Photo courtesy of va.gov

Havasu couple settles son’s wrongful death lawsuit with Veterans Affairs

October 30, 2018 - 8:54 am

Four years after their son’s death, a local couple is feeling some relief after winning a $2.5 million settlement from a wrongful death lawsuit against the Department of Defense and Nashville Veterans Affairs.

Carol and Steven Merritt’s son, Aaron Merritt, joined the U.S. Army immediately after graduating high school in 2006 and served three tours, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq before being honorably discharged in 2014 at age 26. Just before being discharged, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic, inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract. Almost 10 months after his diagnosis, Merritt went to the Nashville VA hospital in critical condition. He died the next morning, Carol Merritt said, on Oct. 28, 2014.

After looking at medical records and realizing their son’s death was preventable, the Merritts hired a lawyer who sued the DOD and Nashville VA in 2016. Blood tests could have prevented his death.

“Throughout this time all of our families’ lives have been put on hold,” Carol said. “Our grieving process was kind of delayed going through all this because we just wanted to get justice for Aaron so now we’re finally able to get the process over and get on with our lives. But our lives will never be the same because of the loss of our son, a brother, an uncle.”

With his diagnosis, Aaron was prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug but a pre-existing condition complicated the drug’s effects. Doctors, during deposition, doctors admitted more frequent monitoring of his blood cell counts would have prevented Aaron’s death.

Carol said she and her husband felt they needed to sue because the way he was treated by the VA system wasn’t right after everything he’d done for his country.

“To think that a blood test could have saved his life and he was denied that was very sad and inexcusable,” Carol said.

Merritts continue to commemorate Aaron

Aaron was born in Elgin, Illinois, on Jan. 4, 1988. The Merritts moved to Lake Havasu City when

Aaron was almost a year old. He graduated from Lake Havasu High School in 2006.

The youngest of four boys, Aaron was an adventurous boy who loved going for walks and rock hunting in Havasu.

“He was the youngest and so they all doted on him and loved him to death,” Carol said.

Steven Merritt, owner of Woods and Goods mill services shop on North Lake Havasu Avenue, has photos of his son hung up in his office and framed next to his computer. His desktop is covered with photos of Aaron with his brothers in the wood shop, with his parents when he returned home from deployments, playing with dogs and while overseas with his Army friends.

Every day, Carol Merritt wears a necklace one of Aaron’s close Army friends gave her to commemorate her son’s military service. A glass pendant hangs from a copper chain and holds a heart shaped American flag, a heart with the words “In memory of,” a U.S. Army logo and an A inside.

The Merritts have become involved in many veteran groups and events in Havasu in order to commemorate their son’s life and continue to support veterans. They attend memorial services during military holidays, and the Gold Star Mothers in Havasu have welcomed Carol into their group.

“It just keeps Aaron alive in our memory and we don’t want him to be forgotten,” Carol said. “So we just continue to try to do things that we can tell people about him and support our other veterans.”

After discharge, Aaron wanted to stay in EOD field

After his first deployment, Aaron became an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist and before his third deployment, he was promoted to staff sergeant and was put in charge of other soldiers. Aaron started looking for jobs where he could use his EOD skills, including with the Transportation Security Administration, after being discharged.

Every time Aaron returned to the U.S. from deployment, the Merritts would travel to where he was stationed to welcome him home. Sept. 11 was a big factor in his decision to join the military, Carol said. They were always proud of their son’s decision, the Merritts said.

Today marks four years since Aaron died.

“With all this going on and then just to have it so close to the time of his death, yeah it’s really hard,” Carol said.

Hoping for better care of veterans in the future

Carol pointed out the phrase on the front of the hospital, which reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

“Aaron borne the battle,” she said. “But he died, due to their negligence.”

The Merritts said their son’s case is being used to teach medical students at Vanderbilt School of Medicine.

“No amount of money will ever replace Aaron, replace our son,” Carol said. “I just hope tomorrow’s veterans will receive better care for their medical issues because of the sacrifice made by Aaron.”

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