Hackett’s suicide deeply troubled Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps. Hackett had been plucked from the enlisted ranks to lead Marines as an officer. He left behind a widow, four sons and more than $460,000 in debts. To Amos, Hackett was a casualty of war — surely the family deserved some compensation from the federal government.
Amos asked John Dowd, a prominent Washington lawyer who had represented Sen. John McCain, for help. “There is absolutely no doubt that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress,” Amos wrote to Dowd. “NONE WHAT SO EVER!”
“We will raise as much hell as we can,” Dowd, a former Marine, wrote back to Amos.
Almost two years later, the high-level intercession by the Marine commandant and the Washington lawyer has produced little from the federal government for Hackett’s widow. The inability of Dowd to wrest any money from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the limits of what the federal government can do for families of service members who kill themselves as a result of mental trauma caused by war.
Dowd and a team of nine lawyers have fought unsuccessfully for the last 18 months to convince the VA and Prudential Financial Inc., which administers a life insurance program for veterans, to pay a $400,000 claim to Danelle Hackett. The life insurance premiums were automatically deducted from Hackett’s paycheck for 26 years when he was on active duty.
If Hackett had been killed in battle or committed suicide before he retired in 2008, his wife would have received the $400,000 from the policy. But Hackett left the military and, amid mounting personal crises, let the policy lapse.
A provision in the current law allows troops who suffer from mental or physical wounds that render them incapable of “substantially gainful employment” to receive exemptions from paying the premium for as long as three years after leaving the military. That three-word phrase — “substantially gainful employment” — is the linchpin of Hackett’s case and potentially hundreds of others.
The VA, which failed to diagnose Hackett’s mental illness when he was alive, concedes that the Marine died of “severe and chronic” post-traumatic stress disorder connected to his service in Iraq. The agency, however, rejected the insurance claim.
After he left the Marines, Hackett held a menial job at an oil refinery for 15 months. He was laid off from the position about nine months before he committed suicide and was unable to find another job.
To the VA, the job is proof that Hackett — despite his severe mental illness — could work, care for himself and make the premium payments. He was not “totally disabled,” according to the VA. Prudential declined to comment on the case.
Danelle Hackett, his widow, disagrees. Before Hackett deployed to Iraq he was known in the Marine Corps for his goofy sense of humor. He coached his sons’ sports teams, took them camping and fishing, and rarely got angry, she said.