Mother blames VA in Navy vet’s death: ‘Look at what they’ve done’

by Vern Evans

This article was published as part of a content-sharing agreement between Army Times and The Fayetteville Observer.

Editor’s note: This report contains discussion of suicide. Troops, veterans and family members experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.

When Logan F. Willis was in high school, he dedicated his time to volunteering for the Department of Veterans of Affairs, his mother said.

Years later, the same VA that Willis invested his time in, failed Willis by not giving him their time, Lori Willis Locklear said.

“The VA wants to dress up the issue of suicide with words, but does not want to address the issue of suicide with action, like talking to the grieving family of a veteran who took his life,” said Locklear, who was a 12-year VA employee until September 2023.

A spokeswoman for the VA Fayetteville Coastal Health Care System said that the VA is unable to comment on individual cases because of patient privacy.

“The loss of any veteran to suicide is heartbreaking,” spokeswoman Gail Cureton said in a statement Tuesday. “We extend our deepest condolences to this veteran’s family.”

Willis’ father was a veteran, and before following in his father’s military footsteps, Willis volunteered at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center all four years of high school, his mother said.

After graduating from SandHoke Early College High School in 2014 and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2017 with a bachelor’s in religion, Willis joined the Navy in August 2017.

“He went into the Navy and wanted to further his education,” Locklear said. “His daddy did it, and he felt like he could do it.

“My child was sweet, kind, gentle-natured, had a humble spirit and was so meek and mild. He never raised his voice but didn’t like people raising their voice to him, but he did it and made it through boot camp.”

Mental health

Locklear said she noticed a change in her son after he was assigned to his first duty station in Sasebo, Japan.

“I don’t know, but it was as if everything was failing when he got there,” she said.

Locklear said her son handled boot camp and all his schools well, but told her that once he got on ship “it screamed prison to him,” and he felt as if he “made the worst mistake” in his life.

Her son was also coping with a breakup and the 2014 death of his father, and Locklear said she didn’t think he was “healed” from the loss.

Willis was given an honorable discharge from the Navy on Dec. 31, 2018, because of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, his mother said.

“He had tried to commit suicide multiple times while in the service,” she said. “They knew he was a suicide risk, yet they still let him come out” with no supervision.

He used his GI Bill to enroll at Wake Forest University in August 2019 and earned his master’s in philosophy and religion.

“All through that time, Logan struggled with his mental health and never got better,” Locklear said.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns only made things worse.

Locklear, who’s worked in the pharmacy department at the VA, said her son was seeing a private provider who she felt was overmedicating him.

She encouraged her only child to see a VA mental health provider — advice she said she now regrets.

“I told him, it’s unhealthy for you, and tried to get him to go to the VA, but he’d lost faith in the military,” Locklear said. “He said he felt the military had already taken his life from him, and he did not trust us to do anything.”

Five-month wait too late

Locklear said that as a VA employee and mother with a veteran in her home, she wanted to do everything she could to see her son get help.

“I feel like we failed him,” she said.

Locklear said the only positive interaction she thinks her son had with the VA was when she took him to the VA pharmacy department.

He spoke with the pharmacists who told him about his medications and said to call them if he ever had any questions about what he was prescribed, she said.

“That’s the only time we (at the VA) took care of that particular veteran,” Locklear said through tears. “Aside from being his mother, and as an employee, I feel like we let a veteran down and did not do enough.”

Locklear said that after her son met with the pharmacists, someone told her they were concerned that he was suicidal.

She told her son to go to the mental health department and ask to see a mental health provider instead of a regular provider.

“I told him to not leave until he was seen or had an appointment,” Locklear said.

Locklear said Willis checked in with the mental health department Sept. 1, 2022, but was scheduled for an appointment five months later in March 2023.

The VA’s protocol is that any patient presenting suicidal ideations at the facility should see a mental health provider within 20 days and that if the VA facility does not have a provider available within that time, the veteran should be able to find a provider in the community that the VA will cover, Locklear said.

The appointment was too late, she said.

Locklear found her son dead Nov. 4, 2022, in the bathtub of the Raeford home they shared.

Willis, who was Locklear’s only child, was 27.

In his suicide note, Willis wrote that he “could not explain it, but the military did something to me that I simply cannot explain to you,” Locklear said.

What the VA says about mental health access

Cureton said the Fayetteville VA constantly works to ensure veterans in crisis get the care and support whenever and wherever they need it.

“There is nothing more important to VA than providing high-quality, responsive health care to any veteran in crisis,” she said.

The VA continues to expand its treatment and prevention efforts “to address risk factors that arise well before a suicidal crisis, while also continuing to expand our crisis intervention services,” Cureton said.

Free health care is also provided to veterans in acute suicidal crises to be able to go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for emergency health care, including inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days, she said.

The free care initiative started in January this year, according to the national VA.

Cureton said for general mental health consults, “the expectation” is for a veteran to be seen within 20 days for routine care.

However, the VA has emergency departments staffed with mental health consultants and primary care mental health integration teams “to support veterans in need of same-day mental health stabilization,” she said.

The mental health professionals work directly with emergency medicine providers and a veteran’s primary care team to ensure the veteran receives proper services without a separate health care consult.

Veterans who don’t have an established primary care team at the VA’s Fayetteville, Jacksonville or Wilmington facilities can work with a transition team that provides same-day urgent care or appointment care after an assessment, she said.

Veterans in crisis or friends and family concerned about them con contact the Veterans Crisis Line responders for confidential help any time by dialing 988 and pressing 1, texting 838255 or visiting VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

“Veterans don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect with caring, qualified responders,” Cureton said.

Unable to return to work

Locklear said that since her son’s death, she’s not been able to return to the facility where she worked for 12 years.

“I went back and said, ‘Look, we’ve had a suicide here,’ and everyone looked at me and wanted to know everything until I told them it was my son,” she said. “It was like everyone outside of my immediate department cut me off. The higher administrators never checked on the family, which is protocol any time there’s a suicide of a veteran from a VA facility.”

Cureton said the VA has health system suicide prevention coordinators who are available to provide post-services to veterans and their families impacted by suicide.

Locklear said VA representatives are supposed to conduct a cause analysis to determine what happened and whether anything could have been done to prevent the suicide.

“It’s been almost two years, and they won’t speak to me as a veteran’s family member, but yet they can put on all these suicide seminars and talk about what they’re doing for our veterans, and look at what they’ve done to me.

“Look at what they’ve done to Logan.”

According to notes Locklear said she used to keep track of her communications with VA representatives, she called the Fayetteville VA nine days after her son’s death. Then days after that she told a patient representative and the VA director about the suicide.

She had a Zoom meeting with the interim director three months after her son’s death on Feb. 8, 2023, but received no follow-up and no response to a Feb. 23, 2023, email, according to her notes.

A Nov. 6, 2023, email to Rep. Richard Hudson from Fayetteville VA director Marri Fryar, which Locklear shared with The Fayetteville Observer, states that Fayetteville leadership met with Locklear and referred her to its human resources department in regards to applying for disability retirement herself.

Locklear said she’d already left the facility by that time.

Cureton said that in addition to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons, the VA’s Employee Assistance Program provides free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services for employees who have personal or work-related challenges.

Locklear said she has filed a federal tort claim. Since then, there has been no in-depth discussion about her son.

She met with the facility’s associate chief of staff in January to review her son’s medical records but said that she still thinks her concerns about protocol not being followed when a veteran presents themselves as a mental health risk have not been addressed.

“I wanted to speak to go higher up. I wanted to speak to a doctor and the chief of staff,” Locklear said. “They said they’d get back to me, but never did.”

Support for veteran families who die by suicide

When a line-of-duty death occurs, Locklear said, Gold Star families receive support from casualty assistance officers.

She said she’d like to see families whose veterans die as a result of their service, including suicide, receive the same level of support.

Locklear said she currently does not have faith in the VA or faith that all is being done to prevent veteran suicides — especially if VA representatives aren’t willing to meet with a family member of a suicide victim to learn “what should or shouldn’t have been done.”

Locklear said her own mental health has suffered after she found her son and received no support.

Locklear said her son was “smart, loving and caring,” and had a “bright future ahead of him,” if he received the proper mental health care.

“There was not a soul who didn’t love him. He was just that sweet and kind and gentle, but he could not live here,” she said. “His mind wouldn’t let him live here.”

“I was forced to leave my job,” she said. “They tried to put me in another position, but I would still be working for the VA. I could not work at a facility that I no longer believe in. I believed in it for 12 years, but now realized we aren’t taking care of veterans.

“I can’t say suicide is a top priority because they won’t speak to families.”

Two years after her son’s death, Locklear said she’s not been able to have his name engraved on a headstone.

“It’s hard to do that when people still aren’t acknowledging his existence or death,” she said.

Locklear said she will not stop advocating for him.

She provided The Fayetteville Observer with her correspondence with all local members of Congress, her representative in the North Carolina General Assembly and the national VA secretary.

“I won’t stop until (the VA) acknowledges they failed a veteran,” Locklear said. “I want them to acknowledge his death, what happened, what led up to this, how they can fix it, how can they as a VA strive to do better and not let this happen to the next person.”

Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3528.

Read the full article here

Related Posts

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy