Kevin and Joyce Lucey have been through about the worst nightmare imaginable, but the dream seems to repeat itself again and again.
The Belchertown couple saw their son Jeffrey off to Iraq with the Marines in 2003. He returned later that year, haunted by what he’d seen and done, and driven to alcohol. Lucey tried to get treatment at the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the VA diagnosed him with alcoholism and mood swings and discharged him after a few days. On June 22, 2004, Kevin Lucey came home from work and noticed the television in the basement was on. When he went down there, he found his son hanging by the neck. Jeffrey Lucey was dead. He was 23.
The family sued the VA for wrongful death. The federal government settled for $300,000. The Luceys subsequently joined a lawsuit against Prudential Insurance Company, saying it was keeping interest from the life insurance benefits paid to the families of dead soldiers.
Now another controversy has the Luceys angry over the behavior of a VA administrator.
In December, Robin Paul, a manager at the Indiana VA hospital, sent an email to coworkers showing elves in different positions. One was sucking up coffee grounds through a straw near a post-it note that says, “Out of Xanax. Please help.” Another elf is hanging from a string of Christmas lights, “caught in the act of suicidal behavior.”
The VA strenuously denied that Paul’s behavior is representative of its attitude and put her on paid administrative leave. Since then, a petition has circulated for Paul’s dismissal. It reportedly has close to 7,000 signatures. Joyce Lucey signed it, but Kevin has thus far refrained.
“I’d like to team up with (Paul) and think about what’s appropriate,” he said Thursday. “It just seems the VA has an issue with sensitivity. It needs to bring in families and allow itself to understand everything that happens to them.”
Given the way Jeff died, the Luceys were primarily shocked by the elf pictures. “It got us angry,” said Kevin. “I found it surprising a VA manager sending out things like that.”
The government’s own statistics show that 22 veterans take their own lives every day, Lucey said. For Paul, who was responsible for connecting veterans with their benefits, to make light of their plight leaves Lucey “incredulous.”
John Downing, the president of Soldier On, which operates a homeless shelter at the Northampton VA, said Thursday he doesn’t think Paul’s attitude is systemic.
“The local programs are very good and respectful of veterans,” he said. However, Downing said it’s hard for some veterans to trust people, and Paul’s email has only made the problem worse.
“She had a very negative view,” he said.
The Luceys, meanwhile, are heading to Washington, D.C.. this weekend to speak about their son at Columbia Law School. March 18 is his birthday. He would have been 34.