Danelle Hackett, 46, holds a Christmas ornament with a photo of her late husband, Maj. Jeffrey Hackett, at her home in Bethany, W.Va., on Feb. 3. Mrs. Hackett had the ornament made in remembrance of her husband of 22 years on the first Christmas after his death. The inscription reads, “1st Christmas, Jeff, 28 June 1964 - 5 June 2010, Love You.” (Joe Appel/For The Washington Post)

For most of his 26 years in the military, Maj. Jeff Hackett was a standout Marine. Two tours in Iraq destroyed him.

Home from combat, he drank too much, suffered public breakdowns and was hospitalized for panic attacks. In June 2010, he killed himself.

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.

“I watched Jeff die twice,” she said. “He died once when he came home from Iraq and a second time when he shot himself.”

Building a case

Hackett’s widow had advantages that extend to few military spouses. Amos learned of her husband’s suicide through a story in The Washington Post that chronicled the mental health problems of several Marines in his unit. The Post story spurred the commandant to ask Dowd, a Vietnam-era Marine, to take the case on a pro bono basis.

Dowd’s youngest brother was killed leading his troops in Vietnam in 1967. Dowd finished his stint in the Marines and rose to prominence as a lawyer in Washington. He represented McCain and defended former Arizona governor Fife Symington against charges of bank fraud. He led Major League Baseball’s investigation of Pete Rose’s gambling on baseball games. More recently, he oversaw the defense of Raj Rajaratnam, who was convicted in one of the biggest insider trading cases of the last 20 years.

Within days of receiving the initial e-mail from the Marine Corps’ commandant, Dowd assembled a team at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to prove that Hackett’s PTSD killed him.

The only indication that Hackett suffered from mental distress was a note from a Marine Corps doctor in late 2007 indicating that Hackett was having trouble sleeping. “Call 450-HELP,” the doctor wrote. “Schedule Sleep Study.”

Working with the commandant’s staff, Dowd and his fellow lawyers started searching for Marines who had worked closely with Hackett in Iraq and at Camp Lejeune, N.C. They read through hundreds of Hackett’s e-mails from the war and interviewed his family.

“We had to build a file of Jeff’s symptoms, and then we had to show that they were connected to what happened to him in Iraq,” said Jeffrey C. King, one of the lead attorneys on the case.

Hackett enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1982, rising to the rank of gunnery sergeant. He met Danelle at the Marine Corps Barracks in Southeast Washington and married her in 1988. Danelle pushed her husband to apply for a promotion into the officer ranks, which meant more pay and more responsibility.

“I hounded Jeff,” she recalled. “His commanding officer told me what a great leader he would be. I knew he could do it.”

In 2005 Hackett deployed to Iraq, where he led a team of about 30 Marines who searched out roadside bombs and destroyed them. Before he left, he bought his wife a two-carat diamond ring to replace her old engagement ring. Danelle said she protested that it was too expensive. He insisted she keep it.

“He was nervous that he wouldn’t make it back,” she said.

“He needed a break”

During the tour, insurgent bombs killed eight of his Marines. Hackett saw each of their bodies in the moments after they died and spoke at their memorial services in Iraq.

He suffered “sleeplessness, anxiety attacks, heart problems and high blood pressure,” wrote Capt. Steven Lucas who served with Hackett. “He would become physically troubled, get red in the face and would get disoriented. I could see that he needed a break.”

One of the anxiety attacks was so severe that Hackett thought he was having a heart attack and was flown to Kuwait and then Germany for treatment. In 2006, he was rushed to the hospital at Camp Lejeune with chest pains caused by severe anxiety.

Feeling overwhelmed, Hackett requested early retirement from the Marine Corps but was denied. In January 2007, he was sent back for a second tour in Iraq, where he suffered a concussion caused by an insurgent bomb, an exploded eardrum and severe migraines. He lost five more Marines under his command.

“No sleep last night,” he wrote on April 28, 2007, in an e-mail to his wife. “We had 2 KIA [killed in action] last night. Sgt. Callahan and Sgt. Woodall!!! Callahan’s wife just had a baby three weeks ago. Don’t know what to do. Feel responsible, feel angry, and I feel numb.”

“Every day I have in the Corps now is miserable and painful,” he confided to his wife in an e-mail a week later.

Hackett came home from Iraq in September 2007 and began drinking heavily. He berated his fellow Marines and repeatedly watched an insurgent Internet video that showed the death of Gunnery Sgt. Darrell Boatman, a close friend who served under his command.

“He lost professional bearing and tact,” retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Alan Higgins said in a sworn statement taken by Dowd’s legal team. “The last several months of his career were not consistent with the Jeff Hackett I had known. It was painful to watch.”

In November, Hackett was invited to be the guest speaker at the Marine Corps’ Birthday Ball at the Indian Head Naval Support Facility in southern Maryland. He was supposed to give an upbeat speech about the Corps.

“Jeff broke out in tears several times uncontrollably, and his words were filled with anger,” recalled Lt. Col. James Miller, who had been friends with Hackett since the mid-1990s. “It was not the kind of speech someone gives at an event like this one.”

Despite his increasingly irrational and erratic behavior, Hackett received no mental health care treatment from the Marine Corps.

Spiral into suicide

Hackett retired from the Marine Corps in February 2008 with a 40 percent disability rating. His post-retirement medical exam from the VA dutifully documented “ankle, shoulder and knee strains,” hearing loss and a hiatal hernia. The VA missed his mental health problems.

Such failures are common, according to veterans groups. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit accused the VA of “unchecked incompetence” in its provision of adequate mental health screening and care for veterans who are killing themselves at an average rate of 18 per day. The court faulted the VA for failing to provide rigorous mental health screenings for new veterans and noted that it takes an average of four years for the VA to resolve mental health benefits claims.

The VA described Hackett’s death as a “tragic outcome” and said it has worked hard to improve mental health care for veterans. In recent years it has hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals to handle the influx of Iraq and Afghan war veterans. It plans to increase spending on such treatment by 20 percent next year to $6.2 billion.

It is not clear how many veterans suffering from severe PTSD have killed themselves or how many widows have tried to collect on lapsed veteran’s life insurance policies. Cristobal Bonifaz, an attorney in Massachusetts, is representing six former service members who committed suicide after their veteran’s life insurance expired.

After his retirement, Hackett moved to Wyoming and spent four months searching for work before landing a $16-an-hour position checking gauges, digging ditches and doing other unskilled labor at an oil refinery outside of Cheyenne. The only requirements for the job: a high school diploma and the ability to lift 50 pounds.

“He went from being a commander of one of the most challenging and sensitive units in the Marine Corps to the most menial labor,” Dowd said.

Hackett was laid off in October 2009 when the refinery scaled back its staff. In a spiral notebook, he kept a list of the 46 jobs for which he had unsuccessfully applied between his layoff and his suicide – positions ranging from handling explosives to work as a janitor.

He ranted that his former troops were “blackballing him,” according to written statements from his family and Marine friends. And he blamed himself for the 13 Marines killed under his command.

“I used to take great pride in who I was and what I have accomplished,” Hackett wrote shortly before his death. “I failed!! I failed everyone. My men in the Corps died unnecessarily as I sat on my ass. What a joke!”

Shortly before he died, he cashed in a $150,000 civilian life insurance policy in order to make a late mortgage payment. The $180-a-month premiums were more than twice the cost of the $400,000 policy he was offered through the Marine Corps and the VA.

On June 5, Hackett called Danelle from the parking lot of the American Legion Hall in Cheyenne, where he had been drinking. He told her that he loved her and then turned off his phone. Sensing that he was suicidal, Danelle began searching frantically for Hackett, who walked back into the Legion Hall, downed another drink and shot himself.

In the front seat of his truck, Danelle found an envelope on which Hackett had scribbled: “I deserve Hell.” One month later, Hackett’s youngest son shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp with his father’s dog tags.

In the weeks that followed Hackett’s death, Danelle lost their house in Wyoming and the bank repossessed both of their cars.

An anonymous former Marine donor bought her a three-bedroom home in rural West Virginia near her home town. She lives there with two of her sons, two grandchildren and her daughter-in-law.

A rejected request

After reviewing the evidence collected by Dowd and his team, the VA ruled that Hackett’s death was caused by the “chronic and severe” PTSD he developed in Iraq. The finding meant that his wife would no longer have to pay taxes on his $1,755-a-month pension. The change resulted in an extra $100 a month in income, Danelle said.

Last month, Dowd urged the VA to retroactively find Hackett “totally disabled” and incapable of “substantially gainful employment,” a designation that would have allowed his widow to collect on the $400,000 life insurance policy.

The VA rejected the request, citing Hackett’s job at the refinery. “I know [the job] was less than he was trained for as an officer,” a VA official said. “But it is not about the quality of the job or the wage he earned. . . . There is no wiggle room there.”

Robert M. Bilder, the chief of medical psychology and neuropsychology at UCLA’s medical school said the VA did not grasp the depths of Hackett’s helplessness. Bilder, who has advised the Marine Corps on mental health issues, reviewed Hackett’s file on a pro-bono basis for Dowd.

“While I have seen my share of what I believe are inappropriate judgments by insurers, I believe this is the greatest travesty I have personally witnessed in my 25 years of clinical practice,” he wrote.

Hackett’s wife said she was most upset by the final paragraph of the VA’s letter denying the insurance payment. “We recognize that Major Jeffrey Hackett made a significant sacrifice in the service of his country . . .” the paragraph began.

“He didn’t make a significant sacrifice for his country,” Danelle said. “He made the ultimate sacrifice. It just took him two years to die.”