The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce
By Ashley Gilbertson
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 twenty-three, 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—a common side effect of post-traumatic 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 must have been a dog,” he told his commanders. 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—as the fragments of Noah’s poetry might lead you to believe—it could have been the doctor he killed at a checkpoint.
Noah Pierce grew up in Sparta, Minnesota, a town of fewer than one thousand 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. These were the mines that made the Second Industrial Revolution. Range steel became the tracks of railroads, the wires of suspension bridges, the girders of skyscrapers. It became the weapons and artillery of the World Wars. WELCOME TO MOUNTAIN IRON, THE TACONITE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD reads a sign greeting visitors along the highway. There are so many open pit mines that the cities seem perched on tiny outcrops, overlooking gaping holes ready to engulf them. Around the clock, deep metallic groans come out of the ground, and freight trains barrel through, horns screeching. Blasting takes place so close to people’s houses, residents open their front doors so the pressure doesn’t blow out their windows. Locals are proud of their hardworking, hard-drinking heritage. There are more than twenty bars on Eveleth’s half-mile-long main street. On a typical night last May, when I was there, 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.
Right from the start, Noah had seemed ill-equipped for life on the range. He 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, Dale Pierce, a deep-sea diver who worked on oil rigs, 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 six, Tommy began taking him hunting, and by thirteen 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 his 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.
Noah Pierce was not the only veteran wrestling with depression and PTSD. This April, Ira R. Katz, Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for Mental Health at the 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 VA investigation into the number of veterans attempting suicide. Based on their surveys and tabulations from the NCHS’s National Death Index and the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System, Katz estimated that between 550 and 650 veterans are committing suicide each month. It is possible that the number of suicide deaths among veterans in 2008 alone will double the combined combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. 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 traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are excluded from the count of 50,000 severe combat wounds—even though PTSD and TBI often have far greater long-term health effects than bullet wounds or even lost limbs. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that one in five (approximately 300,000) Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from depression or stress disorders and another 320,000 suffer from TBIs that place them at a higher risk for depression and stress disorders.
Noah’s mother, Cheryl, 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 told me. “It needs to be mandatory. Noah was an excellent soldier, and if it was mandatory, he would have gone faithfully to every appointment. But it wasn’t.”
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