06/10/2006 11:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

One Soldier That Didn't Come Home From Iraq, and One That Did

I started with the first soldier killed in Iraq, Corporal Brian Matthew Kennedy, though he didn't actually die in Iraq, and he was only one in a crew of twelve. But I had my reasons for settling on him. He was average, as opposed to the two pilots who were both officers. As opposed to the other corporal who was black and whose family had come out against the war. Of course he wasn't average. He was tall, good looking, athletic, genuinely popular, smart. Average soldiers weren't chosen for the first mission across the Iraqi border. But he represented something middle. An enlisted man looking for college money, doing the best he could, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He died in Kuwait in a sandstorm, his helicopter just miles from the border, part of a swarm of choppers. Chinook Sea Knights. Two rotors spinning in opposite directions, flying low and fast. The helicopters like bees, the sky was black with them. And then a bright flash.

Brian was attached to the First Marine Expeditionary Force. The mission was to transport British Special Forces to an oil field. The mission was to protect the oil.

It was Thursday, March 20, 2003. I don't know what went wrong with the helicopter. It's possible it got caught on some powerlines. The Chinook 46 Sea Knight had been out of production for 35 years. It seems agreed upon it was a mechanical error. It wasn't shot down. But I never found out what happened exactly that day. I was unable to ascertain which wire sparked, which fuel cell burst, who said what to who over which radio in the final moments. The information exists, but no one wanted to give it to me. Just a dark sky green inside the night vision goggles, a blaze of light, and Brian and three other Marines and eight British soldiers were gone.

I flew into Manchester, New Hampshire, two and a half years later. It was now common knowledge there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Most Americans no longer knew what we were doing there. Nobody wanted to leave the job unfinished but no one knew what finished meant. A senior administration official was quoted by George Packer saying he would never until the day he died know why we invaded Iraq. The war had become worse than unwinnable, it was unknowable. And the implications of this, that soldiers had died for nothing, something worse than a mistake, was unbearable.

Brian's mother, Melissa, had agreed to speak with me. I told her I wanted to write a long article about her son but I wouldn't if she didn't want me to. I was contemplating a book length project. A hard look at the American soldiers that had died in Iraq, already numbering over 2,000. I was unsure myself. I mentioned that I often wrote for Esquire but I couldn't guarantee they would run this piece. I tried to be honest with her about my motives but I wasn't sure enough of why I wanted to write on this topic though I was certainly offended by the way dead soldiers were intentionally kept out of the news. I thought the ban on photographing the soldier's coffins dishonored their memory. As the first soldier killed Brian seemed like an obvious soldier to start with. Melissa asked for some time to think about it and then called to say yes, she did want me to write the article. But when I arrived in Port Clyde, Maine, after a flight, a long drive through the New England countryside, a night in the Holiday Inn, she was no longer sure. She bit her lip when she met me at the door of her small home. She wanted to approve the article before I published it. I told her that was impossible. She didn't want to show me the accident report, the emails.

I had made a mistake. I had spent $700. She had lost much more.

I sat at the table with Melissa, her husband in a chair in the hutch. She was gorgeous for her age (for any age really) but her face was pulled with the deep sadness obvious in parents that outlive their children. She meditates, practices yoga. She showed me a scrapbook full of clippings. Because of the timing there had been a media circus around Brian, reporters sleeping in their cars outside Melissa's house. There were many articles written about Brian and his mother showed me her favorite one. It was short, maybe 200 words. There was a picture of Brian in his orange hat. It was called The Corporal of Smiles. She seemed to hope I would write something like that.

It was two days after Thanksgiving and her husband made me a turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip on white bread. Melissa said, "My feeling is that Brian is still here. There are so many signs. It's just his physical form is gone."

On the stairwell leading to the basement and the bathroom there is a letter signed by President Bush expressing his sympathy for their sacrifice. From the bay windows we could see all the tiny islands out in Muscongus Bay on the St. George's river. The islands had names like Rasberry and Little Rasberry, all these slabs of mud in the middle of the water. I wanted to know more about Brian than he was handsome, he smiled a lot, people liked him. I wanted to know what he had for dinner the day before he left. I wanted to know if he flipped anybody off as he climbed into the chopper. I wanted to know what that last moment was like. Did they know something had gone wrong? I imagine the pilot pulling on a stuck lever, nervous shuffling feet, a light flashing red. Brian and the others seated against the sides of the craft, a few moments of realization, brief but like hours. Enough time to tense, panic, and then relax. No. No!

In the scrapbook was a letter that arrived after his death. It's an option Marines are given, to write a letter home to be sent in case they don't return. I want you to know that I've always loved you with all my heart. I'm sorry I couldn't make it back to Maine to see one more sunset with you. When I read that I started to cry.

Melissa asked me, "Why are you doing this?"

She sat with her foot tucked beneath her leg. Her smile was cracking her face. I thought she must have been an excellent mother. Why was I doing this? I didn't have an answer. The last thing she told me was about the soldier that had accompanied Brian's remains back home. He was Brian's best friend. He couldn't wait to get back.

I could have quit after Brian. I spent weeks tracking down members of his unit, old friends. I filed Freedom of Information requests. Still, I didn't have the story. What story? Melissa's words: Why are you doing this? I grew to like Brian. Everywhere I looked I came across examples of his bravery and generosity. He had defended a woman who was being beaten by her boyfriend. He had started a fund for a childhood friend who had been injured in a boating accident. Even entering the military seemed like a generous choice. He hadn't wanted to burden his parents with his University bills. He was, in the most complete sense of the term, a very decent person. A man who made the world a better place for the rest of us. But what was the story?

Three weeks later I was in Massachusetts. I was going to meet with the Lucey family. They wanted to meet before Christmas, because the holidays were particularly hard. They wouldn't talk on Tuesdays, because that was the day their son Jeffrey died. It was snowing. I had to rent a sport utility vehicle to make the drive from Boston.

Jeffrey's dad Kevin met me in the driveway. His mom, Joyce, and sister, Debbie, were all there. Jeffrey had killed himself a year after his tour in Iraq and his parents were ardent opponents of the war.

Their house was filled with documents about Jeff. His room was kept as it was, a shrine. They thought they had failed him. Joyce and Kevin were so sad. They kept crying as they told the story. After the war he didn't want to leave his room. He broke up with his girlfriend. He stayed drunk all the time. The Lucey's thought it was their obligation to tell people what had happened to their son. How he joined the reserves searching for a little extra cash and some direction. How he went to the desert and drove convoys. How something happened over there and he came back different. They wanted people to know that they reached out to the Veterans Administration and the VA let them down. The VA refused to hospitalize Jeffrey even though he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though he was suicidal. They wanted people to know that one day Jeffrey snuck out of the house at midnight dressed in his full military uniform, an unloaded gun in his holster, asked the neighbors to drive him to the liquor store.

Jeffrey told his sister he had committed war crimes. "Do you know your brother's a murderer?" he asked. It was Christmas and they stood in the kitchen near the stairs leading to the basement. He told her there were two prisoners. He said he shot them in the head at point blank range and at night their faces floated above them and he could not sleep. He wore dog tags of the men he killed around his neck. He said he had seen a child dying in the streets and had carried the child out of the range of fire but the child had died anyway.

There were investigations after Jeffrey died, interviews with soldiers from his unit. His story didn't hold up. The dog tags were fake. Other soldiers said he would never have had a chance to do those things. One soldier I interviewed said it wasn't impossible, the early days of the war were chaos. He said anything could have happened. But it was more likely that Jeffrey was inventing a reason for his sadness. Something had snapped, maybe in the first day of fighting when a scud had landed nearby, the enormous noise, everything covered in dirt. Maybe to justify his strange behavior he had made up a story.

Or maybe not.

In war bad things happen all the time. Innocents are killed. Men are stood on crates with electrical wires attached to their genitals. Buildings are destroyed with mothers and babies inside. There is always torture during war, summary executions. Soldiers in western Iraq are being investigated for extensive, unprovoked killings. I was on tour with George W. Bush in 2004 three days after the pictures from Abu Graib and the President looked right at where I sat in the press pool and said "Thanks to America's actions, Saddam's torture chambers have been closed." He said it in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. There is no war without atrocity. War is nothing if not atrocious.

The only thing that was certainly true was that Jeffrey was an alcoholic, chronically depressed. I tried to piece together his days over there. The long truck convoys, the empty desert in the south of the country. Drinking with his best friend Pablo outside of their tent. I saw pictures of Jeffrey standing next to his truck, smiling. Pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads kneeling in the sand.

That night I called my girlfriend. I was in a small hotel room in Amherst with the lights turned off. The hotel was a long, white row house off the main street. A typical small town depressing setup, a lumpy bed, a thin bar of soap wrapped in paper. She had told me to call anytime. She would have the phone by the bed. But she was married and there was a child. The husband knew about me. It was a Sunday and we talked for a long time. And then she said something to her husband, answered a question from her son. I felt this pain all over my body. What was I doing? I told her I had to go. I sat in the dark, alone with Jeffrey's ghost.

For the last six months I've been trying to piece together what went wrong with these articles. What makes a story? Have we grown so numb, so tired of this war, that what happens thousands of miles away doesn't matter to us, even when it comes home? I spent $2,000 but I never finished. Being a writer is always a struggle. You never know if you'll sell enough work to pay your rent. Some authors go into teaching, others take jobs at newspapers. Most just get out of the game altogether. I wasn't trying to exploit Brian and Jeffrey, or I didn't think I was. I was trying to tell their stories. I thought they were important.

I often think of Jeffrey's father driving home. Joyce and Debbie were in a summer camp where they did volunteer work every summer. Kevin worked as a counselor for sex offenders. Half an hour from his home Kevin stopped and bought a 24 ounce can of Budweiser at a package store and drank it wrapped in a bag. I think of the sick summer heat and the cold can sweating through the paper.

It was June 22, 2004. Kevin was speaking to Joyce on a cell phone when he arrived. The light was on in the family room so he said he would call her back. He shouted Jeffrey's name but there was no answer. He went into Jeffrey's room. There were still toys in there, a baseball bat he'd had since he was ten years old. There was a Marine blanket on the bed.

He went into the kitchen, caught something out of the corner of his eye, walked down the stairs.

Kevin won't go in the basement anymore. It's too painful.

At the bottom of the stairs he found photographs Jeffrey had laid on the floor. Pictures of soldiers, his girlfriend, his parents. His unit medallion in the center. Kevin saw Jeffrey standing next to him. It's not a large space. This tiny basement with its low ceilings. So hard to imagine.

Jeffrey had wrapped the long garden hose around the beams several times, hung himself from the rafters. He was suspended just inches from the floor. He could have saved himself just by stretching his toes, but he didn't want to.

Kevin turned to his son. Hanging, suspended. Gripped his arms around him, crying, lowering his child to the floor. Put a pillow beneath his dead sons' head. Laid with his son for a while then climbed the stairs and called the police.

What I remember the most from that story is the can of beer. Kevin and Joyce wanted to tell me everything. They wanted me to know that they had failed as parents. I told them I knew what bad parents were. My father had shaved my head when I was a child, handcuffed me to a pipe in the basement. When the police found me sleeping in a hallway, drunk, fourteen years old, with my wrist slashed, they asked where my parents lived and I answered them honestly, I didn't know.

I told them I knew the difference between good and bad parents. They were excellent parents. Two of the best. But they wouldn't stop. They kept saying they should have done more. They had tried twice to have Jeffrey committed that year but the Veteran's Administration wouldn't take him. The night before Jeffrey killed himself he crawled into his father's lap. Kevin held him awkwardly, his arm around his shoulder and his other across his son's stomach, rocking back and forth.

I stayed in touch with the Lucey's and their efforts to raise awareness about the poverty of services available to returning veterans. There will be many more veterans coming home. Men and women that have been shot and shot at others are going to have problems. It's going to cost money to take care of them. But the administration is focused on tax cuts. This is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too administration.

Joyce and Kevin told me about the day Jeffrey realized we would be invading Iraq. He was in the reserves and knew he'd be called up. "He couldn't believe it," Kevin told me. "He said, 'Why Iraq?"

Imagine if we had spent 400 Billion weaning the nation from oil dependancy. Jeffrey and Brian would still be alive.

Brian's mother called once to ask when the article would come out. I told her I didn't know. I needed more information. None of the editors I spoke to were interested in these stories. Both Brian and Jeffrey had been written about extensively at the time of their deaths. Why focus on them now? They were just soldiers. There weren't that different from all the other soldiers that have died. Except as people are always different and loved by their parents in unique ways.

Janet Malcolm in her book, The Journalist And The Murderer, posits that any reporter who thinks their profession is morally defensible is not being honest with themselves. I don't regret writing about the soldiers. I regret biting off more than I could chew at a time in my life when I wasn't in control. I regret spending money on something I would never be able to finish. And I regret most that I was never able to properly tell the stories of these young men in a way that would make a difference and honor their memory and pay back the generosity of their fine parents who had lost so much. Maybe that's a weak connection but it's all I have.

The point was always this: War costs. Brian and Jeffrey are simply two examples of what we all know but don't like to think about. I have a seventeen-year-old brother. He turns eighteen in August. He tells me he's joining the Marines. I keep trying to talk him out of it. But I don't know how to make him listen to me.


- Stephen Elliott