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Inmate suicide leaves lasting legacyTell North Platte what you think
 
Courtesy Nebraska Farm Bureau
Phillip Hatcher, pictured here in happier mood, served two tours overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Courtesy Photo­Image
The sock hangs from an upper bunk in the cell where Hatcher took his life.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Kara Hawkins holds a photo of her brother Phillip receiving a medal from Maj. Gen. David Patraeus.
Courtesy Photo­Image

A tree will be planted on Memorial Day at the Lincoln County Courthouse, a lasting memorial to a veteran who was struggling to recover from post traumatic stress disorder when he hung himself in jail five years ago.

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The tree is just one of the outcomes of a years-long lawsuit pressed by the man’s sister, Kara Hawkins.

United States Army Specialist Phillip Brian Hatcher was a combat veteran who served from 2001-04 in the Army’s legendary 101st Airborne Division.

Hatcher spent 1 year, 3 months and 21 days in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During his second deployment, he began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. His symptoms worsened when his deployment ended, his sister said.

Hatcher left the Army and drifted from his home state of Georgia to North Platte, where Kara and her husband live.

Hatcher’s PTSD symptoms that grew more severe and included flashbacks, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, Kara said.

Hatcher came to North Platte in October 2007 and took a job at the Wal-Mart Super Center. He told Kara he wanted to be nearby and help with her children – his nieces and nephews.

Hatcher was a naturally giving person, Kara said. He talked to her from overseas, offering reassurance when she was new mother. Later, he dug into his own pockets to help her take the children on scout expeditions, even though he could hardly afford it.

But in mid-2008, Hatcher’s life literally came undone.

He was arrested June 1 after police found him driving a 1997 GMC Jimmy that was stolen from South Dakota.

An officer signaled for Hatcher to stop. He pulled into a driveway and got out.

The officer ordered Hatcher to freeze, but Hatcher jumped back in the Jimmy and sped off, leading a high-speed chase along U.S. Highway 30 with speeds in excess of 115 mph.

“He panicked and fled,” Kara said through her attorney Maren Lynn Chaloupka of Scottsbluff.

About five miles west of North Platte, Hatcher turned the Jimmy around and sped back into town. When officers caught up with him, they found the Jimmy parked behind the Scout Inn on the west edge of town where Hatcher was staying, but Hatcher had run off and couldn't be found.

He stayed out of sight overnight and returned to his room the next day. The manager saw him return and informed the police.

Hatcher wouldn’t open the door when police knocked, so they got a search warrant and returned. They unlocked the door and reportedly found Hatcher underneath the bed, trying to cut his wrists.

They took him to the Lincoln County Jail.

Jail personnel initially placed Hatcher on suicide watch, but several hours later, without consulting with a mental health professional and without reassessing his suicide risk, they removed him from suicide watch, placed him in a regular cell and stopped monitoring him, Chaloupka said.

Chaloupka said jailors identified Phillip as potentially suicidal each of the next three days, but no one summoned a mental health professional.

On the night of his third day in the jail, Phillip hung himself. He used a sock to create a noose, put his head inside and tightened it until he passed out.

Unconscious, he was taken by ambulance to Great Plains Regional Medical Center, where he remained in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit for two days. He died on June 6.

A grand jury investigation was called for, and the jury ruled that the Lincoln County Jail workers were not at fault, but Kara was unconvinced.

She filed a civil lawsuit.

The lawsuit dragged on for years. Finally in February, Kara, represented by Chaloupka, settled the wrongful death claim with Lincoln County.

Chaloupka said she specializes in representing families of persons who lose their lives to suicide.

“Contrary to popular belief, suicide victims do not ‘make their own choices,’” Chaloupka said. “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.”

The suicide rate for combat veterans is alarming. Chaloupka said.

“After committing their lives to sacrificial and heroic service to our country, our veterans absolutely deserve the care necessary to heal their emotional wounds,” she said.

The total monetary amount of the settlement remains confidential, but as part of the agreement, a tree will be planted to honor her brother — and all fallen veterans.

The tree will stand at the Lincoln County Courthouse with a plaque reading “In Honor of Fallen Soldiers and Phillip Brian Hatcher.”


Soldiers Heart

Kara has also donated $50,000 to Soldiers Heart, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting and healing veterans who struggle with PTSD.

Soldiers Heart provides direct service to veterans, educates communities on support services for veterans and families, and conducts seminars to help professionals meet the needs.

A year ago, Soldiers Heart began working directly with the Army, teaching mental health providers and chaplains how to help soldiers with PTSD.

Kara said her brother’s desire to help others will continue through the donation to Soldiers Heart.

“It is like an organ donation,” she said. “If other veterans are saved from suicide because this donation helps them to afford treatment, then Phillip has lived on.”

Kara said Phillip was 11 months younger and they had a close relationship.

“I always looked out for him, took care of him,” she said. “I wanted everything to be the best for him.”

She said Phillip loved to tell jokes.

“He always wanted to make someone happy. It was always about others. If he saw someone struggling, he would do what he could to make it better. Once we needed money so my sons could go to Omaha on a Boy Scout trip. Phillip gave us what we needed.”

Kara said Phillip didn’t always see how much he was struggling, and when he tried to find help, he didn’t.

“He had tried medications and therapy too,” Kara told the Bulletin. “But, he found it impossible to talk to people who didn’t know what he went through.”

Hatcher couldn’t burden a therapist with what he had endured in war.

Kara said Soldiers Heart is not about medication, but instead conveys a spiritual outlook so veterans can help themselves.

She said it represents what Phillip wanted to do in life.

“If we can get more vets into that program, then Phillip will have lived on,” she said.

For more about Soldier's Heart, click HERE.


Policy

Other terms of Hawkins’ settlement include changing a key provision of the suicide prevention policy at the Lincoln County jail, Chaloupka said.

Once an inmate has been placed on suicide watch, jail staff cannot remove him or her from the watch until a medical or mental health professional has performed and documented a dedicated suicide risk assessment.


Long haul

Kara said the lawsuit was a long haul.

“It was kinda hell,”’ Kara said. “There was so much negativity; I was ready for something positive. 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,” she said. “Now, I can move on."


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 5/23/2013
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