“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others
at whatever the cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” - Arthur Ashe
There is no cheering throng to recognize the politician who never cheats on his taxes or his wife, no badge of courage awarded to the kidney donor, or a standing ovation for Jerry Groden, 52, who left a private cardiology practice in Dallas for an Army medic tent in the Middle East. “The people I served with made me a better person,” Groden remarked.
So-called heroism can be a burden by the sheer magnitude of its cost. With his knife, Noah Pierce, 23, carved “Freedom Isn’t Free” in his pickup’s dashboard. His headstone bears only the etched letters “I-r-a-q.” When Noah went missing in July 2007, after a harrowing year adjusting to home following two tours in Iraq, police ordered a countrywide search,” wrote Ashley Gilbertson, from the Virginia Quarterly Review and printed in the April Utne.
Back in March 2003, assigned to the front lines with his battalion, Pierce had been outraged that U.S. troops were hailed conquering heroes. “It sounds like you guys in the states are for the war,” Pierce wrote in a letter home. “All the soldiers I know including me think it’s a bunch of bullshit. We came in and invaded this country and murdered a lot of innocent people. So tell me how we are heroes.”
(Up front, I’d like to point out that the majority of the accounts I’ve read describe the goals, duties and intentions of most U.S. troops in Iraq as productive and honorable.) Yet, Noah Pierce’s story is also a reality of war, grim and tragic.
Gilbertson writes, “A study by the RAND Corporation found that approximately 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - one in five - suffer from depression or stress disorders.” Noah Pierce was to be one of those anonymous heroes who enlisted shortly before he turned 18. A family friend was moved to say to him, “Noah, you’re too sensitive, you’re too caring; how are you ever going to get through this?”
Noah grew up in Sparta, Minnesota, a small town on the Mesabi Iron Range. His mother Cheryl Softich believes her son’s death could have been avoided had he received counseling. She said that after returning home from combat, “Noah drank to forget and because he hated himself.” He believed he no longer had a future. In a suicide message to friends, Noah wrote, “bam life’s a bitch I’m out.”
Statistically, veterans outside the VA system are four times more likely to attempt suicide than those within the system. Returning from the atrocities of war, many veterans live with horrendous despair because they don’t feel people will understand what they’ve suffered and how it has altered their entire being, having done things so unbelievably out of character.
On Monday, July, 25, 2007, Noah left the kayak factory where he had been working. Others said he was in a good mood. In her article Gilbertson wrote, “Noah put his .38 Special to his right temple, wedged one of his Army dog tags between the muzzle and his skin, and pulled the trigger.”
In April 2008, Ira R. Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estimated that between 550 and 650 veterans were committing suicide each month. Sadly, the Pentagon “will never add Noah – nor the thousands like him – to the official tally of 4,000-plus war dead,” Gilbertson reports.
It is important for America to remember Noah Pierce, and all the other veterans who have sacrificed their peace of mind, their futures, principles, and sometimes their lives, and to sympathize with the losses and heartaches their families continue to endure. For they are the anonymous heroes, tormented casualties who seem to be forgotten.
“Where is the Life we have lost in living?” T.S. Eliot
Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.