COLUMBIA, S.C. — After getting his high school diploma, Fran Smyth said her son, Luke, chose a military career and joined the Navy in 1999.
He became a Navy air-flight launching captain and an airplane mechanic.
Smyth said her son was proud of his service but that she started to notice a change.
“All the dangers involved in launching the airplanes, the tension was like radiating off of him,” said Smyth.
In 2004, Luke was honorably discharged from the Navy and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
His mental illness was deemed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be connected to his service.
For years, Smyth cared for him at her home in Bluffton, SC.
Luke was receiving treatment near Charleston, SC in September 2017 when impending hurricane Irma forced him to be evacuated to the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
“I get this call,” said Fran. “I remember the doctor said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’m just going to tell you. Luke is dead.’”
A camera inside the hospital showed Luke Smyth enter a room with other patients.
Seconds later, an altercation happened and medical staff rush in.
Two men immediately tackled Smyth to the ground, one putting him in a headlock.
“There was no way he could breathe,” said his mother.
It wasn’t until 10 minutes later that an employee checked for a pulse. Then less than minute later, they began CPR.
Luke did not survive.
“No wonder they hid it from me for 2 years is how I felt,” said Fran Smyth. “They killed him.”
The coroner’s report lists Luke’s manner of death as homicide.
“They were charged with nothing, not even neglect,” said his mother. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a train and I keep getting dragged on the tracks.”
In August 2020, the United States settled the civil lawsuit for $2.75 million.
When asked if the settlement brought his mother any justice, Fran Smyth said, “It helps because they acknowledge.”
But no amount of money will erase his mother’s pain.
“This was like a knife in the brain,” she said. “I am not the same person. I cannot feel happiness like I did before.”
Fran Smyth wants her son’s story to spark change including better mental health care for our military so no other veteran loses their life back at home.
“God help our veterans,” said Smyth. “They are not being protected.”
The VA sent Channel 9 the following statement regarding the settlement:
“Columbia VA Health Care System grieves for the loss of this veteran and always strives to provide the very best health care available. When we don’t meet that standard, we hold ourselves accountable. In this case, we worked with the veteran’s family and their attorney in an effort to avoid litigation, and settled this unfortunate case in a way we hope is meaningful to them.”
The veterans advocacy organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Eyewitness News that writing a check isn’t enough.
IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said, “That statement is pretty disappointing because what it does not tell me what they’re doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Channel 9 learned that since Luke Smyth’s death, all inpatient mental health staff at the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, SC have had mandatory training which included prevention and management of disruptive behavior and behavioral emergencies.
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