Thursday, August 4, 2005

NOLAN, the story of my broken heart.

Last year I made reference of a dear friend who died tragically during Basic Training and a few readers wondered about it but compassionately refrained from pressing for answers.  They knew I would share the story when I was ready.  I am ready now.  I am hoping that by writing this I will be able to find some kind of acceptance and closure.

Nolan was the son of our very close friends.  We shared many hunting trips and blackpowder campouts together.  Nolan was the big brother Gabe never had but always wanted.  The other children looked up to him as an older brother as well.  And he was like a son to my husband and I.  He joined the Army Reserve and was already attending drills when he left for Boot Camp.  He was so excited.  His father had served in the military, and many of their friends still did.  He was going to join their ranks.

His father kept us updated on his progress.  Somehow there was a mix-up and he ended up spending more than the usual time in Reception holding.  During that time he had suffered a severe sunburn, so bad that his freshly shaven head was swollen.  We didn't think too much of it at the time since he had been to the clinic to get treatment, but he would never be the same after that.

When Nolan finally started his training, naturally his communication with his family became limited.  But as the time wore on, these communications became disturbing.  He was obviously stressed out from the rigorous training, and at first it was just attributed to having to adjust to the severe discipline, the mental and physical requirements placed on the recruits.  His father would call us after the phone calls and the uneasiness and concern in his voice grew with each call.  Change was expected in one's personality, but Nolan was changing dramatically into someone that was not even a shadow of the mature and eager young man who had left for boot camp less than a month ago.

I remember one night in particular.  We were sitting upstairs watching TV when our friend called.  He said his son had just called.  He had sounded confused and was stuttering, which wasn't normal.  He had been placed on Unit Watch, his boot laces and belt had beenconfiscated. He couldn't sleep, he wasn't drinking water because he was having control issues.  He was seeing the Chaplain and a social worker for having suicidal thoughts.  He had apologized to his father for letting him down.  There was no sign of his normal self confidence.

I was crying openly the whole time, saying over and over again... 'get him to the emergency room!'  My husband told our friend to contact the Red Cross and have them intervene.

They did.  The recruit was taken to the emergency room and tested.  The tests were inconclusive but it was determined that he was not dehydrated.  He was returned to his unit.  At that point the military determined that he was just trying to get out of fulfilling his basic training commitment but was becoming a danger to himself and those in his unit.  The decision was made to release him, but the process would take a couple of weeks.  My friend spoke to his son after the unit called on his behalf.  Again Nolan apologized.  At this end, hundreds of miles away, we agonized that the ordeal would be dragged out for another two weeks.  We just wanted him back safe with us.

It was only a couple of days later but it seemed like a lifetime.  I came home for lunch, knowing that my husband who had only just recently returned from duty in Korea would be there.  The carpet cleaner stood in the middle of the livingroom where he had been working but stopped for some reason.  Shrugging, I went down stairs to watch the news.  He came in the front door a few minutes later and I went up to meet him.  I was still getting used to having him back after the 2 year separation... but he didn't return my happy greeting.  He just took me in his arms and hugged me.  I remember feeling his body shaking, and thinking... this isn't right, something isn't right.

'Nolan is dead.'

I stepped back, so sure I had heard wrong but the tears streaming from his face confirmed that I had not.  I don't remember much more.  But I remember learning how it felt to have my heart ripped from my body.  I cried harder then I have ever cried in my life.  I hurt more than I ever knew was possible.

Telling the children was probably the hardest thing I've ever done.  How do you comfort 5 heartbroken children when you can't even comfort your own grieving heart?  How do you explain that which you can't even comprehend? What do you tell them when they ask 'Why did he kill himself?  Didn't he love us any more?" 

And that was the hardest to understand.  Nolan loved life.  He loved the military.  He loved his Reserve Unit.  He was an avid shooter and outdoorsman.  He was used to roughing it.  He wasn't some overly protected young man who suddenly realized that he had bit off more than he could chew during basic training.  He had asked for help.  He had been denied.

Steve flew to Fort Leonard Wood to bring Nolan home.  Nolan's ashes were scattered over the land that he loved.  My husband and son hung an eagle feather high in a pine tree over looking the area in his honor. 

A make-believe investigation was conducted.  Death was ruled as a suicide.  I call it an assisted suicide.  There are even whispers of homicide, but those are quickly hushed.  There are so many questions that have never been answered.  There were so many warning signs that were ignored by his chain of command, obvious signs.  Nobody took his condition seriously.  When his buddies went to the Drill Sgt. to voice their concerns, it only resulted in public humiliation infront of the platoon.  His cry for help was heard but never acknowledged, only mocked.  If anything, it increase the mental punishment that was placed upon him, until he could not take it any more.

There are many questions regarding the circumstances of his death.  If it had not been a death on military property it probably would have resulted in an indepth investigation.  So many clues, so many mysteries, so many questions but no answers forth coming.  Am I still in denial?  Yes, I probably am.  Do I have grounds to doubt?  Yes, I do believe I do.  But my doubts are in the jurisdiction of the military which means they will probably remain unanswered.

So, imagine my dismay when my oldest son announced his decision to join the Army.  I had actually encouraged him, saying that it would do him good, but once the reality of him going through the same training Nolan did before he ended his life sank in, old wounds were reopened and created fresh fears.  What if Gabe stumbled like his friend did?  What if the same thing happened?  What if he had to deal with the same uncaring and incompetent people?  When I voiced my fears, people tried to comfort me by assuring me that Gabe would never do something like that.  Neither would Nolan.

Gabe had his moments, but his memory of Nolan kept him driving on.  When he saw fellow soldiers falter and show signs of weakness, he would step in and help them out.  He encouraged the weary, he patiently tutored the slow.  He persisted with his own demons and obstacles.  I don't waste too much time on 'coulda, shoulda, wouldas' or 'if onlys', but boy, but I wish Gabe could have been there with Nolan, for Nolan.  As fate would have it, he could not be there.  But he was there for his fellow recuits, and that was just as important.  Fate served the new recruits through Gabe's memory of his friend and his fate.

The sad anniversary of Nolan's death will soon be upon me.  I rarely sleep during the month of August.  And now I must also deal with the knowledge that my son will soon be placed in harms way to secure a distant country for its people, from its people.  I am filled with both pride and fear.  There is a little shadowy corner in my mind that I dance around and refuse to peek into for fear of what I might see.  I can't allow those thoughts.  An online friend recently went through the unthinkable and her grief only increased my own fears.  I have felt the heartbreak of the loss of one very dear young man who was as close to my heart as my own son.  That is more than enough pain for a lifetime.  This will be a difficult month for me to get through, I often have to force the smiles during this time, and the end of the month, the 29th... is always the hardest. 

I refuse to ask my son for his deployment date, but my heart sences its approach.  One day at a time.

Here is an article written about the life and death of Nolan.  I still have not been able to read it in its entirety.  I found some of its graphic descriptions too much to bear.  Sometimes ignorance really is bliss, or at the very least, the lessor of two evils.

5280 Magazine - June/July 2004 - Private Stites Should Have Been Saved

7 comments:

purplectigger said...

My prayers will be with you this whole month, each and everyday. Like you said one day at a time. This story touched my heart. You have a good son, he will do fine.
Hugs, R.C.

heathyrxmarie said...

((((((((Dorn)))))))))))  My heart is breaking for this boy.  I cannot believe this happened un noticed.  I applaud your courage and bravery for telling the story.  I know that you are very worried about Gabe, and I'm praying for him daily, to keep him safe, and to keep him watched over.
Many hugs for you tonight.
xoxo
Heather

cmarlow330 said...

sigh...... I am sitting here at 11 01 pm my time 10 01 your time crying...


wow thats sad.... ( gives ya a hug)... Im sorry..


I know what your going through... in a way..

I lost my best friend Alex that i only knew online but we became very close friends we talked like 5 times a day !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!and he only lived 2 hours from where I am...

I was at my aunts house ...... The weeks of Jan 12th thorugh the 21st in 2004... b/c my bday was coming up on the 28th and she wanted me to come to the city and celebrate.......

I was in a car accident on JAN 17TH......

after that... days went on... and Alex had been in the hospital getting treatments for his Cytestic Fiberosis.. He said all was well...... Well i didnt hear from him from dec 27th on.....

Well jan 21 came.... and I started feeling realllllyy weirrrd.. like something wasnt right.. I knew that was the day of my parents anniv. and i remembered to call back home.. Well days went on... I just felt weird... 22 went by..23..24..25..26..27..28 my bday..... Jan 29th... we went out to eat.. I was in a blah mood....

31 came and I packed to go back home and ride 2 hours back to the country where I live.. STILL NO EMAILS or alex didnt sign on or nothin.......

Feb 1st came ...... 2nd came.... OH ALEX'S SN signed on.... my usual HEY BRO (( HUGS )) ..... Im was silent for 10 min...... Then I get this.......

ALEX'S SN: (10:25 PM): IM SORRY this isnt Alex he passed away a week ago....

I FLIPED OUT AND LOST IT... I BALLED MY EYES OUT...

Turns out I was feeling weird b/c he passed away 2 days befor my birthday on January 26th 2004.. and my 20th bday was on JAN 28TH 2004....

Sigh.. im still not completly over it yet.. but I am trying to get well.. Im not as bad as depressed anymore.....

I miss alex....... Rip Alex and Nolan :-(

I thought I woudl share my story with you....

Talk to you later,
Feel free to post

cmarlow330 said...

oops correction

JAN 12 THOUGH THE 31ST **

had to catch my error~~~

~ christopher ~

gardenmantis said...

With my son Alex constatntly on the road with the band I worry and pray a lot for the boys. {{{Hugs}}}.
Mary

beckieramos said...

Bless your heart. This really hit me hard. I really feel for you and your family and Nolan's family. I am so glad Gabe is doing well and helping others along also. My son swo is 17, has been thinking about going in the service. It scares me, but I know it is his desicion. May God help him make the right one. Many prayers for you and for Gabe and his safety and health. God bless, Beckie

redsneakz said...

And everyone wonders why there are homeless vets wandering the streets, vets living in isolation in low-population states... the lack of psychological treatment in the military begins in basic training and runs throughout the entire serviceman's life (I use the term "serviceman" to include both men and women).  The basic attitude in the military toward any injury is "tape an aspirin to it and go out and kill someone."  I suffered a minor concussion during a training exercise and am still feeling the effects 20 years later.
-cs