Nicholas Adams Story
Excerpt from Final Journal Entry (12/05/2018) - Nicholas Adams
On February 11, 2014 Staff Sergeant Mitchell Baker committed suicide, and seven days later our unit conducted his funeral. On a mild and sunny day, the 500 men and women of the 4th Battalion 27th Field Artillery Regiment crowded into a chapel with a capacity of only 400. Some soldiers were standing in the back of the church with nowhere else to sit. Sergeant Baker's family had flown out to attend the funeral and they occupied the first two rows of pews in the tiny church. My Boss, Chaplain Brillon, delivered the sermon and afterword the Baker family stood behind the podium each in turn, to bid farewell to Mitchell Baker. When Sergeant Baker's father approached the pulpit, he said very little. He stood before the flag-draped coffin of his first-born son and was silent for what felt like a very long time before uttering the words, "I'm sorry, I don't know what to say," only to walk off stage and sit down. When the funeral concluded Chaplain Brillon and I stood near the exit of the church, so we would be able to offer condolences and emotional support if we saw anyone who needed it.
As people began to leave the chapel, some soldiers who had remained composed during the funeral were crying. A few soldiers had each other with their arms across each other's shoulders in a show of solidarity. Many were silent. Sergeant Benitez, a close friend of the late Sergeant Baker, sat himself in the center of the floor just in front of the exit doors and began to weep. Men and women continued to file past him out of the building. After a few minutes Chaplain Brillon and I were able to console Sergeant Benitez and he too made his way outside. The last few people out of the church were Sergeant Mitchell Baker and his pallbearers. The pallbearers fittingly consisted of a few of the soldiers Baker had led while in our unit. Just outside the door of the church formed in a semi-circle, were 500 soldiers in dark blue dress uniforms standing at attention, motionless and silent. Someone gave the command, "present arms" and the group saluted Sergeant Baker one last time. What I remember most about this moment was how strange it was. How silent it was. I remember how the Sergeant who had given the command to salute had sounded. It wasn't the normal command in which the very last word comes out more like an incoherent scream. The words lacked the authoritative zeal which is normally given with the command, "present arms." At sergeant Baker's funeral, "present arms" was clear, concise, and quiet. The words fell dead on the air. The sergeant who spoke them, a woman whose name I have forgotten, sounded defeated. She displayed no enthusiasm. This salute was done to pay final respects and to bid farewell one last time. Baker was interred in section sixty of Arlington National Cemetery one month later with full military honors.
This is what I use to define the journey home. In that moment all 500 of us were united in our grief. All of us were one in our suffering, even those who had not known Sergeant Baker. I am not a combat veteran and I have never deployed. I will more than likely never have to make the journey home. At least not in the capacity which Sergeant Baker probably needed to. I wish I had been afforded the opportunity to take this class before I enlisted in the Army because it would have been immeasurably helpful with my job. As a Chaplain Assistant in the Army I spent far too much time conducting memorial ceremonies. In four short years I helped perform ten of them. Six of the ceremonies were for soldiers from our unit who committed suicide. Sergeant Baker's funeral sticks out in my mind much more vividly than all the others because it was my first encounter with the suicide of a soldier. Sergeant Baker had never come to see my chaplain or myself and there wasn't a single person in our unit who was expecting his suicide. He exhibited no signs. The most common thing people said the day after his death was, "He seemed fine yesterday."
To paraphrase guest speaker Professor and Vietnam Veteran James Brask, military culture values self-sacrifice for the collective good. After taking this class I find myself trying to determine just how far that sacrifice should go. Does the sacrifice service members are expected to make include sacrificing their mental wellbeing? Sergeant Baker certainly sacrificed his mental wellbeing at the cost of his life. Service members would be better off coming together to support the emotionally wounded, but from my experience the opposite is what is true. Soldiers like Baker avoid speaking out about any struggles they may have, combat related or not. In the class we learned that enemy combatants are often dehumanized, and wars are often mythologized. I think it is also important to recognize that soldiers dehumanize and mythologize themselves. They build themselves up to believe that seeking help is a form of weakness and a character flaw. Soldiers are trained to make the physical sacrifice and come to terms with it. None of them are trained to come to terms with the mental sacrifice. In order to make the journey home and complete it service members need to be trained that seeking help is human. The journey home is much more than humanizing your enemy and recognizing the reality of war. It is humanizing yourself and healing with your community.
In the military this communal healing almost never occurs. It happens when soldiers like Baker become victims of their demons. I have never personally witnessed the long and involved process of healing someone with traumatic mental injuries. At most a soldier will get a quick, "it'll be ok." After which they are simply expected to be over whatever hurt they are experiencing. A community is key to healing and the community cannot abandon the ones who need it. The people most guilty of abandoning those in need of healing are other service members. Active duty service members are uniquely equipped to understand the suffering of their fellow soldiers but soldiers but are never there for each other in an emotional capacity. We never look out for each other. From my experience as a chaplain assistant a simple gesture can go a long way. Asking a soldier, "how are you doing" was one of the most effective things I ever asked. Not because it offered a solution but because it showed that somebody cared. The community is the key to healing. That is where it begins. How can veterans expect the civilian community to bring them home when veterans are hardly able to help each other make the journey home? So many soldiers who need help are looked at with such deep derision that they never want to seek help. Our healing and the journey home come through unity. Despite our differences and despite what some may perceive as weak. There is nothing weak about needing help. Service members need to recognize that. We need to share in our hurt and heal together. Soldiers are taught that you are only as strong as your weakest member. Why does that saying not extend to emotional hurt?
The community of soldiers only come together after the physical loss of life of one of their own. This togetherness must become a daily occurrence. The deep societal healing which many tend to need after war will never happen if veterans cannot first heal with each other. This sense of community is the journey home. The healing and commiseration Achilles and Priam experience after the death of Patroclus and Hector is the journey home. The journey home comes from the community and it is the most vital element needed to come home.