Monday, May 21, 2012

A Battle Buddy Failed

Around this time last year, I was in Chicago O'hare international airport, and my Senior Medic from Bravo 2-16, Jay called me to let me know Holmes was dead.  I was shocked, how did he die I asked, he hung himself.  It only got worse when I started to ask around for details.  Apparently his fiance and mother of his daughter had come home to find him hanging with 550 cord, he was obviously dead, and his daughter was screaming nearby.

The last time I had talked to Neil, was when his daughter was born just a few months before.  He was happy and excited.  How did he go from excited to be a father to. . . dead.  What possibly transpired to make him so despondent that he felt the need to kill himself?  At some point he started acting a little off, and talked to his soon to be wife about a time when the platoon came under contact, and he killed a little girl on a rooftop.  To make matters worse he was looking at pictures from the deployment, the pictures you're not supposed to show to the media.  Things only got worse from there, to the point where he flat out told her he was suicidal. 

He had called the VA Suicide hotline, I do not know what was said, but I do know that because of his economic situation he couldn't afford to go to the nearest VA Facility.  I also know that if he had flat out said "I am going to kill myself" the police would have been called.  Could he have been treated could he have been saved?  I don't know and this question really bothers me.  Could I have reached him?  Its possible.  We're so spread out, having come from all walks of life, but I know that at least someone in the Company could have come to his aid if he had asked.

You know what's most troubling about this whole incident?  To my knowledge 2nd platoon never killed any little Iraqi girls.  Even the girl in the van on 12 July 2007 survived.  Indeed at that point, pretty much every time we fired our weapons there was a 15-6 (investigation).  Neither the Battalion nor the Army as a whole has any record of us in heavy contact killing a little girl on a rooftop.  We came under contact plenty of times, and there were plenty of times we killed people, but never anything like he described.  So what happened?

Well I think I know the answer.  Something similar happened to me while I was at the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley.  See when you experience combat, it can be intense.  The Adrenalin flooding through your system makes the memories sharper, and thus more readily recalled.  But the mind can be like a bad lithograph that has warped.  A bump in a lithograph will cause the needle to jump and skip thus making it repeat.  The mind can do the same thing, only it can be far worse.  For me I would replay the 7 minuets that it took to get Craig to Loyalty.  I could replay all seven minuets in their entirety and the feelings of utter failure only increased with each playback.

When 2-2 was hit, I could remember the stench of burning Humvee and could almost imagine burned human flesh.  I didn't actually smell that at the time, but my mind started playing tricks on me, and because I knew what that smell smelled like (burn patients stick with you) my mind could insert that in.  One of the guys there had said that they'd heard screaming, and I had almost convinced myself that I had heard Harrelson screaming for help when the Humvee was engulfed in flames.  It was only when I talked to Drew and Price, who were in the vehicle, that I realized Harrelson was dead before the Humvee hit the ground, that I started to let go of this image.  Still a Burning Humvee with rounds cooking off, and an AT-4 blowing, is not an easy image not to dwell on.

When the "Collateral Murder" Video was released and pundits and Political activists gleefully picked it apart trying to tease out the horror, well I went right back to that state.  See I felt no sympathy for those insurgents that had been killed, nor the reporter.  I was actually more worried that I didn't feel anything, but that day was pretty memorable.  There's a lot of things the video doesn't show, like getting mortared in the open, which happened as my platoon left Gate 5.  It doesn't show that for a majority of the day we were actually doing good works.  but it also doesn't show the drastic measures we took to try to save the survivors of the incident.  It doesn't matter, the glee with which people took this as proof of the "heartless killer" meme did horrendous things to my mental state.  Yes I did have flashbacks.  It really wasn't pretty.

In the WTB, I nearly did commit suicide.  Twice.  Once outside of a strip club, I had the bright idea of running into traffic, but was saved by a soldier from 1-16 Infantry, whose simple action of giving me a ride back to the barracks saved my life.  The second time I was on a back roads driving as fast as my new Mustang would go (safely) and for the first time in a long time I felt alive, the music was blaring something angry, and it was only because one of the guys I knew, Gary, gave me a call.  Ironically he needed help, which probably kicked in my latent need to be the Medic that fixes everything.  I never thought about suicide in 2009, I had long passed that hurdle, but if I hadn't I probably might have thought about it, and this time I would not have any battle buddies to stop me. 

Holmes, did not have any battle buddies to save him.  He did not have anyone who could reach through his despair and shake him out of it.  Ironically enough when it comes to Veterans, when they get really bad, only another Veteran can reach them.  It doesn't matter what combat they saw, that shared experiences ans bond between all that have seen combat, can sometimes be the only lifeline that will save a Veteran who is seriously contemplating killing themselves.  I know that at the very least I could have reached Holmes.  I could have gotten him to hold off, if only long enough to call someone to come get him, and get him the help he really needed.  I failed him as his medic, his friend and his Battle Buddy.  His loss is no less tragic than those that died in combat, though it will probably not be treated as solemnly because he no longer wears the uniform of this nation's Army.  I think we as a Nation owe him the same gratitude and reverence that we owe men like Andre Craig Jr (06/25/07 Ruatamayah Iraq), James J. Harrelson (07/17/07 Rustamayah Iraq) or James D. Doster (09/29/07 Rustamiyah Iraq).


Paul said...

Sorry about your loss man. I had a very similar thing happen to me -- Seth, who I served with in my last year was a good friend. I got out of the Marine Corps and he got out a few months after. It wasn't three months that he was out of the Corps and he had killed himself. He was engaged and had a baby girl.

He didn't leave a note or let anyone know. The what-ifs still swirl and I miss him deeply.

Brat said...

Whether in combat or not, the 'what ifs' stay with those of us left behind after someone commits suicide.

The sense of failure - which you as a Medic talk of here - is huge, but YOU did not fail. If anybody failed, it was us, society as a whole, as we fail to see what is going on around us.

The loss of your friend Neil Holmes WILL be remembered by those of us who care, with all the due solemnity afforded our Fallen who give their all in the sandbox.

Neil Holmes WAS a casualty of the Global War on Terror in every sense of the word, and his life will always be honoured. You have my promise.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to put out there that just as gruesome and horrible things can happen in civilian life as in military life. There was a family friend when I was little who had worked as a phychiatrist for years and confided in my mom that a patient he had been treating for depression for over six years and thought he was making progress with commited suicide by hanging herself.

He went on to describe all he put himself through for years after, what could he have done more, what signs had he missed and then realised that there are some cases that you have to let go and accept however you have to that if a person wants to die badly enough there is no talking them out of it. This patient of his that hung herself did it from a tree. The tree she chose could not support her weight and kept bending so she had to bend her knees and hold herself off the ground to accomplish what she did. Most people if you would've been able to talk them out of it would have given up when the tree was working against them.

Anonymous said...

So sorry. Not only for you, but for the rest of this country. You can't imagine how much we need veterans right now, to teach us what's really important. We've lost a few, even here in this tiny post in Kansas. Do you think being on meds makes a difference, or makes it worse? I've heard folks say it makes it worse. A guy I interviewed said he chose not to take drugs for that reason. But I'm no expert.
Keep telling your story. Americans need to know.

Adam said...

You can't blame yourself for your buddy's actions, all we can do is be there for each other as much as possible. We share a common bond as combat Veterans, but are spread across the country and aren't a barracks room or two down the hall anymore. This life we live is challenging to say the least, and those who never knew the hell of war or lost their friends will never know what its like. You haven't failed as a medic, I am sorry for your loss, but we all need to keep on living and do the best we can to be there for each other. Keep your head held high and remember the warrior he was.

Anonymous said...

I am only an occasional lurker, who is undeserving of the sacrifices made by the volunteers in America's armed forces. I deeply admire and am profoundly grateful for all our men and women who serve, most especially those who suffer terrible wounds or perish as a result. And the sacrifices of of their families and friends. All I know about is what it's like to be suicidal.

Had you known about your comrade, of course you would have intervened, there is no doubt to anyone within the sound of your blog. Had you had even an inkling.... But when we are sure that taking the out is all that feels right, we keep it a secret, we camouflage it, we dress it in a gillie suit. Because if we don't, someone like you will try, hard, to stop us. And being "arrested", hospitalized against our will for 3 days without even the right to make a call to an attorney, is an excellent disincentivizer against ever allowing detection again. Calling the cops is a horrible option and has long-lasting, years lasting, ill consequences for the "arrested." It's like treating a gash with clorox.

Please, don't call the police... just get over there and BE with them... listen intently, don't preach, don't rationalize, don't negotiate, don't list the pros and cons, just listen... even to the silence... as if their life depends on it. Unmask the emotions you keep carefully tucked away for polite society's sensibilities so that they see that they matter so much to you that it would tear you to pieces to lose them, for even a minute... Don't make it about you, just... just let it be clear that your life will never be right again without them... just make it clear you aren't going to give up on them, you're just not... if saving a life means what you think it does to you, then making the commitment to be there for them, daily, from now on, should cause you no hesitation... because having to be there daily for the rest of their life will actually turn to not be necessary.

If they hug you very hard, don't fight it, don't chafe, don't pull away first (unless you need to breathe, that is)... hold them gently... without reservation... without hesitation... without pulling away first... just be next to them, a faithful companion who will not leave them alone... no matter how awful they think they are, you know better.....

My apologies... that's all I needed to say... most sincerely, I cannot express my gratitude to you nearly commensurate with what you merit...


Anonymous said...

I am Neil’s fiancĂ© and the worst part of all this is how I was left with no support to raise our child. We couldn’t afford the marriage license I’m currently still fighting for help and I’m still alone with my children. The war directly affected my life! Neil was all I had and being denied help breaks my heart more then anything it’s as if saying I am nobody, nothing, my relationship and child are irrelevant to Neil and his service to this country. Though they deemed it service related they have taken no responsibility for taking the love of my life the man I depended on and the struggle which I have had to endure.