Jelani Lewis is a Boston kid, and when he was assigned as the Navy corpsman to Echo Company, 2d Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment based in California, he knew everybody was going to bust his chops because he was the only East Coast guy in a West Coast unit.
“I was fresh out of school,” Jelani Lewis was saying. “I was a boot. The experienced guys are called seniors, and some of them can be tough on the boots. But I got lucky. I was Elias Reyes’ boot, and Elias was the nicest guy in the world.”
Corporal Elias Reyes Jr. joined the Marines right out of high school and had two combat tours in Iraq under his belt when he and the rest of the 2/7 arrived in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2008. Sangin is located in a province called Helmand but when the 2/7 got there it might as well have been called hell. It was not unusual for the Marines in Echo Company to engage with the enemy three or four times a day.
“In that one deployment,” Lewis said, “we lost 20 Marines.”
Lewis wears a bracelet with the names of three of his Marine brothers — Lance Corporal Juan Lopez-Castaneda, Corporal Anthony Mihalo, and Lance Corporal Jacob Toves — who were killed in action.
As Echo Company’s doc, their medic, Jelani Lewis saw more death and devastation than any man should. What he could never imagine was that the death and devastation would follow him home.
In the five years that followed the 2/7’s return, they have lost nearly as many Marines to suicide as they lost to combat during that hellish deployment.
‘Every time he went to the VA, it was red tape, long waiting lists for any services.’
Lewis dreads opening his Facebook account because so often it carries news of the latest suicide in his unit.
The latest one was Elias Reyes Jr.
After Reyes was discharged after his third combat tour in four years, he fulfilled a dream of becoming a UCLA Bruin. He graduated from UCLA in 2012 with a 3.8 grade point average and wanted to go to medical school. But even as he excelled in the classroom, the battlefield haunted him.
An IED had left him with a traumatic brain injury, and the heavy combat he saw left him suffering from post-traumatic stress. He was receiving $400.93 a month in disability benefits from the Veterans Administration.
“My brother was very high-functioning, despite his brain injury,” his sister, Irene Kaludi, told me. “Even as he did so well at UCLA, he was struggling, trying to get help at the VA. Every time he went to the VA, it was red tape, long waiting lists for any services. Once, when he was suicidal, his girlfriend brought him to the VA and he got to see a counselor he actually liked. But then that counselor transferred to San Diego, and Elias had to start all over with the red tape and the waiting lists. It was crazy.”
Last month, Elias Reyes Jr. killed himself. Twenty-seven days later, his sisters, Irene Kaludi and Margarita Reyes, opened a letter from the VA. The first line of the letter said the VA was sorry to learn of their brother’s death. The second line asked for his last disability check back.
“The next 22 lines of the letter detailed why my brother is not entitled to his disability check during the month in which he died,” Irene Kaludi said.
Apparently, the government that took so much of Elias Reyes Jr. decided it hadn’t taken enough.
“I can’t even tell you how that makes me feel, what they’re doing to his family,” Jelani Lewis was saying, looking out the window of a Starbucks during a break in classes at Quincy College. “Elias served his country. But it didn’t serve him.”
As the politicians fiddle and diddle in Washington, trying to figure out how to right the sinking ship that is the VA, somebody owes Elias Reyes’ family more than a check. They owe them an apology.