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StoryCorps

A Soldier's Battle Lost After Returning Home

Originally published on Sat January 19, 2013 6:13 am

Spc. Lance Pilgrim was among the first Army troops to enter Iraq in March 2003. Eventually, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and died from an accidental overdose in 2007 at the age of 26.

His father, Randy Pilgrim, says he first realized something was wrong when his son broke down at the sight of an animal that had been run over. The image had triggered the memory of a traumatic time overseas.

"We tried once to go around bodies in Iraq, but we were ambushed. So we were told from then on, don't let anything slow you down," Lance Pilgrim told his father. "I had to run over people. ... I don't think I'll ever get that out of my mind."

That same summer, he started managing his panic attacks with pain medication. His mother, Judy Pilgrim, says he became dependent on it.

Then he started leaving the base without permission, showing up at home in the middle of the week. He finally got an Other Than Honorable Discharge, which meant his service in Iraq no longer qualified him for veterans benefits — or military funeral honors when he died.

Lance Pilgrim fought to recover those benefits, writing the VA a letter in 2004 telling them his "zeal for life" was gone.

"He was trying extremely hard to get back on track, but he went from a strong, independent young man to just — he couldn't do anything on his own anymore, he was just almost helpless," Randy Pilgrim says.

Lance Pilgrim got a new tattoo of a spider web, and when his mother asked him what it meant, he said, "Well, that's what I feel like I'm caught up in."

Randy Pilgrim remembers noticing his son felt troubled two days before he died.

"I remember him driving up, and I know he felt he had let me down, and I wish I had been more supportive at that moment," he says. "Now, if I could do it all over again, I'd give him a big hug and just say, 'Don't let this be a stumbling block for you.' And, you know, I didn't do that. And it was the last time I saw him alive."

He had panic attacks the day he died, Judy Pilgrim says. She says her son had been wrongly prescribed hydrocodone, a pain reliever. "He was not supposed to have it, because he had had problems with it. And he died from an accidental overdose," she says.

The Pilgrims filed a civil lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claiming negligence in the treatment of their son. StoryCorps reached out to the VA and received confirmation that the case was settled in 2011. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, which represented the VA, said, "We have no additional comment on this case other than what is in the public record."

Randy Pilgrim says they also asked for a military funeral for their son, but they were denied.

"He did everything his country asked him to do," Judy Pilgrim says.

It wasn't until 2009 — two years after Lance Pilgrim's death — that the Army changed his discharge to "honorable" and his parents received his medals.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps and the Military Voices Initiative, a project collecting interviews from service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families too.

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SIMON: Today, a mother and father remember their son, Specialist Lance Pilgrim. He was among the first Army troops to enter Iraq in March 2003. Eventually, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When they sat down for StoryCorps, Judy and Randy Pilgrim remember their son's struggle to leave the war behind.

RANDY PILGRIM: When I first realized that something may be not right, he got in the truck with me and there'd had been an animal run over - I suppose a dog. And as I went around it, Lance just broke down crying. I pulled on over. I said are you OK. And he was sobbing. He said we tried once to go around bodies in Iraq but we were ambushed. So, we were told from then on don't let anything slow you down. So, he said, I had to run over people. And he said I don't think I'll ever get that out of my mind.

JUDY PILGRIM: That summer on his base, he found out that he could deal with his panic attacks and nightmares by taking pain medication. And he became dependent on it. He came home during the middle of the week. We said how did you get to come home during the middle of the week? And he said, well, I just left.

PILGRIM: Yeah. And then they couldn't get him to stay on base. So, he was finally discharged with an other-than-honorable discharge. He was trying extremely hard to get back on track. But he went from a strong, independent young man to just he couldn't do anything on his own anymore. He was almost helpless.

PILGRIM: He had a number of tattoos. And he had added a new one. It was a spider web. And I said what does this mean? And he said, well, that's what I feel like I'm caught up in. The night that he died, he had panic attacks that day.

PILGRIM: I remember him driving up. And I know he had felt he had let me down. And I wish I had been more supportive at that moment. Now, if I could do it all over again, I'd give him a big hug and just say don't let this be a stumbling block for you. You know, I didn't do that and that was the last time I saw him alive.

PILGRIM: Lance had actually been prescribed hydrocodone by the VA hospital. He was not supposed to have it because he had had problems with it. And he died from an accidental overdose.

PILGRIM: We requested a military funeral and it was denied.

PILGRIM: He did everything his country asked him to do.

PILGRIM: The Army reviewed all the information to get his discharge turned around.

PILGRIM: And it was finally turned around. It was completely honorable and his medals came in the mail in an envelope, but it was two years after he died.

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SIMON: Judy and Randy Pilgrim remembering their son, Lance, who died from an accidental overdose in 2007. He was 26 years old. The Pilgrims filed a civil lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claiming negligence in the treatment of their son. The case was settled in 2011. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which represented the VA, said we have no additional comment on this case other than what's in the public record. The Pilgrims' conversation was recorded in Dangerfield, Texas, and like all StoryCorps interviews, it will be archived at the Library of Congress. You can hear Judy Pilgrim read a letter that her son wrote to the Veterans Affairs Hospital at npr.org.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.