Private Stites Should Have Been Saved
Why are so many army soldiers committing suicide? Take a look at its basic training and the tragic death of Private Nolan Stites.
Fort Leonard Wood is an installation of squat brick buildings in the middle of Missouri nowhere, surrounded by miles of dense forest. The troops call it "Fort Lost In The Woods." As in, try to hop the fence and go AWOL and you'll only get lost in the woods. Leonard Wood is one of five U.S. Army training facilities that together annually process about 180,000 recruits. For Army administrators, scheduling BCT - making sure boot camps are full yet not overflowing - can be a logistical nightmare, particularly in the summer when schools recess and throngs of Delayed Entry kids spill in.
At Leonard Wood, Nolan didn't begin BCT right away. He joined about a hundred other new recruits in a "Reception Battalion," waiting for the class to fill. Meanwhile, he got his shots and gear, made the trip to the military barber, and filled out paperwork, including life insurance forms. When given the option of having a percentage of his pay deducted for an enhanced $200,000 policy that even covered suicide, he chose the Army's standard $10,000 policy, which required the minimum deduction. To do otherwise struck Nolan as a foolish investment. After all, this was pre-9/11. Combat seemed unlikely, and suicide, as Nolan had always made clear to friends like Zobec, was "stupid" and "selfish."
Although Nolan's values had distanced him from the high school in-crowd, his classmates had recognized his earnest benevolence and liked him. And so it went in Reception. Nolan never mentioned that he already outranked most of his fellow recruits. He simply went about fitting in. "He was just like everybody else," says Patrick Taylor, a recruit who became friendly with Nolan in Reception. "He was nervous. But not scared. He was talkative. He showed us pictures of his hunting experiences."
During Nolan's first week in Reception, a drill sergeant laid into him. For wearing white socks with his camouflage battle dress, the sergeant "smoked" Nolan, which is to say made him drop and crank out push-ups. But when Nolan wrote home that week, he seemed more concerned with the news that BCT, scheduled to get under way on July 17, would not start until July 21. "I was planning on the Reception Battalion on taking just one week, not two! I guess that is the Army for you." Explaining the smoke session, he wrote, "I just had to do push-ups and I still left my tube socks on. It's hard not to laugh at the drill sergeants for what they call you." Richard was encouraged by the letter. His boy was rolling with the punches.
Within days, though, Nolan's mood took a turn for the worse. That July, the temperature in Missouri hit 100 degrees. And on the afternoon of July 15, while marching with his battalion, Nolan got sunburned. "But it wasn't just sunburn," says Taylor. "I've never seen anything like it. His forehead literally swelled up. It made him deformed." According to three recruits who trained with Nolan, his personality morphed then, too. Now, as a drill instructor barked that Nolan's push-ups were unacceptable, Pvt. Stites wept. Taylor says, "It was like from the sunburn on Nolan couldn't handle it."
Many of the people familiar with what happened to Nolan - his fellow recruits and his surgical-nurse mother - suspect that his "sunburn" was, in fact, heat stroke. In simplest terms, heat stroke occurs when the body's core temperature rises to dangerous levels. Left untreated, it can permanently damage internal organs, including the central nervous system. Confusion and delirium are common in severe cases. "I think he became weak in the mind and therefore he became weak in the body," Taylor says. "He changed after that. He lost a lot of self-confidence. He assumed that something was wrong with him. He assumed that something was going to happen to him."
On July 21, 2000, the day Nolan's BCT began, a recruit at Fort Leonard Wood committed suicide. The private was with a BCT class one month ahead of Nolan's. At least, that's all that Nolan's training company heard through the grapevine. There were no formal announcements. Boot camp for Nolan's class proceeded as usual, and Nolan continued to unravel.
On Aug. 1, a little more than a week into Nolan's training, he snuck a phone call to his father. "I'm messing up bad," he said. He told Richard he was having trouble following orders and doing poorly on written tests. He said he was one of the worst two recruits in the platoon. He mentioned that he did not do well on an initial physical-fitness test. Nolan's three drill instructors, which included a Sgt. First Class Russell Bruce, credited Nolan with only three push-ups. Nolan said he was worried about getting an Article 15, meaning a discharge from the Army for unsatisfactory performance. "Dad," Nolan said, "I've never been so depressed in all my life." Richard assumed Nolan had hit a rough patch and would be OK.
Written tests had always unnerved Nolan. The night before a high school exam, he'd stay up until morning studying and fretting, yet he always did fine. And the truth was that, across the board, Nolan was doing well at BCT - very well, according to an Army investigation into his death. The Army's chief of behavior medicine, Col. J. Mark Kirk, a psychiatrist, wrote, "Nolan was one of the good performers within the platoon." And one of Nolan's boot-camp roommates who is now stationed in Iraq, says, "He was way ahead of me - physically, [he was] in much better shape."
Drill Sergeant Bruce was like a character sent from central casting: well over 6 feet tall, built like an NFL linebacker, with a neck thicker than a soldier's thigh. He spouted biblical fire and brimstone, but mostly just fire. When Bruce got angry, his face flushed with rage and his neck veins bulged. In the words of one of Nolan's fellow recruits, "He scared the shit out of everybody." Although most every new soldier knows that DI threats are a standard boot-camp mind game, such hackneyed tactics coming from the formidable Bruce spooked even the most cocksure soldier. Bruce's effect on Nolan was devastating. The young soldier started wetting himself. He wet himself in bed and even while training, at least five times in all. He stopped showering. He stopped sleeping. Instead, he would sit up all night, sometimes mumbling to himself incoherently or staring out the window, his mind lost in the woods. "It was sad," says Taylor, who was also one of Nolan's seven roommates in the BCT barrack. "He completely lost it."