Sgt. James Roger Kirker didn’t mind the boom of a ceremonial cannon at a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Memorial Day celebration five years ago. It was the silence that followed he couldn’t stand.
To a medic newly home from Afghanistan, a blast meant a close friend could be hurt but rescued.
Radio silence is worse. It means a fallen soldier could not answer comrades running to help.
“That sounded exactly like an IED blast,” Kirker later told his ex-wife. “The worst thing a medic can hear after that is dead silence.”
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He left the memorial service that day and did not rejoin his family.
In many ways, he never would.
The medic who joined the Army at age 34 because he said he wanted “to take care of soldiers” killed himself this year, in March. It was his sixth attempt to end his life, his loved ones said.
His suicide was the latest tragedy to befall a group of veterans and Army families that have shared too many deaths since they met at JBLM in the buildup to a fateful tour in Afghanistan.
Kirker, 42, served in the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment — the unit that suffered more fatal casualties in the Afghanistan war than any other comparable Army force. It lost 22 soldiers while looking for Taliban insurgents in 2009-10 just as the U.S. military began to expand its forces in that war.
In the five years since the 1-17 came home, a disturbing run of at least eight stateside deaths has rattled its veterans and reminded them that the deployment hasn’t ended for all of them.
The first to die after the war was Cpl. Roger Scherf, who was killed in a Spanaway car accident in March 2011. In Afghanistan, Scherf had survived a bomb that killed seven other soldiers in their 20-ton Stryker.
In March 2014, another veteran of the deployment was shot to death by police in his University Place apartment. Brian McLeod reportedly answered the door with a shotgun in hand after a struggle with a buddy from the 1-17 prompted neighbors to call police.
Kirker killed himself while coping with grinding pain from a surgical infection he developed at Madigan Army Medical Center. He did it with a disciplinary discharge looming over his Army career.
His death ripped open the scars once more.
“I’m still holding my breath wondering who will be next,” Francheska Brinkley, a spouse of a 1-17 veteran, wrote on Facebook as news of Kirker’s death spread. “Sadly, that’s how I think a lot of people felt during that deployment, not if and when, but who is next? As if death was inevitable to these strong, young noble men.”
That James Roger Kirker took his own life didn’t surprise the people who knew him well.
He seemed troubled almost as soon he returned from the war, avoiding family and friends who reminded him of Afghanistan.
Cindy Kirker, his wife since age 20, noticed that he’d confuse memories of their youth in southwest Ohio. For the first time in his life, he started missing events with his kids.
He left her within seven months of returning from the war, moving to an apartment in Steilacoom because, he said, “I don’t want my kids to see me the way I am. I still have things to work out.”
The Army reassigned him to a clinic at Madigan Army Medical Center, where a co-worker named Lanaye Bergren caught his eye.
They had lunch together in December 2010, Bergren said. At the time, both were married but anticipating separations from their spouses. They said they’d go on a real date three years later.
Their relationship developed much faster than they intended.
It drove a wedge between Kirker and his family. As Cindy saw it, her husband had abandoned her and their teenagers with Bergren’s help. From Bergren’s standpoint, Cindy and the kids had pushed the soldier away from them.
In what is believed to be his first suicide attempt, Kirker raised a gun to kill himself in July 2011. Bergren said she wrestled the gun away from him.
Over time, he’d be committed twice to a post-traumatic stress and alcohol abuse program in Portland. He’d also be assigned to Madigan’s around-the-clock monitoring mental health ward, known as Five North.
AN ARREST AND AN INFECTION
Kirker’s descent accelerated in the spring and summer of 2014. A series of incidents pushed him past his breaking point.
The first came in April, when Thurston County sheriff’s deputies found him carrying a neighbor’s pistol just after a woman had reported a burglary. Kirker didn’t admit to breaking into the house when deputies detained him in the woods nearby, but he told officers he “wanted to end the thoughts in his head,” according to police records.
His arrest that day set in motion an Army disciplinary process that would end in his expulsion from the military.
Worse, Kirker convinced himself he’d be punished with a dishonorable discharge that would deny him the veterans benefits he had earned by serving in Afghanistan.
The second incident took place last summer, when he contracted a flesh-eating bacteria during a hip surgery at Madigan Army Medical Center.
Necrotizing fasciitis ate away at his leg muscle. He spent weeks at Madigan recovering and emerged with worse pain than the original injury that brought him to the operating room.
He couldn’t walk upstairs comfortably or do much of the yardwork that sometimes eased his mind, he wrote four months ago in a list of ailments that The News Tribune reviewed.
Madigan would not comment on Kirker’s infection. Bergren filed a complaint that triggered an investigation by the agency charged with accrediting the hospital, and an unannounced inspection of the hospital on May 27.
“You can only trudge through mud so long,” she said about Kirker’s long bout with PTSD. “And he just finally mentally, emotionally and physically had muscle failure.”
‘TAKE CARE OF SOLDIERS’
This wasn’t the future Kirker imagined for himself and his family when he left his career as a civilian paramedic in Ohio to join the Army in 2006 at the height of the Iraq War.
Back then, Kirker decided to enlist because he wanted “to take care of soldiers” instead of the drug addicts he told Cindy he would often meet on the job.
If he had any hesitancy about enlisting, a cousin’s death in the Iraq War took it away, said Cindy Kirker.
His father, James Kirker Sr., a veteran of two combat tours in Vietnam, took his son aside for a frank talk about war.
Over a six-pack, the father told his son: “You’re going to see, hear and smell things you’re never going to forget. You’re going to have to do things that are unnatural to you. You don’t want to do this.”
But the younger Kirker “always came back with a better argument” supporting his decision to enlist.
Kirker, Cindy and their two kids moved to Fort Lewis the next year to join a new Army Stryker brigade building up for a deployment to war.
‘TELL SARAH I’M SORRY’
The invisible wounds that would plague Kirker for years began with a mission he missed on Aug. 25, 2009.
On that day in Afghanistan, a buried bomb killed Capt. John Hallett, Capt. Cory Jenkins, Sgt. 1st Class Ron Sawyer and Spc. Dennis Williams.
It was a startling attack that destroyed a 20-ton Stryker and claimed the lives of a company commander and the 1-17’s top doctor.
Kirker believed he should have been on the mission with Hallett delivering humanitarian assistance and getting to know one of the villages they’d be patrolling.
Sawyer, restless to go on a mission, took Kirker’s spot.
Back home, Cindy learned about the attack from a phone message her husband left. “Tell Sarah I’m sorry,” he said, referring to Sawyer’s wife.
The Kirkers and Sawyers had grown close before the deployment. Sawyer was the battalion senior enlisted medic; Kirker was one of his guys.
After Sawyer’s death, Cindy Kirker said, her husband made a point to go on as many missions as he could.
As the months wore on, Kirker joined the battalion in fighting alongside Marines in Helmand province. He told Cindy and later Bergren that he shot an innocent boy during a shootout with insurgents.
It was the second moment that would haunt Kirker after his homecoming. He regretted not risking his own life in the shootout to pull the boy to safety.
“I chose coming home to you rather than saving that kid,” he told Cindy.
A FATEFUL DIAGNOSIS
Three years after Kirker came home from Afghanistan, Army leaders wanted him out of the military.
Officers wrote in a July 2013 performance evaluation that his PTSD was interfering with his work. They noted that he was becoming combative with leadership, including arguments with a command sergeant major in public.
A medical report attached to the evaluation shows Kirker was having nightmares and avoiding people who reminded him of Afghanistan.
It cited incidents from his combat deployment as the root of his anguish — his guilt for missing the mission that killed Sawyer, his close exposure to multiple explosions, and the shootout where he killed the Afghan boy.
The medical document also included a characterization of Kirker’s PTSD that would have lasting consequences after his burglary arrest in 2014.
It concluded that his PTSD predated his military service. The Army officially determined he incurred it during his work as a civilian paramedic before he joined the Army in 2006.
The diagnosis meant Kirker might not be eligible for certain legal protections. The military is generally prohibited from giving punitive discharges to soldiers who act out after developing mental health problems from exposure to combat.
Disciplinary documents obtained by The News Tribune show that Madigan had moved forward with an “other than honorable” discharge that could have resulted in a loss of benefits.
It was signed in November 2014 by former Madigan Commander Col. Ramona Fiorey to discipline Kirker for the April burglary arrest and for his failure to show up to work several days in early 2014. An Army spokesman told The News Tribune he could not comment on the discipline.
Kirker had tried to fight his discharge, writing to an officer that his post-war medical struggles and stress from his divorce that year had left him feeling worthless. He felt disregarded by his leaders, too, because he believed they were not giving him productive work that would help him recover.
“I feel that some of the blame lies with my command,” he wrote.
Kirker took his life before his case had concluded. It’s not clear whether he actually would have lost his benefits and been subjected to a punitive discharge.
The medical records his fiancee showed The News Tribune also indicate that doctors recognized his PTSD had been exacerbated by his military service. That means he still might have been able to fight for a neutral discharge that would allow him to retain his benefits.
Bergren today still sounds appalled that an Army doctor would label Kirker’s PTSD as a pre-existing condition when all of his symptoms centered on his memories of Afghanistan.
““He very much held things in his heart, and he wasn’t able to let go,” she said.
The last time he saw his son alive, James Kirker Sr. thought the medic would recover from the war.
On that visit to his son’s Yelm home in November 2014, the younger Kirker looked relaxed in a way he hadn’t in years. They worked on an old car together. Kirker felt pain in his leg and hip as he recovered from his surgical infection, but the family made accommodations for him.
“He was always a very neat and organized person,” Kirker Sr. said. “When I was there in July, his garage was a total mess. In November, his garage was neat, when I saw that, I thought he turned a corner; he’s coming back.”
Even Cindy, who mourned the person her husband had become after the war, thought Kirker was getting better. Their daughter had reached out to him over the winter to invite him to her high school graduation. It sounded as if he planned to go.
But behind the scenes, Kirker kept battling with the Army over his pending discharge and treatment at Madigan.
He wrote to The News Tribune in February, charging that his surgical infection was being “swept under the carpet.” Madigan officials wouldn’t tell him whether it was investigating what caused his necrotizing fasciitis.
On the night before he killed himself, he visited Bergren in their bedroom but told her he was feeling restless. He said he planned to mess around in the garage. He didn’t want to keep her awake.
Kirker didn’t reply to a text she sent him when she woke up. She walked to the garage, where she found a suicide note and his body, hanging.
BAGGAGE THEY BRING
News of Kirker’s death early March 23 rocked the soldiers who served with him in Afghanistan. A support group for 1-17 veterans lit up immediately. They shared memories of Doc Kirker working to keep them alive.
“He saved my life,” said Jeremiah Butts of Utah, a former Army specialist who credits Kirker with keeping him alive after an explosion.
Some discussed overcoming their own suicidal thoughts; others offered an ear or help finding a job to anyone who needed a lift.
“It’s scary because a lot of guys are depressed,” said Derek MacDougall, 26, a 1-17 veteran who founded the social media support group to help friends reconnect. “We just had a brutal deployment.”
Kirker Sr. made another trip back to the Northwest for his son’s funeral in Tumwater. He wept over the soldier he tried to talk out of enlisting. He looked at the young men from the 1-17 who shared his grief and saw his son’s struggles.
“Those guys were hurt bad,” he said. “Some of the things they have to deal with — they make good decisions — but the baggage they bring back is unbelievable.”
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN OF THE 1-17
Twenty-two soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment were killed in Afghanistan during their 2009-10 deployment. Their names and the dates they were killed:
Aug. 18, 2009: Sgt. Troy Tom, Pfc. Jonathan Yanney
Aug. 25, 2009: Capt. John Hallett III, Capt. Cory Jenkins, Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Sawyer, Pfc. Dennis Williams
Aug. 31, 2009: Pfc. Jordan Brochu, Spc. Tyler Walshe, Spc. Jonathan Welch
Sept. 26, 2009: Spc. Kevin Graham
Oct. 17, 2009: Spc. Michael Dahl Jr
Oct. 21, 2009: Spc. Kyle Coumas
Oct. 27, 2009: Sgt. Fernando De La Rosa, Sgt. 1st Class Luis Gonzalez, Sgt. Dale Griffin, Sgt. Issac Jackson, Spc. Jared Stanker, Pfc. Christopher Walz, Sgt. Patrick Williamson
Nov. 5, 2009: Spc. Aaron Aamot, Spc. Gary Gooch
March 4, 2010: Sgt. Anthony Paci
RESOURCES FOR SOLDIERS, VETERANS
Tacoma Vet Center is a VA program that puts counselors out in communities. It can be reached at (253) 565-7038.
Current military service members and military retirees can access programs at Madigan Army Medical Center. Its behavioral health resources are listed at www.mamc.amedd.army.mil/clinical/behavioral-health. Call for an appointment at (800) 404-4506.
Soldiers Project Northwest is a group of mental health professionals in the Puget Sound region who volunteer time to meet with troops and veterans. For more information, go to www.thesoldiersproject.org or call at (877) 576-5343.
The Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs provides counseling and a list of other regional resources. For more information, go to www.dva.wa.gov/benefits/counseling.