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.
On Aug. 26, two privates found Nolan sitting on the barrack's shower floor with a bootlace wrapped around his finger. When Bruce's fellow DI, Sgt. Baldwin, arrived on the scene, Nolan asked for permission to put it in his boot. Baldwin took the lace and sent him back to his room, saying a doctor would determine when and if he would get his shoelaces back. On Aug. 27 - now nine days after Nolan had been recommended for separation - he called his father again. Richard asked him if he had been mistreated. "The drill sergeants have been good to me," Nolan said. "The other recruits are trying to help, but everyone's getting tired of me because I'm a failure." Richard replied that he was calling the Red Cross. The time on Nolan's calling card expired and the phone went dead.
Hours later, Nolan slipped a note under the door of Sgt. Baldwin. He wrote: "...I have [sic] closer to death then [sic] some people realize. You probably won't help me now, but I need emergency help to live. My parents want me to live and so do I...."
That evening the Red Cross representatives Richard had contacted called the base and requested that Nolan call the relief agency. Sgt. Bruce escorted Nolan to an outside pay phone. Nolan told the Red Cross representative, "I'm going to die soon, but I'm fine." Immediately following the call, Bruce, as directed by the Red Cross, called Richard. It was the first time since Nolan's ordeal began that any official from Leonard Wood spoke with anyone from Nolan's family.
Bruce said the Army would be sending Nolan home, by himself on a plane. Now beginning to sense the severity of his son's condition, Richard quietly decided he would have relatives who lived near Leonard Wood pick up Nolan. And although the dedicated Unit Watch guard had been discontinued - at night the only sentries now on duty were the standard pair of barrack "fireguards" - Bruce told Richard there would be people with his son "at all times." The DI mentioned that Nolan had written Baldwin a note, but did not relay the specific contents. Overwhelmed and 950 miles away, Richard insisted Nolan be taken to a hospital for examination. Baldwin drove Nolan to the hospital. Physically, Nolan was fine, the doctor said, and he recommended that the private see someone at the mental health center.
At 2 p.m. the next afternoon, Aug. 28 - ten days after Nolan had been recommended for separation - he once again sat down across from Cpl. Robinson at Mental Health Services. "The patient feels he is not going to live much longer because he had been sliding through life," Robinson wrote in his notes. "The patient stated he is not suicidal or homicidal. He stated that he has failed himself and his family." Robinson sent Nolan back to the barrack, "to be continued on full Unit Watch."
On the evening of Aug. 29 - now Eleven days after Dr. Patterson recommended Nolan be sent home, and two days before his 19th birthday - he curled up in his bunk next to the window on the third floor with a pen and paper. He began composing what would be his last note to his family. The room lights shined brightly, but Nolan was in the dark: The fastidious student, who hated the idea of ever burdening his parents, now had difficulty with basic spelling and grammar, and he made no attempt to hide his depression.
"It is so hard to write you for what I have done. I have taken all the little things in life for granted. Including your love. I have done so much wrong here it is unreversable. The truth is I gave up along time ago and have tryed to hind my problems to the point nobody will understand now. Mom I know now why I have so much negative attitude. I have tryed to hide my problems to the point it is Hopeless. One lie after another as built up to death. It is a matter of time on when I will be gone. Dad I know you think it is the government that has put me in this state. The Army will help you if you no how to help yourself. Thats the problem I don't know how to help myself. I wish I could turn back time but I can't. I just got your birthday card. I would love to come home but know that I won't even make my birthday. I want you to know that you didn't fail, thats what I have done. I have been possed by guilt. I can't even have guts to tell them the truth for my incompedents. Everybody believes in me and makes what I bearly made the truth. I know now where am going its the only place left. I don't know how to even write or spell. I really don't want to hurt anyone but I have to you guys. I have broken your trust and the armys trust. Sorry but it is to late to change now. God could never forgive me for disgrace my country and my family. It will be hard for you to understand"
He folded the letter, put it in an envelope, got into bed, and waited. During the 3 a.m. fireguard shift-change, Nolan slipped out of his bottom bunk. He remade the bed for the first time in weeks. He laid his dog tags neatly on the pillow. Then he removed the screen from the window and crawled out onto the ledge. Standing over the outside stairwell below, Nolan was four stories high. At 3:05 a.m., the new fireguards on duty noticed Nolan wasn't in his bunk. No, his roommates said, they hadn't heard or seen anything. The guards ran to the first floor and woke Bruce, who ordered the platoon awake to search. A private looked out Nolan's window, down into the stairwell, and began to scream. What caught the private's eye was Nolan's white tube socks.
On Sept. 12, 2000, Nolan's family and friends, along with reservists from the 52nd, gathered at Fort Carson for a memorial service. Richard spread Nolan's ashes under a tree near one of his son's favorite spots. The only information Richard then had about Nolan's death came from Leonard Wood's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Casey Haskins. "Nolan had made up his mind to commit suicide," Richard remembers Haskins saying. The officer left Richard with the impression that there was nothing anyone could have done to stop him.