On a Soldier's Suicide

Deirdre had a moving letter about a young soldier's suicide published in the Journal News yesterday. Here it is for when the link disappears behind a pay-only archive:

U.S. soldier's death strikes a chord

Sometimes I turn the page in the newspaper without reading past the headline. But today, something compelled me to read about Army Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, 19, of Plymouth, Ohio. Maybe his unusual name intrigued me. Maybe it was his age, a year younger than my only son, who I just watched play rugby for his college team, so alive and vital.

The Associated Press article began by telling us that Pvt. Wilhelm loved karaoke, surprising people with bear hugs and carrying on the family tradition of military service. We learned he was excited to be going places he'd never been before and seeing unusual sights. According to his mother, he was "looking forward to going to Iraq." I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever be told how he died. But then it came, causing a sick flip to my stomach as I learned he committed suicide in Iraq, the same day my only daughter turned 25. The article noted that an investigation has led to charges "against four soldiers who the military says were mistreating" men in their platoon. I'm still sitting with a queasy stomach - not wanting to imagine what "mistreatment" could mean. According to news reports, since the conflict began, 1,985 troops have died by suicide. This is nearly three times the number of all U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan within the same time period. Continuing to allow our children to kill, be killed and kill themselves is surely "mistreatment" as well.

Deirdre Drohan Forbes
Hastings-on-Hudson


The ripples caused by suicides, particularly by young people, have long haunted me. I've never known the pain of clinical depression, though I've seen in in people very close to me, including Deirdre and my best friend in high school, Mark, who killed himself more than a decade ago.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I once worked myself into tantrum in which I threatened to jump from our eight-floor apartment window. My parents called the parish priest. His solemn presence in my bedroom was enough to dissuade me from any future threats of the kind. 

I know I was just crying out for attention that day and had no intention of actually jumping, but I also know that it's probably not unusual for these things to get out of hand. Who knows when an idle threat will cross the line? Hulk Hogan, of all people, wrote convincingly about his dalliance with a pistol in Men's Fitness this month, though it's not excerpted online. Here's the Daily's News' account, though it doesn't capture the sense of how close Hogan says he came to tripping the trigger. 

After I wrote that but before I had a chance to post it, I saw Jeffrey Brown's interview with Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot of "the miracle on the Hudson"  plane, on the New Hour with Jim Lehrer. Among the things he talks about is the profound impact that his father's suicide had on him when he was a boy, and how it shaped his attitude toward life. He revers it.

These things run for generation. My mother's father drank carbolic acid in a St. Louis hotel room when she was 10. She never shied from the facts, but she wasn't one to dwell out loud on what must have been a deeply hurtful experience. But I feel I've felt her pain.

In fact, I've been working on and off for a few weeks on a poem that talks about the impact of suicides on those of us left behind. Here's most of it:


Stench

My best friend, Mark, 
blew his brains out.
I said so
in a newspaper article.
A lady objected
to my tabloid phrase
in a letter to the editor.
She thought I was being
insensitive to Mark's pain.

I wasn't.
I was responding to mine.
He blew his brains out,
for chistsakes.

II.
Mark's pain
did not switch off
like a light.
It did not crash
like a hard drive.
It did not slide
into another consciousness.
Or embrace the oneness
of creation.
It was blasted
and scattered
and splattered
and left on the floor
and walls and ceilings
for us to sanitize.
His head in shards,
his fingers pasty.
Still. I hear an echo
of his laugh
whenever I look at his picture,
smiling with my children.
It is boisterous and raw,
outshouting his misery.


III
Deirdre and I
saw a movie last night
about two sisters
who clean up after suicides.
It was a comedy
with contrived acts
of misdeeds and redemptions.
Death was the red 
of smeared blood,
not the fungal white
of decayed flesh, 
and bodies disappeared
lest they appall us
with the angles
of sudden death
and the lingering
smell of rot.


IV
Louise and I
saw a raccoon
dead on its back today
on the Rowley's Bridge Trail.
Teeth bared, 
anus agape,
swarmed by flies and
crawled by maggots
who must not
find the stink odious;
who, I guess,
are attracted by it,
and therefore
play their part.

I asked Louise 
if I should call the authorities.
"They're not
going to give it
a special ceremony,
you know,"
she said.

So I came back
with my shovel
and a mask
to dispose of it
the same way
the authorities would.
I jimmied it
onto the blade
and threw it 
over the bank
towards the river,
away from the path
of dog walkers
and nature lovers
who needn't see it.

I watched the maggots
left behind
squirming aimlessly
in the dirt
and thought about Mark
underneath their flailing fury.
I thought I should squish them
or bury them
or at least brush them off the path
and then I realized
they would soon be gone
with nothing left
to nourish them.

But some things never leave.
They get caught in your brain
like the stench
that pervaded my mask
and nests in my sinuses
and plays its part
in reminding me
that death
should
repel us.


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