The parents of Master Sgt. James Coons spoke to Congress today to express their concerns over veteran care -- their son committed suicide after he returned from Iraq. They previously spoke with Bob Woodruff about their experience in the following report from April 23.
On July 4, 2003, Carol and Richard Coons had planned to welcome home their son Master Sgt. James Coons, a career soldier who had seen action in Iraq in 2003 and during the first Gulf War. Instead, they found out James was dead.
He had committed suicide in his room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Walter Reed staff did not find him until at least two days after his death, and only then at the insistence of his family, who were desperate to locate their son.
In their first network television interview since their son's death, Carol and Richard Coons sat down with me to talk about their family's anger and quest for answers. "They didn't take care of my son. They just didn't take care of him," Carol said.
Just a few days earlier, Coons, 35, had been evacuated from a base in Kuwait because he had overdosed on sleeping pills. An Army doctor at a combat hospital labeled the action a "suicidal gesture," according to Coons' medical records.
Coons told medical personnel that he had visited a morgue on the base to pay his respects to the fallen soldiers and had been haunted by one of the faces -- that of a Navy corpsman who had been badly burned and disfigured by an IED.
His parents knew from talking to him on the phone that he was troubled -- they say his voice began to sound different, and they could tell that he was under a lot of strain. "He said, 'The things that I've seen are really bothering me,'" said Carol. "He would see demons and he was trying to control his demons," added Richard.
The noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army's 385th Signal Company, Coons was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. He had served in the military for more than 16 years, and family and friends have said the Army was his life.
A father of two, he was also a devoted family man. "He loved his wife and girls, and that's what he wanted, to get home to his girls," said Richard.
At the time of his overdose, his tour in Operation Iraqi Freedom was nearly at an end, and Coons had already trained his replacement.
After the overdose, Coons told doctors he was unsure if he had been trying to commit suicide, but that he had taken the pills because he couldn't shake the image of the dead corpsman, and he "just wanted to make it stop."
The Army kept him under close watch in Kuwait for four days and diagnosed him with anxiety, depression and acute stress disorder. He was then evacuated to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he met with a psychiatrist, who assessed his suicide risk as "low," and placed him in an outpatient program.
A few days later, he was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Before leaving Landstuhl, Coons spoke with his family to let them know he was being transferred to Walter Reed. He told them he only expected to be there a few days and that he was looking forward to seeing them in Texas on July 4. That was the last they heard from him.
"We kept calling to find out if he had landed [at Walter Reed]" said Carol. "We couldn't get anyone to say Master Sgt. Coons is here."