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.
More from our Private Stites Should Have Been Saved Issue
- “Made in Mexico City” Brings South-of-the-Border Flare to Zeppelin Station
- Hike We Like: Hermit Park’s Kruger Rock Trail
- Discover the New Venue Making Denver’s Arts Scene More Inclusive
- These Colorado Bike Shops Put the Focus on Family Cycling
- The Mile High City’s Ultimate Food Festival Just Got Even Better
- Denver’s Newest Nail Salon Goes Beyond the Basic Mani-Pedi
- 7 Ways to Celebrate Negroni Week in Denver
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
In his psychological autopsy of Gary Moore, Kirk described the “Catch 22” that Gary was in when he finally met with Patterson after three weeks on Unit Watch. “If he were honest with others about his suicidal thoughts and intentions, he would not be able to blend in. He faced the possibility of remaining on Unit Watch and facing to [sic] jokes of other privates. Even if he were separated from the Army, he would have to live with the knowledge that he failed out of Army basic training while his brother had made it through Marine Corps boot camp. He was concerned he would not be able to blend in as a civilian either because he was worried being separated from training would make it more difficult for him to find a job. On the other hand, if he did not report feeling suicidal, he would be stuck in the Army, a fate that he felt he could not tolerate. Pvt. Moore wanted to just go home…. He had asked for help twice, so far it had done nothing but put him in an even more uncomfortable situation.”
Suicide is a growing problem for the Army. In 2000, the year that Nolan and Gary died, the Army had a total of 63 suicides, including the high-profile tragedy at Fort Bragg, N.C., where two Green Berets just back from a mission in Afghanistan murdered their wives and then themselves. In 2001, there were 50 Army suicides. The following year, there were 68. In 2003, when the War on Terror expanded from Afghanistan to Iraq, there were 76.
In theory, Unit Watch might seem to be a reasonable first response to soldiers in crisis. Its basic procedures – removing the solider from training, separating the soldier from weapons, removing the soldier’s shoelaces and belt, having the soldier sleep in a common area and under the constant watch of unit members – all seem like common sense safeguards for suicidal soldiers. Lt. Col. Jerry Swanner, the officer in charge of the Army’s Suicide Prevention Program, describes the policy as a tool only to be used in specific circumstances, and only when applied in concert with assistance from mental-health professionals. “It is to only be used when a solider is determined to be at-risk and for whatever reason the solider is not able to be hospitalized. Maybe the local hospital doesn’t have a mental health ward and it might involve transporting a solider to a hospital several hundred miles away. It is only to be used in rare circumstances.” Unit Watch is intended to be used judiciously and briefly because, as the psychiatry consultant to Army Surgeon General Col. David Orman has written, “Unit Watch does not meet any clinical ‘Standard of Care.’ ”
In reality, though, what well-intentioned policy-makers like Swanner say about Unit Watch is one thing; the truth is that Unit Watch is used routinely and too often, ignorantly. Swanner says he is unable to find any official document citing when Unit Watch began, but the policy has been employed at least since the mid-1980s, throughout the Army, from the five BCT installations to its units deployed in battlefields around the world, like Iraq. In the wake of Nolan and Gary’s suicides, the Pentagon sent five of the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrists to Fort Leonard Wood to investigate. The report, says the Pentagon source who provided it to 5280, is the only study to examine Unit Watch. According to its findings, between July and October 2000 at Leonard Wood, 317 recruits were evaluated at the base’s Mental Health Services for “depression and/or suicidal tendencies.” Of those, 211 were identified as suicidal, and 146 of them – 69 percent – including Gary and Nolan, were put on Unit Watch. Once again, this was a study of one base during a single four-month period.
What’s more, the team concluded there is little consistency in the application of Unit Watch. “Many patients who expressed only fleeting ideation [of suicide], with no plan, no intent and made a commitment to safety were put on it, and others with more severe behaviors were not put on it.” The psychiatry team determined that, with the exception of “the two deaths, the vast majority of suicidal acts appeared to be non-life threatening, and many charts supported the clinical impression that trainees often were being overtly manipulative, in an effort to quickly get out of the military.” In other words, soldiers who are gravely mentally ill are treated no differently than soldiers perceived to be faking instability in order to get out of the service.
Why? Numerous officials contacted for this article, including Col. Gerald Evans, a recent chief of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fort Campbell, Ky., who gave a presentation on Unit Watch in 1999 at a U.S. Army Behavioral Science convention, refused to say. However, the statement that sticks in Richard’s mind, from Leonard Wood’s Col. Rollinson, may be all the explanation a layperson needs: “If we didn’t have Unit Watch, we would have a mass exodus of troops using mental problems to get out.”
The humiliation, isolation, and ridicule that Gary and Nolan endured were not unforeseen byproducts of Unit Watch; rather they were specifically intended, ostensibly to get them to stop “faking.” The true intent of Unit Watch, as Nolan’s friend Peters put it that day to Richard after Nolan’s memorial, is to send the message that if you want to try to get out of the Army, this is what would happen.
Mentally ill soldiers, and those soldiers thought to be faking an illness to get out of duty, are not the only troops who’ve been subjected to Unit Watch. Commanders have been using the policy to aribitrarily punish men and women in their command, as illustrated in a series of e-mails sent between a Lt. Col. Gordon G. Groseclose and his peers in the Army’s chaplain corps and mental health community.
“Need some help,” Chaplain Groseclose wrote in June 2001, a full year after Gary and Nolan’s death. (The e-mail exchange was obtained from the Pentagon source.) “Came across something that has caused me some concern. A soldier under investigation for a significant crime was placed on Line of Sight (LOS) sometimes called a unit suicide watch at his local unit. This was done after mental health determined that he was NOT at risk. Today the soldier has been on LOS for 3 weeks…. My concern is in researching LOS I’m being told there is no regulation on its use by unit commanders. My observations are: In effect, putting a soldier on LOS is putting him on ‘restrictions.’ In this case the soldier was living off post and now is restricted to his unit under total supervision. Great idea if he is at-risk for harm to self or others BUT what about the [commander] who is really agitated at a soldier and is looking for a way to make life miserable for a problem soldier. In this case mental health says LOS is not needed and yet for three weeks this soldier has been on LOS. Enough said – You catch my concern.”
Groseclose’s peer, Lt. Col. Gregory Black, responded, “I too have had this experience…This is a significant issue…” Black forwarded the e-mail to Col. Orman. The Army’s consultant to the surgeon general replied, “This is a ‘huge issue’ in [training installations] … We need a common set of regulatory guidance throughout [training installations] and the Army as a whole to provide both commanders and the [mental health] professional community.” If Unit Watch is being used to punish a “healthy” soldier, one can only imagine the effect it would have on a mentally distraught soldier like Gary or Nolan.
According to the Pentagon source, in the last five years, one other BCT trainee, in addition to Gary and Nolan, committed suicide while on Unit Watch. Labeling these three BCT-Unit Watch suicides a statistical anomaly, as some in the Army see them, might be ignoring the chilling – even fatal – effect Unit Watch could be having on the psyche of all Army troops.
“In the military,” Swanner says, “we have this mentality of ‘suck it up, drive on, we have a mission to accomplish.’ We’re trying to emphasize that it’s OK to get help. Just like if you would sprain your ankle on a road march and you would go see a doctor, it’s OK if you’re having feelings of depression to see a mental health professional. We’re trying to tell our soldiers that seeking help is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is a sign of maturity and individual courage.”
Basic Combat Training is where all Army training begins. It is where drill instructors teach civilians, mostly kids, what is and is not acceptable warrior behavior; it is where soldiers learn when they should ask for help and what sort of response to expect. If BCT recruits witness or hear about soldiers demonstrating the sort of courage Swanner describes, only to be subjected to Unit Watch, why would any soldier come forward, either in training or in battle, like say, in Iraq? According to a late-2003 Army survey of 756 soldiers stationed in Iraq, the No. 1 reason troops do not seek counseling is because of the “perceived stigma” that would result. Forty-six percent of the troops questioned feared their leaders would blame them for the problem; 49 percent worried the unit would have less confidence in them; 58 percent believed unit leadership would treat them differently; and 59 percent of the soldiers were worried that if they sought out psychological counseling they would be seen as weak.
When asked about the effect Unit Watch may be having on Army suicides, Swanner talks about the difficulty of standardizing and monitoring the program because of the “hundreds of units within the Army.” He talks about his and his superiors’ goal of zero suicides. Diplomacy, patriotism, and heartfelt concern are all thick in his voice. Swanner rarely speaks to the press, especially since the War on Terror began and reports of suicides in Iraq began surfacing in the news. He agreed to talk now because, as he says, “Nolan’s death should have been prevented and could have been prevented.” Swanner keeps a picture of Pvt. Nolan Stites taped to his computer monitor. “Ideally,” he says, “we could eliminate Unit Watch.”
Richard Stites is determined to make that happen – and to have those he believes are responsible for Nolan’s death held accountable. Army investigators cleared Nolan’s chain of command of any wrongdoing and recommended that no administrative discipline be taken. Richard believes a jury of civilian peers would see things differently. He would like Nolan’s case – as he sees it, a case of gross negligence and medical malpractice – heard in a courtroom. But a decades-old federal law stands in his way. The statute, commonly referred to as the Feres Doctrine, indemnifies the government from responsibility from harm or death to its agents that occurs “incident to the service.”
Richard has reached out to Sen. Wayne Allard and Congressman Joel Hefley for assistance, petitioning them to work to have the law amended. “They talk about how they support our troops,” he says. “Well, here’s a chance for them to do it.” Thus far, Richard says, the politicians have brushed aside his requests. And so he has become active in a veterans’ rights organization, VERPA – Veterans Equal Rights Protection Advocacy, Inc. – that is lobbying Congress to change the law.
Meanwhile, Richard has been working diplomatically within the Army to persuade the brass to abolish Unit Watch and to increase suicide awareness. Thanks to Swanner, Richard has been visiting Amy posts and conventions around the country, telling Nolan’s story. His audience is usually comprised of chaplains, Army mental-health workers, and soldiers of varying ranks. Attendance is mostly voluntary. Richard is grateful for the opportunity and pleased to see so many people in the crowd, but he is also consistently disappointed when he looks into the audience and doesn’t see a single drill instructor.
Richard begins his presentation with a slide show. He takes the photos of Nolan that are now still lying before him on the family’s dining room table and projects them onto a large screen in front of the audience. The father who restores images for a living wants everyone to see what cannot be recovered. “I want them to see what I lost,” Richard says. “I can’t even go into a grocery store without thinking of Nolan. I see fathers and sons walking the aisles. I see cereal I used to buy for Nolan. And I have to leave the store.”
After most of his presentations, an officer in the audience has presented Richard with a “Unit Coin,” which is awarded by Army brass to both soldiers and civilians alike, in appreciation for contributions to the unit. “The people who give them to me have no idea how much they mean to me. I keep them all in a wooden box. I feel like with each one of them I am giving my son the honor and recognition he deserves. I call it Nolan’s coin collection.”