It was hard enough for Jamie Lee to learn her husband, a disabled veteran, had died of no apparent cause at a Veterans Affairs psychiatric unit in Boston.
But after the mother of three young children received his last paycheck, she learned her benefits as his caregiver were cut off.
“How am I going to take care of my children?” Lee said, beginning to cry Tuesday at her home in Saucier. Two-year-old Alana wiped tears from her mother’s eyes.
Lee’s 9-month-old twins, Hunter and Hailey, crawled around the floor of their living room with big smiles while their older sister clopped around in a pair of her mother’s high-heeled shoes.
The children have sky-blue eyes and red hair like their father, she said.
He was 35 when he died March 4. He had been in a locked, monitored ward at the Boston VA Hospital and was about to be moved to a unit that specializes in treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. He slumped over and coded, and was taken to Good Samaritan Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Hank Lee served two tours as a mortarman in Afghanistan and one tour in Iraq. An improvised explosive device exploded, leaving him permanently brain-damaged and led to PTSD, his wife said.
He had no life insurance. Paperwork that should have been completed when he returned home from the War on Terror after the 9/11 terrorist attacks hadn’t been changed.
“When somebody comes home from war with a traumatic brain injury,” Jamie Lee said, “wouldn’t you think someone with the VA would help them with their paperwork? He came home with more than 200 stitches in his head.”
They were not married when he was in the military.
It will take up to 120 days for the VA to tell her if she qualifies for a widow’s pension and benefits for her children. It could take even longer for the VA to start payments, Lee said.
“They tell me they have to wait until they get the autopsy and toxicology reports,” she said. “I have to provide those reports to them and I keep being told they’re not ready yet.”
She tried to apply for food stamps but was told she can’t apply until the month after she received her husband’s last check.
She said she had to get help to pay to have her husband’s body brought home for his funeral 20 days later.
“He was willing to put his life on the line for his brothers and sisters” at war, she said. “Now, it’s like he and his family don’t matter to the VA.”
She needs help now
Lee said she needs help, and she needs it now. She doesn’t know what will happen when her bills roll in next month or the next.
And she’s blaming the Department of Veteran Affairs for failing to give her husband proper psychiatric treatment at the VA hospital in Biloxi.
“Every time he would try to commit suicide, they would release him to me after 72 hours,” she said. “They told me nothing about how to get him help.”
“He would be happy one minute and the next he’d be having a flashback.”
While she was pregnant with their first child, a social worker told Hank Lee he could go to a PTSD clinic in Houston or other cities, she said. But her husband didn’t want to be in Houston when his wife gave birth.
Their children have Medicaid, but Lee has to pay for her own insurance. She said the VA will not provide dependent medical care until a 100-percent disabled veteran is considered “permanently and terminally disabled” after 10 years. He had been diagnosed eight years ago and they had been married six years. They were waiting for the 10th year, she said.
The VA cannot comment on a specific veteran’s health issues or complaints of service, said Mary Kay Gominger, spokeswoman for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health System.
In general, the wife and children of a deceased disabled veteran are likely to qualify for benefits, she said.
Gominger said she could not address Lee’s complaints against the VA.
“We have a post-traumatic disorder clinic and we try to reach out to those who need our help,” she said.
How they met
Hank Lee had just finished Marine boot camp Sept. 7, 2001, three days before two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. He was shipped off to war and served for nearly four years.
Jamie Lee said her husband was honorably discharged with 100 percent PTSD disability before they met.
“He didn’t like to tell me the bad parts of war,” she said.
They met through an online pool game eight years ago. She was living in Canada. He was living in Hattiesburg.
“I came down for a two-week visit and never went back,” she said. “He had sneaked off with my phone and called my dad and said, ‘Can I marry her?’ He knew it was important that he ask my dad.”
Good and bad days
He was too proud to seek mental health treatment at first, she said. He had been working on an oil rig when he tried to kill himself. He was airlifted to a hospital.
Jamie Lee said the VA in Biloxi offered little help or resources for his treatment. The Lees were enjoying life as best they could in their “dream house,” a log home with oak walls inside and a large sun room overlooking a pond.
She learned of a VA Hospital in Boston with a PTSD clinic. Her husband was accepted as a patient on a short-term ward where he would be on lockdown and checked on every 15 minutes, she said. He was happy to learn a bed had come open in the PTSD clinic.
Jamie Lee said she and her husband talked by phone several times a day and used Facebook to stay in touch. She was preparing a package to send him with clothes and a picture with their children’s hand prints.
She last spoke with him about 10:30 a.m. March 4. He told her to go mail the package and they’d talk later.
“He said, ‘I miss you guys. Give the babies a kiss for me. I’ll call you in a few hours,’ ” Lee said.
She later learned he had lunch and was walking around in the rec room, joking around and laughing, and became tired and sat down. He was found slumped over, she said.
Later that afternoon, she received a call saying, “He was code blue and unresponsive.” He had been taken to a civilian hospital. She soon received a call saying emergency workers were unable to revive him. He was dead.
She still doesn’t know how he died. He had recently been taken from the Boston VA Hospital to Good Samaritan for chest pains. Tests showed it was anxiety and he had no heart problems, she said.
“Physically, he was healthy,” Lee said. “So how can a 35-year-old man with no physical health problems just up and die?”
“The VA has given me no help and no answers.”
Their 2-year-old daughter is having trouble adjusting to her father’s death and has problems sleeping without waking up with nightmares, Lee said. Alana screams out, “Daddy! Daddy,” she said.
“I’ve explained to her that her Daddy has gone to heaven,” she said. “So now, she says her Daddy has gone to ’aven.’”
Glimmers of hope
Jamie Lee has seen some glimmers of hope since her husband died.
Veterans 360, which aims to help combat veterans succeed, has helped. Rick Collins, founder and executive director, found help through donations.
“The government and the VA have not been supportive of her at all,” Collins said.
Staffers with the offices of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Steven Palazzo also offered some help, she said. They sent donations including diapers, replacement medals and a military uniform for her husband. Hank Lee had earned two Bronze Stars and a Combat Action Medal, but the uniform and medals had been lost over time.
Workers at Wicker’s and Palazzo’s offices are trying to help Lee find out how to handle the VA’s latest request that she provide autopsy and toxicology reports, she said. Lee said she’s unsure if the people who have them will notify her when the reports are completed.
A GoFundMe.com account has been set up in the name of Sgt. Lee’s Family in Crisis. A total of 51 people had donated $2,880 by Wednesday morning.
Lee said she hasn’t used the donations yet. She was able to pay bills with her husband’s last check, but she’s concerned about paying bills in the months that follow until the VA makes a decision on dependent survivor benefits. She’s afraid it could take months for benefits to kick in if they’re approved. There’s also a concern about whether his death was service-connected.
Lee had to come up with money to have her husband embalmed in Boston and shipped to Biloxi.
“We, (the) community, had to pay to bring his body home and put him to rest and now we need community to help her survive until we can hold the VA accountable for leaving a young mother with a 2-year-old little girl and 9-month old twins,” Collins said.
The cost to bring Hank Lee home was $9,000, he said. The VA will reimburse up to $2,000 to bring a body home and for burial. “A pittance,” Collins said, “and they have not reimbursed her.”
Hank Lee was buried Monday at Biloxi National Cemetery.