Got home almost a year and a half ago We were so happy That beer never tasted so good Iraq was the farthest thing from my mind That was the best week of my life.It crept up slowly First just while sleeping More real and scary than when it happened After, it's on the mind awake Never 10 minutes goes by without being reminded Been home a year and a half physically Mentally, I will never be home.
- "Still at War'' by Noah Pierce, poem inside his funeral folder
A grieving family stood at the grave that would hold their beloved boy. Men in uniform fired a salute, taps sounded. The flag on his coffin was folded and placed in the arms of his mother. At his funeral she had kissed his face one last time.And so, on Aug. 1 in the Virginia veterans plot, a soldier of the war in Iraq was laid to rest, his troubled soul finally at peace. Noah Charles Pierce, age 23, had taken his own life.
Noah Pierce suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He knew it. His family knew it. Friends knew it. They tried desperately to help him.
But to no avail.
On a July day he left with his truck and his guns and never came back. He ended his life in the mine dumps near his favorite fishing spot, not far from his Sparta boyhood home. The words "freedom isn't free'' were carved in the dashboard. And in his final note, his mother said, he wrote that he had killed people in the war and now it was time to kill himself.
The week after his funeral his parents, Cheryl and Tom Softich, and his sister, Sarah Snyder, shared their memories of Noah.
"I know my son committed suicide, but as far as I'm concerned, he died for his country and I'm as proud of him as I was five years ago,'' said Cheryl Softich, her eyes glistening.
Five years ago her boy announced he was joining the Army and would need parental consent. "He started talking about joining the military when he was 6, 7 years old. He signed up at age 17 right after 9-11 (the terrorist attack on the United States). He tells me, 'I'm going to join the Army with or without you... so I signed the papers to show I supported what he needed to do.'' Tom Softich said he tried to talk him out of it. "I knew it was going to be a war.''
His mother was frightened he wouldn't survive. "I always knew my son would die young. The first time I held him in my arms, I knew I would outlive him.'' Her son felt the same way, but told her he wouldn't die in the war.
But in a way he did. A family friend said, "When he come back from Iraq, Noah wasn't Noah no more.'' His mother echoed the words. "Physically Noah came home. Mentally he didn't.''
"You knew who he was by looking at him,'' said his sister, whose picture he carried through the war. "Then he would start talking to you. He was a completely different person.''
His mother said the life had left his eyes. "The spark was gone. The guilt just ate at him. He was too kind-hearted.''
Spc. Noah Charles Pierce served with the Third Infantry Division, first in Kuwait. The war began, and he got his orders for Iraq. He would drive a Bradley fighting vehicle, he would be a gunner on a Humvee, he would enter Iraqi houses in search of the enemy. There were explosions, there were casualties. He turned 19 and 21 in Iraq. He called the war Hell on Earth.
Pierce would write the following poem called "Bad Planning.''
I sit on the Bradley turret reading a book My crew fast asleep Bush said all major combat was over I was in Baghdad and would have agreed. I vaguely remember the gunshots, I do remember very clearly how the bullets felt as they just passed my head. First drive-by experience, got the shooter Scared, just let the other guy get away My crew never knew Next thing I know we have to go to Fallujah Now I know Bush didn't know what he was talking about The major combat was just beginning.
He wrote of his second tour of duty in "2nd Time.''
We are getting on the plane. That last step. I hope it isn't my last on U.S. soil Nothing to do but sleep I wonder what it will be like this time. Hurry from the plane onto a bus Sleep some more Stopped, I hope we can get off for a smoke Must be lucky Before I even light up the feeling hits me. Did I ever leave the desert? The girlfriends, the parties, the training GONE All I remember is this god-forgotten country.
Noah's mother knew the things that bothered him.
His best friend had been blown up at his side.
He worried about the kids, especially the 7-year-old boy who sat next to him on the Bradley tank. They shared food and water. "No English, no Arabic,'' Pierce wrote in another poem. "Yet we still understand each other. Then it's time to leave. He wraps his arms around me, crying. I say it will be OK. I still wonder if he is.''
He was bothered, too, by the memory of the doctor. His sergeant had ordered him to fire at a suspected enemy. "It turned out it was an Iraqi doctor,'' his mother said. He still had the picture of the dead doctor on his cell phone when he came home. "The guys don't know who they're fighting. Just like Vietnam, the end up killing innocent people,'' said his father.
"Noah wasn't a bad person. He only did what he was ordered to do,'' said Cheryl Softich.
"People would ask me, 'Did your brother kill anybody?' It's like, excuse me,'' said his sister.
"On the Sunday before he did this to himself, he said, 'Mom, you worry too much. I'm happy.' How can you say that and then go do that. I've been worried that Noah was going to hurt himself,'' Softich said.
His sister would drive him to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis for hearing and dental work. "But when it came to the big things like traumatic brain injury, he would make the appointment and then cancel. He knew he had the brain damage. He would tell everybody he had PTSD. One minute fine, the next minute he's in another world,'' Sarah Snyder said. A vehicle would backfire, and he would relive the car bombs. He would call himself a murderer and his mother would try to change his mind, telling him that "if you go into a gas station and start shooting, you're a murderer.'' His sister gave him a card saying he needed to forgive himself. He hung the card on his gun case. "He tried every day. He would have days on end that were actually good days and then anything could trigger it,'' said his mother.
There was nothing his family could do except encourage him to get help. "He's of age. But if a parent knows their child, if you know there's problems, why can't they allow us to help? Noah might still be here,'' Cheryl Softich said. She had wanted him to be committed for help. "The Army had no business letting the men and women go even if their deployment is up... They need extensive counseling and it has to be from somebody that's walked in their shoes.''
Noah wrote of the horror and frustration in "Freedom Isn't Free.''
It's dark and I sit at my .50-cal trembling 40 mph in a Humvee and I have deja vu Just want to go home Then that bad feeling hits me again Are my ears bleeding? Is everybody else OK? Goddamned roadside bombs. We are fine Another truck wasn't so lucky Back at base no food, can barely get a new truck ready in time for the morning Another day kicking in doors Fine a cache and insurgents responsible for American deaths Frustrated because we have to be nice as we arrest them So when you talk to me I may not seem to pay attention I may forget to laugh at a joke Remember, freedom isn't free I would do it all over for you.
His mother is proud of his poems. "I was pushing him to think about writing a book or keeping on with his poems. They would help other people,'' she said. "He got all excited. I told him I was going to bend over backwards to see that something happened to those poems.''
Pierce talked about re-enlisting, for he felt the job wasn't finished. He had told his mother, "If we pull our troops out now, we're going to have a worse attack than 9-11.'' He didn't think the war was about oil, but about "freedom for everybody. I believe if he would have lived, he would have gone back into the military. He would have been a lifer and probably would have someday published something. It was in his blood.''
And now a family is left behind to move on.
A mother goes through her boy's things. She finds awards she never knew about. A certificate for "outstanding dedication to duty during combat operations in the Sunni Triangle'' that "contributed to the overwhelming success of Task Force 5-7. January 2005-January 2006.'' A certificate for the Order of the Spur, a high honor given to troops of the cavalry.
She drives home the truck in which her son died. "I felt like if anybody brought it home it had to be me. I gave my son life. It was his blood. That's where his spirit left him. I wanted to be where his spirit had been.''
She remembers the last text message she ever sent him. "Noah, you're my heart.'' She doesn't know if he read it.
"All he ever wanted was peace. He was our heart and he deserves nothing but respect, along with all the other veterans past and present.''
If her son had been in his "U.S. soil frame of mind,'' she said, he might still be alive. "But the guilt was too much.''
A friend of Noah Pierce is starting an organization to raise money to help those struggling with PTSD upon their return from the war. It will be called Northern Organization for Assisting Heroes (N-O-A-H.org). Tyler Bruun can be contacted at 612-250-8360 or email@example.com.
Linda Tyssen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Mesabi Daily News