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After A Vet's Suicide, Getting VA Benefits Can Compound A Family's Grief

Stephen Coning (right) served five years in the U.S. Marines, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan. He took his own life this summer, leaving behind his wife, Sky, and their 2-year-old son, Koleton.
Courtesy of the Coning family
Stephanie Schauwecker/Doodlebug Photography
Stephen Coning (right) served five years in the U.S. Marines, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan. He took his own life this summer, leaving behind his wife, Sky, and their 2-year-old son, Koleton.

Stephen Coning, a 26-year-old former Marine, took his own life this summer, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old son.

By chance, it was the same week the Department of Veterans Affairs released conclusive data showing that the rate of suicide for those who served is now much higher than for civilians.

Despite that connection, the VA does not presume all suicides to be "service connected."

Sounds like red tape — but that means Coning's family has so far received little formal support from the VA.

"We were under the impression that should anything happen to my husband the VA would take care of that," says his widow, Sky Coning.

Stephen Coning served five years in the Marine Corps, including a combat deployment to Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. He got out in 2013, went to school on the GI Bill and got a job as a veterinary tech.

But Sky says he had become a very different person from the young man she met in high school.

"He hardly ever slept after he left the Marine Corps. He would tell me he was going to bed at 9:30, and I'd come to bed at 2 o'clock in the morning and he'd still be laying there awake," she says.

He was short-tempered; he didn't do well in crowds. He always wanted his back to a wall. Sky says he was still great with their son, Koleton, but she was pretty certain her husband had post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He still got up every day and went to work. He was still a good husband, a good father. I know that my husband didn't want to admit it; I know that he didn't want to ask for help," she says.

On July 5, Sky was at work.

"He sent me a text message actually, and said tell Koleton that his daddy loved him very much — emphasis on past tense of love. So I immediately called my mother-in-law to have her drive to the house. As soon as I hung up the phone with her I called 911," she says.

A high suicide rate

Stephen's unit, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, has a shockingly high suicide rate (chronicled in The New York Times and elsewhere) — even worse than the high rate for veterans under age 40.

But Sky says her husband's Marine friends never expected him to join that grim number.

"The VA recommended that he go through PTSD testing but he did not," she says.

Not getting that test has had consequences that her husband surely never intended. There's no medical record that he was depressed, or hypervigilant, or had PTSD.

With nothing formal to show a strong connection between his time in Afghanistan and his suicide, the VA can't rule his death service connected.

That means on top of the grief, Sky isn't sure how she is going to get by.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen since the VA doesn't want to give us any kind of death benefits," she says.

"Doesn't want to" isn't exactly right. The VA has complicated rules. There is a pension plan, but it's for widows living in poverty.

Connecting deaths to service

In general terms, if a veteran has been rated as 100 percent disabled, or has a VA diagnosis linked to suicide, then the VA can pay several thousand dollars for a funeral and grant a surviving spouse a monthly support payment.

But without proof a death is connected to military service, the VA pays just a few hundred dollars for burial and can help find a plot in a cemetery.

"We realized the burden, and we understand and are empathetic to what the families are going through," says Kevin Friel, who oversees pensions at the VA.

"That's why for the majority of the cases that we see where the veteran had a service-connected disability at the time of death and we have the evidence, we've done a lot, we've [done] as much as we can, to see what we can expedite," he says.

After NPR's inquiries into Stephen Coning's case, a VA spokesman in Washington reached Sky Coning by phone Wednesday afternoon and "provided basic information on benefits, explained the processes involved in requesting those benefits, and communicated an assurance that VA would assist her in filing for claims and answering any of her questions."

Yet even now that VA data show veterans kill themselves 21 percent more often than civilians, it's not easy to show service connection for suicide.

Kim Ruocco works with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a nonprofit that supports military families.

"These are American families that are now really at risk. And they're the families who have sacrificed and served the most in our communities," she says.

Ruocco says there's a long list of ripple effects for the survivors, and not much help.

"They may have trauma related to finding their loved one or witnessing the death. They may have trauma related to domestic violence and other kinds of things that they had before their loved one died because they were suffering and mentally ill," she says. "They may have children that they need to figure out how to talk to ... about the suicide ... because now they're more at risk for suicide themselves."

Many vets aren't using VA services

According to the most recent VA data, there were an average of 20 veteran suicides per day in 2014 — but only 6 out of 20 were using VA health services.

So it's nearly impossible to say how many families there are, how many widows there are like Sky Coning, who thought she would be looked after.

"[I'm] down to one income now, and my income alone is not enough to provide for my son and I," she says. "So I'm not really sure what I'm going to do from here."

The only way to get significant VA help now is to collect testimony from friends and family that war caused Stephen's suicide. Then the VA might grant service connection and pay benefits and burial.

Sky is planning to try that, but it's not an easy process, especially while she's trying to raise a toddler on her own.

"He's only 2. So I don't think that explaining anything to him at this point would be beneficial for anybody. ... He'll point out pictures and ask if that's Daddy and we just confirm, 'Yeah, that's your dad,' " she says. "The only time that it's actually been an issue was the first time my son came back to the house. He kept asking where his dad was, and I kept telling him that he wasn't here."

Unofficial help has come in many forms. The local Indiana state VA used a discretionary fund and paid thousands of dollars for the funeral.

The Marine Corps League covered Sky's mortgage for two months, and many strangers have contributed to the family's GoFundMe page.

The anti-suicide group Spartan Weekend, which donated $4,000 for Stephen Coning's burial, has started a memorial fund in his name and a petition to change VA policy and increase the amount VA pays for burials even if they're not service connected.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.