The family of an Iraq war veteran filed suit Thursday accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson of negligence in the suicide death of their son.
The lawsuit says the VA is to blame for the death of 23-year-old Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine who killed himself in June 2004 after he allegedly was denied mental health care following a tour in Iraq.
The lawsuit seeking unspecified damages names Nicholson, who is leaving his job, and the U.S. government as defendants.
The action comes just days after the group Veterans for Common Sense sued Nicholson and the VA on behalf of injured Iraq war veterans. That lawsuit accuses the agency of unlawfully denying the veterans disability pay and mental health treatment.
Lucey's father, Kevin, says he and his wife hope their lawsuit will force the Bush administration to take swift action to fix the VA.
"They've got to look at the entire system of the VA," said Lucey, who spoke from his home in Belchertown, Mass. "We're hoping that it goes to trial and that people can truly see how dysfunctional the system is."
Kevin and Joyce Lucey joined the anti-war group Military Families Speak Out after their son's death.
A message left for Nicholson was not immediately returned.
Nicholson abruptly announced last week that he would step down by Oct. 1 to return to the private sector. He has repeatedly defended the agency during his 2 1/2-year tenure while acknowledging there was room for improvement.
According to the complaint, Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey began to experience difficulties several months after returning home from Iraq. He had nightmares, daily bouts of vomiting and began drinking heavily. Depression soon set in.
He told his sister he had "a rope and tree picked out" behind the family home and needed to keep a flashlight by his bed to check for camel spiders he heard at night.
His parents took him to the Northampton VA Medical Center and he was involuntarily committed for help. He was released a few days later after VA personnel said they couldn't make an assessment of his post-traumatic stress disorder until he was alcohol free, said the complaint.
A few days later, his family took Lucey back to the center, but the lawsuit says the staff turned him away. Kevin Lucey found his son dead, hanging from a beam in the cellar two weeks later.
The VA has been heavily criticized by lawmakers and others amid reports of months-long delays for treatment, poorly trained workers and inadequate screening for mental health problems.
Changes to come?
On Wednesday, a presidential commission urged broad changes to the military health care system. It recommended comprehensive training programs in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries for military leaders, VA and Pentagon personnel.
Among the other recommendations: better benefits for family members helping the wounded; creating an easy-to-use Web site for medical records; and overhauling the way disability pay is awarded.
President Bush said he has instructed Nicholson and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look at the recommendations and implement the ones they have the power to enact.
The Lucey's lawsuit was filed in federal court in Springfield, Mass.