The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce

A small-town soldier returns from Iraq broken. He is not alone. He thinks he is.

| March-April 2009

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    For more photos, visit the image gallery above.
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Noah Pierce's mother, Cheryl Softich, recalls details of her son's life.
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Stepfather Tom Softich stands by Lake Vermilion
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Noah Pierce's sister, Sarah Softich
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Noah Pierce's bedroom. The photograph is of Noah with the last deer he shot.
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Noah Pierce's memorial (cross second from right), near "the spot" in Sparta, Minnesota.
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    Cheryl Softich holds the phone her son used to take the last photograph of himself at "the spot" on July 25, 2007
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    A poem called "Drunk" from Noah's notebook
    image by Ashley Gilbertson
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    A poem he wrote called "Two Tours of Iraq"
    image by Ashley Gilbertson

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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.

 

Evans PMcG
1/1/2010 2:37:24 PM

Powerful. Shocking. Sad. Tragic. I feel like I know Noah and some of the other vets just a little bit better from reading this. This is happening to a whole generation of my fellow twenty-somethings... and I know so little about what's going on! Part of me resonates with the young men in "Lions for Lambs," who enlist because the "War on Terror" is the most defining characteristic of their generation... and end up losing their lives. I'm not sure what life is, but war is a drug... turning everything to sh*t, life included.


Casey Newberg
5/5/2009 12:52:22 AM

This was my friend, he was a wonderful person. He'd been my brothers' best friend for as long as I can remember... (My brother Tyler *Newberg* not Nuberg) Many people loved him, and miss him. He will always be remembered and loved forever in my heart. Noah Pierce a Hero, never forgotten, always missed, always loved. Casey Newberg