Lawsuit: Lexington VA facilities denied veteran help before suicide

Family sues VA: Cameron Anestis, a Marine home from Iraq in 2009, went to the Leestown VA facility for help but was redirected to another site, then denied care due to a paperwork issue. He killed himself that day.

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 22, 2011 

Cameron Anestis, who served in Iraq as a Marine, committed suicide after seeking help at two Veterans Administration facilities in Lexington, his widow alleges in a lawsuit.

The young widow and 2-year-old daughter of a Marine Corps combat veteran have sued the federal government for $22.5 million, claiming that Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Lexington turned away the man when he sought psychiatric help hours before he took his own life.

Cameron Anestis, a Marine Corps reservist who spent several months in Iraq, fatally shot himself at his Scott County home on Aug. 17, 2009, hours after he left the VA medical facilities on Leestown Road and the VA hospital on Cooper Drive, according to the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Lexington and attorney Al Grasch, who represents Anestis' widow and daughter.

The lawsuit says VA facilities representatives were negligent, and Anestis' death was directly due to their acts and omissions.

Anestis' widow and daughter are seeking $10 million in damages for Cameron Anestis' estate for his pain and suffering, funeral expenses and loss of earnings, and $5 million and $7.5 million, respectively, for themselves for their "loss of companionship, services, love and affection."

Anestis, who was 21 when he died, had been involved in extensive combat in Iraq and had developed mental and emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, when he returned to the United States, the suit says.

Anestis' widow, Tiffany Anestis, was at home when her husband fired the fatal shot, she said.

"The lawsuit is more of that people need to know — they need to know that things like this are happening with a lot of families," she said. "Men and women in uniform are not getting help."

Seeking treatment

Tiffany Anestis and the couple's daughter, Isabelle, maintain in their suit that Cameron Anestis went to the VA medical center on Leestown Road for a mental health evaluation and treatment, but he was told the treatment he was seeking was not available there.

Representatives of the Leestown Road facility directed him to the VA hospital on Cooper Drive. He went to the Cooper Drive location the same day and was told that the hospital did not have sufficient information in its computer system or admission system that would entitle him to evaluation and treatment, the suit says.

Anestis' family was told after his death that a form that was supposed to have been filled out by military officials was not properly completed, and therefore he was not properly enrolled in the VA system, Grasch said.

"What we were told was it was a wrong date or a date was omitted," he said.

The attorney said he found the explanation odd because Anestis had received dental care at a VA health facility in California after he returned to the U.S. from Iraq.

Grasch said Anestis' parents, Manny and Dawn Anestis of Lexington, initiated and had multiple contacts with personnel at the VA center on Leestown Road in seeking help for their son. The personnel had told the parents that, based on what they had described, Cameron Anestis had post traumatic stress disorder, and they repeatedly encouraged them to have their son come in, he said.

"It's a situation where the family and Cameron did everything they were being told to do," Grasch said. "They had followed the instructions they had been given."

Lexington VA medical center spokeswoman Desti Stimes declined to comment because "this is an active case that's in litigation."

Grasch said that a few days after Anestis' death, the VA — the local VA medical center at least — put new systems in place for dealing with veterans who want to see a mental health professional. He provided the Herald-Leader with a copy of an Aug. 21, 2009, VA intranet blog titled "A Battle Lost," which was posted by someone listed as a Lexington VA medical center administrator. The blog talks about a young reservist who killed himself after seeking treatment at the VA medical center and changes that were being made because of that. Grasch said the blog is obviously referring to Anestis but is inaccurate in that it does not say Anestis sought help at both the Leestown Road and Cooper Drive locations.

Bad memories

Before he went to war, Anestis was an outgoing young man, a jokester and a prankster, Grasch said. Anestis had plans to get a job in law enforcement — his goal was to become a detective — after his military service, he said.

Anestis, one of Manny and Dawn Anestis' four children, was a 2006 graduate of Lexington's Bryan Station High School. He attended The Citadel military school in South Carolina before enlisting in the Marines, becoming a lance corporal.

"Cam was an active participant in life. He wasn't an 'observer' or just a part of the audience. He was a strong believer in doing what was right and he saw himself as a 'protector' of those less fortunate or those who were not capable of standing up for themselves," Manny Anestis wrote in an e-mail.

Tiffany Anestis, 22, said that she and Cameron first met in ROTC classes at Bryan Station. They both joined the military in 2007.

"I joined the National Guard and he joined the Marine Corps Reserves," she said.

They kept in touch throughout military training and married in July 2008 after Tiffany Anestis became pregnant with Isabelle. Tiffany Anestis bought a house in Scott County that November while her husband was overseas.

He barely got to know his daughter, who was born just before he was deployed to Iraq.

"I was induced a week early so he could be here to see her," she said. "He only had a week with her before he left for Iraq."

While in Iraq from September 2008 to April 2009, Cameron Anestis wrote to his family about playing baseball and soccer with Iraqi children, and he sent his family photos of games, his father said.

After he returned from Iraq, the young man, whose tour of duty included 94 days on a surveillance team that went through Iraqi villages looking for insurgents, told his family he had killed many people, including some civilians, Grasch said.

Anestis became withdrawn from his family, was extremely impatient and had temper outbursts, Grasch said.

"And during those days after returning home, the memories of what he experienced continued to haunt him and didn't allow him to get close to Isabelle. He couldn't bond with her. He couldn't even be around Isabelle when she would cry. He would hand her to me and jump in his car and drive off," Manny Anestis said.

When her husband returned home, Tiffany Anestis said, he didn't interact much with their daughter.

"He didn't have much to do with her. He tried. ... She looks just like him," she said.

Tiffany Anestis finds it frustrating that there isn't a program in place to help with the return. She said the military doesn't care what happens to people once they leave.

"In reality, they need help more than ever after they get home," she said.

Tiffany Anestis, who moved to a home in Lexington after her husband's death, is pursuing a degree in nursing. She's still in the National Guard, but she does not plan to re-enlist after her time in the Guard is up because of the demands of being a single parent, she said.

"I plan on getting out," she said. "I'm still very patriotic. I still support the military. I just think they fail their soldiers sometimes when they come back from overseas. I think they forget about them. I don't understand it."

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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