Family sues over soldier's suicide - LancasterOnline: News

Family sues over soldier's suicide

Says VA center failed Penn Manor grad

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Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 2:11 am | Updated: 8:32 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Donald Woodward's tormented life ended on March 3, 2006.

An Iraqi war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Woodward's body was found at one of his favorite hiking spots along the Enola Low-Grade Line.

The anguished young man had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 23.

While Woodward's pain is over, his family's continues, and on Monday, his widow, Tiera Woodward, filed a $2 million wrongful death suit against the United States government.

Her attorneys filed the lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Tiera Woodward and the entire Woodward family blame Donald's death on the Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lebanon, where the young man had turned for help.

The suit, filed by the Pittsburgh-based law firm of Seewald, Mielnicki and Petro, claims the medical center "acted negligently, grossly negligent, carelessly and recklessly in treating" Woodward.

Woodward's mother, Lori Woodward, said Monday the family is not commenting on the suit at this time.

"It's in her (his widow's) name, but I'm the one behind it," she said. "And we're not going to comment on it until it's settled."

Donald Woodward was born in Indiana, Pa., on Nov. 16, 1982, and graduated from Penn Manor High School in 2000.

He enlisted in the Army and was attached to the 4th Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, where he served until August 2003.

During his tour of duty, Woodward killed three Iraqis during a battle with an enemy tank. His lieutenant also was killed.

He was discharged from the Army in November 2003.

Woodward's health issues began surfacing in October 2004, when, according to the suit, he became "different," "quiet" and "withdrawn."

He enrolled at Millersville University, where he studied biology, but dropped out after a semester. Next came a series of jobs, including security work and the installation of heating and air conditioning units.

In July 2005, his wife sought help for her husband at the Lebanon VA Medical Center. She was told her husband would have to "come in voluntarily."

On Nov. 19, Woodward set his pickup truck on fire and then climbed inside in an attempt to end his life, according to the suit. He was saved by his wife, and the suicide attempt was reported to Lebanon medical center officials.

It was one of three suicide attempts.

On Nov. 28, 2005, Woodward reported to the VA medical center and was screened for depression. A doctor wrote that Woodward "does not meet criteria for major depressive disorder. The patient will be referred to a Mental Health Professional for management of depression."

It also was noted that the young man "wants to see a psychiatrist."

Woodward was prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant used to treat depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Another appointment was made for him at the hospital on Dec. 29, 2005, but he missed it. His family was never told about the missed appointment, according to the suit.

On Dec. 16, 2005, Woodward took part in a behavioral health study, which was done by phone. The suit says "severe depression symptoms were noted and an appointment was provided" at the Lebanon VA on Jan. 6, 2006.

Woodward told hospital officials on Jan. 21, 2006, that he was taking his prescribed daily dose of 50 milligrams of Zoloft, and that his mood had improved. However, he also noted "moderate to severe adverse effects" from the medication.

On Feb. 2, 2006, Woodward saw a psychiatrist for the first time. Dr. Douglas Ockrymiek examined Woodward and subsequently increased the daily dose of Zoloft to 100 milligrams.

The next time Woodward saw Ockrymiek, on Feb. 23, 2006, the young veteran told the doctor he had stopped taking his medications "due to diarrhea." No follow-up examination was scheduled.

Eight days later, Woodward was dead by his own hand.

The lawsuit claims the government and the VA never got Woodward's family involved in his treatment, citing the HIPPA privacy laws. Because of that, family members were "mostly ignorant of the care, including the missed appointments and the discontinuance by Donald Woodward of his medication." according to the suit.

The VA also did not have Woodward sign a HIPPA release form so his family could be kept informed of his treatment, according to the lawsuit.

Among the 27 allegations listed in the suit are that Ockrymiek, when informed by Woodward that he had stopped taking his medications, did not advise him to take them; prescribe something with less harsh side effects; reduce the dose of Zoloft to 50 milligrams, which he had seemed to tolerate; or schedule him for any follow-up appointments.

The suit also states that the VA failed to monitor Woodward, "a clear and obvious suicide risk, once he sought psychiatric care … ."

Woodward's death, the complaint concludes, is a "direct and proximate result of the negligence of the Defendant."

Besides hospital and other medical costs, the suit hopes to recover monies for pain and suffering, loss of Woodward's earnings, retirement and Social Security and "enjoyment of life."

Woodward was buried at Fort Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.

E-mail: lalexander@lnpnews.com

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