Soldier in “Coming Home” series dies after surgery

Charged with murdering his girlfriend, John Needham's war wounds went untreated (includes slideshow)

Topics: Coming home: The Army's fatal neglect, Iraq war, U.S. Military,

Soldier in "Coming Home" series dies after surgery

Michael de Yoanna first met John Needham when the troubled soldier stepped off a plane near Fort Carson, Colo., in November 2007. De Yoanna didn’t know it at the time, but a year later Needham would be part of a lengthy Salon series about soldiers involved in murders or suicides as the Army neglected their psychological war wounds. Reporters de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin documented Needham’s tale as part of the “Coming Home” series, after Needham was arrested for allegedly beating his girlfriend to death in late 2008.

Now Needham is gone too. He died on Feb. 19, about 10 days after back surgery at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Tucson, Ariz. The circumstances surrounding Needham’s death are unclear. According to his father, Mike Needham, an older brother discovered John Needham slumped over his bed at his mother’s house in Arizona, his face blue. Efforts by his brother, and then rescuers, to revive him were unsuccessful.

Needham, a tall, blond, sturdy California surfer and house painter, was deployed to Iraq in 2006. Not long after arriving, his life turned into a blur of roadside bombs, bloodshed and confusion. He was knocked unconscious by a grenade, suffering a brain injury. Shrapnel ripped into his legs. His back eventually gave him problems. He got a Purple Heart.

The damage to Needham wasn’t just physical. He also suffered from mental wounds. In Iraq in September 2007, when the carnage he had witnessed and participated in became too much, Needham pointed a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger. It would have ended there if a friend had not leaped forward to push the gun aside. The bullet hit a wall. Needham, who had a clean bill of health when he entered the Army, was shipped home.

When de Yoanna met him briefly in the airport in Colorado, Needham seemed nervous. He’d spent several weeks receiving care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Back at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Needham complained about punishment instead of treatment for his mental issues. His commanders threatened him with charges for discharging his weapon in his suicide attempt. Superiors also harassed him for falling asleep while heavily medicated. He was called a pussy. Though he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Needham was punished for showing symptoms: failing to appear in formation, insubordination to superiors, and other problems.

With the advocacy of his father and others fighting behind the scenes, the charges against Needham disappeared and in July of 2008, the Army had washed its hands of him. He received an honorable discharge and a partial disability — but his benefits didn’t provide full access to mental health treatment, a critical gap in his care.

Had he received such care, things might have been different just weeks later. In September 2008, Needham made headlines across the country after allegedly beating his girlfriend, 19-year-old aspiring model Jacqwelyn Villagomez, to death in his San Clemente, Calif., condo.

After 10 months in a maximum-security jail cell awaiting trial, Mike Needham raised the $1 million needed to bail his son out to prepare for the murder trial.

Based in Colorado, de Yoanna traveled to California last summer and spent several days with Needham — part of Salon’s ongoing effort to understand veterans struggling with the hidden wounds of war.

Needham told de Yoanna during that visit that he couldn’t provide specifics about his case, fearing any statements he made to the press might become ammunition for prosecutors. He emphasized, however, that he was “not the murderer” authorities and the press had made him out to be. Looking over the crashing waves he loved to surf, the war veteran also said he had become an outcast and wanted to leave his home and live somewhere on the California coast where nobody would know him.

So he lived in the present, often on the beach. He surfed some, hoping the ocean would restore his body, but the pain in his lower back persisted.

After a first V.A. surgery on his back in Los Angeles that did not go as planned in late November, Needham struggled with severe pain. He developed an addiction to painkillers and was hospitalized in Long Beach in the following weeks to deal with it. Then his family brought him to Tucson, hoping the V.A. hospital near his mother’s home would do better. There was another surgery a few weeks later and one more — Needham’s third – earlier this month. Each was an effort to repair Needham’s deteriorating lower back.

Though Needham had a serious infection after his last surgery and a “tumor the size of a grapefruit” on his back, according to his father, he was only cared for by a visiting nurse while staying at his mother’s home at the time he died.

Autopsy and toxicology reports are being completed; medical investigators did not return a call to Salon by deadline.

Needham’s father feels the Army and perhaps the V.A. let his son down. “He never got correct care in the Army and, in my opinion, never got correct care from the V.A. either,” Mike Needham said. “What if they helped him when he first struggled after the explosions in Iraq? Instead, they sent him into battle day after day and harassed him when he struggled. As for the V.A., I think they’re the medical authority and responsible. I question why he was on outpatient status with a tumor the size of a grapefruit on his back.”

Mike Needham plans to join with family and friends in a small private ceremony to scatter the ashes of his son at the beach where he loved to surf. “That’s our spiritual altar — the ocean.”

View a slide show

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

Michael de Yoanna is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who won an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative radio journalism in 2011. You can view his past work at Salon here, visit his personal website here, and follow him on Twitter @mdy1.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>