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.

June 2004

Richard Stites lays pictures of his dead son on the family's dining room table. Here's a shot of Nolan Edward Stites when he was 7: a fair-skinned cowlick of a kid aiming a .22-caliber rifle in the woods. An avid outdoorsman, Richard couldn't wait to teach his boy to shoot and survive in the wild. And here's a shot of teenage Nolan with his rifle kneeling astride an antelope he bagged. And here with a bull elk. And here with a decapitated rattlesnake that slithered the young hunter's way. Here's 18-year-old Nolan in cap and gown, graduating from high school with honors in June 2000. Five weeks later he left the family home in Colorado Springs to begin Army basic training. Nolan's family and friends figured if any kid had the potential to personify the recruiting slogan "An Army of One," it was Nolan.

Now here's a picture Army investigators took of Pvt. Nolan Stites' corpse, on Aug. 29, 2000, only a month and half into his basic training. Face-up at the bottom of a concrete stairwell, Nolan is wearing gray shorts and a gray T-shirt that's torn open, exposing his pale, bony chest. Blood trickles from his ears into a red stain beneath his head. His arms are outstretched; his legs are bent at the knees. It's the posture of a man crucified. What makes the image all the more disturbing is that the expression on Nolan's face appears to be relief.

Richard has looked at these photos of his son - his only son - many times in the four years since Nolan's body was found in that stairwell outside his barrack. But it never gets any easier. And on this late winter afternoon Richard takes a few moments to rub his eyes and steady his emotions. Richard is a short, wiry 60-year-old, with a beard, glasses, and weathered skin. He's a Civil War buff who participates in battle re-enactments and an Army veteran still proud of his "Solider of the Month" plaque. If Nolan had gone off to Iraq, which is where most of his company has since been deployed, and had he died in combat, Richard could live with that. He cannot, however, abide what did happen. Gently pushing aside the photos, he says, "My son was not expecting the enemy to be wearing the same uniform as him."

Nolan wasn't your typical teenager. During his senior year at Palmer High School, when a pal dropped $500 on the prom, Nolan told him he was nuts. "Do you know what kind of gun you could buy with that money?" Craig Zobec remembers Nolan saying. "And he didn't understand how guys would spend money on turning their cars into street racers when he was worried about paying for college... Nolan was older than his years." He had modest goals. He wanted to attend college, get a decent job, find a woman - preferably one who liked to hunt - and have a family, take them camping just like his dad did with him. Family, especially his father, mattered to Nolan. He watched his dad, who runs a photo-restoration business out of the basement, and his mother, Marilyn, a surgical nurse, struggle to make ends meet. He couldn't stand the idea of being a burden to them. He did not want to end up in his mid-20s knocking around the Springs, living at home like two of his three older sisters had done. Which is why at the start of his senior year he joined the United States Army Reserves. His father had always spoken highly of the virtues of a soldier. Honor, duty, country. Nolan liked the sound of that. Plus, he figured the Army's college tuition-assistance program would help him sock away cash for school.

Through the Army's Delayed Entry Program for high school seniors, Nolan enlisted early in his senior year and within weeks was drilling on weekends with a local reserve unit, the 52nd Engineers, at nearby Fort Carson. A portion of Fort Carson's thousands of acres is public game land; throughout his teen years, Nolan spent most of his free time there. He befriended older hunters, many of them retired military men, and they too had encouraged him to be a soldier. Michael Macy, a former Army helicopter test-pilot, believed that Nolan's "integrity and eagerness to please," along with his "excellent outdoor skills and marksmanship," would make him an ideal soldier. Indeed, Nolan thrived at the 52nd and soon was promoted to private second class.

On July 5, 2000, Nolan said goodbye to his folks and boarded a Greyhound bound for basic combat training (BCT) at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. As Nolan's dad hugged his son that day, Richard felt his blood chill. "I know it may sound hard to believe now," he says, "but I got the feeling I would never see him again."