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Report: Marine Corps withheld suicide investigation results

Marine Cpl. Jonathan Gee committed suicide in 2015 while stationed near the Pentagon.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JANELE RIGGS

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: December 19, 2016

WASHINGTON — The results of an investigation into the suicide of a Marine that suggested his unit might have a "drug problem" and highlighted a hostile work environment were withheld from the Marine's family for an "unacceptably long time" spanning months, according to documents and letters obtained by The Washington Post.

Cpl. Jonathan M. Gee, 22, hanged himself early Aug. 29, 2015, at the Marine Corps' Henderson Hall, near the Pentagon, after a night of partying, the investigation found. He and another Marine had been thrown out of the EchoStage concert hall in Washington hours before, when they were discovered in a restroom stall with cocaine, the investigation's report said. Gee was found the next afternoon.

The investigation was initially completed in January, but its release was "unnecessarily delayed" after it was sent from Gee's unit — the Headquarters and Service Battalion for Marine Corps headquarters — to Marine lawyers at Quantico, Va., according to a letter the service sent last month to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The report was approved in May by a commanding officer, Col. Joseph Murray, but the results were withheld from the Gee family until September.

"The review and endorsed investigation should have been forwarded to our Casualty Branch so they could notify the family that the investigation was available upon request," said a letter to McCaskill signed by Col. Andrew M. Regan, commander of Gee's battalion. "High personnel turnover during this period contributed to the inexcusable delay in forwarding the investigation to the Casualty Branch."

The investigation's completion also was delayed by the need for an autopsy and toxicology report, Regan's letter added. Those showed that Gee had alcohol in his system along with several prescription drugs that can cause suicidal thoughts when mixed with it, including an insomnia medication and several anti-anxiety drugs.

A Marine spokesman, Maj. Clark Carpenter, said that although the delays were regrettable and the service is sorry for any distress it caused the family, they were "in no way" intentional.

"We remain committed to providing the maximum amount of transparency, even in tragic situations like this," he said.

On top of the delays, the family was also frustrated by a miscommunication that left uncertain whether Gee's remains would arrive in his home town of St. Charles, Mo., in time for his funeral and saddened by the misspelling of his first name as "Jonathon" on his transfer case, said Janele Riggs, his older sister.

"Have some respect, you know? We just lost a family member," Riggs said in an interview. "Don't spell his name wrong. It was just so frustrating."

The Marine Corps only recently became aware of the spelling mistake and considers it "deeply regrettable," Carpenter said. A Marine official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said that a Washington-area mortician prepared Gee's remains and that the service "had no means to identify the spelling error prior to delivery of the remains to the family."

McCaskill has met with Marine officials and said that they have pledged to address her concerns.

"The Gees have gone through more than any family should in the wake of their son's death last year," she said. "Compounding their grief were a lack of transparency and extended delays from the Marine Corps that were unacceptable and avoidable. The Gees — and any family with loved ones who sign up to serve this country — need and deserve answers in a timely fashion."

Gee worked in the support section for Lt. Gen. James B. Laster, director of Marine Corps staff, and primarily wrote condolence letters for families of deceased Marines. He was known gregarious and looking forward to getting out of the military and moving back to his hometown, according to Riggs and the investigation.

But Gee had several stressful situations in his life, including a painful back condition and a toxic work environment in which a senior enlisted Marine "targeted" several junior members in the office, the investigation found. The leader, whose name was redacted from the report, was removed from her job "because of her hostile attitude and demeaning behavior toward subordinates," a Marine official said.

The investigating officer wrote that it appears "no one thing" drove Gee to suicide but that there were "clear chances for intervention" in his life. The Marine was able to maintain a "veneer of happiness" while still struggling internally, the investigation said.

The investigation also found that Gee wore a bracelet that said "Where's Molly" - a reference to the drug ecstasy — the night he died. Nothing in the investigation definitively proves that other Marines in Gee's battalion also used drugs, but the investigating officer wrote that "many of the Marines interviewed" attended the same rave parties in Washington.

"Headquarters and Service Battalion . . . may face a drug problem," the investigator wrote. "Corporal Gee was able to hide his sustained drug use from the command."

A commanding officer, whose name was redacted from documents, reviewed the report and wrote that the "most disturbing finding" of the investigation was that other Marines knew about Gee's drug use but did nothing to intervene.

Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman, the outgoing director of the service's Marine and Family Division, said that the service has launched several programs to curb suicide in recent years, including the Marine Intercept Program. It was adopted in 2013 and includes Marine officials touching base regularly with those who have attempted suicide or expressed suicidal thoughts. The program receives about 900 reports annually.

Since 2012, the number of Marines who commit suicide has fluctuated between 46 and 59 a year.

"It's a constant drumbeat, and it will continue to be," Whitman said of preventing suicide. "This is not a job. This is our family, and we take that very seriously."
 

Janele Riggs, left, with her brother Jonathan Gee.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JANELE RIGGS

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