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Woman who lost husband to PTSD now fighting for survivors' benefits

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Lorrene Eads checked all of the other places she could think of before venturing down Will Sowders Road that morning to look for her husband. He had called in the middle of the night, threatening suicide, again. She had been unable to contact him on her break at work.

She prayed he was passed out somewhere after a night of depression and drinking.

Ronson Eads was a hunter and a fisherman, and the peaceful site where Will Sowders Road disappears into Lake Monroe was among his favorite places.

Lorrene was frantic as she left work the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. She knew in her gut that the thing she feared most might have happened.

About 11:45 a.m., she inched her car down Will Sowders Road and was relieved when she saw her husband's black Ford F-250 truck parked there and him sitting nearby in his camp chair.

"Good, he just fell asleep. Please, God. Let him be all right." It was chilly and raining as she hurried toward him. "Ronson! Ronson!"

She touched his leg to rouse him. The skin beneath his jeans was cold as ice. She saw a handgun on the ground. She touched his rain-soaked jacket and noticed a bullet hole in his shirt on the left side of his chest. She screamed and screamed. A neighbor ran to her and called 911.

Ronson Eads' battle to live with the post-traumatic stress disorder that came from witnessing the bombing deaths of two friends in Afghanistan was over.

Police found a note, four pages with a few misspellings, inside the truck, documenting how 27-year-old Eads' life had disintegrated since his 2010 return from war.

The suicide note is Exhibit No. 6 in a federal lawsuit filed last summer in U.S. District Court alleging that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Prudential Insurance Co. wrongfully denied Eads' wife and children $400,000 in death benefits paid to survivors if a service member deemed "totally disabled" due to military service commits suicide.

A VA investigation determined Eads was disabled because of his PTSD and that he died as a result of a military service-related disability. But Prudential denied the claim because of a caveat in the policy that says if a veteran holds a job for six months or longer after release from military service, he or she is not eligible for the benefit, which can be extended to two years in cases where total disability is documented.

Eads worked at a factory in Crawfordsville, and was on the verge of being fired, when he walked out and never returned after six months and four days on the job.

"Ronson's mental disability consumed him and caused him to take his own life," said Will Spaulding, a Bloomington attorney who filed the lawsuit on Lorrene Eads' behalf. "It is utterly incomprehensible for someone who died as a result of PTSD to have been anything less than totally disabled from the condition that caused his death."

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I wanna be buried in my uniform. I thought about taking one to the head, but the heart is easier to cover during the showing red berret and everything. I'm far enough right now no one will get me before I'm gone.

Baby listen to the songs of Randy Travis "my love is deeper than the holler" and my father. You might know what love is ... I love you and miss you; this time without you has been horrible. I long to feel your touch again ...

Bury me near Leon "Dewy" Eads. Baby I hope to be near you one day. Everything I have goes to my wife Lorrene Eads!!

I chose this place as my final last breath to be for many reasons. I have hunted/fished here with my father many times. My wife and I have had many many good times here. My children have been here. I couldn't think of a better place to go. It is a beautiful place. Lake Monroe is my home.

I have seen many beautiful places all over the world. This is by far the best. All I ask is to be carried by 6/8 Airborne soldiers to my grave. Anita James, Robert Wittenberg, Jenni Thames, John Barnhill, Sgt. Wilson, Sgt. Horn. These six will do for me. Great soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Being a part one of the most elite forces in the military (Airborne) was an honor to me ... my father has been my best friend for the past two weeks. I never thought that would happen. I love you Dad!! Thank You!!

I have told the "Military" for awhile now I've got a problem. It didn't work oh well ... when James died that was it for me. I tried to get help. Lorrene insisted. When I was discharged they said "I'm handling my PTSD OK, I'm fine"... Bullshit!!! I talk to him every day. James Finley is my best friend!! I just hope to see him/talk to him soon.

Lorrene I love you. We didn't always see eye to eye but love doesn't go away. You are and always will be my soul mate. Thank you for putting up with me for all these years. You are a good woman. Just be honest. It's the best way honey ... take care of our girls. I love you!! Be happy and live your life to the fullest!! I tried it just didn't work out that way. Kiss kiss. I love you!!!

This is Ripcord 2 Gulf signing out. God Bless!!!

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Ronson and Lorrene Eads met in Bloomington when they were 18. They started dating in 2005, got married and had a daughter named Haley, now 7 years old. Ronson joined the Army in 2006 and was deployed to Afghanistan May 5, 2007. His wife and daughter lived on a military base in Germany.

That November, they reunited in Bloomington when he got a two-week leave and spent Thanksgiving with their families. "Everything was good," Lorrene Eads recalled. "He had mixed emotions about going back, but he was proud to be serving his country."

Then, on May 31, 2008, two months before the end of Eads' deployment in Afghanistan, he was riding in the gunner's seat in the middle Humvee in a three-vehicle convoy returning to base after a day patrolling near Jalalabad. A bomb exploded, destroying the third truck in line. Two soldiers were seriously hurt and two others, Andrew Fields and James Finley, died. Finley and Eads had been together since basic training.

"Ronson later learned the target was always the middle truck, to inflict the most damage to the convoy, and he developed a lot of guilt," his widow said.

That July, Eads and the rest of his brigade returned from Afghanistan, and he worked on the base in Germany. In February 2009, his wife noticed her husband was not himself. He would wake up from nightmares in a cold sweat.

"He said he kept seeing Finley," she said. "Finley was contacting him. He tried not to talk to me about it." He would burst into anger over small things, a spilled drink or a tone of voice. "He would just snap, really quickly. He started lashing out. And drinking a lot."

She and other military family members go through what's called a demobilization process to learn about PTSD before soldiers return home.

"I knew he was going to come back with problems associated with that. They said PTSD takes months to set in."

That fall, he was transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia and started military police training. Angry outbursts increased and he started drinking more, switching from beer to Southern Comfort and tequila, his wife said, to drown his guilt about Finley's death. "It never was behind him, always a presence."

In September 2010, after an argument, Eads got his shotgun out from under the bed and threatened to kill himself. He was out on the porch smoking, his wife said, the gun against his chin. Lorrene called another soldier, who came out and talked with him for hours. Eads then spent a week in Southside Regional Hospital in Virginia, receiving psychiatric care. He seemed better when he got out, but his condition spiraled again into anger and alcohol, Lorrene said. The couple separated and reunited several times over the next year.

In January 2011, Eads received an honorable discharge from the Army.

There was no mention in his discharge papers about his PTSD, a condition Eads tried to conceal from others but that his wife saw up close. "I never wanted to give up on him. I kept pushing him to get help."

A Department of Veterans Affairs Rating Decision from May 2012 reviewing Eads' military, medical and psychiatric history concluded that a review of service treatment records showed a diagnosis of and treatment for PTSD. The report also stated "the veteran had a history of being treated for PTSD and depression while in service. He had a history of suicidal gestures while in service. He had documented treatment sessions focused on triggers of Afghanistan experiences, experiences of IEDs and the untimely death of a friend."

In April 2011, Ronson and Lorrene Eads both got full-time jobs at Acuity Brands Lighting in Crawfordsville, making about $12 an hour. They lived with her brother, but were not getting along. Fleetwood Caton, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, worked alongside Eads at the factory. He recognized the PTSD symptoms, and stepped in and defused some tense situations between Eads and co-workers so Eads would not get fired. "It was apparent that Ronson had problems," he said. In a sworn statement that's an exhibit in the lawsuit, he said Eads exhibited a poor attitude, moodiness, childlike behavior and angry outbursts. He called him self-destructive and irritable.

In October, Eads stopped going to work.

He packed his bags and moved back with family in Bloomington. Lorrene and Haley would visit on weekends. When they left the Sunday before Thanksgiving, she assured her husband they would be back on Wednesday.

"I asked him if he was OK, and he said he was fine. Haley was snuggled on his lap. I don't think he wanted us to leave."

He took his life on Tuesday, the day before his wife and daughter were to return. Lorrene Eads was pregnant with their son Zach.

Spaulding, the lawyer, cites other cases in his challenge to Prudential, which denied the claim, and the VA, which gives the insurance company final authority. He said a Prudential representative told him in December 2012, before the lawsuit was filed, that the claim likely would be approved because Eads' PTSD had been documented by the VA.

But in a final denial letter, Prudential Manager Colleen Lawrence denied the claim. "While Mr. Eads may have had medical conditions resulting from his service, those conditions did not prevent him from being engaged in a 'substantially gainful occupation' for more than 6 months," she wrote.

Spaulding notes the case of U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jeff Hackett, who left the military in 2008 after a 26-year career that included two tours in Iraq. He suffered from PTSD, but worked at an oil refinery for 15 months before being laid off. He later shot and killed himself at an American Legion hall.

As in Eads' case, the VA said service-related PTSD caused Hackett's death, but his survivors were denied the $400,000 death benefit because he had worked for more than a year. A lawyer and former Marine stepped in, and gathered evidence that resulted in the VA labeling Hackett totally disabled and Prudential paying the money to his widow.

And last month, a judge in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, overseeing a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of survivors of veterans suffering from PTSD who later killed themselves and were denied the benefits, ruled the case can proceed on claims of fraud and unequal protection.

Neither the VA nor Prudential would comment on the Eads case because of the pending lawsuit against them.

"We are not going to comment, and we will let the legal action take its course," said Sheila Bridgeforth, vice president of corporate communications for Prudential. "I will reach out to our team and raise everyone's attention so they are aware, but I cannot officially comment."

Spaulding wants Prudential to reverse its decision. "The conclusion that Ronson 'may' have been impaired is ridiculous," he said. "They cannot disregard the medical conclusions made by the VA, not to mention Ronson's suicide note."

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