GREENVILLE, S.C. - On the last day of his long, troubled life, Grover Cleveland Chapman packed a black duffel bag, washed out his coffee cup, put it in the dish rack and fetched his Smith & Wesson.
He threw away his favorite slippers and left his house key on his bedside table in the two-bedroom yellow bungalow he shared with his daughter, tucked in an aging neighborhood full of 1950s starter homes a few miles from downtown Greenville.
Harriett Chapman called as she always did on her morning break at the Walmart deli, checking on her 89-year-old dad. Everything is fine, he told her.
As he shuffled down the steps that spring morning in 2008, Grover Chapman carried the latest letter denying him treatment at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Greenville, directing him instead to take a 200-mile round trip to the VA hospital in Columbia. This time it was about his prostate cancer, though Chapman had received plenty of notices just like it turning him down for help with his jumpiness and frayed nerves. He folded this letter neatly into the bag beside his bottles of medicine and settled into a taxi.
In a few weeks, candidate Barack Obama would take note of what Chapman would do upon arriving at the clinic this last time, calling it an indictment of society's treatment of disabled veterans.
And maybe that's what it was. Or maybe Chapman just didn't want his daughter to have to come home and find him.
Perhaps this was simply an old man choosing when, where and how to close a life that had turned out, like so many, a good bit messier than he would have liked.
Before heading to the clinic, Chapman had one stop to make. He directed the cabbie to Dewey's Pawn Shop.
His .38-caliber revolver was out of bullets.
The Army made Chapman a sharpshooter in the late 1930s and sent him to the Panama Canal. He spent another two years in the Navy at the end of World War II, manning machine guns on Liberty Ships, merchant marine vessels that moved supplies and men around the world. More than 200 of the 2,700 Liberty Ships were sunk by the Japanese and Germans.
Long into his old age, Chapman spent hours telling military psychiatrists about seeing men buried at sea and how he couldn't stand the thought of having to kill another person. He reported frequent nightmares and flashbacks, according to his military psychiatry records given to The Associated Press by his family.
Yet it's unclear how much action Chapman really saw or whether he ever took a life.
Other military records show most of Chapman's half-dozen trips across the Atlantic were uneventful, with ships' logs indicating no deaths or enemy attacks. On Jan. 3, 1945, a ship in his convoy was torpedoed. Machine gunners like Chapman were sent to their posts, while others helped rescue sailors in lifeboats. No one died, and the submarine responsible was never found.
Only the eldest of Chapman's seven children heard their father's more troubling stories.
"He saw injured soldiers, and I think that really took a toll on my dad," said Diane Perkins, who lives just a couple of blocks from where her dad last lived. "He used to tell me when they came in from port, the guys were blind and couldn't see and when they got to the Statue of Liberty, they'd say, 'Just turn me toward her. I know I can't see her, but turn me toward her.' My dad was a very sensitive person."
Chapman's military service left him intense and organized and a strict disciplinarian, spooked by loud laughter or talking, Perkins said. Psychiatrists didn't have a formal diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder for another 30 years, but plenty of World War II vets suffered from it silently, said Richard Cohen, the executive director of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates.
"These guys came home, they would be anxious. They would be squirrelly or have no emotions. They would drink, they wouldn't talk about what happened," Cohen said. "They had all these symptoms of PTSD, but they would never be diagnosed."
The VA turned down Chapman's PTSD claims a half-dozen times, even though psychiatrists mentioned he had elements of PTSD as early as 1990. For the rest of his life, his records make frequent reference to PTSD, but the VA kept denying his claim for extra disability without a great deal of explanation.
Even if Chapman didn't witness everything he would later say that he saw, troops don't have to dodge bullets and bombs to suffer mental problems. The stress of spending night after night staring at the horizon for enemies could trigger PTSD, as well as seeing buddies hurt in training accidents or in storms, said Cohen, who never met Chapman. Even taking care of others traumatized by battle could cause emotional scars that never heal.
Chapman dropped out of school to support his family at 13, and when he left the Navy, he went back to work in the textile mills in Ware Shoals. After he was laid off in the 1950s, he moved the family to Greenville, saying he never wanted them to work in the mills. He became a machinist helping to make lawn mowers and similar equipment at Homelite until he had a nervous breakdown in the late 1960s. He never worked regularly again.
Chapman blamed his military service for the breakdown and asked the VA to pay him 100 percent disability. The military denied the problems were service-related, instead blaming the stress from dealing with his youngest daughter, Caroline, who had to be institutionalized with Down syndrome. The VA would eventually consider him 60 percent disabled from prostate problems he suffered during his service.
Chapman depended on the VA, Social Security and his family for the rest of his life. The amount of disability and the amount of money he got from the VA fluctuated. The agency said it stands by its decisions in Chapman's case.
The mental problems became too much for his marriage, and Chapman and his wife divorced in 1975 after 34 years together. Chapman lived alone for most of the rest of his life, remarrying twice for short stints. He saved his money and traveled. He tried not to miss "The Price Is Right" and "Wild Kingdom." He went fishing. He visited with his World War II buddies and swapped stories.
A heart attack in November 2006 left Chapman with a pacemaker and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. With his health slowly declining, Chapman started to plan for the future.
He got on a waiting list for a VA nursing home because he did not want to have to wait a year once he got too feeble to take of himself. He was going to need treatment for prostate cancer, so he asked for a waiver to have the tests and procedures done in Greenville, instead of the 100-mile ride to the big VA hospital in Columbia.
By April 2008, the nursing home decision was dragging. Then came a letter denying him extra money to have someone take care of him at home or pay more of any nursing home bill and a phone call telling him he would have to take care of his prostate problems in Columbia.
The VA reversed its decision on treatment less than six hours later after receiving additional information, but Chapman's daughter said she never received a letter or a phone call.
Harriet Chapman made hamburgers for her father the night of April 23, 2008. They talked about the denials. She told him not to get down.
"Every time I ask the VA for something, they just turn me down," she remembered him saying, a line Obama repeated in recounting the story less than three weeks later at a campaign appearance in West Virginia.
"How can we let this happen? How is that acceptable in the United States of America?" the future president said. "The answer is, it's not. It's an outrage. And it's a betrayal - a betrayal - of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for."
The taxi took Chapman to the pawn shop. After he bought bullets, he went on to the VA clinic. The driver passed the main entrance and dropped him off at the ambulance bay on the side of the building. Chapman tipped the cabbie $4.
There are no surveillance cameras and no one saw everything that happened next, but Greenville County Deputy Coroner Mike Ellis has pieced together a scenario based on evidence:
Chapman loaded all six bullets in the chamber, sat down, put the gun to the right side of his head and pulled the trigger. Doctors and nurses, some who took care of Chapman for years, heard a pop and rushed out to see what happened.
Harriet Chapman figures her father wanted to make one last stand against the VA.
"If he just wanted to kill himself, he would have done it behind the shed in the back yard," Harriet Chapman said. "He wanted to bring attention to what the VA had done to him and how they treated veterans."
But Grover Chapman left no suicide note. He appears to have spoken to no one at the VA that day and decided to take his life by the side door, where mostly doctors and nurses come and go, instead of the clinic's bustling front entrance or lobby. His bag contained all the items needed to identify him. And he almost guaranteed it would be medical professionals used to dealing with death who found him, sparing his family the shock of seeing the kind of things that haunted him since those days on the Liberty Ships, far out in the Atlantic.
Suicide was never far from Chapman's mind when he talked to his psychiatrists. Sometimes he expressed his suicidal thoughts so urgently he ended up in a VA mental hospital, like in 1998, when a psychiatrist noted the veteran told him "he is taking up space and damn tired of living." A note from a visit in November 1985 is especially chilling: "When I attempt to kill myself, I will succeed," Chapman told a doctor.
The doctors and nurses at the clinic received counseling after Chapman killed himself. The counselors stressed that they had done all they could by regularly checking his mental state. "People that truly want to commit suicide do not tell anyone beforehand because they want to be successful," VA spokeswoman Priscilla Creamer said.
The coroner's office released Grover Chapman's body to his family that Friday afternoon, a day after he died. They buried him Saturday morning and six of his children were there. The only one missing was Caroline, whom Chapman used to visit at a group home in Clinton a couple of times a month until his health began to decline.
Chapman had already planned his funeral and demanded it be kept simple. He was buried in his pajamas because he said it made no sense to dress him up after he died. No obituary ran in the local paper. There was no chapel service, just a preacher saying a few words to the 30 or so gathered at the graveside and reading a note written by the young grandson he lived with.
The family did one thing that wasn't on Chapman's list. The funeral home noted he served in the Army and Navy and asked if they wanted an American flag to drape his casket. The family agreed.