This past week my neighborhood was hit with a violent tragedy that could have been prevented. When I read that statement it sounds cliché. Isn’t that what we say about almost any tragedy? “If only the father hadn’t left the gun in reach of the children. If only she’d been wearing her seatbelt. If only the smoke detector had been working. If only…”
Across the street from my home and a few doors down, a young man’s emotions overtook his rational thought. He shot and killed his girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself. A 27-year-old woman taken. A 29-year-man gone. A 10-year-old son left broken and forever changed. All of them lost.
I’d never met the couple. They’d moved in only two weeks before. The neighbors closest to them said he’d been very friendly but that there’d been terrible fighting between the couple. The police had even been called the Saturday before the Monday that stopped everything in our little country neighborhood.
The relationship was abusive and the woman, Christina, had sought help to move her out of the situation. From what I understand, she went to an advocacy center for abused women. She had an appointment that Monday morning. It was her failure to show up for the appointment that helped lead to a welfare check by the Sheriff’s department and the discovery of the tragedy.
She almost got out. Almost. The Saturday the police were called it was because the boyfriend, Nelson, refused to let her take her belongings. It was decided with the deputy that they would make arrangements for another time. Now, here I’m speaking on speculation that I’m basing on my own training and experience. She went back for her things because she thought she could talk to him. He may have even lured her there with a nice change in attitude that made her feel like she could get through to him. She had the foresight to leave her son with relatives but she still went. This is where more should have been done. Family and professionals should have given her a loud, “no.” People stuck in abuse often need a shepherd to lead them out of the darkness. They’re often in a place where they can’t make rational decisions for themselves. Family or professionals at the shelter should have told her that she was entitled to an escort. The sheriff’s deputy should have told her that. One person standing stronger could have changed the outcome.
At this point it’s easy to look at Nelson as a diabolical creature driven by rage. A selfish and evil man who would rather kill than let his girlfriend go. But there’s more to the story. He was a veteran who’d just returned from a second tour in Afghanistan. He had PTSD and was supposedly on disability for it. From my point of view, he was just as much of a victim.
Combat takes men and hammers away parts of them. You can’t submerge a person in a situation surrounded by extreme stress and death and think that they will come back the way they were before. War takes its pound of flesh from every soldier. Some give everything. Some give a limb. Some give pieces of who they use to be, how they use to think. All give part of their peace. All give part of their soul.
My grandfather was a veteran of WWII. I loved my grandfather dearly and he treated me well, but that wasn’t the case for all of his family. He returned from war a changed man. He became an alcoholic. My grandmother told me stories about how she couldn’t enter a room too quietly because it might startle him and he’d hit her. The ghosts of war ruined their marriage. They marred his relationship with his daughter and his grandsons. My mother’s wounds from his parenting greatly affected her self-esteem and that in turn affected her relationships. My grandfather’s sacrifice became a generational sacrifice. The price was too high for him to pay alone, the debt trickled down. We all gave a share.
I hurt for the people he hurt, but I hurt most for him. He was a sergeant on the front lines. He saw and lived things that even the most graphic film can’t recreate. When he drank he’d tell stories. I remember the one about a Japanese soldier sneaking up on him in his sleep. He was able to raise his bayonet in time to drive it through the other soldier. He died on top of my grandfather staring into his eyes. I sometimes wonder if my PawPaw ever stopped seeing those eyes. Could anyone?
Thinking of my grandfather makes me wonder what Nelson saw during his tours. I know that whatever it was, I’m sure it was a huge piece of what made him a man who lost control, and then lost everything. And as evil as his act was, I have a hard time believing the young man handing out candy on Halloween dressed as a Jedi was just born evil. I believe he was broken and there wasn’t enough done to help him. I don’t think there’s enough done for any of our soldiers who come back with “invisible” wounds. I think Christina thought of those things too. I imagine she stayed with him because she loved him and knew that he was sick. She probably used it as an excuse for much of the abuse. She probably felt like a caretaker who saw enough of the good that it allowed her to excuse some of the bad. That’s why she needed a shepherd to lead her out, and he needed a shepherd to lead him back.
One out of four women in the U.S. has been in an abusive relationship. Every 9 seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten. Everyday in the U.S more than 3 women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. 74% (3 out of 4) Americans personally know someone who is or was a victim of domestic violence. If you know me, include yourself in that 74%. I wasn’t always so lucky to be married to my amazing husband. I was twice the victim of abusive relationships (it becomes a cycle) and I know what it’s like to wish someone else would stand up and be strong for you. I know what it’s like to pray for somebody to lead you out because you’re too stuck to do it yourself. That’s why I ask now that you pay attention to those around you. Reach out. Be strong. Lead them to help even if they’re saying they don’t want it. Don’t be left with the regrets I’m sure Christina’s friends and family have.
And for Nelson, don’t simply toss him away onto the pile of every other vile man who has abused a woman. His deed was horrific but more could have been done to prevent it. There has to be more programs in place to transition soldiers slowly back into normal life. Just like you can’t drop an untrained soldier into combat and expect him to survive, you can’t drop a returning man back into the normal world and expect him to thrive.
According to Bob Woodruff’s organization ReMIND, the following is true: Over 67,000 U.S. veterans are homeless. Since September 11, 2001 more than 2.5 million service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. One in every 50 has sustained a physical combat injury while one in five suffer from TBI, PTS, and/or depression. It’s estimated by the VA that a veteran dies by suicide every 80 seconds. On average, one suicide per day takes place in the military. This year the number of service members who took their own lives surpassed the number killed in combat.
More has to be done to help victims of domestic violence. More has to be done to help our soldiers. Christina and Nelson became part of the statistics above. Her son became the most tragic victim of all. How does a 10-year-old boy recover from that kind of loss? I don’t know. All I know is that my heart bleeds for him and I pray that more is done to keep more children from losing their parents. I pray for more people to stand up and help light a way for the lost.