War experience changed Marine, family says

Bart Ryan with his father, Thomas Ryan, who Bart Ryan with his father, Thomas Ryan, who was visiting Ryan at his home near Camp Lejeune, N.C. Photo Credit: Handout

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Marine Sgt. Bart Ryan returned from eight months of combat in Iraq in October 2005 a tormented man.

Although he had won acclaim from his Marine Corps superiors for his service and good conduct, the man who arrived back on Long Island was never able to regain his balance.

On Feb. 24, alone in a Nassau County jail cell, Ryan hanged himself. He was 32 years old.

According to family members, close friends and a lawyer who assisted Ryan during several post-combat brushes with the law, the former Marine experienced a frustrating and humiliating string of drug-related arrests and auto accidents after his 2005 return. His marriage evaporated. He couldn't hold a job. His once-vibrant personality was buried under myriad self-inflicted problems.

"He was the kind of guy who brightened the room," Ryan's brother Tom said. "But when he came back, he was not so lighthearted. He wasn't the same person."

Military experts and political leaders have expressed increasing concern that many of the estimated 2.3 million Americans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan struggle as they try to reintegrate themselves into civilian life.

They say high rates of divorce, joblessness, depression, suicide and anti-social behaviors among returning veterans pose potential risks to them, their families, and others with whom they share neighborhoods, roadways and workplaces.

A 2010 Rand study of New York State's Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that one in six exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. One in five said they had sought mental health services in the past year but had not received it.

Tom Ryan said his brother was at least twice turned away from Veteran's Administration facilities when he sought outpatient help. He said once was in September 2009, after Ryan's father Thomas' death from cancer, when Bart and Tom Ryan visited the VA facility in Bay Ridge.

He said he and his brother waited for nearly 12 hours for a bed in the facility's inpatient drug treatment program. He said his brother was turned away for lack of space. And in February, Ryan's mother, Lilyann Ryan -- alarmed when her son said he was contemplating suicide -- took him to the VA facility in Northport, where she asked that he be admitted as an emergency inpatient. When Bart Ryan told staff he was not suicidal, he was not admitted, Tom Ryan said.

Sal Thomas, a spokesman for the VA facility in Northport, said, "While we cannot discuss the specifics of an individual patient's care, I can tell you that any veteran presenting to the Medical Center with thoughts of suicide is thoroughly assessed by a psychiatrist, and a medical determination for the appropriate level of care is made. No veteran assessed as in need of inpatient care is ever turned away from the Medical Center."

A spokesman for the Bay Ridge facility said no veterans are turned away from medical care.

 

His death in the jail

One week after his visit to Northport, Ryan hanged himself with a bedsheet. It happened the night after he was jailed on misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2010 traffic stop in which he was found to have prescription narcotics in his system. His mother, Lilyann Ryan, has filed a $22 million wrongful death suit against the county. Her son's suicide was the fifth reported at the jail in the past two years.

The Ryans' attorney, Raymond Silverman, said: "The family is ultimately doing this because Bart served his country and was let down by the system as a whole, and by a country that was supposed to keep him safe."

Many experts question whether support networks designed to help veterans cope -- Ryan was receiving $127 per month in federal veterans disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder -- are adequate to handle the number and degree of problems faced by these ranks of war veterans.

"With so many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning, the question is, are we ready?" said Suffolk County Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), chairman of the Veterans and Seniors Committee.

He said more than 13,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have returned to Suffolk County alone since troops were first sent to the region in 2001. Similar numbers have returned to Nassau County.

"This challenge can grow exponentially," he said.

Ryan's relatives say that before he hanged himself, the U.S. military, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, and other entities expected to assist America's recent combat veterans proved ineffective.

"He always had a smile on his face," said Tom Ryan as he stood in a Hicksville funeral home at his brother's wake, attended by more than 100 friends and family, in February. "That's why it is so hard to see him like this, see him hurt."

Bart Ryan was so highly regarded by his Marine Corps superiors that he was awarded an honor graduate designation because of his near-the-top ranking in basic training. He was also made an instructor in his chosen field of electrical work. He was promoted to corporal within two years of completing boot camp, and was awarded the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal -- "based on sustained performance or specific achievement of a superlative nature" -- early in his Iraq deployment.

 

'Marines were good for him'

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Tom Ryan said his brother thrived in the Marines. "Before Iraq, the Marines were good for him," he said. "They gave structure to his life."

But within weeks of his return from combat, Ryan began showing signs of emotional problems that family members and close friends found alarming. Tom Ryan had delayed his own wedding until October 2005 so that Bart Ryan could attend. But by then, he said, his brother was a changed person.

Born in Rosedale, Queens, Bart Ryan moved with his family to Long Island: first to North Bellmore when he was 6, then to East Meadow in 1987.

Friends described him as a charming and popular teen who showed a knack for skateboarding and in-line skating. Considered a natural leader, during high school he was a counselor at Woodward, a summer camp in central Pennsylvania known for grooming skateboard and in-line skating performers.

He graduated from East Meadow High in 1998, and enrolled at Nassau County Community College. But Ryan withdrew within a few weeks after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system.

He spent the next few years doing odd jobs while regaining his strength. Then, at 22, he enlisted in the Marines.

Thomas and Lilyann Ryan were less than enthusiastic about his decision, though both Ryan's father and a grandfather had been in the military. But life in the Marines seemed to suit him well.

He excelled at boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., married a childhood sweetheart, and settled into a home they bought near his new base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Disappointed when a painful groin injury suffered in boot camp prevented him from deploying to Japan with his fellow Marines, he found renewed enthusiasm in being chosen to teach the skills of an electrician to new recruits.

Ryan recovered from the injury and, cleared for combat, he was sent to Iraq in February 2005 with the 26th Combat Logistics Battalion.

 

Served at field hospital

Good with his hands, Ryan was assigned to help maintain the electric generators at a field hospital at Al Taqaddum air base, west of Baghdad. But in regular telephone calls to his brother, Ryan let on that he was also expected to help with the often gruesome task of assisting as ambulances arrived with victims of bombings, gun attacks or other war trauma.

"He was pulling in people who had been hit by roadside bombs, and not just U.S. soldiers, but Iraqis also -- insurgents or just Iraqi citizens who had been caught up in the fighting," Tom Ryan said. "I guess they teach you to be hard, but he was definitely affected by it."

He also began asking people back home to send him over-the-counter sleep aids. One of the people he asked for the aids, who asked not to be identified, said Ryan appeared to have been emotionally overwhelmed by his deployment.

Once back from Iraq, Ryan found it impossible to sleep, and would get only a few minutes of rest a night for days, this person said. His work habits slipped. He started getting speeding tickets on his base in North Carolina. Superior officers disciplined him for showing up late.

Throughout this period, the person said, Ryan became increasingly dependent on prescription painkillers, which Marine doctors authorized because of pain related to Ryan's groin injury.

A Camp Lejeune spokeswoman said commanders there were unfamiliar with details of Ryan's experience and could not comment.

Nationwide, the Marine Corps offers several programs to help troops struggling with psychological programs, including a Marine and Family Services Center at each base.

Marine officials have acknowledged that many of their troops do not get the help they need. They say troops often worry that seeking psychological help can harm their careers. And they acknowledge that the culture incubated by some corps leaders discourages Marines from expressing vulnerability.

Locally, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport has been praised for the quality of programs geared toward Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, particularly in the area of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But some experts say the rising number of new war veterans with mental health issues means waiting periods for appointments at Northport can be excessive.

"They're good -- they know what they are doing," said Richard Gales, of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who helps individuals file VA benefits claims. "But they are so backed up, it's not funny. They don't have the manpower."

 

Moves back in with parents

By August 2007 Ryan's four-year enlistment was up. After a troubled marriage, he and his wife parted. The home near Camp Lejeune where Ryan had been an enthusiastic host of neighborhood parties before leaving for Iraq was sold. He loaded a U-Haul trailer with a few belongings, including a powerful new motorcycle, and headed north.

Ryan moved back in with his parents in East Meadow. But his newly erratic behavior alarmed them, and his struggles to acclimate to civilian life seemed to intensify.

To Matt Curiale, a close friend who grew up with the former Marine, Ryan was a changed man.

"Here's a guy who wanted to do the right thing, so he joins the Marines, wanted to do right by his girlfriend, so he marries her," Curiale said. "But after he started having troubles, he would simultaneously lash out at people who tried to help him . . . [and] would be miserable that he was so angry at the people who loved him."

He had repeated vehicle accidents, including one that totaled a car, and another in which he nearly killed himself in a motorcycle crash, records and interviews show.

The motorcycle accident, which badly injured Ryan's leg and shoulder, took place less than a year after his discharge from the Marines. Ryan was riding the new motorcycle -- a Yamaha R1 -- when he crashed on the Southern State Parkway while swerving to avoid a car.

"The bone in his leg was showing," said Stephanie Sniffen of Hicksville, who had been dating Ryan since 2007, and who saw the accident while following in another vehicle.

Experts say veterans suffering from war-related psychological trauma are particularly likely to engage in potentially deadly driving behaviors, including extreme speeding, driving while high on drugs or alcohol, or road rage incidents.

On June 17, 2008, while Ryan was recovering from the motorcycle accident, Nassau police spotted him driving on the wrong side of the road on Rifton Street in Elmont, according to the Nassau district attorney's office. Police said he looked nervous and sweaty, and was seen trying to stuff several bags of heroin in the pocket of the driver-side door.

 

Disorderly conduct plea

Police also found six bags of crack cocaine and a crack pipe beside the car seat, records show. A Nassau County judge allowed Ryan to plead guilty to disorderly conduct a year later, after Ryan completed an outpatient treatment program at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Northport and Brooklyn.

Ryan was arrested at least three more times, according to records and William Shanahan, a lawyer who represented him.

On the morning of Aug. 12, 2010, a state trooper clocked Ryan doing 90 mph on the Meadowbrook Parkway and he failed a field sobriety test. A drug test revealed a dangerous assortment in his system, including oxycodone and oxymorphone -- two powerful prescription painkillers -- and methadone, according to records and the Nassau district attorney's office.

The test also indicated the presence of the sleep and anxiety drug Ambien. According to a National Institutes of Health website, people who have taken the drug have been known to engage in sleepwalking and even driving without being fully awake.

One year later, on Aug. 3, 2011, he was arrested after a heroin buy in Ridgewood, Queens, Shanahan said.

Twelve weeks later, Ryan was arrested after he swerved past a stopped police car on Spur Drive in Bay Shore. Shanahan said Ryan agreed to enroll in a yearlong drug treatment program at Phoenix House that began last December.

But on Feb. 5, Ryan left Phoenix House, saying the program there did not address his PTSD, Shanahan said.

A hearing before Nassau District Judge Andrew Engel was scheduled for Feb. 23.

Ryan hoped Engel would allow him to remain free while the judge arranged for Ryan's case to be transferred to Nassau Veterans Court, a new judicial division that handles nonviolent cases involving veterans. But Judge Engel imposed a $5,000 bail, which Ryan could not post.

The next morning, Ryan was dead.

To Ryan's childhood friend, his death was a sad ending to a good man's short life.

"He was like the friend everybody wanted to have: He was funny, he was smart, he was tough, he was loyal, a fun guy to hang out with," said Matt Curiale, of Sea Cliff, who was born a month before Ryan and knew him all his life.

But as Ryan struggled following his return from Iraq, Curiale said, "He would look around and not be able to account for why he was using [drugs], why he couldn't hold a job, why he was the way he was."

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