his neck.”

The Luceys hope that in talking about their family’s tragedy they will bring more attention to the awful struggle faced by so many troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional illnesses. “We hear of so many suicides,” said Mr. Lucey.

Ms. Lucey added, “We thought that if we told other people about Jeffrey they might see their loved ones mirrored in him, and maybe they would be more aggressive, or do something different than we did. We didn’t feel we had the knowledge we needed and we lost our child.”

The Luceys are more than just concerned and grief-stricken. They’re angry. They’ve joined an antiwar organization, Military Families Speak Out, and they want the war in Iraq brought to an end. “That’s the only way to prevent further Jeffreys from happening,” Ms. Lucey said.

Mr. Lucey made no effort to hide his bitterness over the government’s failure to address many of the critical needs of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. His voice quivered as he said, “When we hear anybody in the administration get up and say that they support the troops, it sickens us.”

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