Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gulf War vet 'saved' by Phoenix article

Published at; a version was also published in the Portland, Boston, and Providence Phoenixes

Mike Fitzgerald spent 10 and a half years in the Marine Corps. He'll turn 43 tomorrow (March 13), and has been out of the corps since he was honorably discharged in 1997. A Gulf War veteran, he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, after he left the service, and worked as a housekeeper at a VA building there — not just as a job, but as a way of keeping himself "under their nose," he says, so they would know what he needed and be sure to help him.

In January 2008, he moved back to Maine, where he grew up, and began to fight against his country, for his life.

I found all this out earlier today. Yesterday, we published "Soldiers Committing Suicide," by Jason Notte, and just hours later, Mike left me a voicemail on my office phone, saying he's experiencing the same things that a man described in the story had. That man, Lance Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, had struggled with federal Veterans Administration officials to get proper healthcare after his return from Iraq, and had killed himself in 2004.

In the morning, Mike and I spoke for about 15 minutes, in a conversation whose ramifications would take over most of my day, and would ultimately involve me crying quietly to myself in my office, and then writing this short piece.

Diagnosed with bipolar, he has been prescribed lithium and Effexor, but "they won't refill my medications until I take the last pill." And when he calls to order more, they mail it to him, which takes seven to 10 days. As a result, every few months he suffers withdrawal, and then has to go back on the meds.

He told me Thursday that he was in his ninth day of withdrawal, having run out of all of his meds a week and a half ago. "I'm angry," he says, not only for himself but also for fellow Marines like Lucey, who have ended up killing themselves. "These kids didn't get killed over there," he said. Lucey, Mike told me, got "to come home and have the VA kill him."

Mike also gets upset when he sees news coverage of celebrations for troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, because he knows what many of them will face. "In two months, they will be me," he says. "No wonder we're knocking ourselves off."

Mike thanked me over and over again for publishing the article; he told me he had written to local and national news organizations, including e-mailing Katie Couric at CBS News, trying to tell his story. He has contacted Senator Olympia Snowe's staff, and even brought a copy of the Phoenix article to her Biddeford office to show her staff.

After speaking with Mike, I got in touch with Jason, who had written the original story. Jason suggested I call Mike back and suggest a local counseling service for veterans, if I could find one that was not actually part of the VA, with which Mike was having such trouble.

Fortunately, our staff writer here in Portland, Deirdre Fulton, had done a story back in July 2007 about efforts in Maine to help returning veterans with mental-health problems. (See "Coming Home," July 11, 2007) When I asked her which she would suggest contacting first, she immediately told me that I should get in touch with the Community Counseling Center here in Portland. (207.874.1030).

I gave Mike their information, and he promised to call them. Jason Notte, who had written the article, also spoke to Mike for a while.

A little later on, Mike left me a short message saying that he has an appointment with a counselor scheduled for early next week. In the middle of the message, he choked up, and said that between the article and Jason's and my conversations with him, "You guys saved the life of a veteran."

Then I heard from a woman who works in an attorney's office in Bar Harbor. She said she had just talked to Mike, who is a client of the firm, and also thanked us for saving his life. She said her office has been keeping in close touch with him lately, because he was, she said, "close to the edge." She asked about the counseling service I had suggested to Mike, and I gave her that information and the link to Deirdre's story.

Jason and I will continue to check in with Mike, and we'll see how things go from here.