Thursday, June 06, 2013

Death Memorial

Sgt. James McElroy
Sgt. James “Mac” McElroy, 30, of Petal, MS, died June 6, 2011 at Fort Benning, Georgia.  Sgt. McElroy recently returned from his third tour in Afghanistan, serving with the Mississippi National Guard. He also served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps and in Iraq with the Mississippi National Guard.  He was found dead in his barracks of suspected polypharmacy from prescription drugs.

My name is Alicia McElroy. I am the young widow of SSG James “Mac” McElroy.We have a 4 year old son.

My husband served in the Marines from 1998-2002. He served 1 tour of duty during that time. He moved to MS after the Marines and soon found himself longing to be part of the military again. In 2004, he joined the Mississippi Army National Guard. Right after he joined he learned he would be deploying to Iraq. He was in Iraq all of 2005 and it was a pretty rough deployment. They had several fatalities, many he was a witness to. He came home and remained active duty while working at Camp Shelby. He worked there until his 3rd deployment in 2010.

Right before he deployed Mac was hospitalized for accidentally taking too much medicine for a back spasm. The only reason the doctor admitted him to the hospital was because I requested he be admitted just to make sure he was ok. I didn’t want to take him home and something happen with our small child at home. While in the hospital a rep from Pine Grove which is a mental health treatment facility came and saw him and said he was fine. Mac came home from the hospital on Monday. His chain of command was aware of his hospitalization however they later denied any knowledge of it.
On Wednesday, Mac was a complete mess and told me he was taking himself to the hospital to get help. I couldn’t go with him because I had no one to watch our son. Once he was at the hospital they determined he needed to be admitted to Pine Grove. He was in Pine Grove until Sunday. During that time I was in contact with his chain of command and they were well aware of what was going on. They now deny any knowledge of him being in Pine Grove.

I was also told to tell Mac that he had a federal order to go to war and he better be at the unit on Friday. Mac reported to his unit as instructed and spoke directly to the company commander about being in Pine Grove and that he was fine now. Once again, the company commander denies this occurring! They left on Monday for Ft McCoy in Wisconsin.

Mac had been prescribed Depakote while in Pine Grove and he found out at Ft McCoy that you can’t deploy while taking that drug. Mac was instructed to not reveal that medication and that he should have me get it from a public pharmacy and send it to him in a care package!

While Mac was in Afghanistan he felt better so he quit taking the Depakote. Mac came home in Oct 2010 for R&R. For about the first week things were good. Our son was just starting to adjust to daddy being home when things took a turn for the worst. Mac became withdrawn, cried almost all the time, depressed, anxious, irritable, agitated, couldn’t sleep and was a “basket case.” He stayed in bed most of the day, not eating or drinking anything.

On Sun Nov 7, 2010 I went into the bedroom just to check on him as I did throughout the day and found him curled up in the sheets crying uncontrollably. I tried to comfort and console him but was unsuccessful.   Finally he looked at me and said, “Please, help me.”

I immediately took him straight to Keesler AFB ER in Biloxi. Finally psych came and after assessing him, decided he needed to be admitted to the VA inpatient psych unit. His company commander was called in Afghanistan and informed of his condition. The commander stated that he was shocked because in Afghanistan Mac was a high performer, very reliable, better than most in the unit handling their duties. Mac seemed to be fine no matter what came his way.

He went on to say that Mac had a lot of responsibility but seemed to handle it very well as reported by Mac’s platoon sergeant.  He was finally transferred in the early morning hours of Mon Nov 8, 2010. He stayed at the psych unit until Fri Nov 12, 2010.  He was doing much better and the psych doctor thought he was doing good enough to come home. He stated, however, that Mac was not to return to Afghanistan and needed to continue receiving services for PTSD and other issues. The doctor did say he could work a desk job that wasn’t stressful.  The doctor was discharging him to ME! I had the doctor talk to rear detachment, who was a Lieutenant, on my cell phone and tell him the same thing he had told me. The Lieutenant voiced understanding and stated he would let the company commander in Afghanistan know.

We got home and the weekend went well. On Monday, the Lieutenant from rear detachment called and wants Mac to report to the unit on Tuesday! We thought Mac would be part of rear detachment until the unit returned. The company commander took him off orders because he wasn’t returning to Afghanistan. The commander even made the statement to the rest of the unit that he was going to make an example out of Mac. If you went home and didn’t come back your orders would be cut and you would be processed out of the military! So, I quit my job as an Occupational Therapist and devoted myself to taking care of my husband.

We took a hard hit financially with me not working. We used Mac’s leave time he had accrued for income. My parents were pretty much paying our bills. I jumped right in to caregiver mode and made sure to keep his meds and truck keys in a lock box. I made him go everywhere with me. I never left him alone at the house. He was my responsibility and nothing was happening to him under my watch!
I called the VA and set up his first psych appointment; I took him to groups; I went to counseling with him. He probably resented me at that point but I didn’t care as long as he was ok. Some weeks we went and saw psych multiple times because he was having problems or didn’t feel like the meds were working. We had a great psych doctor who was very cautious about prescribing meds,
especially strong and habit forming meds. He encouraged Mac to start the PTSD program the VA provided. Mac was starting to experience new symptoms at this point like nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance. We decided he would go to the PTSD program. Right before Mac was scheduled to start we got a call from a really good friend and he had got Mac put back on orders. We were told Mac would be given a job at Camp Shelby again. That was good because he was running out of leave and we were fixing to have no income. It had been a long, hard four months for both of us with me caring for him.

He reported to Camp Shelby as instructed. Once he got there and they started doing all his paperwork somebody decided that they wanted to get him help first. I trusted the military to make decisions that were in his best interest. It was decided he would go to a drug and alcohol program in New Orleans. Nobody knew how to treat him so they just sent him somewhere. This place was a JOKE! I went on several occasions and couldn’t believe the military had sent my husband there. He successfully completed the 28 day program and returned to Camp Shelby. We thought he was going to work now. Nope, they then decided they wanted to get him treatment for PTSD. They decided he would go to Ft Benning, GA to their PTSD program. Mac arrived at Ft Benning on April 4, 2011. He was there for approximately six weeks before seeing a psych doctor! He ran out of meds during that time and was having severe panic attacks, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and all the other symptoms I mentioned earlier came raging back but now he also had anger! He would call me all the time freaking out and I would have to calm him down. Sometimes I was able to, and sometimes I wasn’t.

It didn’t help that his barracks were right by the firing range and he heard gunfire all day and night, which is very disturbing for someone with PTSD. He was pretty much scared to leave his room. He finally got in with psych and they loaded him up on meds, including Seroquel, Paxil, Klonopin, Hydroxyzine HCL, Lunesta, Buspar, and Ativan!! That’s just all that I know about!

His meds were changed multiple times during a very short time frame. At one point, he asked to be taken off Seroquel and something else because it made him feel “too sedated.”  He was told, “no” because of his mental health past. He was actually prescribed more meds that day. I saw a gradual decline in my husband physically and mentally. He could barely walk, talk, keep his eyes open, and function at a normal level. He was experiencing memory loss, cognitive problems, and would fall asleep in mid-sentence. He even fell asleep while standing straight up! I called his squad leader on numerous occasions, expressing my concerns, and he would reassure me that he was going to take care of it. Well he didn’t!

I remember one specific phone call where I said if you don’t get my husband some help with his meds you are going to find him dead. I eat those words everyday! He promised me he was not going to let him die and he would report my concerns! Didn’t  happen! My husband’s best friend was at Ft Benning at the same time. He went to the same squad leader numerous times with concerns about my husband. He was blown off pretty much and sometimes the squad leader would say he would take care of it. Well, this guy was smart and wrote down everything: who he talked to, what they said, date, time, witnesses, etc. After my husband passed away he wrote a 3 page sworn statement detailing what happened with my husband from the time he arrived at Ft Benning until the time he died. On Sunday, June 5, 2011, I talked to my husband about 5:30 my time, so it was 6:30 pm his time! Little did I know that would be the last time I heard his sweet voice ever again! I fell asleep early Sunday night while getting our son to sleep and it wasn’t until I woke up Monday morning that I realized Mac never called me to tell me good night. I didn’t think too much about it and got ready for work. Then I called my husband on my way to work like I always did. No answer! Okay, maybe he was still asleep or at formation: he will call back soon. He never called back! I kept calling throughout the day and could never reach him. I knew something was wrong but I just told myself maybe he left his phone in the room or maybe he’s in the hospital. I even called the squad leader and, of course, he didn’t answer. His best friend was out of town with his wife for their anniversary so he couldn’t help me out. I worked all day and went to a meeting that night and still no word from Mac. I went home and went to change clothes and was contemplating going to Ft Benning to check on my husband when the doorbell rang.

They told me who they were and asked if I was Mrs. McElroy and I finally nodded my head “yes.” I just stood there and they asked if they could come in so I let them. They told to please sit down that they had some information regarding my husband, Sgt James McElroy, that they had been sent to tell me. They said a lot of words, but all I heard was “Sgt James McElroy pronounced dead at 11:58 am on June 6, 2011 at Ft Benning, GA.” I asked what happened and they said they didn’t know and then I looked at the clock and it was 7:30 pm and I asked what took so long to tell me and they didn’t know! About that time everybody started showing up at my house because everybody knew before me! They had me sign some papers and said my CAO would be in contact with me soon!

The Captain from the WTB Mac was in at Ft Benning called first thing the next morning. He said he was sorry and wanted to tell me what happened so he gave me his version of the story. Mac didn’t show up for formation on Monday morning, so after formation they went to his room thinking he overslept. They were beating on the door and calling his cell phone which they could hear ringing, but he didn’t answer the door or the phone. They went and got the key for his room and when they went in his room they found him DEAD. This was about 9:30 am but he wasnt pronounced dead until 11:58 am. I asked where they found him and he wouldn’t tell me, I asked how they found him and he wouldn’t tell me. I got off the phone with the captain and prepared to meet my Casualty Assistance Officer. We signed a ton of paperwork and I had to pick out the casket. I was told he would receive a full honors service. I decided he would be dressed in military blues and he was promoted posthumously to E6 SSG. The week went by pretty fast and we went to the funeral home and made arrangements and decided that his service would be Sat June 11, 2011. We had my CAO make some calls to Ft Benning to let them know we wanted his body by Friday. He was flown into Jackson late Friday night. My wonderful CAO drove me and my family to receive his body. That was rough! We were allowed to go through the gates and park by the terminal. The hearse got there and I couldn’t look. Then they came and got us to go to the gate where his plane would be landing. Then I saw that plane land and I lost it. The plane landed and the officer escorting his body emerged and she came straight to me. She hugged me and extended her condolences. Then I saw the soldiers coming from behind the plane with the casket and the American flag draped over it. I ran to the casket but could never catch up. The guys kept a steady pace and never missed a beat. Finally, they reached the Hearse and had to stop. I made it to the casket and while sobbing said, “Baby, what happened? Tell me what happened; give me some kind of sign!” And then they loaded him into the hearse and it was time for that long ride back to Hattiesburg! Saturday came way too fast and it was time for family visitation so my CAO picked us all up and took us to the church. We got to the church and everybody let me go in first! I approached the entranceway inside the church and I saw the casket. There was a soldier standing guard at his casket. We made eye contact and that was it. I slowly walked down the aisle to the front of the church, praying my legs wouldn’t collapse before I got there. As I approached the casket. I took a deep breath and prayed. “God, please don’t let it be him!” I looked down slowly and lost it: it was him, my husband, father to our son, my soul mate, my everything! This can’t be happening! I stood at the casket for the entire 3 hour visitation. So many people came to the service! Mac was a well-liked person, which I already knew, that but this just confirmed it! Then the dreaded part came! Our final goodbyes! I stayed at the casket just holding his hand and crying! I couldn’t tell him goodbye! I knew it had to be done so I ran my fingers thru his hair one last time and kissed his lips one last time and promised him right then and there I was going to find out what really happened to him and they weren’t getting away with it! I knew from day 1 that my husband would never intentionally do something to cause himself to die!

We finished the service and made the long journey to Vancleave for the graveside service. It was nice, and they did the gun salute and all that stuff. And it was over! It was really time to say good bye. I sat in my chair for the longest time and finally told him “bye” and promised I would take care of our son. I walked away clutching the American flag I had been received to my chest!
A few weeks later we were invited to Ft Benning for a memorial service for Mac. Of course, we went.

We returned back to Mississippi and CID wanted to interview me. Two men came to my house and they were pretty intimidating. The interview lasted 3 hours. It wasn’t too terribly long after they left that the investigating officer from Ft Benning that had been assigned to the case wanted to meet, so we scheduled it.

He was forty minutes late getting to my house. He made several comments throughout the interview that rubbed me the wrong way and then he examined the Line of Duty report he was responsible for, as well as the AR 15-6 Report. I knew right then and there I needed to watch this guy. My husband died in June 2011. To this day, the only thing I have is a death certificate. I requested everything 2 days after he passed away!

Several months after Mac passed I got a call from Ft Benning saying it was determined Mac’s death was accidental due to multiple drug toxicity. He went on to say he was prescribed all the drugs found in his system. All the drugs were in normal range so no excessive amount of any drug had been taken. He had taken the meds as prescribed. I knew right then something had gone wrong and I better start looking into it. I started researching and talking to whoever I could get in touch with and I was appalled at what I was finding out. Soldiers and vets all over were dying at an alarming rate due to this deadly PTSD cocktail. Then I found out that the Investigating Officer let other soldiers and chain of command read Mac’s autopsy and toxicology reports during the investigation. I was livid! This was a HIPAA violation! I did find out that the autopsy said the combination of drugs in his system slowed his heart rate to the point it was unable to sustain life. Wait a minute! I’m no doctor, but how do you know that happened? He would have to be hooked up to a heart monitor to prove that! Next, I called the investigating officer to find out where the line of duty was because it was almost February. He said he hadn’t turned it in until January. My husband died in June and it took seven months to do the report? He went on to say this was his first death investigation! I started questioning him about the Line of Duty Investigation and he answered me, much to my surprise! I asked if he interviewed a specific individual and he told me “no” and I asked why, and he said he didn’t feel what they had to say would help or hurt the investigation. The guy he didn’t interview is the one that spoke to Mac’s chain of command when he was in the hospital and pine grove so he was very important because Mac’s chain of command lied during the investigation! Then, I asked if PTSD was in the line of duty and he told me, “no”! That drew the line right there! I asked, “Why not,” and he said it wasn’t relevant to how he died. He was at a PTSD program and the meds he was on were for PTSD and he said the meds were in the report. That made no sense at all! I was ready to petition the Line of Duty and I haven’t even received a copy yet! He kept talking and went on to say that Mac’s chain of command was allowed to read the Line of Duty Investigation before it left Ft Benning. Conflict of interest! They read the original with names, social security numbers, addresses, and everything. I was shocked! He went on to say that he felt he did the soldier justice and that I would be pleased with the outcome. I knew I wasn’t going to pleased with anything because PTSD wasn’t in there. I made some phone calls to Ft Benning and ended up on the phone with the Chief. He listened to my allegations against the investigating officer and said he would look into it. He said it may be a few days before I heard anything. The next morning the Chief called me and told me the officer had been removed from the case and was under investigation and that he was not to contact me, and if he did let him know! My phone didn’t stop ringing for days. Legal, all the way down to just general assistance was calling me! Then my favorite person and the only person from Ft Benning I trust who’s a Chief, called to tell me the psychological autopsy had been delayed again because it had been handed over to three different people. They said it would be complete by May 29th. That didn’t happen!
We talked about PTSD not being in the LODI and he agreed with me and said it played a major role in Mac’s death. Throughout this time I had also called the Captain from WTB who called me the day after Mac died, just to ask him some questions. He answered me and I got what I needed from him but I could tell he was nervous. I later found out that he sent out an email to the unit saying if I called don’t talk to me!

As you can see this has been nothing but a nightmare since my husband my husband died! I still have not received a LODI, medical records, autopsy, toxicology. Nothing but a death certificate!
I decided that I just couldn’t let this go! Something has to be done about this! Our men and women who serve this Country proudly and are not expendable! I decided to raise awareness about the situation! I knew I had to get my story out! If I could keep another tragic ending from happening then my husband’s death would not be in vein! I also knew we had to approach treating PTSD differently! The “cocktail” had to stop! And they needed to offer other treatment methods such as peer counseling, professional counseling, prolonged exposure therapy, etc. While looking into all of this I have met some wonderful families who experienced the loss of a Hero in the same way! I knew I wanted to be an advocate and they are helping me.

Alicia McElroy
If you have any information on this case contact Alicia through this website.

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