ONE ARMY, TWO FAILURES
Overlooked and cut loose by the Army, veteran’s life spirals to an end
Stars and Stripes
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — By last September, the Army had had just about enough of infantryman Jacob Andrews, so it gave him a general discharge and a one-way bus ticket home to Kansas City.
He had plenty to think about on the 30-hour trip from Fort Drum, N.Y.
There were the alcohol-fueled mistakes that had led to the end of his military career, and the memories of good friends who had been killed the year before in Afghanistan. There was, in particular, his horrific discovery of the body of one friend who had been crushed to death in a Humvee accident.
There was the night back at Fort Drum when he’d tried to commit suicide.
Friends and family members say the Army was more than happy to take Andrews when it needed new soldiers for an unpopular war, but that it punished and abandoned him when he returned from Afghanistan, despite clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and possible traumatic brain injury.
Those actions, they charge, put Andrews on the path to his tragic demise. In April, as the government hounded him for repayment of his re-enlistment bonus, and after he was incorrectly denied the educational benefits he’d counted on to help make a new start, Andrews, 22, hanged himself in a wooded area near his parents’ home in Kansas City.
“He tried. The kid asked for help,” said Andrews’ mother, Lauri Turner. “But to them, he was just a number.”
Numbers were exactly what the Army needed when Andrews joined in May 2007 as it struggled to meet recruiting goals. He’d dropped out of high school after his sophomore year, but he enlisted as one of a vanguard of new recruits who came in with GEDs instead of high school diplomas. He went to court to get charges of assault and vandalism dismissed before he could head to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training, at a time when the Army accepted thousands of recruits who’d had minor criminal trouble.
Later, when the Army chaptered him out, Andrews joined a rising number of troubled soldiers quickly separated with general discharges or worse. Andrews was one of 8,175 soldiers separated from the military for misconduct in fiscal year 2010, up 42 percent from 2006.
Finally, when he killed himself last month, he became part of the grimmest military statistic of modern times: one of the 18 U.S. veterans, on average, who commits suicide each day.
The Army declined to comment for this story, citing “privacy concerns,” except for a prepared statement offered a month after Stars and Stripes’ first request that expressed concern for Andrews’ family and emphasized that decisions on how to handle a troubled soldier like Andrews would be made at the brigade level.
Stars and Stripes also made multiple attempts to reach Andrews’ former brigade, battalion and company commanders via email and through the military organizations to which they are currently assigned. All of those efforts went without reply.
This article was reported based on Andrews’ records from the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs and on interviews with his friends, family and fellow soldiers, including his former platoon leader.
Heading to war
The Army seemed like a godsend when Andrews signed up. His family had never had much money, college was out of the question, and the chances of a high school dropout making a decent living were remote. His mother and stepfather encouraged him to enlist, although his mother begged him to pick a safer specialty than infantry.
Not a chance, Andrews told her; he wasn’t going to be a “POG,” military slang he’d already learned for “person other than grunt.” He earned his “11B” infantry classification and was assigned to Company D, 2nd Batallion, 87th Infantry Regiment, part of the 10th Mountain Division.
At Fort Drum, Andrews fit in quickly among most of his fellow soldiers. They remember him as “wild,” “fun” and “a firecracker,” and they described a true “infantry” lifestyle — training and partying with equal intensity.
“Andrews was always a straight ladies’ man,” recalled Nick Ooten, a close friend who had reached the unit a few months earlier and who shared a similar background — a Midwesterner with a GED. “You know the girls that you dream about, that you wish [you] could talk to them? Andrews had no fear, drunk or sober. He would go and talk to any girl and he would get their attention. He could pull models. He was so smooth.”
Andrews’ unit expected to go to Iraq, but in late 2008 his battalion received orders instead for Wardak province in Afghanistan, about 20 miles from Kabul. Its mission would be to secure an area around a main highway and deny the Taliban a long-held safe haven.
For the first several months, Andrews did fine. On one of their first days in Wardak province, Andrews was the gunner on an M1117 Armored Security Vehicle, manning a .50-caliber machine gun and a Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher. They rushed to the aid of some soldiers on foot who were under fire.
“I was driving. He was gunning,” recalled Zachary Precopio, a friend of Andrews’ who is no longer in the Army. “My [truck commander] made me drive up this crazy hill and [Andrews] started rocking with the .50, and he switched over to the Mk 19, kept switching back and forth. He knew his [stuff] with that thing.”
Andrews was promoted to specialist in May 2009. He’d re-enlisted just before the deployment — pocketing and quickly spending a $12,000 re-enlistment bonus — and he talked with friends about making a career out of the Army.
When a new soldier, Pvt. Peter Kyle Cross, 19, joined the unit, Andrews and Precopio took him under their wing. They rode in the same armored security vehicle for several weeks.
“You know how it is; the guys in your truck, you talk to them 24 hours a day. … That’s when we started getting close,” Precopio said. “So we were pretty well connected with Cross. It was like he was our little brother.”
Andrews went home on mid-tour leave in May 2009. His mother and stepfather gave him an early surprise party for his 21st birthday in a local park. His played with his 2-year-old niece, Kayli, who had learned to say that her Uncle Jake was “fighting monsters in Afghanistan.” He was happy and proud, his mother recalled.
When he returned to Afghanistan, things quickly fell apart.
He learned that two good friends, Sgt. Carlie M. Lee III and Staff Sergeant Esau I. De la Pena-Hernandez, had been killed while he was gone. Lee, especially, had been a mentor to Andrews.
Not long after he returned, a vehicle in which Andrews was riding was hit by a powerful improvised explosive device that knocked him unconscious.
Then came the event that truly devastated him.
On June 26, Andrews and another soldier were manning an observation post at the top of a hill. Cross was driving to bring them some food, but his Humvee slipped off the road and tumbled down the side of the hill.
Andrews ran and reached Cross long before anyone else. The young private had been thrown out and crushed by the Humvee. Andrews fell to the ground and cried.
“I’ll be straight up and honest with you, sir,” said another of Andrews’ friends in the unit, Justin Chavez. “Jake was a different person [after Cross’ death]. That totally [messed] up his head right there.”
“That’s when I really think a lot of depression and sadness [started]. That ate at him more than anything bad in his past, just because of the way he saw him,” he recalled.
“The kid was crushed by a Humvee. … Nobody should have to see that.”
Andrews was one of the soldiers chosen to escort Cross’ body to Bagram Air Base.
“All of us were upset, but he was the only person that was really in tears,” recalled DeWitt Moss, who also escorted Cross’ body. “I just seen it in his eyes. He went into detail, saying how he could tell [Cross’s] neck was broke and he wasn’t breathing. I’ll just never forget the look on his face.”
Soon afterward, a new platoon leader took over. The soldiers gave themselves a platoon nickname, Bohicas, and when the new lieutenant, Kyle Hooten, made Andrews his driver, Andrews took on the radio call sign “Bohica 6 Delta.”
Andrews was a good soldier, Hooten recalled, “in the upper quarter” of the platoon, but he could be “restless” and seemed to be carrying a heavy burden at times. Hooten thought Andrews was likely worried about his mother, who had gotten sick while the unit had been in Afghanistan. He hadn’t been in the platoon at the time of Cross’ death, but later he wondered whether that might have been what was affecting Andrews.
“There’s a specific incident I’m thinking of when he was almost in tears in the truck,” Hooten recalled. “He was a good kid. He was a normal kid. But you knew that he was dealing with some demons.”
Real trouble begins
By December, the rest of the unit packed up and headed to Bagram Air Base, where they were to wait a few days for a flight home.
It was there that Andrews’ real trouble began, on Christmas 2009.
He, Precopio and another soldier named Andrew Nordlund were bored and wandering around the base when they met a group of soldiers from other NATO countries. Americans are prohibited from drinking alcohol in Afghanistan, but the other soldiers, from Australia, France and the United Kingdom, had a copious supply of tequila, beer and wine.
“It was pretty much the United Nations of a drinking Christmas party, so we had to throw the U.S. in the ring,” Precopio recalled. “We’d had a rough deployment, so we did it.”
The alcohol hit the three soldiers hard. Before the night was out, Nordlund was passed out on the sidewalk. Precopio was covered in blood, courtesy of a punch to the nose from Andrews. Someone called the military police.
“Three infantrymen drinking and getting into a fight? It’s really not that uncommon,” Precopio said.
By the next morning, he had “brushed it off” and completely forgiven Andrews. He teased him for landing a lucky punch.
“It’s funny stuff looking back on it,” said Precopio, recalling how later that night he vomited in an MRI machine at the base hospital.
“It sucks that I got knocked down” in rank as a result of the episode, he said. “But now I’ve got a pretty funny story to tell about how I got drunk in Afghanistan.”
The Army wasn’t laughing, however, and it wasn’t in a forgiving mood. When they got back to Fort Drum in January 2010, all three soldiers were busted to private. Precopio and Nordlund tried to get Andrews to take his punishment and keep his mouth shut, but his temper was short. He was withdrawn, and he was quick to argue with sergeants and officers.
The result was that he was denied post-deployment leave. He was assigned extra duty at Fort Drum while everyone else went home.
Many of the soldiers found shifting back to the civilian world difficult, but it was obvious to those closest to Andrews that he was struggling more than his peers.
“He wasn’t the same person that I knew,” Moss said.
“You could tell he was in some kind of emotional distress,” said Andrews’ girlfriend, Ashley Mercante, a nursing student who met him at a bar about 10 miles from Fort Drum just weeks after Andrews returned from Afghanistan. “He had a lot of nightmares. Graphic, horrible nightmares. He just always wondered why his buddies hadn’t lived and he had.”
His fellow enlisted soldiers also recalled that Andrews was the only soldier in his platoon not to be awarded the combat infantryman badge — a key decoration for an infantry soldier — despite clearly meeting the criteria for the award.
“Once he got in trouble, they said, ‘Screw him,’ ” said Precopio, who eventually went AWOL and was chaptered out of the Army, but still got his combat badge.
Andrews’ troubles compounded. According to what his family said he told them, the sergeant assigned to oversee his extra duty released him most days, but when they got caught, the sergeant denied having given permission. More military legal action was inevitable.
Andrews was drinking heavily by then. In March 2010, he admitted himself to the mental health unit of a civilian hospital, ostensibly because he realized he had a drinking problem. It’s unclear from records whether Andrews told anyone in his unit, but he later told a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor that another impetus for admitting himself was that he’d tried to commit suicide.
‘Breaks my heart’
Look up PTSD on the VA’s website and you’ll find the official psychological criteria for the disorder.
Did the soldier experience intense fear, helplessness or horror after witnessing a traumatic event involving serious injury or death?
Does he or she have recurring and intrusive dreams, memories or flashbacks?
Does he or she avoid talking or thinking about the event, or experience a “numbing of general responsiveness”?
Is the soldier having trouble sleeping, or is he or she prone to outbursts of anger, startling, hypervigilance or inability to concentrate?
Have the reactions been going on for more than a month?
In May 2010, as his commanders pursued formal disciplinary action against him, Andrews was sent to an Army psychiatrist who wrote after a “succinct” evaluation that he “[did] not have a psychiatric disorder which warrants disposition through medical channels.”
His military records and the recollections of his fellow soldiers, however, suggest strong evidence for each of the PTSD criteria.
While stressing that he could not “diagnose Jacob from a distance,” especially after his death, psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, one of the foremost authorities on PTSD, reviewed a summary of Andrews’ records at Stars and Stripes’ request.
“Jacob’s story breaks my heart,” said Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University who is also the former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
“The most disabling wounds of war are, in my personal opinion, untreated PTSD, TBI and survivor guilt. These conditions cause haunting recollection of terrible events, isolation from sources of love and respect and often a reduced capacity to control aggressive impulses. Self-medication with alcohol is common.”
Andrews, Ochberg added, “was injured in ways that should [have been] obvious to his command. Jacob deserved better.”
In spring 2007, just as Andrews was starting basic training, the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health recommended that soldiers who engage in patterns of misconduct who have possible PTSD or TBI should be referred to medical evaluation boards instead of being involuntarily or administratively discharged.
The task force, however, had no power to enforce its recommendations.
There is a point in Andrews’ story in which his well-documented parade of troubles — some his fault, others not — grows almost unbelievable.
His mother and stepfather were strapped for cash, but they paid $850 to ship his truck from Missouri, since he wasn’t allowed to leave Fort Drum to get it. Within 24 hours, he was arrested for drunken driving. He faced a summary court-martial over the dispute about his extra duty and was sentenced to 30 days at the Lewis County Jail in Lowville, N.Y., which had an arrangement to confine Fort Drum soldiers. He also had to forfeit half of his $1,400 monthly pay.
By the time he rejoined his unit, his slide was almost inexorable. He was drinking very heavily almost every day, downing a bottle of vodka or 30 cans of beer in a sitting.
According to Andrews’ family, a clinical social worker in the behavioral health department at the Fort Drum hospital wanted to send him to a military in-patient treatment center for substance abuse in Texas.
“Most of us know that if somebody’s drinking heavily, it’s to self-medicate,” said Turner, Andrews’ mother. “So he asked for help, asked to go to the wounded warrior program.”
A spokeswoman for Fort Drum declined to discuss Andrews specifically but said that any determination on whether to send a soldier to such a program would have been made “with input from the entire brigade chain of command” and from “subject-matter experts.”
There is no indication in the records Stars and Stripes obtained that such a move was ever considered.
Andrews made matters worse in mid-August by driving his truck while intoxicated for the second time in five months, this time with a suspended license.
It’s difficult to know the exact details, but Andrews told a VA doctor later that one of his commanders called him a “piece of shit” and told him he wanted him out of the Army immediately.
On Aug. 26, Andrews’ company commander, Capt. Jonathan Cintron, recommended that he be separated with a general discharge under honorable conditions.
Though a “general under honorable” discharge sounds similar to an “honorable” discharge, the two characterizations of service are very different. Andrews’ form DD-214 showing his release from active duty noted that the reason for his separation was “misconduct (serious offense).”
By mid-September, his brigade commander, Col. Patrick Frank, signed the papers, and Andrews was on the bus to Missouri with a $12,000 bill for repayment of the re-enlistment bonus he’d received nearly two years earlier. None of his time in the Army, including the year in Afghanistan, counted toward it.
“When they told Jake ‘We just want you out now,’ ” Mercante said, “it’s like, ‘We’re just sweeping this dirt out. Let’s get rid of him.’ They didn’t really care. They didn’t care about his well-being, because they were expendable.”
A hero’s welcome
Even though the Army had no use for him anymore, Andrews’ family still planned a hero’s welcome. Aboard the bus to Kansas City, he wore civilian clothes, but his short hair and steel physique gave him away as military. He wore two black memory bracelets inscribed with the names of friends killed in Afghanistan: Lee and De la Pena-Hernandez on one bracelet; Cross on the other. When his bus pulled into the station around 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2010, other passengers clapped and gave the thumbs-up sign.
His mother and stepfather, along with most of his family, were there to meet him.
“I was doing the mom thing, snapping pictures,” his mother recalled. “When I got my arms around him I didn’t want to let go. I was embarrassing him.”
She staged a little ceremony where her son cut the yellow ribbon she had tied around a tree in the front yard of his childhood home.
In the days that followed, Turner was all business. She insisted that Andrews go to the VA hospital in Kansas City, where for the first time, according to his files, he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and sent for tests to determine whether he’d suffered traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan, possibly from being knocked unconscious by an IED.
Andrews was forthright about his drinking and his suicide attempt. He told a VA doctor he was glad to be home and that he hoped to keep busy, stay out of trouble and go to college. A Fort Drum counselor had told him that with his re-enlistment and his general discharge, he’d be entitled to 70 percent of the post-9/11 GI Bill.
“Sleep — no good,” the doctor wrote in his file. “Trouble falling asleep. Nightmares every night. Tries to stay busy … crying spells … The veteran reported grieving every day over [his] fallen friends in combat.”
Next to a line on the form reading, “sense of foreshortened future (e.g. does not expect to have a career, marriage, children or a normal life span),” the doctor marked an X, and added a quote from Andrews: “This stuff has ruined my life.”
Andrews started on his paperwork — an application for the GI Bill, one for community college, another to try to get his discharge upgraded. He had another problem hanging over his head, though. His August arrest for drunken driving in New York was certain to mean going back to serve time in the county jail. Meanwhile, the bank repossessed his truck and sent him a bill for $7,000.
He filed for unemployment, but the Army reported that it had paid his accrued leave while neglecting to mention that it had applied the entire amount toward repaying his re-enlistment bonus, so his net benefit was zero. He got into college, but the VA rejected his GI Bill application.
In response to an inquiry from Stars and Stripes, the VA acknowledged weeks after Andrews’ death that the denial was almost certainly a bureaucratic mistake.
A servicemember needs an honorable discharge to take advantage of the post-9/11 GI Bill, a VA spokesman explained, but re-enlisting, as Andrews did in November 2008, is treated as the equivalent of an honorable discharge. The problem was that the Department of Defense reported Andrews’ general discharge to the VA, but did not report his re-enlistment.
'A cry for help'
In the days that followed that rejection, Andrews started spending a lot of time alone in the woods. He went back to the VA, with his mother driving him to medical appointments and waiting hours for him to finish. He became so agitated that he couldn’t sit still. He stormed out at the end of one consultation with a VA psychologist.
He cut off all contact with Mercante, his girlfriend from Fort Drum. One of the few friends he still saw, Michael Lingenfelser, had known him since they were kids. He said Andrews was radically different from the smooth guy everyone liked who could talk to just about anyone.
“You could just see it in his face, that awkward feeling,” Lingenfelser recalled. “He was socially awkward, like he didn’t know what to say or do.”
They shot pool in a bar one night last December, and suddenly Andrews disappeared. Lingenfelser found him outside, “just bawling, crying his eyes out.”
Andrews stayed with his family for Christmas. His mother gave him an iPod, and he enjoyed his first holiday with them in three years. In January, his sister gave birth to a baby boy she named “Gunnar,” in Andrews’ honor, since he had been a gunner on an armored vehicle in the Army.
Then he flew back to New York to do his time for the second drunken driving conviction.
“All I really wanna do is get my discharge up and get a job,” he wrote his mom from the Jefferson County Jail on Feb. 1. “It’s not a whole lot to look forward to but better than where I am now.”
He’d bought his round-trip flight without knowing when he’d be going home, and with no money to pay to change it, he had to find somewhere to go in New York for a few days when he was released. Around 7 a.m. on the day he got out, he called Mercante.
“I was so ecstatic, and told him to come right over,” she said.
He hadn’t talked with her since December, and hadn’t let her know he’d returned to serve his jail time.
They got back together, but Andrews was volatile. He couldn’t stop drinking, and he’d say mean, crazy things when he did, she said. He’d threaten to hurt himself, or worse, but the next morning he was always fine — embarrassed at the most, or ashamed.
Mercante came to visit him in Kansas City in early March, and Andrews went completely berserk after drinking a bottle of vodka.
He was “yelling obscenities,” according to a police report on the incident, and “threatening to ‘hurt someone’ if he gets loose.”
“That was the worst that it’s ever been,” Mercante said. “It was a cry for help.”
Andrews’ mother begged the police to take her son involuntarily to the VA or to a private hospital. Instead, they arrested him and charged him with disorderly conduct. He made his $100 bail in an hour, took a cab home and had no memory of the event the next day.
“It doesn’t really make sense, because if you’d known Jake, the Jake that everybody loved, he has a heart of gold,” Mercante recalled. “He was awesome to be around. He was the best person ever. … But it was the most bizarre thing, to see someone go just completely polar opposite. ”
A nursing student, Mercante started researching traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
“The only way I can make a little bit of sense out of that is that when he drank, it switched his subconscious, the dial, just full on.”
Turn for the better
Though he claimed not to remember that March night, something clearly changed afterward. Friends and family say Andrews went cold turkey and stopped drinking. His resolve strengthened after Mercante shared some surprising news soon afterward: She was pregnant with his child.
He was stunned when she told him, Mercante recalled, but added: “His first reaction was to take care of me. He was worried about me. ‘Are you OK? We’re going to keep it, right?’ So quickly, he went into thinking about everything else that was going to have to happen.”
He was adamant that he needed to get a job and an apartment. Finally, he landed a good offer, making $38 an hour with a contractor that maintains municipal water and sewer systems. He would start in April.
Andrews bought a mountain bike and climbing ropes and he spent his time until then going to the gym and riding trails near his home. He joined Facebook and started posting videos of his rides online. He played with his niece, Kayli, and when she mentioned that she wanted a Hello Kitty bicycle for her birthday, he promised to get her one.
Perhaps most important, he slowly ended his self-imposed isolation. He reached out to his old friends from the Army — calling Chavez, who was selling cars in Arizona; Ooten, who was working for the postal service in Indiana; and several others.
“He told me he got a brand new job, making about $30-something dollars an hour,” Chavez recalled. “He had a baby on the way. He was doing pretty good for himself, finally. I felt like he’d made a turn for the best.”
A sudden end
All of that apparent progress makes Andrews’ final chapter so much harder to understand.
The last night of his life is both well-documented and a complete mystery.
What’s clear is that in the early morning hours of April 5, after drinking heavily, he walked into a wooded area near his family’s home, strung his climbing rope over a tree branch and hanged himself. The Kansas City medical examiner’s report gives the cause of death as “asphyxia due to hanging” with “post-traumatic stress disorder” and “depression” listed under “other significant conditions.”
But as clear as the cause of death was, nothing else makes sense.
How does it square with the long text message exchange he had with Lingenfelser the night before talking about mountain bikes, or the list he wrote earlier that day of trails that he hoped to ride? There was the normal conversation he’d had with his mom just before she’d gone to bed around 10 p.m. There was the new job, and his pending fatherhood.
He and Mercante fought that night over the phone, after everyone else was asleep. Andrews started drinking — the first time anyone is aware of that he drank since the March 6 incident — and he grew angry and morose. He said the kinds of crazy things he was prone to say when he drank, including talking about suicide, she said. He would hang up, or she would, over and over. One or the other would call back.
He’d done the same thing many times before. Mercante was 1,000 miles away. It was the middle of the night. She was exhausted and half-asleep.
“I just know that I told him I loved him, and people love him, and you have to be a father now. Don’t do this,” Mercante recalled. “But like so many times before, he would get drunk … and turn into this other guy.
“So I didn’t ...”
“I should have …”
She paused again.
“Anybody should take that seriously. But I don’t know why I didn’t. The only thing that can halfway make sense is that that had kind of happened before and Jake was always OK.”
A neighbor walking his dog found Andrews’ body the next morning. The rope around his neck had stretched to the point where Andrews’ tan boots touched the ground. The earbuds to the iPod his mother had given him were in his ears, and his right hand clutched his cell phone. He wore the black memorial bracelets for Lee, De la Pena-Hernandez and Cross. Empty beer cans were strewn around the area.
Later, when his family checked his Facebook page, they saw his last postings had been around 3 a.m. — one highlighting a fatalistic Eminem music video and another commemorating the ninth anniversary of the death of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley.
Wounds not visible
Lauri Turner woke up and immediately sensed that something was wrong. Her son’s bedroom door was open; she saw empty beer cans inside. His climbing rope was missing. She ran outside, toward the woods.
She saw a firefighter first, and then her son’s body, still hanging from the tree.
She fell to the ground and screamed.
Mercante said the reality of Andrews’ death hasn’t sunk in. She replays their conversations that night in her head and tells herself that she has to keep things together because she is carrying his baby.
His friend Lingenfelser was shocked to hear the news.
“Of any of the people I’d ever known, even with all the problems, I would have never thought he would have done that,” Lingenfelser said. “That’s what made me so mad. We talked about everything, and just one time he decided not to call me and talk to me.”
Friends turned his Facebook page into a memorial wall.
“To Bohica 6 Delta,” his old platoon leader, Hooten, wrote on the page. “You will always be remembered as a man of honor who both lived and fought hard. I am forever indebted to you as my driver … leading the rest of us Bohicas to safety.”
His mother is haunted by the memory of her son’s body, and by the fact that the night before he died was one of the few nights she hadn’t kissed him goodnight and told him she loved him. She feels guilty that she slept soundly when he was walking around the house with his rope; that she encouraged him when he wanted to join the Army; that she cremated his remains because she couldn’t afford a casket; that she was unable to get him more help.
The funeral was at the national veterans cemetery in Leavenworth, Kan. His friends grieved in their own ways. Most of them wore T-shirts bearing his photograph. On the way to the ceremony, his mother realized that they had no minister, no one to say a few words at the gravesite. She would have to do it herself.
She thanked the Patriot Guard members who had made up the procession — hundreds of motorcyclists who stood at attention for hours. Then she talked about her son. He’d served his country in a war, and been wounded in the process.
“Jacob’s wounds weren’t visible,” she said, “but they were very deep.”
Andrews is gone, but the bureaucracies still don’t get it. His mother has made it her mission to tangle with them in her son’s place. She has his documents well-organized in folders on the kitchen table.
Her first fight was to get the highest rank Andrews earned, specialist, on his headstone.
A polite woman at the VA offered condolences on his death but said she couldn’t release his medical records without an official death certificate. A dour clerk at the Kansas City police department refused to provide a copy of the March 6 police report because Turner wasn’t named in it.
More reminders came in the mail.
The state of New York assessed $1,250 more for Andrews’ drunken driving convictions. The bank that repossessed his truck sent notices that it wanted its money. A letter Jake wrote in jail in February arrived; the postmark showed the facility didn’t bother to mail it until April. The state of Missouri wrote to say his license would be suspended until deep into a year he won’t see.
The Army hasn’t offered any condolences besides the brief statement for this story, but the Department of Defense sent more threatening letters, demanding repayment of the remaining $11,000 on Andrews’ re-enlistment bonus.
Turner has been meeting with veterans’ advocates who want to help her get her son’s discharge upgraded. She wants the Army to award her son the combat infantryman badge his buddies say he earned. She plans to file a complaint against the Kansas City police department for not taking her son to a hospital when he was arrested on March 6.
“I’m gonna do everything in my power to take the [expletive] who betrayed you down,” she wrote on his Facebook page May 5. “It’s too late to help you, but maybe my actions will help another family from going through what we have gone through.”
Turner was in court May 18 when her son was supposed to appear after the March 6 incident. The prosecutor offered sympathy. She gave Turner a copy of the report that the police clerk had refused, saying there was no reason why it should have been withheld from her.
The judge asked Turner whether her son had suffered from mental illness.
“He was a veteran and had PTSD,” she answered.
The judge offered condolences.
“Be a voice,” he told her.
She said she planned to, but for the moment, she had other concerns.
She went to a nearby office to apply for a refund of the $100 her son had posted for bail back in March.
Money is tight. It will go toward paying off his funeral.
If you know a veteran in crisis, call the VA’s toll-free suicide hot line at (800) 273-TALK.