Why did Marine from Elk Grove Village take his life?
Editor's note: This story was written and published by U-T San Diego. It has been edited for use in the Daily Herald.
Jeremy Sears is the kind of combat veteran that America desperately wants to help -- a Marine who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet the safety net designed to support returning troops seems to have failed in the case of this Elk Grove Village native, according to his wife and veterans advocates.
After waiting 16 months in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claims logjam, Sears was ultimately denied all disability payments and, untreated for trauma injuries and facing financial difficulties, took his own life.
The 35-year-old former Camp Pendleton infantryman killed himself last week, almost exactly two years after being discharged. On Oct. 6, Sears went to an Oceanside, California, shooting range and put the gun to his head.
A hero's welcome
Sears, a Conant High School graduate, enlisted in 2004. After his second tour of duty ended in 2007 he came home and was greeted with a surprise celebration at the former Des Plaines Oasis, organized by his parents and the Patriot Guard. It took his breath away.
"It's incredible," the lance corporal said, lifting his mother, Kathy, off the ground in a mammoth hug as the crowd cheered.
"I can't even see out of my glasses, they're so full of tears," Kathy said.
Before he left the military in October 2012, Sears was a squad leader with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. He survived two roadside bombs -- one that went off only a few feet away, according to a buddy. His wife, Tami, said one explosion lodged metal fragments around one eye.
He retired as a sergeant to their home near Oceanside. Tami and friends said he knew staying in would likely mean a desk job, which he didn't want.
The same month, Sears applied for VA disability benefits. That placed his claim in the heart of the VA backlog, which peaked nationally in March 2013 with roughly 600,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. As he waited for a decision, Sears got his first health assessment at the VA's La Jolla, California, hospital in October 2012. He was screened for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The results were negative for both, according to information released by VA officials with permission from Tami Sears.
But in January 2014, Sears got another exam where he was diagnosed with both TBI and "post-traumatic headaches," VA officials said.
Why the change in findings? It's hard to know.
A spokeswoman for VA health care said Tuesday a misdiagnosis is unlikely if a thorough TBI screening is done. Cindy Butler of the La Jolla VA said if a veteran does not answer the questions accurately at the time of the screen, though, the results may not be accurate.
Whatever the reason, Sears was never treated for either TBI or his headaches. The VA finally sent him a letter in February, 16 months after he first applied for benefits, denying all monetary assistance.
He had applied for disability benefits covering 10 conditions but the VA determined that only two -- TBI and hearing loss -- were related to military service. But, the letter said, they were not disabling enough to be compensated.
Jeremy Sears' friends say he went into a "tailspin" at the denial. He had trouble finding a civilian job, and the couple existed on Tami's part-time salary and Jeremy's unemployment until it ran out. Eventually he found a job managing a bread warehouse but lost it in a corporate shake-up.
"We noticed a real change in Jeremy. He was losing weight," said Tim O'Healy, a Vietnam-era veteran who had befriended the couple.
O'Healy and his wife, Misty, tried to help Sears navigate the VA system, driving him to an enrollment session and other appointments.
"We were pushing him hard to go down and appeal (the VA denial), but he did not," O'Healy said. "It was like he had given up."
The VA, for its part, said Sears didn't seek treatment after his January diagnosis, or communicate any concerns to his VA doctor, who had prescribed Vicodin to ease the pain from a torn-up knee.
In the VA's denial documentation, they list exam appointments that Jeremy Sears allegedly missed, according to his wife. Tami Sears said they went to all the appointments they knew about.
It's hard to say why Jeremy Sears didn't receive a disability rating without the VA releasing his full records, which San Diego officials declined to do Tuesday.
The San Diego VA health care system and VA regional benefits office put out a joint statement, in response to questions from U-T San Diego.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs deeply regrets the loss of veteran Jeremy Sears, and our sincere condolences go out to his family," it reads. "The VA wants to ensure that all veterans receive the benefits and health care to which they are entitled under the law."
The statement added that the VA is investigating Sears' case, and "will be reaching out to the family to provide support and assistance."
The real answers, though, may go to the heart of the difficulty in treating signature wounds of post-9/11 veterans.
Tami Sears said her husband didn't "believe" in the idea of combat stress and feared that the stigma of a brain or PTSD injury would hurt his chances getting a civilian job.
Days before his suicide, he admitted to his wife he might have "survivor's guilt" -- sometimes seen as a symptom of PTSD.
Looking back, Tami says she now thinks her muscular, blonde husband, whom she married in 2006, was suffering from combat stress as early as after his first deployment.
"He didn't let me see it ever," she said. "He was so strong-willed. He never let me see he was weak in any way."
She sees a failure in care that started years back but climaxing under the VA.
"I just don't want anyone else to suffer and go through the pain that my husband went through for so many years and didn't tell anyone," she said.
"I don't know what the VA needs to do, but they need an overhaul and to take care of these veterans."
A 2012 VA study determined that at least 22 U.S. military veterans a day took their own lives in 2010. That figure, which includes veterans of all ages, galvanized the national group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to make suicide its primary focus in 2014.
That led to the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, now pending in Congress. It would boost recruitment of VA psychiatrists through a student loan repayment program, among other initiatives.
An Oceanside-based veterans advocate said it is the duty of the VA to make sure people get treatment -- especially knowing that brain injuries and PTSD are commonly linked and that emotional numbness and isolation are hallmarks of both.
"The mental health system has to learn how to deal with post-traumatic stress -- not only to give them the diagnosis," said Bill Rider of the nonprofit American Combat Veterans of War.
"Until they make that bond (with the veteran) and convince them to come in for care, we're going to have this over and over."
Tim O'Healy, who has a 90 percent disability rating from his own military service, said it required several appeals over years to get to that level.
"I had a zero percent rating until I was informed that I had to do something about it," O'Healy said.
Tami Sears will cremate her husband, and in time, she plans to bring him home to Illinois for a memorial service.