Friday, May 30, 2008

For Palisades native, war trauma ends in suicide

By Hannan Adely
• The Journal News • March 1, 2008 PALISADES

After two tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps Reserve, Steven Vickerman tried to resume a normal life at home with his wife, but he could not shake a feeling of despair.

His parents, Richard and Carole Vickerman of Palisades, went to visit him at a veterans hospital after he suffered a mental breakdown; they were in disbelief. The funny and adventurous baby brother had become sullen, withdrawn and full of anxiety.

Vickerman, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed himself Feb. 19.

"We're still in shock. Our son was a proud Marine. He served his country honorably, and we don't know what happened to him," said Carole Vickerman, who buried her son Tuesday at Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill.

As soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are unprepared to deal with the anxiety and depression stemming from their experiences in war. Some seek help from the Veterans Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but become frustrated by paperwork and long waits for counseling and care. Others feel too proud or embarrassed to seek help at all, or believe they can tough it out with time. Despair drives many to take their own lives, according to reports and experts.

The Veterans Health Administration estimated in a May 2007 report that 1,000 suicides occurred per year among veterans who received care within the VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all veterans.

At the same time, the number of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is surging, according to studies and veterans advocacy groups.

Families like the Vickermans often feel overwhelmed by the guilt and helplessness that surrounds post-traumatic stress disorder. The Vickermans wanted to help their son but did not know where to look for support services or how to deal with the effects of the illness.

The VA, they believed, had failed their son. The services available, they said, were insufficient, and the government should do more to address the issue for returning war vets.

"There should be something that can be done, not only for the proud soldiers but also for their families," Carole Vickerman said. "When you hear the word 'stress,' it sounds so innocuous. It's not stress; it's a killer."

Steven Vickerman, a Tappan Zee High School graduate, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. A whiz at technical jobs and an electrician by trade, the staff sergeant served as a small arms technician with Marine Aircraft Group 49, Detachment B, at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

His first tour in Iraq was interrupted when he returned home to be with his older brother, who was dying of a brain tumor. Robert died at age 35. Vickerman served a second tour and was honorably discharged in 2005.

About two weeks ago, Vickerman's wife went on a business trip in New York City and could not reach her husband by phone. The Vickermans also could not reach him. They called his therapist, who was scheduled to see him on a Wednesday, but Vickerman missed his appointment.

The therapist called police, who found Vickerman dead at his home, where he had hanged himself.

Staff Sgt. Steven Vickerman died of a combat wound. Yet his death will not be counted as a price paid by those we send. None of the thousands of others wounded will be counted when this nation let them down and they lost their battle with the enemy that followed them home.

While they are deployed with the rest of their unit, they have the men and women they serve with watching their backs. If they are wounded by a bullet, the others try to rescue them. If they are blown up, the rest of their unit using everything they have to save their lives.

Yet when they are wounded by PTSD, all the rules are broken, the sense of urgency to act to save their lives is ignored and some are even attacked for being wounded in this way.
When they come home, their military family is no where to be found as they return to their families back home. They try to cope, adjust, get on with their lives, but for some it is impossible when they try to seek help with the DOD or the VA.

They feel they are battling this enemy alone.Vickerman will be added as a number but not part of the honorably deceased names when monuments of the sacrifice are built.
His wound did not come with a Purple Heart. Vickerman is just one more of the thousands of others who died because they were wounded.There is a great debate going on that you do not hear about within the units of those who commit suicide while deployed.

Some feel as if the suicide is nothing to honor while others see it as a true wound and the death should be just as honored as the life lived. Those who want to honor it as equally as a bullet or bomb death, see PTSD as another wound. Why can't the rest of them?

What will it take for this nation to add these names, these lives, these stories into the history books of war? What will it take this nation to stop separating PTSD wounds from the rest of the wounds the men and women serving this nation suffer from?

If they really wanted to end the stigma of PTSD the best place to start is to fully acknowledge PTSD for what it is and that's a combat wound. My husband will be wounded for the rest of his life and his service, his acknowledged risk of life ended in 1971, but the real risk to his life is an ongoing battle. He fights to stay alive everyday by taking his medication and going for therapy. It all works to keep him stabilized. He is not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam veterans like him, Korean veterans, Gulf War veterans and now this new generation of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Our family is not alone and neither are the rest of the families like Vickerman's family. We all care for the wounded as if their lives depended on it because they do. To us, they are wounded by combat, wounded by their service to this nation and they should be regarded as what they are. The time to stop separating this wound from all the other wounds should have ended as soon as we understood what PTSD was. A wounded caused by trauma.

There is nothing more traumatic than combat or the events involved with combat operations. They would not have been wounded if they did not go. They would not have nightmares and flashbacks of the horror if they were not sent. We need to acknowledge this and honor it.

Kathie Costos

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Vets taking PTSD drugs die in sleep

Hurricane man's death the 4th in West Virginia

A Putnam County veteran who was taking medication prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder died in his sleep earlier this month, in circumstances similar to the deaths of three other area veterans earlier this year.

By Julie Robinson
Staff writer

A Putnam County veteran who was taking medication prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder died in his sleep earlier this month, in circumstances similar to the deaths of three other area veterans earlier this year.

Derek Johnson, 22, of Hurricane, served in the infantry in the Middle East in 2005, where he was wounded in combat and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder while hospitalized.

Military doctors prescribed Paxil, Klonopin and Seroquel for Johnson,the same combination taken by veterans Andrew White, 23, of CrossLanes; Eric Layne, 29, of Kanawha City; and Nicholas Endicott of LoganCounty. All were in apparently good physical health when they died in their sleep.

Johnson was taking Klonopin and Seroquel, as prescribed, at the timeof his death, said his grandmother, Georgeann Underwood of Hurricane.

Both drugs are frequently used in combination to treat post-traumaticstress disorder. Klonopin causes excessive drowsiness in some patients.

He also was taking a painkiller for a back injury he sustained in a car accident about a week before his death, but was no longer taking Paxil.

On May 1, the night before he died, Johnson called his grandfather, Duck Underwood, and asked if he could pick up his 5-year-old son and take him to school the next day. Johnson and his wife, Stacie, have three children, all under 6 years old. Their car had been totaled in the accident the previous week.

When Underwood arrived to pick up the boy the next morning, his knocks were not answered at first. He heard Stacie Johnson screaming. She opened the door and told him she couldn't wake her husband. They called paramedics, who could not revive him. Doctors did not declare an immediate cause of death.

Toxicology and autopsy results could take as long as 60 days, authorities told the family.

"I want to know the cause of death," said Ray Johnson, Derek's father." Stacie said he was fine that night. Everything was normal. He kissed her goodnight and went to sleep."

Stan White, father of soldier Andrew White, has become an advocate for families of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

During his son's struggle with the disorder and since his death, White has tracked similar cases. He knows of about eight in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

He and his wife, Shirley, introduced themselves to the Johnsons and Underwoods at Derek's funeral and offered their help. He is in contact with the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is a member ofthe Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Rockefeller requested an investigation into these deaths, which is ongoing, said Steven Broderick, the senator's press secretary.

"When I talked to his family about Derek, I realized it was the same old story," said White. "It was all too familiar. He was taking those same drugs as the others, and, yes, I believe they are still prescribing that combination."

After speaking with family members, White wonders if the patients are taking the medicine as prescribed. He said PTSD patients suffer short-term memory loss and shouldn't be relied upon to track their medications.

Georgeann Underwood agrees."You shouldn't put vulnerable, mentally unstable people on drugs like that," she said.

An outgoing, personable young man who worked at several jobs to support his young family, Johnson frequently was offered other jobs by customers in the stores where he worked, Underwood said.

In 2006, he returned from the Middle East depressed and short-tempered. Johnson had operated an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, or rapid-fire machine gun, and rarely spoke about his experiences there.

After his military prescriptions ran out, Johnson's medications were prescribed by private physicians because he refused to go the VA hospitals where he said he was required to wait long periods of time for appointments. His grandparents paid for his medications.

"He had a very short fuse," Ray Johnson said. "That was the biggest difference in his personality after he came back."

Until his death, he worked 12 or 16 hours a day. He was an electrical apprentice at the John Amos Power Plant until he was let go when his work hours approached the union limit for apprentices. He was on his way to apply for another job when the car he drove was rear-ended on April 24. Johnson died May 2.

To contact staff writer Julie Robinson, use e-mail or call 348-1230.

--submitted by Patti Woodard

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Local Media Report: Maine Soldier Dies in Afghanistan, Yet Another 'Noncombat' Death

By E&P Staff Published: May 27, 2008 10:30 PM ET

NEW YORK News of yet another "nonhostile" death for a U.S. military person abroad has surfaced in local media in Maine.

A former South Portland man, age 22, is reported to have been killed while serving with the military in Afghanistan. His family said they were told it was due to "noncombat" causes.

Justin Buxbaum's grandfather said he was shot in the stomach. He said the Army is looking into what happened, and speculated that his grandson's death may have been caused by friendly fire.

Justin, an engineer with the National Guard who worked to defuse IEDs, had already served two tours of duty in Iraq.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iraq war veteran accused of killing fellow Marine


SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A Marine was in custody Friday and authorities were searching for a second as they investigated the shooting death of a fellow Marine whose body was found in a ditch, in his desert fatigues and boots.

Orange County sheriff's deputies arrested Lance Cpl. Christian William Carney for investigation of murder Friday after Camp Pendleton personnel put him in the brig the night before, sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said.

Carney, a 21-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, was wanted in the May 15 slaying of Pfc. Stephen Serrano. Authorities were still looking for Pfc. Alvin Reed Lovely, 20. Amormino said Lovely has been on unauthorized leave from Camp Pendleton since April, is considered a fugitive and is thought to be armed and dangerous.

A hiker found Serrano's body in a drainage ditch north of the Marine base in San Clemente on May 15. Authorities said they believe Serrano, 21, was in the ditch when he was shot once in the chest. A murder weapon was not recovered.

The victim and the suspects were all assigned to the 1st Marine Division. Carney and Serrano had been with the Marines about one year, but Lovely went missing several months after arriving at the base, Amormino said. It wasn't clear why Lovely left, he said.

Amormino said all three Marines knew each other, although he didn't know how close they were.
Authorities have ruled out a love triangle as the reason for the killing but said they otherwise have no motive.

The sheriff's spokesman said neither Carney nor Lovely was believed to have retained an attorney.

Serrano, of Sacramento, was a field radio operator who joined the Marines in March 2007. He had not served in Iraq, Amormino said.

Lovely, of Dallas, Texas, had not been deployed to Iraq. He was listed by the Marines as being on unauthorized absence, a step before being declared a deserter, said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Curtis Williamson.

Three servicemen from Camp Pendleton have died in the past eight days in noncombat-related incidents.

Lance Cpl. Samuel Stucky, 19, died Saturday after he was found unconscious in his barracks a day earlier with a gunshot wound. The same day, 25-year-old Lance Cpl. Noah Cole died of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident during a visit to relatives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Tom Umberg, a former Army colonel and military prosecutor, said such cases are exceedingly rare, despite the combat stress that many servicemen and servicewomen face during and after deployment.

"Being in a high stress situation over a long period of time can exacerbate a number of things, including the ability to continue to cope, especially if the person is already unstable," he said.
Associated Press writer Chelsea Carter in San Diego contributed to this report.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Marines hit by rash of noncombat fatalities

5 in 8 days worsen 1st MEF's bad year

By Rick Rogers


May 23, 2008

CAMP PENDLETON – Three servicemen from Camp Pendleton and two from Twentynine Palms have died in the past eight days, and the confirmed or probable causes are homicide, suicide and traffic accidents.

None of the Marine officials interviewed for this story could remember a worse week in terms of noncombat losses.

Camp Pendleton is home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, commonly called the 1st MEF, which includes troops at Twentynine Palms and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

At least 13 Marines from the 1st MEF – most of them stationed at Camp Pendleton – have died this year. Most of the causes are believed to have been vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides, although some cases are still being investigated.

By comparison, six Camp Pendleton-based Marines have died from combat in Iraq during the same time period, according to the Defense Department.

Officials for Camp Pendleton and the 1st MEF didn't immediately provide or confirm the death toll for 2008 or past years. They also didn't say whether the recent deaths may have been linked to drug or alcohol abuse, gang activity or suicide.

They said those questions must be submitted as a Freedom of Information Act request or, in the case of gang problems, to Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon.

It can take weeks to years to receive responses to such requests.

In addition, it's unclear whether any of the dead servicemen suffered combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety ahead of a deployment to Iraq.

“It's extremely unfortunate to lose any Marine, especially here in the States, where we should feel secure,” said a senior officer for the 1st MEF who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak with news media about the cases.

“I can definitely say that the commanders and commands are looking into each one of these deaths to determine the cause, and then backtracking to see if we need to do anything different to avoid these things happening again.”

Investigations into three recent deaths are being led by civilian law enforcement agencies, according to a statement from the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. The division is part of the 1st MEF.

“Two of these deaths were caused by apparent motorcycle accidents, an area of deep concern for our Corps as motorcycle fatalities continue to rise at an alarming rate,” the statement said. “In a recently released All-Marine Message, the commandant outlines guidance and directives designed to curb motorcycle injuries and fatalities.”

Motorcycle-related deaths in the Marine Corps have risen every year since 2004, when there were seven. Last year, there were 19, according to the Naval Safety Center.

As for efforts to minimize combat stress and substance abuse, Camp Pendleton officials said the base has programs, policies and officers devoted to outreach and education. They also said each unit conducts monthly random drug tests on a mandated percentage of its Marines.

The recent succession of deaths started May 15, when Camp Pendleton-based Pfc. Stephen Serrano, 20, was found fatally shot in a drainage ditch in San Clemente.

Then Camp Pendleton-based Lance Cpl. Samuel Stucky, 19, died Saturday. A day earlier, he had been found unconscious in his Camp Pendleton barracks with a gunshot wound.

Also on Saturday, Camp Pendleton-based Lance Cpl. Noah Cole, 25, died from injuries suffered in an apparent motorcycle accident. Cole, who was visiting relatives in Grand Rapids, Mich., was scheduled to deploy on his second combat tour early next month.

And again Saturday, Twentynine Palms-based Pfc. Jack Kenner, 22, died in Upland after he tried to maneuver his motorcycle between two vehicles, struck one of them and crashed.

Finally, on Tuesday, Cpl. Chad Oligschlaeger, 21, was found dead in his barracks room at Twentynine Palms. Camp Pendleton officials said the cause of death is under investigation.

Staff researcher Denise Davidson contributed to this report.

Rick Rogers: (760) 476-8212;

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mary Tillman's Interview with Amy Goodman

Mary Tillman, Mother of Slain Army Ranger and former NFL Star Pat Tillman, on Her Four-Year Quest to Expose the Military Cover-Up of Her Son’s Death by Members of His Own Unit

Pat Tillman left behind a lucrative NFL contract to enlist in the military after 9/11. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed while serving in Afghanistan. He died, the military said, while charging up a hill toward the enemy to protect his fellow Army Rangers. But that wasn’t the real story. Tillman was killed by his own men. What’s more, the military knew that within hours but waited five weeks before admitting it. Four years and several probes later, Pat Tillman’s family, led by his mother Mary, are still searching for answers about what really happened. Mary Tillman has just published a book based on her review of uncensored government documents and her four-year effort to cut through misleading official accounts of how her son died. It’s called Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: He was perhaps the most famous American soldier of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat Tillman was an NFL star who left behind a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the military after 9/11. His decision made headlines across the country and prompted then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to send him a congratulatory note. On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman was killed while serving in Afghanistan. He was twenty-seven years old.

Two weeks later, just before a nationally televised memorial service, the Pentagon awarded him the Silver Star. He died, the military said, while charging up a hill toward the enemy to protect his fellow Army Rangers. But that wasn’t the real story. Tillman was killed by his own men. What’s more, the military knew that within hours but waited five weeks before admitting it.
Four years later and after seven investigations, several inquiries and two congressional hearings, Pat Tillman’s family, led by his mother Mary, are still searching for answers about what really happened. Lawmakers granted Mary Tillman access to uncensored versions of some documents that were not available to journalists. She has just published a book based on her review of those documents and her four-year effort to cut through misleading official accounts of how her son died. It’s called Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman.
I spoke with Mary Tillman this week about the life and death of her son. I began by asking her how she first heard that Pat had been killed.

MARY TILLMAN: I first learned from my daughter-in-law. She told me that Pat had been killed. And, of course, we heard from the casualty report that he had been shot in the head getting out of a vehicle, he died an hour later in a field hospital. And then, when we had his memorial service, the Army gave a Navy Seal friend of Pat and Kevin’s a narrative to read that said that he was running up a ridgeline in an attempt to help a convoy of troops get through an ambush zone, and he was killed by the enemy.
But then, four weeks later, when Kevin, his brother, who was also in the same platoon but was not present when his brother was killed, he had gone back to Fort Lewis. He was taken aside by his first sergeant, and he was told that Pat was killed by friendly fire. I was told, however, by an Arizona Republic reporter, who called me assuming I knew already. And so, it was rather shocking to learn the news.

Read the rest of this interview by clicking here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hinchey Unveils Bill to Reverse Military Medical Malpractice Injustice

By WBNG News

Seeking to reverse an injustice that prevents armed service members and their families from holding the military accountable for negligent health care, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) today unveiled legislation he's authored that would permit medical malpractice claims against the military.

Hinchey's bill, the Carmelo Rodriguez Military Medical Accountability Act of 2008, is named after the late Sgt. Carmelo Rodriguez of Ellenville, NewYork, who died of skin cancer last year after a series of extraordinary mistakes made by military medical personnel.

The congressman intends to formally introduce the legislation in the House tomorrow.

"The death of Carmelo Rodriguez is an extraordinary tragedy that has left his family with nowhere to turn," Hinchey said.

"As the result of a misguided law and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Rodriguez family and many other military families in similar situations have no way of holding the military responsible for the negligence of military medical personnel.

Joining the military should not mean that one has to give up his or her right to hold medical providers accountable. The Carmelo Rodriguez Military Medical Accountability Act of 2008 will finally bring accountability into the military medical system and afford our service members and their families the same rights that the rest of us have when it comes to medical malpractice."

Rodriguez, a Marine who served in Iraq, died last year at the age of 29.

Upon enrolling in the military in 1997, Rodriguez received an initial medical exam that revealed melanoma on his buttocks.

The doctor making the diagnosis, however, failed to tell Rodriguez or refer him to a specialist.

While serving in Iraq in 2005, Rodriguez was bothered by the area on his buttocks, which was constantly pussing and bleeding. A different military doctor repeatedly misdiagnosed the skin cancer as a birthmark or wart.

As the skin cancer worsened, Rodriguez's family was unable to receive a copy of his medical records from the Marines to give to other doctors.

The family then asked Hinchey's office for help, but by the time the congressman's office received the medical records from the Marines it was too late. Carmelo Rodriguez had three surgeries, received radiation and chemotherapy, but it didn't save his life. The cancer had spread throughout Rodriguez's body and weakened him to the point that he went from being an athletic 190 pound man to weighing less than 80 pounds.

He left behind a loving family, including a seven year old son.

Hinchey's bill would legislatively reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's 1950 ruling in Feres vs. United States in which the court said military members and their families have no right or ability to sue the military for negligent medical care given to them during their service.

The ruling, which has subsequently been referred to as the Feres Doctrine, has left families such as the Rodriguez's with no recourse for addressing the loss of a loved one due to obvious medical malpractice by military doctors and other medical personnel.

"Carmelo's situation and this legislation speak directly to the fact that our military, including the military's health care system, is spread far too thin by the occupation of Iraq," Hinchey said.

"Our military is facing shortfalls of doctors, nurses, and other health care staff across the board. Additionally, it is incumbent upon the military to ensure that it has doctors who know how to diagnose non-combat injuries and diseases such as skin cancer rather than just having doctors who are trained to treat combat wounds.

In addition to providing the Rodriguez family and other military families with a way to hold the military accountable for the wrongful death and injuries of loved ones, this bill helps encourage the military to take the steps needed to improve its care so that no one else ever has to go through what the Rodriguez's have endured."

Hinchey's bill has the support of Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) who has previously introduced a similar measure. This week, the congressman plans to begin collecting cosponsors for his legislation and is also working to find a Senate sponsor.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cherie Morton

Gulf Daily News -- TRIBUTES poured in yesterday for a US sailor found dead at her home in Bahrain, as hundreds of colleagues attended a memorial service at the navy base in Juffair.

Staff of all ranks came out in force to pay respects to Cherie Morton, who leaves behind a son, Brian Trevor, in Los Angeles.

The 41-year-old was found dead at her home in Galali at 9.20am on Sunday, but her death still remains a mystery.

Initial hospital notes reported a suspected bullet wound to the back of her head, but navy officials have repeatedly denied that and said no weapon was involved.

The memorial service took place at the multipurpose room of the navy base's Freedom Suq. Ms Morton, who was born in Rockville, Illinois, worked as the command career counsellor for Naval Security Force and was a popular figure, who helped hundreds of enlisted sailors assigned to both Naval Support Activity Bahrain and navy region south-west Asia.

She picked up several awards during her 15 years of service, including the Navy Achievement Medal (two awards) and the Good Conduct Medal (four awards).

Tributes on the Patriot Guard Riders, a US-based motorcyclist group made up of veterans, who attend the funerals of armed forces members, described her as an "American hero".

One entry on their website, from Larry Sanderson, offered his sincere condolences to Ms Morton's family. "I am grateful for PO1 (First Class Petty Officer) Cherie Morton's service to our great nation and greatly appreciate her for my freedom," he said. "PO1 Cherie Morton, you are a true American hero and will not be forgotten. Know you are loved."

Another tribute, signed only by a person with the name Cat, also praised Ms Morton's valuable contribution to the US navy. "My family and I send our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of this American hero," it said. "May you find peace in knowing that the love and memories you have will remain in your heart forever, and comfort knowing you are in the hearts and prayers of a grateful nation. "PO1 Cherie Morton, our world is a safer place because of brave and selfless warriors like you, rest in peace." "I thank you for your service and because you are a sailor, you hold a special place in my heart," said one entry from Candyman.

"My thoughts and prayers are with those you leave behind, for you have gone to prepare another place for us. "May God grant them peace and comfort." Ms Morton's body has already been repatriated to the US. Last October, two female sailors Genesia Mattril Gresham, 19, and Anamarie Sannicolas Camacho, 20, were shot dead in their barracks at the Naval Support Activity base, Juffair.

They were allegedly shot dead by American serviceman Clarence Jackson who apparently turned the gun on himself. He was critically wounded and was sent for treatment at the Minneapolis VA Medical Centre, US and the incident is still under investigation.

--submitted by Leonard Wahl

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Judge stands by decision to release grand jury tapes

Web Posted: 05/13/2008 10:28 PM CDT

By Zeke MacCormack

BOERNE — Kendall County Court-at-Law Judge Bill Palmer on Tuesday stood by his decision to make available grand jury testimony about the 2003 death of Air Force Col. Philip Shue for use in a lawsuit.

The litigants, USAA Life Insurance Co. and Shue's widow, Tracy, sought access to tapes of grand jury witnesses for use as evidence in their dispute, which goes to trial June 9.

Grand jury proceedings are done in secret, and the release was opposed by District Attorney Bruce Curry, whose lawyer said an appeal was likely after Palmer's refusal to vacate his April 21 order for Curry to hand over the recordings.

Shue, 54, died when his car crashed into a tree beside Interstate 10 on April 16, 2003, in Kendall County.

Then-Justice of the Peace Nancy White ruled it a suicide, as did military investigators and the medical examiner.

Tracy Shue contends her husband fell victim to foul play after leaving home that morning for work as a psychiatrist at Wilford Hall Medical Center. His nipples had been cut off, and duct tape was on his ankles and wrists.

Her lawsuit says USAA should have investigated and canceled a $500,000 policy on Shue's life from 1999, when he first told the insurer that his ex-wife — the policy's beneficiary — was possibly plotting his demise.

USAA denies liability, saying it advised Shue to contact law enforcement authorities.
An attorney for Shue's ex-wife, Nancy Shue, has said she had no role in the death.

Representing District Attorney Curry at Tuesday's hearing, Assistant Attorney General Angela Goodwin told Judge Palmer that only state District Judge Steve Ables, who convened the grand jury, could clear the release of its tapes.

A release, she said, could have “a chilling effect” on the candor of witnesses at other grand juries and hinder any future investigation of Shue's death, should one occur.

Goodwin said those seeking the tapes hadn't met the legal threshold of showing “a particularized need,” noting the witnesses are alive and available to testify at the lawsuit trial.

But Jason Davis, Tracy Shue's lawyer, said time's passage has dimmed the memories of former Bexar County Medical Examiner Vincent DiMaio and law officers who testified to the grand jury.
“This will be a means to both refresh their memory and impeach,” he said of the tapes.

Davis called the grand jury review of Shue's death “kind of a sham,” asserting investigators asked Curry to delay presenting the case so they could gather more facts and that information subsequently surfaced that contradicted evidence grand jurors heard.

He said trial jurors should hear the evidence behind the grand jury's Nov. 24, 2003, finding that it saw no evidence of criminal activity in Shue's death, which USAA likely will cite in its defense of the lawsuit.

“We know that incomplete testimony was given to the grand jury,” Davis said. “We suspect inaccurate testimony.”

Curry wasn't at the hearing and later declined comment.

--submitted by Tracy Shue

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Call for new probe into Irish-American's death

Friday, 9 May 2008 16:20

A retired US Army Reserve Colonel has called on the US congress to compel the US army to re-investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Connemara native Ciara Durkin in Afghanistan last September.

Colonel Ann Wright has researched the suspicious noncombat deaths of military women in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

She has concluded that specific US Army units and certain US military bases in those countries have an inordinate number of women soldiers who have died of noncombat related injuries, with several identified as suicides.

According to her research, 94 US military women have died in Iraq or during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Twelve US civilian women have been killed during the operation.

Thirteen US military women have been killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Twelve US Civilian women have been killed in Afghanistan. Colonel Wright says that at least 15 of these deaths occurred under extremely suspicious circumstances.

One such case was the death of Massachusetts Army National Guard Specialist Ciara Durkin.
the 30-year-old finance specialist was found lying near a church on the very secure Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, with a single gunshot wound to her head on 28 September 2007.

She had recently told her relatives to press for answers if anything happened to her while she was deployed in Afghanistan.

When she was home three weeks prior to her death, she told her sister about something she had come across that raised some concern with her and that she had made some enemies because of it.

Members of her family also questioned whether the fact that she was gay played a role in her death.

They believe Ms Durkin was killed by a fellow service member, intentionally or accidentally, and they are confident that she did not commit suicide.

The US army has recently concluded its investigation into the death and it is thought that it will rule that the cause of death was suicide.

Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have supported Ms Durkin's family's call for a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Families demand answers in Iraq electrocutions

By Robin Acton
Saturday, May 10, 2008

Three years and three months before Ryan Maseth stepped into a shower Jan. 2 in Baghdad, an Army safety specialist identified electrocution as a "killer of soldiers."

Still, when the 24-year-old Shaler Green Beret turned on the faucet, water flowed from a pump powered by an improperly grounded electrical system manufactured in China. Borne on water, an electrical current surged through the pipes, out of the shower head and into his body.
His heart stopped.

Maseth's electrocution, the latest of 14 among service personnel in Iraq since 2003, set into motion a series of events to determine how and why these deaths occurred.

In March, a congressional committee started an investigation into all Iraq electrocutions. A month later, Maseth's parents sued the defense contractor responsible for the Chinese electrical system, alleging it failed to meet U.S. safety standards. And now, families across the country say they want more detailed information about the earlier deaths of loved ones.

"I want answers, not revenge," said Bart Cedergren of South St. Paul, Minn., who suspects his son died of electrocution Sept. 11, 2005, near Iskandariyah, Iraq.

Back then, the Navy said Petty Officer 3rd Class David A. Cedergren, 25, died of natural causes after being found unconscious in a shower stall, he said. Although Cedergren asked for additional information, he said he received only documents with black marks covering specifics of the investigation that the Navy has closed.

"I know for sure that there were problems where he was, near the electric generating station, because there was a history of individuals getting shocked," Cedergren said. "I just want to know what happened. He was strong and healthy."

Hidden danger

No one knows whether everyone serving in Iraq is aware of the potential for electrocution, despite warnings in an October 2004 report by Army safety specialist Brett Blount. He wrote that five soldiers were electrocuted in that fiscal year alone and advised military leaders to get electrical experts to inspect generators and electrical systems.

Frank Trent of the Army Corps of Engineers said in the report that improper grounding was a "factor in nearly every electrocution and is a serious threat for soldiers and civilians there."

"We've had several shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other parts of the country," Trent said. "As we install temporary and permanent power on our projects, we must ensure we require our contracts to properly ground electrical systems."

The electric shock that struck Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Everett, 23, of Huntsville, Texas, far exceeded a "near miss."

It was dead on target.

On the evening of Sept. 7, 2005, Everett was electrocuted while power washing sand from a Humvee in a motor pool in Al Taqqadum. It was late, and dark, and no one saw him on the ground until other soldiers noticed water shooting into the air. His mother, Larraine McGee, later learned that they were shocked while trying to help him.

"They couldn't get to him until the power was turned off," McGee said.

She remembers standing at the kitchen sink window facing her front porch as two men in uniform and her priest walked to the front door. She knew then that her son, an outdoorsman who volunteered to go to Iraq, would not come home.

Never, for the rest of her life, will she forget that night.

She said Army officers said they were sorry, and that because of what happened to her son, all of the generators across Iraq would be fixed. She felt comforted, recalling that they gave her the impression that Christopher's case was unique, the first of its kind to strike unsuspecting soldiers.

They didn't tell her about Spc. Marcos O. Nolasco, 34, of Chino, Calif., who was electrocuted while showering at a base in Baiji on May 18, 2004. No one mentioned Spc. Marvin A. Camposiles, 25, of Austell, Ga., who was electrocuted April 17, 2005, while performing routine generator maintenance in Samarra. They said nothing about Spc. Chase R. Whitham, 21, of Harrisburg, Ore., who died May 8, 2005, when an electrical current surged through a Mosul swimming pool.

"That, to me, makes it inexcusable. It's got to stop," McGee said. "Now, I'm angry. It's such a basic thing to ground electricity. It's carelessness, negligence."

Seeking answers

It is unclear whether all electrocution injuries and deaths in Iraq are listed in military casualty reports, because they often are identified as accidents or noncombat-related incidents.

Lt. Col. George Wright, a public affairs officer based at the Pentagon, said the Department of Defense releases names of casualties about 24 hours after notifying relatives. At that point, investigations into noncombat deaths are incomplete.

"That's why we are vague and simply indicate that a death is 'noncombat related,' " Wright said.
A casualty report prepared by the Defense Manpower Data Center listed 14 electrocution deaths in nonhostile situations and two in hostile situations from Oct. 7, 2001, through May 3, 2008.

Electrocution injuries totaled 19, according to the report.

About a month after Maseth's death, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, received two e-mails about military casualty reports that disturbed him.

A Feb. 14 e-mail to Altmire from Kelly Widener, director of strategic communications for the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center, reported that 10 fatalities by electrocution were identified only as accidents. The other, sent on Feb. 15 by Sgt. Jennifer Evitts, a Marine liaison, listed two more.

Altmire immediately asked U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California's 30th District and chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to investigate the deaths. Waxman wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, seeking all reports concerning Maseth and the names of all U.S. military or contractor personnel injured or killed by electrocution in Iraq facilities maintained under U.S. government contracts.

Waxman asked for contracts, orders and reports submitted by and issued to Kellogg Brown & Root Services Inc., a Texas-based defense contractor whose nearly 18,000 employees in Iraq perform building maintenance and other services for the military at facilities where the electrocutions occurred.

Karen Lightfoot, Waxman's spokeswoman, said the committee received some documents and expects to receive more as the investigation advances.

"We're trying to determine who should be held accountable, and whether this could have been prevented," Altmire said.

Meanwhile, Maseth's parents, Cheryl Harris of Cranberry and Douglas Maseth of Allison Park, turned to the courts for help.

In April, they sued KBR in federal court, alleging the firm inspected the facilities at the Radwaniyah complex where their son died. They claim the contractor knew that hazardous conditions existed from improper grounding of faulty electrical systems manufactured in China for sale only to countries outside the United States because they did not comply with U.S. electrical safety standards.

The wrongful death lawsuit contends that the contractor knew of other electrocutions and failed to repair electrical problems, despite orders to do so from the Defense Contract Management Agency. It adds that KBR did nothing to warn U.S. troops.

Their attorney, Patrick Cavanaugh of Pittsburgh, said the family is seeking accountability from the defense contractor, as well as some answers about how he died.

They view his death as senseless.

"You don't expect your son to step into a shower and get killed," Harris told the Tribune-Review after Maseth's death.

Heather Browne, KBR's director of corporate communications, wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review that the company's "thoughts and prayers remain with Staff Sergeant Maseth's family." She said the company's commitment to safety is unwavering.

"Based on our own current knowledge and the information we have gathered to date, KBR has found no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and reported electrocutions," Browne wrote.

Meanwhile, in Salem, Ore., Mark Whitham is not surprised by the number and frequency of electrocutions in Iraq.

During an interview on the fourth anniversary of his son's death in a Mosul swimming pool, Whitham did not blame the military or the defense contractor.

"If anything, it's the Iraqis' fault. Their rules for electrical grounding are not as strict as ours," Whitham said.

"Not that there isn't anger there, but it's not going to bring Chase back. It's not going to change anything. ... We sure miss him."

Robin Acton can be reached at or 724-830-6295.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Alabama Paper Reports Yet Another Iraq Vet Suicide -- With Mother Watching

By Greg Mitchell Published: May 06, 2008 9:30 PM ET updated Tuesday

NEW YORK As the scandal of suicide attempts by Iraq veterans expands -- in the face of Veterans Administration denials -- another horrific case has emerged, once again only gaining attention because of a local newspaper.

E&P has been tracking these accounts for almost five years and only recently has the problem, with an estimated 1,000 attempts a month now reported, gained wide media, and official, attention.

The latest story came Saturday in a story by Patrick McCreless in The Cullman Times of Cullman, Ala.

The headline is similar to so many others lately: "Family pushing for changes after soldier's suicide."

It tells how one Dorothy Screws "witnessed her only son, U.S. Army Pvt. Tommie Edward Jones, commit suicide right before her eyes six weeks ago in Colorado.

She says the Army, which promised to be there for Screws and her family to deal with the loss, has yet to provide assistance.

"Now Screws can hardly do her job without breaking down. Just the simple act of living is a challenge."

Only the memory of her son keeps Screws going as she fights to ensure another parent does not have to live through the same tragedy. 'I can’t save my son now ... I want to save somebody,' Screws said with tears in her eyes.

'If I can save one soldier, it will be worth it.'"

Screws plans to petition the government for as long as it takes until a law is passed requiring soldiers to undergo some type of psychological therapy after they return from intense combat."

Her son was 27 when he died.

An excerpt follows.

The whole article is still posted at*

One thing Screws and her family did not know until after her son’s death — which occurred March 25 at Fort Carson, Colo. — was that Jones, 27, had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from when he fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007.

Jones mentioned a few of the traumatic events he experienced in Iraq to his mother shortly before his death.

“He said, ‘I wake up every morning angry,’” Screws said. “He said, ‘My body is here but my mind is in Iraq.’”

Screws said she wants therapy to be mandatory for soldiers because many, like her son, do not seek help out of fear of being stigmatized. She said Jones told her he did not want to talk to a therapist because he thought such action would prevent him from rising in rank.

...Jones’ sister, Amanda Wimberly, said her family was assigned an assistance officer. But Wimberly said the officer has been anything but helpful.

“I called her a few weeks ago and she was with her family ... but she could come by later if we wanted,” Wimberly said.

“We needed her then. I asked to speak to her boss. ... She fumbled with the phone and eventually hung up. I haven’t spoken to her since.”

Screws said she has already expressed her feelings about the Army and her petition for mandatory therapy to the local Democratic Party. She plans to attend an upcoming Republican Party meeting to do the same.

“I don’t care if I get in trouble,” Screws said. “Until somebody can answer some questions and make it right, oh yeah, I’ll keep talking.”

____E&P Editor Greg Mitchell's new book includes several chapters on this issue. It is titled, "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."

--submitted by Patti Woodard

Mother Questions Tillman's Death in 'Fog of War'

Audio for this story will be available at approx. 9:00 a.m. ET

Book Excerpt
'Boots on the Ground by Dusk'

Pentagon Investigation
Defense Department Report on the Tillman Investigation (March 2007, PDF)

Morning Edition, May 6, 2008 · Four years ago last month, Army Ranger Pat Tillman set off with his unit on orders to "have boots on the ground" in a small Afghan village near the border with Pakistan. By nightfall, he was dead. His death has been the subject of seven investigations, several inquiries and two congressional hearings.

The military reported that Tillman died a heroic death during an insurgent strike, before admitting weeks later that he was killed by friendly fire and launching a series of investigations.
"We as an Army failed in our duty to the Tillman family, the duty we owe to all families of our fallen soldiers: Give them the truth, the best we know it, as fast as we can," Acting Army Secretary Peter Geren said in March 2007.

Tillman's mother and father have publicly expressed frustration over the probes and what they have said are the military's "lies" about their 27-year-old son's death. Mary Tillman has launched her own investigation, poring over thousands of pages of Army documents. Pat Tillman, an NFL star who joined the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, died in a confusing scene in the mountains of Afghanistan.

"Pat went up a ridgeline and got in a position where there were some rocks and he could see some enemy above the canyon walls," says Mary Tillman, whose new book is called Boots on the Ground by Dusk.

"According to the Army, [another U.S. Army] vehicle came out of the canyon basically in a panic, in a fog of war, and shot up the ridgeline in a matter of 4 seconds," she says. "That is the story that ultimately we were told."

But that's not what Mary Tillman and the rest of her family say they ultimately learned about Pat Tillman's death on April 22, 2004.

"You have to understand and I think it's really important that people realize that our family originally, when we learned of the friendly fire, it was very tragic and we were very saddened by it," she tells Steve Inskeep. "It's a horrible thing to know that your loved one was killed by his own men. We thought it was a terrible accident.

"But I think that after looking at the documents and talking to soldiers, I have a feeling that they didn't come out of that canyon in a fog of war. And their behavior was more of an adrenaline rush, a lust to fight."

Mary Tillman says her quest for the truth behind her son's death is often dismissed by people who think it's just the pursuit of a grieving mother.

"I will always grieve for him; I will always miss him," she says of her son. "But we can't accept that he was treated with such disrespect and treated as a political tool, we believe."

Friday, May 02, 2008

Officials tussle on grand jury dealings

Web Posted: 05/01/2008 10:59 PM CDT


BOERNE — District Attorney Bruce Curry has balked at revealing Kendall County grand jury deliberations on the April 16, 2003, death of Air Force Col. Philip Shue — in which the panel found no evidence of a criminal act — for use in an upcoming lawsuit trial.

Shue's widow, Tracy Shue, is suing USAA Life Insurance Co. for alleged negligence in its handling of a life insurance policy on her husband, whose death in a car wreck in Kendall County was ruled suicide.

An order backed by the lawsuit parties was issued April 21 by Kendall County Court at Law Judge Bill Palmer directing Curry to supply them with the secret testimony and evidence within 10 days.

An objection filed on Curry's behalf Wednesday argues that revealing grand jury proceedings for use in a lawsuit could expose Curry to fines and possible removal from office.

It said that ‘to expose the sanctity' of the grand jury proceedings, and raising the specter that jurors may be called as witnesses in the civil case, ‘could have a chilling effect on a grand jury's exploration of the truth.'