Rick was a fellow Platoon Leader, Crusher 16 to my 36. He killed himself on March 25, 2016. We didn't work together very often, and I was sad, but not destroyed, when I heard of his death from J.D., formerly known as Crusher 26. J.D asked me to call my old boys and let them know. He told me he'd be in touch about the funeral.
The first guy I called was Kevin. Kevin had been my most senior Squad Leader. He was also the best Non-Commissioned Officer, and the best bomb hunter in our platoon. Kevin and I fought almost every day. We shouted and cursed at each other, had to be physically separated at times, but our goals were in perfect alignment: find bombs, find bombmakers, and keep the guys alive. We prioritized them differently though. Probably rooted in the fact that he'd lost four men over four deployments, one soldier to suicide, and another friend to suicide, Kevin placed the men first. I put finding bombmakers first because if we could find and preferably kill them, that would solve the bombs, thus protect the men. The difference in our thoughts on how to accomplish the goals we shared were as numerous and fine as the sand in which we patrolled and it put us constantly at odds.
Nonetheless, Kevin was one of the smartest, bravest, most giving men I've ever known and he routinely saved our lives; directly by finding an IED, indirectly through the knowledge he forced upon us. I actually found the most powerful IED of the entire deployment thanks to a lesson Kevin taught me. The continuous conflict I had with Kevin resulted in him haunting my subconscious from the last time I saw him in January 2013, until the last time I spoke with him on April 1, 2016. I rehashed our old conversations while sitting on the edge of my bed and tying my boots, while conducting inspections of the prisons at Fort Leavenworth, in the gym, everywhere. Kevin was always with me, like a shitty, dickhead version of Jiminy Cricket.
When I called Kevin to let him know what Ryan had done. He was in the gym, his second home. Ryan marked the third suicide in Kevin's life in about 18 months. He broke down crying then told me he'd hit me up later. I continued notifying the men of our platoon. Kevin and I did not talk again until April 1st when I was in NYC for a job interview.
I was in a nice room in a Manhattan hotel, preparing to interview with the VP of a company the next morning. The phone rang at about 0100. When I saw the name, I had to answer. Kevin was wasted, but I'd dealt with Kevin drunk plenty of times. We rehashed all our old arguments. Neither one of us caved. He caught me up on his new baby girl and his new wife and step-daughters. We talked a lot about science fiction. Kevin had just reread Ender's Game and we talked a lot about Orson Scott Card and who he is as a person. I knew Kevin was lulling me. I'd been eyeing the room phone and thinking I could call Fort Bliss Emergency Services and get someone to his house. But Kevin was talking about the future and how he wanted to write his own Scifi books. I think Kevin would have written some smashing books. Then I heard a loud pop and I was talking to empty air. Kevin killed himself while I was on the phone with him. That motherfucker.
I was Crusher 36. My platoon wrecked all comers in Southern Ghazni, as if the spirit of every dead combatant in American History was watching out for us. The local EOD Team called me "The Cat" because I kept just missing death. My own HQ element started calling me "Death Wish" behind my back. I didn't fucking lose in combat. But man alive, did I lose after combat. I lost the Army, I lost my wife, and then I fucking lost Kevin, the man so impactful he managed to haunt me while he was still alive. I was a vagabond for almost four years. I lived in three states. I held five jobs. I dated a lot of wonderful women with serious problems. Kevin ate at me the whole time. Afghanistan ate at me too and any veteran of that war can probably relate to that. But Kevin’s memory eats at me still.
Then on December 16, 2019 Jon called me and said, "You need to call Dave NOW." Jon is a Police Officer now. He sends me Snapchats of pistols and drugs he captures from criminals he runs down in foot pursuits. I'm extraordinarily proud of him. He carried an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, 600 rounds, and, a THOR IED Jammer, a metal and plastic backpack that weighed 30 lbs. Jon patrolled with more weight than anyone and when I tried to take the THOR from him to give him a break he'd say "No fucking way, Sir." I once knelt and had him use my shoulder as a rest to place accurate fire on guys. I saw him kill a man on a motorcycle at about 500 meters while shouldering his SAW.
Jon is a certified bad-motherfucker.
But, he's also the most emotionally intelligent member of our Platoon. He's been the common thread these last seven years, randomly calling one of us up every month or so to talk until he's satisfied.
I'm still not sure why I had to be the guy, why I got the privilege of being the guy, to call Dave. I really didn't want to. I didn't want another guy dying on the phone with me. I was terrified and worried and sad and thinking , “If Dave goes, who’s going to be next? Jacob? Mike? Me?”
This suicide shit is contagious. One goes, and we just walk around with our jaw clenched, holding back tears and rage, hoping everyone else is strong enough to hold up. And that's when we're together and can lean on each other. Spread out across the country like we are now, we're so much weaker. But, that's the power of a guy like Jon reaching out and forcing us to stay in contact.
Jon told me that Dave bought a pistol to kill himself, so I was already leaning towards action. When I got him on the phone, Dave was so fucked up he didn't even sound like himself on the phone. In my gut I knew he was already dead. I kept him talking while I texted Jon that another member of our Platoon, Eric, had been to Dave's house recently, would have the address, and Police or Sheriffs needed to get out there immediately. I kept Dave talking, made him tell me about Korea, his children, and what was going on with his soon to be ex-wife; whatever I could come up with to keep him with me while Jon and Eric worked the problem.
They worked it well. The Police got to Dave's house about the same time that the call with Dave just dropped. I called him again and again because I was fearful of another Kevin situation. Eric let me know that the cops could hear someone soothing a dog inside the house, but that they didn't have enough to justify going in.
We spent the next 16 hours or so with Dave in limbo. It was the worst night's sleep of my life.
Eventually Dave called and we talked as he drove his guns to Jacob's house. He said that he had been ready, was going to do it, but the lights from the Police broke the spell. I don't know if that's because he didn't want to accidentally get in a fight with the Police, or he didn't want to blow his face off and have the cops save him so he could live his life as a faceless fuckup. But Dave put the pistol away and let the alcohol ease him to sleep. We won.
The chemistry, the love, that keeps us connected hasn't weakened over seven years. It's as strong as ever. With the lessons Kevin gave me with his last night; that love kept Dave on the Team. Two Texans, an Army brat, a kid from Indiana, and a dead guy from Brooklyn.
It took all of us, but we won.