April 16, 2009 at 11:52 am

Casualties of war

Desperate veterans turn to suicide

VA blamed for failing to help Iraq, Afghan veterans

Michael Sheppard, 35, with his daughter Teagan, re-enlisted in the Navy when his brother Randen Harvey announced he was joining the Marines. Harvey served two tours of duty in Iraq before he killed himself on June 15, 2006. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

On June 11, 2006, at 8:30 p.m., Randen Harvey, a 24-year-old Marine Corps veteran, walked into the emergency room of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ann Arbor in such a state of despair he warned he "might jump off the roof or put a hose in his car exhaust."

Four hours later, around 1 a.m., he was found on the roof of the nine-story building. Hospital security had to be called to bring him down.

Three days later, on June 15, the Marine who served two back-to-back combat tours in Iraq surrendered to his demons. He was found sprawled on the tile floor in the bathroom of his father's Farmington Hills home, dead from an overdose of street and prescription drugs.

Several branches of the military are reporting significant spikes in the number of suicides committed by both active-duty troops and veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Experts are calling the number of military-related suicides sweeping the country an "epidemic."

Survivors of veterans who committed suicide are starting to file lawsuits, accusing the VA of medical malpractice. The agency also has come under attack by lawmakers and veterans' groups charging that it failed to treat injured veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The agency also has been accused of manipulating suicide statistics to downplay the problem and systematically misdiagnosing returning combat soldiers who suffer mental illness because their resources are tapped.

"We are murdering our own children here," said the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., in an interview with The Detroit News.

"The tragedy is we could have predicted this, what with multiple deployments, the type of urban warfare and the almost inevitable killing of innocent people. Now we have an epidemic on our hands. This is a national disgrace."

Veterans groups say they are bracing for a flood of soldiers coming home from Iraq to a Veterans Affairs system that is ill-equipped to treat them and a country in the grips of a recession with few or no jobs to offer soldiers.

Harvey was honorably discharged less than seven months before he committed suicide. He came home only to find he couldn't sleep, couldn't hold a job, couldn't stand to be in public, couldn't stay sober and couldn't be around the family who loved him.

The night he was found on the roof of the hospital, he told a VA psychiatrist: "I am at the end of my rope. Things would be much easier if I weren't here." But because Harvey had failed a Breathalyzer test, he was discharged.The following morning Harvey returned to the hospital and was examined by Dr. Brian Martis, associate director of psychiatry at the Ann Arbor VA. Harvey told the psychiatrist he felt "hopeless" and "ashamed." Still, Harvey was not admitted to the hospital.

Instead, the veteran who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, panic anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse -- the same patient who had tried to commit suicide two months prior and who, only hours earlier, had been talked down from the hospital roof -- was, in Martis' words, "not certifiable" -- hospital code for not sick enough to be involuntarily committed.

In a lawsuit, Harvey's family claims that Veterans Affairs, the organization President Abraham Lincoln said was charged "to care for him who shall have borne the battle," failed to keep him from taking his own life.

His mother, Jackie Green of Brooklyn, filed the medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Officials at the Ann Arbor Veteran Affairs facility where her son sought help, declined to comment for this story because the case is in litigation.

'The Brothers'

Green referred to her four sons from two marriages as The Brothers, as if they are one unit, one force with which to be reckoned: "You better run that by 'The Brothers,' " she'll say. Or: "The Brothers don't agree." Michael Sheppard is 35, David Sheppard, 33, Ryan Sheppard, 29 and Harvey, the youngest, would have been 27 on Feb. 1.

His relatives describe Harvey as the "glue," the "heart" of the family, with "the most infectious laugh you've ever heard."

The boys grew up on 80 acres in Comins in Oscoda County. Green, then a divorcee, moved from Ferndale to the country where her sons could have four-wheelers, dirt bikes and snowmobiles.

While the brothers have their own share of pain, Michael Sheppard seems the hardest hit. Last February, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Now, Sheppard finds himself thinking about what might have been.

When Harvey announced he was joining the Marines, Sheppard, a four-year Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War, re-enlisted. He joined his little brother at basic training in San Diego. When Sheppard later suffered a ruptured hamstring, the planned tour of duty together was off. In January 2003, his brother shipped off to Kuwait alone.

Family sees difference

After Harvey was discharged in November 2005, Green says she could see the difference in his eyes. "He looked so haunted," she says.

That Christmas, surrounded by relatives, Harvey had to leave his mother's house. He said he felt claustrophobic. By spring he was sleeping outside on the porch with a handmade machete.

He tried working at Best Buy but had a panic attack in the middle of a shift and never went back. Then he tried working for a landscaping business. When a lawnmower engine backfired, he lost it. Humiliated, he said: "I'm afraid of a frigging lawn mower!"

In the span of six weeks, in early 2006, Harvey got two drunken driving tickets. His mother tried to intervene: "I pointed out to him the worst person in the world doesn't just all of a sudden start getting drunk driving convictions. You need help," Green recalled.

On March 31, 2006, when Harvey was first seen by the Ann Arbor VA's urgent care facility, he said he could sleep only four hours a night. He admitted that he'd been cutting himself on his arms, but denied that he was suicidal.

Harvey was given prescriptions for Xanax and Wellbutrin, both antidepressants.

Two weeks later, on April 16, 2006, he swallowed what was left of the prescriptions and ended up in the VA hospital in Detroit for the night. But he downplayed it to his family, saying it was "just a panic attack."

On May 3, 2006, about five weeks before he died, Harvey was evaluated in the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic in Ann Arbor.

A physician wrote in his chart: "Patient says his motor transport unit was assigned 'cleanup duty' of casualties. P. says he felt disgusted and horrified by the site of dead and mutilated bodies especially by those of dead women and children. 'We bagged them and threw them in the truck like it was garbage day.' At one point he says he vomited from those sights and smells."

Real tragedy of war

A day after her son died, Green said she received two phone calls. One was from an intake counselor at the VA Battle Creek Medical Center saying they had a bed available for his long-term residential care. "He was one day away from getting help," she says ruefully. "One damned day."

The other was from the physician in Ann Arbor who had decided hours after his patient climbed up on a roof that he would release him. Jackie says he called to apologize. He said he would not make the same decision again. She screamed at him: "Why didn't you lock my son up? He might be alive if you had."

In retrospect, the grieving mother says: "You know it's a terrible thing to say about your dead son. But he looked so at peace. He just looked like all the war had been drained out of him. And it strikes me as so sad, a tragedy really, that he had to die to be at peace."

mkeenan@detnews.com">mkeenan@detnews.com. (313) 222-2515

Sheppard never had the chance to give a Marine Corps music box and book to ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
The day after Harvey's death, his mother, Jackie Green, says she ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
David, left, and Michael Sheppard remember their younger brother Randen ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
"You know it's a terrible thing to say about your dead son. But ...
Relatives say Harvey, shown when he was 6 with his cousin Tiffany Burry, ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)