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.
Following the service, many of those in attendance went to the Stites home, just off a street named Purgatory Drive. Richard talked with one of Nolan's friends, John Peters, a retired Army solider who'd been a paratrooper for six years. Richard mentioned that Nolan had been on Unit Watch. The color drained from Peters' face. He put down his coffee and thought, Oh my god. Peters had been through BCT at Leonard Wood in 1993, and he told Richard about a recruit from his class who'd been placed on Unit Watch. The recruit, Peters said, just wasn't learning as fast as everybody else and made it publicly known he wanted to get out. Before you knew it, the kid was sleeping out in the hallway on a mattress and being harassed. It got so bad that one morning the recruit actually hid underneath his barrack bed. The DIs dragged him outside and had him smoke the rest of the recruits. Peters' class did push-ups for hours on end, while the recruit stood before them, sobbing. Peters' BCT class didn't see a troubled kid, they saw a pain in their ass and despised him. Which, Peters told Richard, was exactly what the instructors wanted: The DIs were sending the message that if you wanted to try to get out of the Army, this is what would happen. "Richard," Peters said, "I'm here to tell you that if Nolan was on Unit Watch, everybody's blowing smoke up your ass if they're telling you they took care of him."
Richard thought back to his phone conversations with Nolan. Long after everyone had gone home, he sat down and wrote out what he remembered Nolan saying each time he called, and what Bruce had said during their phone call. (From then on, Richard would take copious notes of every conversation he had with anyone who had information about Nolan's death.) Richard wondered if Nolan had been so sick, if he had required 24-hour surveillance, if it was so well-known that he was suicidal, as Haskins had said, then why wasn't Nolan put in a hospital? What was he doing in a bed next to the window on the third floor? The more Richard thought, the more he became convinced that Peters was right.
While an Army psychiatrist conducted a "psychological autopsy" of Nolan's case, and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) launched its probe - both of which are standard protocol following a suicide - Richard embarked on an investigation of his own. From talks with Nolan's fellow recruits, he learned of the note his son's roommates had slipped under Bruce's door; he heard about Nolan sitting in the shower begging to have his shoelaces - and dignity - returned; he heard about Bruce - the man who had assured Richard on the phone that Nolan was in good hands - not only daring his son to jump out the window, but actually offering to help.
Weeks after the memorial, one of Richard's relatives who lives near Leonard Wood came across a newspaper story about the recruit who committed suicide on the base the same day Nolan began BCT. The soldier's name was Gary Moore. Richard hired a private investigator who discovered that Moore's family lived in Aurora, just 70 miles away from Colorado Springs. On April 27, 2001, Richard wrote them a letter, telling them about what happened to Nolan. Two days later, Richard was sitting in the Moore's kitchen, listening to Gary's mother, Viola, tearfully say how her son was Unit-Watched to death.
Gary didn't grow up in a stable family like Nolan did. Viola was only 20 years old when she had Gary, the fourth of her five children. And Gary was only a baby when Viola became convinced that Gary's father was mistreating Gary's older brother; she took the children and moved in with extended family. While Viola was off eking out a living, according to what Gary would tell Army mental-health workers, a relative sexually abused him.
Outwardly, adolescent Gary seemed fine. He was an average student, well-liked, and handsome. But he lacked confidence and considered himself ugly: In the mirror, he always saw too much of his father's face. Gary's life and disposition improved while he was in junior high. By then his mom was taking classes at a local college, she and the kids had a place of their own thanks to Denver low-income housing, and Viola now had a caring man in her life, Artura Mitchell. The couple moved in together, and Art, who is a program specialist with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, became a father figure to Gary and his siblings. With Art's encouragement, Gary began lifting weights and made varsity squads at Abraham Lincoln High School - he was even selected captain of the track team. When Gary wasn't lifting weights or on the field, he was working part-time at a local burger joint or was with his girlfriend. He began feeling like he could do anything, even become a soldier. So, only a few years after Gary's brother left for the Marines, Gary graduated Lincoln and enlisted in the Army.
On June 15, 2000, Moore fell in with his Reception Battalion. On June 22, he began hard-core BCT. Eight days later, on June 30, he went to the base medic. Under "reason for visit," he wrote, "Depression that lasted three years." Gary told a physician's assistant that prior to enlisting he tried to commit suicide. Whether Gary was telling the truth is hard to say. Gary said he attempted to kill himself by jumping from a bridge. (At the time the incident occurred, Gary told Art and Viola that he fell from an overpass while jogging.) Pvt. Moore also said that he attempted to overdose. (On the heels of a break-up with his high-school girlfriend, Gary took a few Tylenol. He promptly told a school official, and he was treated and released from the hospital in the same day.) Regardless, the P.A. wrote on a form that Gary was not fit for duty. Recommended treatment: Unit Watch.
The DIs immediately began harassing him. One drill instructor told Gary that if he bailed from BCT the Army would make it hard for him to ever get a job, even make it hard for his mom to keep her job. Gary was ordered to water plants because, he told his sister during a phone call, a DI had told him "that's what pussies do." Gary started asking a few recruits what they would do if he weren't around. On July 21, fifteen days after Gary had seen the physician's assistant, he finally got an appointment at Mental Health Services. He met with Patterson, the same civilian Ph.D. who would later evaluate Nolan. In the session, Gary said he was fine, not thinking about suicide. Patterson concluded that Gary was "well-motivated" and recommended that he be removed from Unit Watch and returned to training.
Later that afternoon, Gary joined his BCT class on the rifle range. Although Gary hadn't been allowed near a gun for three weeks and barely knew how to handle a rifle, he was handed an M-16 and instructed to take aim. He did terribly, as the DI made clear to him and everyone else within earshot. Afterward, Gary walked to the latrine with the loaded rifle, kneeled down behind the small shedlike structure, and shot himself in the head.
"If they had only let him talk to me," Viola recalls telling Richard that day in her kitchen. Now a shoe department manager for a local Wal-Mart, Viola is a small woman with a soft voice. Richard had to lean in to hear her. "If they had only let Gary talk to his mother, I know he would have been OK. You think they would have called us and told us what was going on."
Including the Unit Watch incident that Nolan's friend, John Peters, had witnessed, Richard now knew of three cases of Unit Watch abuse on the same base. And at least two of those cases resulted in suicide. Richard wanted to talk to a senior officer at Fort Leonard Wood. He wanted to know more about Unit Watch. How widespread was it? How, if at all, was it supposed to be employed? That same spring he meet with the Moores, Richard spoke on the phone with one of Leonard Wood's top officers, Col. Martin Rollinson. "Don't you understand?" Richard recalls Rollinson saying, "If we didn't have Unit Watch, we would have a mass exodus of troops using mental problems to get out."
Richard Stites and Viola Moore filed requests to receive all of the documents produced by the investigations into their sons' suicides. As the paperwork trickled in, the information, at least the parts that weren't blacked out, only confirmed what the parents already knew. The Army's chief of behavior medicine, Col. J. Mark Kirk, conducted the psychological autopsies of both men. Kirk did not attempt to explain the catalyst for Nolan's breakdown and only briefly addressed his sunburn, accurately reporting that Nolan did not seek medical attention for it. Richard, along with many of Nolan's family and friends who are familiar with his death, suspect other factors also may have triggered Nolan's psychosis. Because Nolan lived a relatively sheltered life, because he hated failing, because he assumed that authority figures were truthful, especially military men, those who knew Nolan think he believed the DIs when they threatened to throw him out of the Army, and that Nolan cracked under the pressure. Away from Fort Carson, Nolan's home away from home, the idea of returning from training anything less than a "Soldier of the Month" was a fate worse than death.
Regardless of the cause, Kirk determined "there appears to be most likely an error in the diagnosis of PV2 Stites. PV2 Stites most likely suffered from a major depressive disorder in which psychotic features apparently developed. Unfortunately, this was not diagnosed during his visit to the community mental health service. In most instances, this diagnosis necessitates hospitalization. Nor was his level of suicidality appreciated fully during his visit on 28 August 2000." There was no mention of the note that Nolan's roommates say they slipped under Sgt. Bruce's door. However, Kirk did specifically fault Sgt. Baldwin for not doing anything with the note Nolan himself had written to him. The chances that Nolan would have been given emergency mental health treatment, Kirk wrote, "could have been enhanced had community mental health service been provided the note that PV2 Stites had written to SFC Baldwin on 27 August 2000."
Kirk also faulted his colleagues in Mental Health Services. "There was inadequate followup on a person requiring full unit watch by community mental health service. PV2 Stites was not seen for over a week, yet his condition continued to require him to be on full unit watch.... There should have been better communications to fully apprise the family of the soldier's status as well as to be able to obtain collateral information from the family." Had a mental health professional called the Stites family and asked background questions, the caregiver would have learned there is a history of depression in the Stites family. Marilyn takes antidepressants, and one of Nolan's sisters attempted suicide.