Nebraska woman donates to veterans’ PTSD healing in brother’s honor

North Platte, Nebraska resident Kara Hatcher Hawkins has contributed a donation of $50,000.00 to Soldiers Heart, in honor of her late brother, United States Army Specialist Phillip Brian Hatcher.

Phillip was a combat veteran. He served in the United States Army from 2001 through 2004, in the legendary 101st Airborne Division. He spent 1 year, 3 months and 21 days on deployment to both Afghanistan and Iraq. During his second deployment, Phillip began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. His symptoms worsened when his deployment ended. It was because of his PTSD that Phillip left the Army. He drifted from Georgia to Nebraska, still struggling with PTSD symptoms that only grew more severe. This included flashbacks, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

In 2008, Phillip was contacted by law enforcement on suspicion that his vehicle may have been stolen. He panicked and fled from police. When police found Phillip the next day, he was in the act of trying to cut his wrist. Police transported Phillip to the Lincoln County Jail.

Jail personnel initially placed Phillip on suicide watch. Several hours later, without consulting with a mental health professional and without reassessing his suicide risk, officers removed Phillip from suicide watch, placed him in a regular cell and stopped monitoring him. Jail staff identified Phillip as potentially suicidal each of the next three days, but no one ever summoned a mental health professional. On the night of his third day in the jail, Phillip hung himself in his cell.

In February 2013, Kara Hawkins settled a claim against Lincoln County for Phillip’s wrongful death. Hawkins was represented by Scottsbluff attorney Maren Lynn Chaloupka. Chaloupka has developed a specialization in representing families of persons who lose their lives to suicide. “Contrary to popular belief, suicide victims do not ‘make their own choices,’” says Chaloupka. “Suicide is a symptom of severe mental illness. Often that mental illness can be treated if those charged with caring for a mentally ill person just respect the warning signs.” Chaloupka notes that the suicide rate for combat veterans is alarming. “After committing their lives to sacrificial and heroic service to our country, our veterans absolutely deserve the care necessary to heal their emotional wounds,” says Chaloupka.

While the total monetary amount of the settlement is confidential, it was sufficient to enable Hawkins to donate $50,000 to Soldiers Heart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and healing veterans who struggle with PTSD. In addition to providing direct service to veterans, Soldiers Heart educates communities on how to start support services for veterans and their families, and conducts seminars to train other professionals in the special and unique needs of veterans. In 2012, Soldiers Heart began working directly with the United States Army to teach mental health providers and chaplains how to assist soldiers struggling with PTSD.

The opportunity to make this substantial donation to Soldiers Heart is heartfelt for Hawkins. “It is like an organ donation,” says Hawkins. “If other veterans are saved from suicide because this donation helps them to afford treatment, then Phillip has lived on.” Hawkins, whose husband Kevin also served in Iraq, plans to continue future involvement with Soldiers Heart.

Edward Tick, Ph.D., the director and cofounder (with Kate Dahlstedt, M.A.) of Soldiers Heart (www.soldiersheart.net), says that Hawkins’ entire donation will be used to create a scholarship fund. The scholarship money will be used exclusively to fund at-risk and traumatized veterans to attend Soldiers Heart healing programs. “The scholarships in Phillip’s memory will go to help scores of veterans in need of healing who could not otherwise afford these services,” says Dr. Tick.

Other terms of Hawkins’ settlement include Lincoln County’s agreement to change a key provision of its suicide prevention policy: once an inmate has been placed on suicide watch, jail staff cannot remove him or her from suicide watch until a medical or mental health professional has performed and documented a dedicated suicide risk assessment. Because that did not happen in Phillip’s case, Hawkins is thankful that Lincoln County agreed to this change. Lincoln County will also plant a tree at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Phillip’s honor, with a plaque reading “In Honor of Fallen Soldiers and Phillip Brian Hatcher.”

Hawkins is grateful that her case could be resolved without a trial, in a manner that allows her to honor her brother while preventing heartache to other families. “From the start, I have always said I want Phillip’s case to be about prevention and change. Now his death will not be in vain.”

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