Watch CBSN Live

VA Chief Sued Over Iraq Vet's Suicide

The family of a U.S. Marine veteran of the Iraq war who killed himself after being denied mental health care sued the head of the Veterans Affairs Department on Thursday for allegedly causing their son's suicide.

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 returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, asked for treatment of mental problems and was denied help. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages and named as defendants Jim Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who is leaving his job soon, and the U.S. government.

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 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 overhaul the VA.

"They've got to look at the entire system of the VA," said Lucey, who spoke from his home in Massachusetts. "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 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 a VA Medical Center in his state, and he was involuntarily committed for help. He was released after a few days because VA personnel said they could not make an assessment of his post-traumatic stress disorder until he was sober, the complaint said.

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.

On Wednesday, a presidential commission urged broad changes to the military health care system. It recommended that military leaders, VA and Pentagon personnel receive comprehensive training in post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

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 George W. 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 Luceys' lawsuit was filed in federal court in Massachusetts.