MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The nation's top military official acknowledged Tuesday the systems intended to diagnose and treat wounded American veterans are "extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily bureaucratic," and promised that change is coming in time.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key military adviser to the president, also pledged to look into the case of a West Virginia guardsman who committed suicide last year after tiring of a struggle with both the Army and cancer.
In a town hall meeting with veterans and community organizations that serve them, Morgantown resident Ann Leach said the system that should have protected her son Nicholas instead failed him. He killed himself four years after returning from service in Iraq and being diagnosed with lymphoma at age 24.
The Army tried to arrest him for being AWOL from weekend duties while he was in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy, Ann Leach said, and her son eventually returned his re-enlistment bonus and was honorably discharged. The military refused to acknowledge he may have suffered from post-traumatic stress, she said, insisting that he was only depressed because of his disease.
"My son decided on Nov. 14, 2009 that the Army didn't give a crap about him. The cancer was more than he could bear," she said. "So he wrapped a cord around his neck and he committed suicide."
Because he was not full-time military, his medical treatment was not covered by the government, and his mother - herself a Marine Corps veteran - relied on help from the American Cancer Society. Mullen, who held a wallet-sized image of her son with his dog while listening to her, apologized for her loss and vowed to look into her son's case.
And for Ann Leach, that was enough - that, and the prospect that her son's story might help someone else.
"He was listening to me. The look on his face. I felt sorry for him," she said afterward of Mullen.
Still, she said, the Army should have told her son, "You served your country, you fought for our freedom, we're going to take you in and check you out, instead of saying, 'Sorry for your luck.' "
Mullen said his visit to West Virginia University and Morgantown was about ensuring all of the 2.2 million men and women who serve their country are cared for when they return, but he acknowledged some agencies don't communicate well.