A small-town soldier returns from Iraq broken. He is not alone. He thinks he is.
Noah Pierce’s headstone gives his date of death as July 26, 2007, though his family feels certain he died the night before, when, at age 23, he took a handgun and shot himself in the head. No one is sure what pushed him to it. He said in his suicide note it was impotence—one possible side effect of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was “the snowflake that toppled the iceberg,” he wrote. But it could have been the memory of the Iraqi child he crushed under his Bradley. It could have been the unarmed man he shot point-blank in the forehead during a house-to-house raid, or the friend he tried madly to gather into a plastic bag after he had been blown to bits by a roadside bomb, or it could have been the doctor he killed at a checkpoint.
Noah grew up in Sparta, Minnesota, a town of fewer than 1,000 on the outskirts of the Quad Cities—Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, and Gilbert—on the Mesabi Iron Range. Discovered on the heels of the Civil War, the range’s ore deposit is the largest in the United States. Around the clock, deep metallic groans come out of the ground and freight trains barrel through, horns screeching. Locals are proud of their hardworking, hard-drinking heritage. There are more than 20 bars on Eveleth’s half-mile-long main street. On a typical night last May, loudspeakers affixed to lampposts blared John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and Harleys thundered through town. One bar closed early, when a drunk got thrown through the front window.
Noah was a quiet, sensitive kid. He kept a tight circle of friends and passed time with them building tree forts and playing army in the woods. Noah’s biological father separated from Noah’s mother shortly after she became pregnant, but Tom Softich, Noah’s stepfather, treated the thin-skinned boy as his own. When Noah turned 6, Tom took him hunting, and by 13 Noah had his own high-powered rifle. For practice, they went rabbit shooting together at a small clearing a mile from their house. It became such a regular place to find Noah that his family and friends began referring to the clearing simply as “the spot.”
When Noah went missing in July 2007, after a harrowing year adjusting to home following two tours in Iraq, police ordered a countywide search. His friend Ryan Nelson thought he might know where to look. When he pulled up to the spot, he immediately recognized Noah’s truck. Inside, Ryan found his friend slumped over the bench seat, his head blown apart, the gun in his right hand. Half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Special Blend lay on the passenger seat, and beer cans were strewn about. On the dash lay Noah’s photo IDs; he had stabbed each photo through the face. And on the floorboard was the scrawled, rambling suicide note. It was his final attempt to explain the horrors he had seen—and committed.
In April 2008, Ira R. Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, became embroiled in scandal when a memo surfaced in which he instructed members of his staff to suppress the results of an internal investigation into the number of veterans attempting suicide. Based on their surveys, along with tabulations from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control, Katz estimated that between 550 and 650 veterans were committing suicide each month. It pains Noah’s family and friends that the Pentagon will never add him—nor the thousands like him—to the official tally of 4,000-plus war dead.
Likewise, PTSD and minor traumatic brain injuries (MTBI) are excluded from the count of 50,000 severe combat wounds—even though PTSD and MTBI often have far greater long-term health effects than bullet wounds or even lost limbs. A study by the RAND Corporation found that approximately 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—one in five—suffer from depression or stress disorders and another 320,000 suffer from MTBIs that place them at a higher risk for depression and stress disorders.
Noah’s mother, Cheryl Softich, believes her son’s death could have been avoided had he received counseling. Statistically, veterans outside the VA system are four times more likely to attempt suicide than those within the system. Now Cheryl’s mission is to have a clause inserted into every standard military contract that would require veterans to visit a therapist every two weeks of the first year after a combat deployment. “Soldiers are taught to follow orders,” she says. “It needs to be mandatory. Noah was an excellent soldier, and if it was mandatory, he would have gone faithfully to every appointment.”
Cheryl is a slight, chain-smoking woman of 50, whose disarmingly direct approach to conversation could easily be mistaken as brusque by an outsider. Sinking into the oversize leather couch in her living room, she recounts her 12-hour labor, two days before Christmas 1983. She remembers the blinding pain of each contraction and smiles when she recalls that the doctor asked permission for a group of 20 medical students to observe. “As long as you get this baby out of me, I don’t care who watches,” she remembers saying. Then her smile fades: “As soon as they put him in my arms, this feeling washed over me, and I knew instantly that I was going to outlive this child. Did not know how or why, but I was going to outlive this child.”
The feeling returned the day, not long after 9/11, that Noah came home with enlistment papers. He was a few months shy of 18 and needed a parental signature. “He put me between a rock and a hard place,” Cheryl says. “ ‘Either sign these papers and show you support me and my decision, or I’m signing them in a couple of months without your support.’ Well, no child of mine is going off to war thinking I don’t support him. Did I try to talk him out of it? Hell, yes. Did I finally give up trying to talk him out of it? Yes, because it was what he was going to do, so I accepted it, and I was proud of him for his decision.”
Not everybody was as understanding. “When he joined the Army, my heart sank,” says Sally Galbraith, a family friend who was virtually a second mother to Cheryl’s children. “I thought, ‘Noah, you’re too sensitive, you’re too caring; how are you ever going to get through this?’ ”
In June 2002, Noah went to boot camp in Fort Stewart, Georgia, and began regularly writing letters home. He expressed surprise at seeing fellow soldiers break down in tears, homesick and scared, but admitted to feeling a little that way himself. “During practice we had to yell stupid stuff,” Noah wrote in August. “The drill sergeant would ask, ‘What makes the green grass grow?’ We would yell, ‘Blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow.’”
The Iraq invasion began in March 2003, and Noah’s battalion was assigned to the front line. He rolled northward in a heavily armored infantry track vehicle equipped with surface-to-air Stinger missiles, but Saddam’s army had virtually no helicopters or jets, so Noah’s unit was tasked with kicking in doors and searching houses. By early April, American troops had reached Baghdad, and the airwaves were filled with images of Saddam’s statue toppling in Firdos Square and the troops being hailed as conquering heroes. Noah was outraged.
“It sounds like you guys in the States are for the war,” he wrote in a letter home. “All the soldiers I know including me think it is 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.”
Noah’s unit’s turf was the Abu Ghraib neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad. One night Noah’s platoon went out on a mission to guard buildings against looters. While he was in the turret of his truck, a van drove toward him and someone started shooting. “I just grabbed my M16 and put it on 3 round burst and led the tracers into the driver’s window,” Noah wrote a few days later. “Right away the van stopped. I just finished the magazine. I watched it for a minute and someone ran around from the passenger side and dragged (I assume the body) into the back seat. I didn’t shoot anymore and just let them leave. The gunner and track commander were asleep in the truck and didn’t wake up so I never mentioned it to anybody. I can’t wait until I get out of here and I hope I never have to do something like this again.”
The letter ended: “It’s definitely been an experience I’ll never forget, hopefully I will be able to forget most of it someday, but I doubt it.”
“Everything good Noah got from Tommy. From me he inherited an overly sensitive heart,” Cheryl says. She wants me to understand that, no matter the terrible things her son may have done, he was a good person. It was his sensitivity—her sensitivity—that burrowed under his skin, that would come to make him edgy and aggressive.
By summer 2003, Noah was suffering constant nightmares and couldn’t sleep. To blow off steam he and other members of his platoon had taken to abusing suspects. “Whatever they’d do for stress relief,” Cheryl says, “hit a prisoner—because you’re so frustrated that you haul him off and slug him—well, Noah did those things along with the rest of them. The difference is he suffered from it. He felt guilty afterwards.”
With each passing day in the desert, though, Noah’s guilt was turning to confusion and anger. “Well, staying here has had one good impact on me,” he wrote. “I no longer regret what I did during the war. I have so much hatred in me I could go murder more sandniggers and I would just smile. That goes for almost everyone here. We had sympathy for them after the war but now we have absolutely nothing but hatred for them. We should have killed more during the war. I let all kinds of ‘innocent’ people go when I should have just mowed them down.”
By August, as their deployment drew to a close, Noah and some of his friends found a new way to vent: Close to Noah’s camp, two hens were kept in a hole deep enough that they couldn’t escape. Soldiers regularly pelted the hens with rocks until they were near death. One day, a sergeant caught them. “It was funny as hell,” Noah wrote. “He stood there watching in total disbelief for a good five minutes. Then he asked if we needed to talk to a chaplain. We told him we already talked to a psychiatrist and a chaplain and that it doesn’t help. He continued to watch like we were crazy then told us to quit.”
Then, as a casual coda—almost an afterthought—Noah added: “Oh yeah, one of my friends that I do this with accidentally killed a 3-year-old kid. He was shooting a SAW (fully automatic machine gun) at a car and a stray bullet caught this kid in the head. Oh well, one less motherfucker that won’t grow up and continue this shit. Luckily he is not in any trouble. They are keeping it quiet though. Well, fuck this place and I am going to vent some stress on the chickens and hopefully hoadjis later. I love you guys. Love, Noah.”
In September 2004, Noah’s 15 months were up, and he was sent back to Fort Stewart. He took a two-week leave to go home. Cheryl was enormously proud of her son and often told him so. “He’d get mad because he didn’t think there was anything to be proud of,” she says.
“It’s like the devil followed him home and wouldn’t let him be,” Tom Softich tells me. “I don’t have the answer. I know I feel that we failed him somehow. . . . I tried to get his mind into other places. I’d do things with him that he liked to do.”
For the first time in our days together, Tom’s emotions get the better of him. He rasps an apology before starting to sob.
In February 2005, Noah returned to Iraq. He was assigned to a new unit and sent to Balad, a city of 100,000, 50 miles north of Baghdad. Insurgent activity was at record levels, and immediately the unit began making contact with their elusive enemy.
The carnage on all sides far surpassed anything Noah had seen six months earlier.
On February 27, Noah sent an anguished e-mail home. “Well, I had a really bad day mom,” it began. “First I totaled a hoadjies car, but I did that on purpose. but then we had to go back out for a second mission and i ran over a little boy on accident. I was the last vehicle and i ran him over on the left side so my crew didn’t see it. i told them later i must have hit a dog. the kid was between 8–10 years old only. hopefully the family doesn’t try and do anything because the army might think it was weird i total a car and kill a kid in a matter of a couple of hours. i feel really bad but i thought he would get out of my way.”
Noah wrote in a journal about the fear he had of roadside bombs, about friends who’d shot Iraqis and been put on suicide watch, and about his growing sense of isolation. He also kept with him a small graduation photograph of his sister, Sarah, and would look at it during dark moments. “Lately I have been thinking I don’t even want to come back alive,” Noah wrote on March 15. “Granted I would never kill myself, but I hate life. If I died here, I would be young and it would be an honorable way to go. Let’s face it, I have no future when I get back.”
Violence in Balad increased, and the unit started losing men. The constant mortar fire coming into their camp killed a soldier, and roadside bombs were exploding virtually every time they crossed the wire. Twice, Noah was riding in the gun turret when they were hit; twice he escaped apparently unharmed. He said privately, however, that he was certain he had some traumatic brain injury, although later, back home, he would skip appointments to test for it, afraid of what they might confirm.
At the end of April, he had to clear out of his living quarters when a medic became suicidal. “If this shit keeps up I will snap,” he wrote in his journal. “If I do, I’m just going to start killing motherfuckers. Either Iraqis or soldiers, whatever sets me off. I doubt I will, but this is gonna be a stressful 8 months.”
His next entry is two weeks later: “So far, this has been the worst month of my life. With all this work I have been ready to snap. I don’t know how much I can take. A car pissed me off last night. The fucker kept flashing me and when he pulled off the road I almost ran him over. I changed my mind though. I could have gotten away with killing that motherfucker though. My transmission was going out and I could have blamed it on that. I am just waiting for a good opportunity though. I am just waiting for the chance where I know people will die.”
The entry closes, “I am a bad person.”
“It’s titanic pain that these men live with. They don’t feel that they can get that across, in part because they feel they deserve it, and in part because they don’t feel people will understand it,” says Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with combat vets for 23 years and written two books about PTSD, or psychological and moral injury, as he insists it should be known. “Despair, this word that’s so hard to get our arms around. It’s despair that rips apart people [who] feel they’ve become irredeemable.”
I tell Shay about Noah’s experiences in Iraq, in particular the killing, the loss of comrades, the nightmares. He’s saddened but not surprised: “The flip side of this fellow’s despair was the murderous rages he experienced on his second tour. In combat, soldiers become each other’s mothers. The rage, need for revenge, and self-sacrificial commitment toward protecting each other when comrades are killed [are] akin to when a mother’s offspring are put in danger or killed.”
“On July 4th I went to kill a man that came too close to my truck,” Noah wrote in his journal in 2005. Consumed by paranoia and a lust for revenge, Noah assumed the driver had to be a car bomber—and if he wasn’t, he deserved a bullet anyway. “Well, my dumb ass forgot to chamber a round, I got lucky because it was just a stupid driver, and he got lucky from my mistake. I’m pretty pissed about it, I had him dead in my sights. I got to shoot at some other people that day, but missed I guess. We didn’t actually stop to check.”
That month, after writing about another bomb attack and his decision to become an alcoholic back home—“If you don’t give a shit about anything, nothing can bother you”—Noah stopped keeping his journal. He wrote letters only occasionally.
Near the end of his deployment, Noah was assigned guard duty at a checkpoint. A man in a car failed to slow down, and Noah killed him. The dead man was discovered to be a doctor. “That was the last person Noah killed,” Cheryl tells me, as if unburdening herself of this final secret. But still she defends him. “It was on orders from his commander, and Noah shot the man. A nice clean shot.”
Noah took a picture of the grisly scene with his cell phone. “We saw it,” Cheryl recalls, “and said, ‘You have it in your head, you don’t need to see it every time you open your phone.’ So Tommy threatened he was going to smash the phone or something, and Noah got rid of it. He left his wallet lying around and I went through it one day and found a note written to this doctor. He was apologizing over and over, ‘I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?’ [That] type of thing. I took that note and threw it on the stove and burned it. I figured it was something he didn’t need.”
After his honorable discharge on June 26, 2006, Noah moved back into his basement bedroom. “I can honestly say he was nothing but a messed up, confused little boy—man, child, all wrapped into one. Didn’t know . . .” Cheryl pauses to gather herself, “. . . didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t drive a car really, because driving he was constantly worried about car bombs. You’re not the same after. He didn’t laugh anymore, he didn’t smile anymore, and if he did, it was phony and it never went to the eyes.”
Noah visited the VA clinic and talked about his nightmares. A therapist prescribed Ambien and told him to come back in a couple of months. The sleeping pills didn’t help, and he started drinking more heavily. He quit his job as a janitor at the U.S. Steel plant where Tom worked, after some men ridiculed him for having PTSD. Noah pissed into a mop bucket, soaked a cloth in it, and wiped down their lunch table before leaving.
One day soon after, Noah was sitting with his mother in the living room, chatting, when his sister, Sarah, walked in. Noah leapt to his feet and threw her across the room. “He would snap and go into another world, his Iraq world,” Cheryl says.
“I don’t like to tell people that he hit me,” Sarah says, “because I don’t want people to think that that’s my brother; that was not him. It was him when he got back from Iraq.”
She remembers the story Noah told her, how one day he watched his best friend in Iraq blown up by a roadside bomb, how he went around with a plastic bag picking up body parts to send home. “When he left the room, I cried after that. I just cried,” Sarah says. “I couldn’t even imagine. I wouldn’t even want to.” But even if Sarah felt she understood the source of Noah’s rage, she never understood what set it off.
At the end of November 2006, Noah was sitting on the couch with Sarah, channel surfing, when he attacked her. “It was just from out of nowhere, I don’t know if it was something on the TV that triggered him,” she says. “I seriously couldn’t breathe because he was choking my life out of me. I mean, I could not breathe, my face was turning blue, and he was beating me with the phone.
“It was very scary, just straight evil came over his face. It was horrible. When he finally realized what he was doing, that’s when I got up and ran.”
Days later, Sarah came home early from work and found Noah packing his things. He was moving in with his friend Tyler Nuberg, who had a spare room. “I think he was worried he was going to hurt one of us,” Cheryl says. “We were sitting together one day, and out of the blue, matter-of-fact, he said, ‘I could kill every one of you in the house, not give it a second thought, and go to sleep.’ ”
Noah started working at Tyler’s family business, a kayak factory, and every evening he would sit in his chair next to a mini-fridge full of Michelob Golden Draft Light and listen to music. Almost every night he played an acoustic ballad by the band Smile Empty Soul called “This Is War.” In haunting detail, it describes kicking in doors and blowing people’s heads off “for my country.” The song is a favorite among many returning veterans. Noah requested in his suicide note that it be played at his funeral.
Cheryl was dropping by Tyler and Noah’s place virtually every day, and each time she left the house in tears. He was becoming angrier and would berate her in slurring, drunken tirades. “Noah drank to forget and he drank because he hated himself,” Cheryl says.
On Monday, July 25, 2007, it was already hot when Noah left for the kayak factory. He was in a good mood, and there was nothing strange about his behavior, except that for lunch he had only a beer, Tyler remembered later. Noah left work early, and at about five o’clock, his mother, planning to drop off mail and see her son, drove by his house and the factory looking for his truck. When she couldn’t find it, Cheryl assumed he was at the recruiter’s office. He had been talking about signing up again, but this time, he’d told Sarah, he planned on dying in Iraq.
“It was a quarter to five or so,” Cheryl recalls, “and so I pick up the telephone, ‘Hey it’s me, wanna know if you want to have dinner with me, see me, talk to me, but I guess not,’ and I hung up the phone, didn’t tell him I loved him or anything, just hung up the phone.” Twenty-five minutes later her phone buzzed with a text message from Noah. “I opened it up and it says, ‘i love you guys so much and i’m so sorry.’ I text him back, ‘You are my heart, Noah,’ and then I went to call him, and before I could call him Sarah called me. She wanted to know if I’d just got a text message from Noah, and I said yes and she started screaming.”
Noah was at “the spot”—where he’d practiced marksmanship at 13 with Tom and cut school to fish with his friends. He’d parked his old, brick-red Sonoma pickup in the clearing, between a small patch of birch trees and a discarded, upturned boat seat. With his knife he carved FREEDOM ISN’T FREE in the pickup’s dashboard. He took his photo IDs from his wallet and stabbed his face out of each one. He punched the rearview mirror, smashing the glass.
At some point, he took a picture of himself with his cell phone. It would be the last photograph of Noah alive. And it is a portrait of despair: His shirt is off and he looks as though he’s been crying. Between five and six that evening, he sent a message to his friends Ryan Nelson and Tyler: “bam life’s a bitch i’m out.”
Noah scrawled a suicide note on the back of a National Rifle Association pistol-safety certificate and then started drinking. “Time’s finally up,” he wrote, “I am not a good person, I have done bad things. I have taken lives, now it’s time to take mine.”
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.
A few weeks before Memorial Day 2008, fresh sod finally was laid over the loose dirt covering Noah at the Calvary Cemetery in Virginia, Minnesota, which crests a gentle hill, opposite the hospital. His mother and sister, who split their time between here and the spot, have finished decorating veterans’ graves with flags. They sit cross-legged on Noah’s plot, talking quietly.
In the first months after Noah’s death, Cheryl had gotten interest in her proposal to mandate counseling for returning veterans from Representatives Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) and Senators Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota). But now months have passed since she has received word from any of them. Sarah runs a fingernail through the etched letters on the headstone: I-r-a-q, she spells aloud. “It doesn’t need to say anything else,” Cheryl says.
“Have you had the urge to dig?” Sarah asks her mother. “I started one day. God, I’m so glad that the grass is down now. I just wanted to check he was still down there.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Cheryl replies, “that I’m so glad the grass is there, otherwise I’d be digging. Just to get to him, just to see him one more time.”
Ashley Gilbertson’s many honors include the 2004 Robert Capa Gold Medal, the Photographer of the Year from the National Photo Awards, and selection of his work for Time magazine’s “Pictures of the Year.” He is the author of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War. His website is www.ashleygilbertson.com. Excerpted from the Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2008), a national journal of literature and discussion; www.vqronline.org.