You know, I grew up in a REALLY small town. To put it in perspective, there were 17 kids in my graduating class. Really. We had to drive 35 minutes to partake in the yummy goodness that is McDonald's. We were on an army base in the middle of nowhere... literally. To leave the base you had to travel over a large mountain pass to join the rest of civilization.
Those living on the army base were used to seeing troops running down the streets in full gear, hummers driving down the street, helicopters hovering in the desert in the distance. We all climbed into F-16s as kids on the 4th of July celebrations, and every night we stopped everything when the flag was taken down and a cannon was sounded in respect.
Everyone knew everyone, whether they wanted to or not. You were stuck, at times, in a small town with people you just couldn't get away from. You see the same people at the gas station, the commissary, the PX. Everyone was an acquaintance, everyone was a friend. You couldn't help it.
Needless to say, there wasn't much for us to do in that town. There was a movie theater that showed one movie a night on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and I was the projectionist. The equipment was built in the 50's, and I would be shocked as hell if the projectors were still operating.
While working at the theater, I met a friend named Amanda. She was a couple years younger than I was, in my brother's class. Those who worked at the theater (all three of us) became friends and we hung out all the time. I was even there the day Amanda met her future husband, an army man who asked her to sit with him during the movie. It was sweet and romantic, and they were together ever since.
Amanda had a younger brother, Jason. Jason did what most of my friends did after graduating from high school, he joined the armed forces. It's a family tradition in some households, it's not something they even consider not doing. I am not sure if Jason was pressured to join, I doubt it...
Jason was sent to Iraq and came home suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing his friend die:
"Labor Day 2005," said Art Klinkenberg [Jason's father]. "It changed his life."
According to Klinkenberg's father, his son was driving a truck in a convoy when a rocket-propelled grenade shot into the cab of the truck in front of him. The driver, a close friend of Jason Klinkenberg, exited the vehicle. "He came out on fire, screaming for help. Jason tried to save him, but his commanding officer pulled him back," Art Klinkenberg said.
Jason Klinkenberg spent eight hours with his friend's body, waiting for support troops to transport the body back.
Klinkenberg wore a bracelet with his dead friend's name on it.
"He saw this guy's burning image regularly in his head," his father said.
Yes, it's horrible. An experience like that changes you forever. I can't imagine dealing with the things that Jason saw in Iraq. Reading about the experience alone makes tears come to my eyes, the thought of actually being there covered in body armor with the smells and the heat makes my brain practically shut down. No one should have to deal with that.
Jason sought help upon returning to the states. He didn't receive the help he needed. The system is broken, and even though he asked for help dealing with the demons, he didn't receive it. It eventually took Jason to a place that made him kill his wife, Crystal, and then himself after a standoff with police in Las Vegas.
Klinkenberg's sister, Amanda Harrod, recalled her brother as a "sweet guy."
But he had also returned from Iraq troubled by what he'd experienced there, Harrod said. And when he sought help from the Air Force, she said, he was turned away.
"When my brother first went for help, they called him a liar," she said.
Air Force officials contest that claim. They say signs of post-traumatic stress disorder surfaced in an initial examination and Klinkenberg was referred to a specialist off-base, where he had been attending regular therapy sessions.
"He was very cooperative and willing to receive the support," said Nellis spokeswoman Amanda Ferrell.
In spite of the problems her brother faced, Harrod and her father are having trouble understanding how he could have taken his wife's life and then his own.
"He had so many friends, and none of them can believe what happened," Harrod said. "Everyone who met him loved him."
"Something went wrong that night," Art Klinkenberg said. "That was his soul mate. He loved her more than anything."
I read about stuff like this in the news all the time. I always shake my head and curse that things should be different, that we shouldn't have our troops over there to begin with... but this really brought it home to me.
I actually KNEW this guy.
To all the men and women who are serving this country or have served in the past, please know that most of the citizens you protect respect and thank you immensely. I hope that legislation is passed to require the armed forces to give more counseling to soldiers who have been in combat so that this kind of thing doesn't happen to anyone else.
War changes you.
I don't understand how some officials think you can come from a place where you are constantly on the lookout for people trying to kill you to a normal life and not have any problems. The sound of a car backfiring alone would put some of these soldiers right back in "war mode." Soldiers returning from combat missions suffer more than anyone knows... and they are are risk for suicide or worse.
How many wake-up calls is it going to take?
Two young lives were taken that day. Two lives that were full of promise and hope... the world was at their fingertips. There are also countless other lives that were taken over similar circumstances.
I am not sure what I want to accomplish from sharing this, I guess I just wanted to remember the person he was before this happened.
My heart is broken right now.