My son, Nolan Edward Stites, was an Army Reservist assigned to the 52nd Combat Engineer Battalion on Fort Carson, Colorado. He successfully completed nine months in the Army Reserve “delayed entry” program with the 52nd Engineers and received a promotion due to his excellent performance. In the summer of 2000 he reported to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for Basic Combat Training where he became ill with clinical depression shortly thereafter. Nolan sought help for his illness and was a patient under care of the U.S. Army when he died during his seventh week on the Missouri army post.
Nolan graduated from high school with honors, never got into trouble and was respected as mature by all adults that knew him. He was an active church member, did not smoke, drink, use drugs or have any history of mental or family problems. Nolan was a rugged and physically fit outdoorsman, expert marksman with all types of firearms and loved the military. He held high ideals and was very patriotic. Nolan’s many NCO and Officer friends familiar with his out-door skills and endurance considered Nolan potentially a model soldier.
During his second week at Fort Leonard Wood, Nolan complained of the heat and humidity and said his forehead was severely sunburned and swollen. Nolan, a native of Colorado, was not used to Missouri’s climate in July. Two weeks later he called home and reported leg cramps, insomnia, loss of appetite and cognitive problems with reading, writing and understanding what was being said to him. I, as his father, unwittingly made the mistake of responding with a letter, advising him to seek medical care on post, a recruit’s only source of help. Nolan, being one not to complain, tried to tough it out and continued training until his ailments progressed to bladder control problems, making it impossible to go on. He went to his roommates, drill sergeants and finally the Brigade Chaplain for assistance.
Nolan told the Chaplain he was depressed and had suicidal thoughts, a common symptom of depression. The Chaplain recognized Nolan needed to be seen by a mental health professional and, as required in this type of case, reported his findings to the Company Commander. The Company Commander immediately removed Nolan from training and put him on “Suicide or Unit Watch,” the Standard Operational Procedure in use on Fort Leonard Wood at that time. According to the Captain, Nolan ranked in the top 10% of the company when he placed my son on unit watch.
Unit watch is a disciplinary program of humiliation and ostracism used by the military to deter manipulative recruits from claiming mental problems to get out of the service. They removed Nolan from all training but not the unit; made him sleep in the War Room, using tired, resentful, and untrained teenagers to guard him at night. Without any medical treatment, Nolan was forced to parade around in front of his peers for fifteen days, minus belt and bootlaces. Ostracized from training and humiliated as a marked man, Nolan was so distraught over his situation he told a roommate he was considering ending his life by jumping from the third story window. The worried roommates got together and wrote their drill sergeant a note expressing their concerns to no avail; their note was ignored!
On the fifth day of his ordeal, Nolan saw an Army social worker that misdiagnosed him as “a Special Ed. student that never got help” and “unfit for service.” (Nolan had just graduated from high school with a grade point average above 3.5.) The social worker returned Nolan to the barracks on full “Unit Watch” without further follow-up for the last ten days of his life. On unit watch, Nolan was subjected to sleep deprivation, humiliation, and embarrassment. In front of the entire platoon, Nolan’s drill sergeant challenged him to jump and kill himself, even offered to open the window. (This kind of mental abuse is devastating to a patient suffering from clinical depression.) Nolan wrote his drill sergeant a note pleading for help, “nobody will help now but I need emergency help to live, my parents want me to live and so do I.” The platoon sergeant in charge never took appropriate action with the note.
After two weeks of unit watch my son called me about his desperate situation. I then called the Red Cross for help and they misspelled Nolan’s last name so bad they had difficulty in locating him on Fort Leonard Wood. Over the telephone, eight hundred miles away, I told the drill sergeants to take Nolan to the hospital. After examining Nolan, the ER doctor gave him an I.V. for dehydration, set up an appointment with the mental health service for the next day and returned Nolan back to the barracks for more “unit watch.” The platoon sergeant placed Nolan next to a window on the third floor. Nolan saw no hope for help and wrote a farewell letter to his family stating, he didn’t know how to get help, there was only one place left for him to go, and “God could never forgive me for disgracing my country and my family.” Stripped of self-esteem and with “no light at the end of the tunnel,” my son, PV2 Stites, did as his sergeant suggested, jumped to his death!
A year later I received a pathetically flawed CID investigation report through FOIA. It did not explain the pencil point size puncture wound to my son’s abdomen, inconsistent with injuries sustained from landing on his back. The CID agent in charge of the investigation photographed another recruit’s ID tag at the death scene and identified it as Nolan’s without reading it. The broken chain from the tag was in blood, two inches from my son’s right ear. Nolan was right handed and his body position was face up. The other boy’s ID tag was sent to us in my son’s personal possessions. Based on my research about unit watch, I suspect my son was being hazed but because of the Feres Doctrine I cannot sue and subpoena witnesses to find out the truth.
If a soldier is suicidal he doesn’t belong in the unit, if he is not suicidal, why take away his belt and bootlaces to mark and humiliate him in front of his peers? That defines what unit watch is all about, punishment for saying you are ill. Nolan’s death did not result from an accidental slip of a surgeon’s knife but 15 days of deliberate abuse. I consider his death a “psychological homicide.” The culprit in this case was not any one individual but the government of the United States for allowing this sadistic and abusive program to exist!
Five weeks earlier, another recruit, PVT Gary Moore from our state of Colorado, also killed himself on Fort Leonard Wood after suffering three weeks of abuse and being made fun of on “Unit Watch.” Both families were denied redress when we filed Tort claims for gross negligence and medical malpractice, resulting in death. The government using the Feres Doctrine responded with a letter denying our claims
stating, “The United States is not liable to service members under the FTCA for injuries that arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service.” No one was held accountable or punished; the sergeant that told Nolan to kill himself was promoted.
Our and Gary Moore’s family discovered, like many other families of deceased active duty soldiers, the Federal government is above the law and you can’t do anything about it.
Richard R. Stites, AKA, “Singe”
Father of the late PV2 Nolan Edward Stites
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