For almost five years, I have been writing, at Editor & Publisher, about suicides among our troops in Iraq or when they return home. Several chapters on this subject are featured in my new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. This week, however, for the first time, I picked up the morning paper and discovered a tragic case close to home.
The front-page headline in The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y. read, "Marine struggled to reclaim life," with the deck, "Parents urge more help, services for returning veterans." Steven Vickerman was buried on Tuesday at Rockland Cemetery in Sparkill, which I know well.
The parents live in Palisades, N.Y. about five miles from my home on the west bank of the Hudson river about 15 miles north of Manhattan. A huge color photo showed Carole and Richard Vickerman at his grave site, with flowers and flags around it.
The article by Hannan Adely opened, "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 The funny and adventurous baby brother had become sullen, withdrawn and full of anxiety.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."
Carole Vickerman told the reporter: "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."
As I have documented over the years -- few others in the media were interested until recently -- suicides in Iraq now total in the hundreds with many more than that among the returnees. There have been high-profile suicides, such as Col. Ted Westhusing, and those few knew about until my articles gained wide attention, such as the case of Alyssa Peterson, who killed herself after objecting to interrogation techniques in Iraq. My book closes with vet leader Paul Rieckhoff sounding off on this entire issue.
The VA, the Vickermans believe, failed their son. The services available, they said, were insufficient, and the government should do more to address the issue for war vets.
Steve Vickerman, who graduated from a local high school, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1998. Ten years later, after serving two tours in Iraq, he hanged himself in his home.
Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland Veterans Service Agency -- I've met him a few times -- said, "The issue of PTSD is worse than I have ever seen it, and I have been doing this for 20 years now." Richard Vickerman believes the government should allow veterans to receive mental health benefits at private medical facilities.
Just today we have a new AP report that some 70,000 Iraq vets are now receiving treatment for severe hearing problems.
The article in the local paper closed: "Richard Vickerman thinks that, with so many cases of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, Americans should continue to demand action for the soldiers who sacrificed so much to protect freedoms in the United States. 'Why the American people aren't hearing about this and raising the roof -- that flag over there, the flag behind you, is the price that's being paid all over this country by families,' he said, tearfully looking over at the folded flag that the Marines presented to him at his son's funeral. 'It's not right.'"
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press) is now available at online booksellers and in bookstores.