RENO, Nev. — Four months after he enlisted in the U.S. Army at 18, John Morse IV was on the front lines in Iraq training the sights of laser range finders on combat targets to be shelled.
For the next four years, the fire-support specialist watched dozens of people in his unit die, saw missile fire kill civilians and witnessed the aftermath of a mass beheading.
Last year, the 27-year-old who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder hanged himself in a Nevada prison.
His family was awarded a $93,000 settlement last week in a wrongful death suit accusing the Nevada Department of Corrections, a state psychiatrist and state psychologist of ignoring Morse’s mental illness.
More important than the money, his family says, is the state’s commitment to launch a new suicide training protocol for prison workers intended to help jailed combat veterans like their son — a decorated war hero they say deserved better.
“He entered the war a healthy, happy teenager and returned a devastated shell, emotionally ravaged and physically scarred,” according to the lawsuit filed in April by his widow, Stephanie Morse, and parents Debbie and John Morse III. They had sought $800,000 in damages.
“Nothing can replace my son, but I’m satisfied,” the father said.
The state initially offered $25,000 then agreed to the settlement in U.S. District Court in Reno — $92,500 for the family, $500 for a plaque or memorial.
John Morse IV earned a half-dozen medals, including the Iraq Campaign medal, before he returned to his family in 2009. He briefly worked as a casino security guard and in a fast-food restaurant but was soon unable to work or function in society, the lawsuit said.
He “became preoccupied with religious delusion, space aliens, suicide and the unrelenting death and devastation he witnessed,” the lawsuit said. He gave away his money and lived under a bridge.
His father remembers the day his son telephoned from Iraq to tell him about “walking into a room and seeing a bunch of women beheaded.”
“My heart literally broke,” his father said. “I knew he’d never be the same again. … But I had no idea how badly John was hurt inside. It’s hard to tell when there are no physical, visual impairments.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded in a report last year that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. An updated study released last month found the national suicide rate among veterans was more than double the rate for the general population.
It said Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico had the highest rates of veteran suicide as of 2014 — at least 60 for every 100,000 veterans.
VA doctors diagnosed Morse with PTSD and paranoid schizophrenia in 2010. He went to prison in 2015 after attempting suicide and threatening to kill his girlfriend in a bizarre “blood covenant,” but he received no medication, counseling or treatment behind bars and was placed in the general population, the lawsuit stated.
Based on his pre-sentencing report, prison officials should have known Morse was a potentially suicidal PTSD victim who experienced flashbacks and had been prescribed medications for paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disease, according to the lawsuit filed by Reno lawyers Terri Keyser-Cooper and Luke Busby.
They said Morse should have been monitored and treated inside one of two psychiatric units at the prison in Carson City.
“If he had been placed in either … he would be alive today,” Keyser-Cooper said.
State lawyers said in July that all three defendants in the case denied the allegations and had considerable evidence to support their defense. They later agreed to the settlement and new training in consultation with suicide prevention experts.
It’s not clear when that training will begin. Monica Moazez, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, referred requests for comment to the Department of Corrections.
The agency has “implemented a number of veteran integration programs which are quite successful and (is) always considering incorporating more evidence based programs in support of incarcerated veterans,” department spokeswoman Brooke Keast said in an email.