Two things got me thinking last week.
President Obama at Dover bearing witness to America's war dead was a good thing to do and I appreciate it immensely.
The other thing was an obituary I read in a local paper. It was a young man who was a decorated veteran of the US Army. He received NATO medals for his service in Kosovo, Kuwait and Jordan. And he was awarded the National Defense Medal for service in Iraq.
The memorial spoke eloquently of his Native American background, his interest in creative writing and his kind smile.
And at the end, was this:
Lived with dignity and integrity; he struggled to survive war yet sadly succumbed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome.
This young man did not return to the states in a flag draped casket. He returned from the battlefields overseas, alive. But for him and many others, the battles fought each day are onerous - and for some, ultimately overwhelming.
I don't know much more about this young man's story than I read in his obituary. But reading it triggered in me another story - one I do know more about and one that I've been wanting to write for awhile now, but haven't had the strength. With your indulgence, I'd like to tell it now.
Last May, we got the news locally that a young man had died out on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz (CA).
West Cliff Drive is a beautiful expanse where the land meets the Pacific in one of the most picturesque setting you can imagine. Sadly, it seems that almost every year, an unsuspecting tourist is caught unaware of the ferocity with which the waves can sneak up onto the cliff, and is washed out to sea. (There are warning signs, and fences, but they sometimes go unheeded).
On Tuesday, May 19, Fort Carson, Colorado officials reported that a veteran serviceman failed to show up to accountability formation and was listed as AWOL. They also stated, "There is potential that the soldier is in possession of a firearm, however there is no indication that he is a threat to the general public."
The Colorado Connection reported:
FORT CARSON, COLO. -- A 28-year-old Fort Carson Soldier has been missing since Tuesday.
Pfc. Roy Mason II, 28, assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) ... is listed as absent without leave (AWOL).
A "be on the lookout" (BOLO) notice was issued Tuesday for Mason and a car he rented from Enterprise. The car is a 2008 red Chevy Cobalt, license plate number CO 253SOX.
Roughly 1400 miles away, few if any locals in Santa Cruz had heard the reports of a missing soldier from Fort Carson. But 3 days later, they learned this from the local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel:
Pfc. Mason, who was born in Fairfield, CA, drove his rental car from Fort Collins to Santa Cruz, where he ended his life. But not before he called 911 first, with a request.
Mason called emergency dispatchers from a call box on West Cliff Drive near Stockton Avenue in Santa Cruz, saying a dead body could be found in a car parked there. He asked that the scene be cleaned before any children saw it, officials said.
Though local residents didn't know many details, many were touched and saddened. An impromtu memorial was established on the site:
But why had it happened? A few days later, Santa Cruz resident Richard Anderson encapsulated many of the questions of locals in his letter to the editor:
The suicide of Pfc. Roy B. Mason on West Cliff Drive May 22 was tragic. The story on page B-10 under the heading "Military Desertion" left many questions.
News stories rarely explain why events like this happen. Did he have PTSD? Was he going to be redeployed ...
Pfc. Mason's death, like so many others from these "wars," is tragic ...
About a week later, part of the puzzle of why began to surface in this very touching, revealing story (very sober, but worth a read). The Sentinel, much to their credit did find out why:
Friend: Soldier who killed himself on West Cliff unable to control his aggression after two tours in Iraq
I thought that was pretty much it. I mean, that's plenty for sure. It was a terrible thing that happened, no doubt about it. But about two months later, even more of the back story was revealed.
On July 25, The Gazette of Colorado Springs printed the first installment of their stupendous report, Casualties of War.
There's no way I can do justice to this very good piece of journalism here, but here's a snippet:
the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team — fought in some of the bloodiest places in Iraq, taking the most casualties of any Fort Carson unit by far.
Back home, 10 of its infantrymen have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter since 2006. Others have committed suicide, or tried to.
Almost all those soldiers were kids, too young to buy a beer, when they volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Almost none had serious criminal backgrounds. Many were awarded medals for good conduct.
But in the vicious confusion of battle in Iraq and with no clear enemy, many said training went out the window. Slaughter became a part of life. Soldiers in body armor went back for round after round of battle that would have killed warriors a generation ago. Discipline deteriorated. Soldiers say the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians lurked in the ranks. And when these soldiers came home to Colorado Springs suffering the emotional wounds of combat, soldiers say, some were ignored, some were neglected, some were thrown away and some were punished.
Some kept killing — this time in Colorado Springs.
Many of those soldiers are now behind bars, but their troubles still reach well beyond the walls of their cells — and even beyond the Army. Their unit deployed again in May, this time to one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions, near Khyber Pass.
Three dkos diarists covered the Gazette story - henry porter, high bitrate and jimstaro. None made the rec list, which is not unusual - these stories are hard to read. The AP also picked it up, and ran with a much shorter version of the story.
I didn't make the connection right away, but someone at the Santa Cruz Sentinel did. Pfc. Roy Mason, who ended his life on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, was part of the troubled army unit in The (Colorado) Gazette's groundbreaking story.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel ran the AP story, but localized it, as papers sometimes do:
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The AWOL soldier who shot himself on Santa Cruz's West Cliff Drive in May was part of an Army unit that has had 10 infantrymen accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter after returning to civilian life.
Based on interviews with soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, the Gazette of Colorado Springs reported Sunday that a breakdown in discipline during the 3,500-soldier unit's Iraq deployment led to the murder of Iraqi civilians, as well as crimes when the men returned home.
Pfc. Roy Brooks Mason Jr., 28, of Fairfield, was assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson -- where soldiers who are maladapted to civilian life are sent for treatment -- when he was reported missing May 19. He had rented a car and drove to Santa Cruz, where he vacationed as a child, and before shooting himself, called police to come "clean up the area" so children wouldn't see the scene.
Veterans who die of PTSD are often not properly acknowledged as casualties of war. Stories like the above too often fly under the radar of our national consciousness. While America's foreign wars do get news play, the terrible toll inflicted upon those who return from fighting them is not given the publicity it needs, to be pondered as part of a national cognitive process.
I'd like to conclude with something I often say in the comments of IGTNT diaries:
"Here's to Peace - and all those who work and pray for Peace."
Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK, Veterans Press 1