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.
As instructed by Bruce, Nolan's seven roommates tried to make sure Pvt. Stites pulled himself together. But then Nolan started talking about killing himself. The roommates decided Nolan needed help they could not provide. Without his knowledge, according to two of the roommates, they wrote a letter and slipped it under Bruce's door. They stated they were worried Nolan might try jumping out a window of their room, which was on the third floor of a three-story barrack. One of the roommates says that Bruce never talked to them about the note; in fact, it seemed to have no effect whatsoever.
During the next couple of days Nolan performed well on the rifle range and on a physical-training test. Still, on Aug. 13, a little more than two weeks into BCT, he confided to the base chaplain that he was considering suicide. The chaplain immediately e-mailed base Capt. Gary Kuczynski, who ordered that Nolan be put on "Unit Watch." In accordance with that command, Bruce's DI-colleague, Sgt. Mark Baldwin, took Nolan's belt and bootlaces in order to prevent suicide by hanging. Nolan was not permitted to participate in training or to handle a weapon. Nolan's mattress was moved into the War Room, a large meeting area. He was to sleep there, watched throughout the night by pairs of recruits ordered to take one-hour shifts. During the day, Nolan accompanied the platoon on the training ground, shuffling alongside them, tugging up his sagging pants, while his unlaced boots rubbed his heels. At night he lay awake in the War Room, feeling the angry stares from pair after pair of recruits who'd been forced to give up a precious hour of sleep.
Nolan's roommates remained supportive. They had come to know Nolan and had witnessed his dramatic decay firsthand. They knew Nolan was sincere when he apologized to them for the inconvenience he was causing. Other recruits were not as understanding. As far as some of them were concerned, they were losing sleep to babysit some flake who stood on the sidelines all day while they busted their humps. "People gave him looks and were getting sick of it," Taylor says.
After four days on Unit Watch, Nolan's superiors sent him to the base's Community Mental Health Services. There, Nolan met with Dirk Robinson, an Army corporal - one grade above private. According to Robinson's notes, he determined that Nolan was "scared to fail," "just didn't have the will to make it through basic," and that he was having "suicidal thoughts." Robinson concluded that Nolan suffered from an "adjustment disorder and anxiety." He scheduled an appointment for Nolan to see a senior counselor, then sent him back to Unit Watch.
The next day, Aug. 18, Nolan was interviewed by Dr. Thomas Patterson, a civilian Ph.D. and paid Army consultant. Based on that single session, Patterson concluded that, "While he is not suicidal, he has a sense of doom and feels he will not live much longer. This is not suicidal or delusional but appears to be connected to his depression and lack of goals after his training here." In the high school honor-roll student, Patterson saw, "a slowness and a sense of bewilderment, and a [specialized test] might show that this was a student who needed special education and did not get it. He is not suitable for service and should not be given weapons due to his level of anxiety." Patterson recommended that Stites be granted an "entry-level separation" from the Army. Then, he too sent Nolan back to Unit Watch.
Within days, Sgt. Bruce, who did not repsond to an interview request, stood front and center of all the recruits in the BCT class. His face was red. His neck veins bulged. "Pvt. Stites," Bruce shouted, according to three people who were present at the assembly. "The men are losing sleep. I'm not going to have a tired soldier get hurt while training because he's been up watching you. If you're going to kill yourself, get it over with. We'll even open the window for you."
The nightly Unit Watch guard on Nolan was discontinued; his mattress was moved back to his room - back to his bed on the third floor, right next to the window.
On Aug. 23 - Five days after Dr. Patterson recommended that Nolan be released from the Army - Capt. Kuczynski informed Nolan he had been "granted" a separation from the Army and would be going home. Yet bureaucracy and miscommunication kept Nolan on base. Two days later, Nolan phoned his father for the second time. He said he was on Unit Watch and referred to himself as a "psycho." It was the first time Richard had spoken with his son in 22 days. It was the first time Richard heard the term "Unit Watch." "What do you mean you're on Unit Watch," he asked. "Dad, Dad, you don't understand," Nolan said breathlessly. "I'm not going to make it out of here alive." Nolan's hunting pal, Mike Macy, was with Richard when he got the call. He assured Richard that the Army wouldn't let anything happen to Nolan. "They have people who are trained to look after him," Macy said.