From the Archive: For many politicians, Memorial Day is just another chance to glorify war with little real remembrance of war’s horrors and waste, like the death of one young veteran a year ago, as recalled by Richard L. Fricker in one of his last articles before his own death from heart failure last Sept. 12.
By Richard L. Fricker (Originally published May 27, 2014)
I knew Cody Young only in a peripheral way. He and my son were classmates and skateboard buds. My wife remembers he would come over for a homemade Orange Julius on hot summer days. Thus with great sadness, we learned of his death on May 21, 2014, in what Tulsa police are calling a standoff.
How did a young man, 22 years old, who once entertained dreams of being the next Tony Hawk become the target of a police kill shot? My son and many of Cody’s other friends recall him as a non-violent kid with a big kind heart. What happened? War happened! At least that’s part of the story.
The Tulsa Police Department says it responded to reports of someone shooting at parked cars from a second-floor apartment near 11th and Rockford Ave. at about 1 a.m. Nothing in the releases indicates that Young fired specifically at officers or anyone else, only that he had a long gun at the window. Reports vary as to whether the weapon was a rifle or shotgun.
But Cody’s life began to unravel in 2009, just before graduation from Thomas A. Edison High School when he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. Thomas Edison was known as a preparatory school but there was no way it could have prepared Cody for his future.
Cody was nine when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda attacked New York City’s Trade Center and the Pentagon. A decade later, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were still going strong and it would be naive to think that he didn’t know there was a good chance he would wind up in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But young men are prone to see themselves as immortal, impervious to injury and death. This sense of immortality is joined at the hip by a desire for adventure, or just doing something different to get out of town. So, Cody traded in his skate board for weapons of war. He became a soldier in the Oklahoma National Guard, the Thunderbirds, whose motto is “Always Ready, Always There.” The “there” in this case was Afghanistan.
The Oklahoma Thunderbirds have a proud combat tradition, fighting in many engagements in many wars. During World War Two, they were said to be the first guard unit into Europe and last unit out. Afghanistan would have its own deadly consequences.
As chronicled in Phillip O’Connor piece, “The Deadliest Day” about a patrol on Sept. 9, 2011, “The firefight lasts maybe 15 seconds. When it is over, Oklahoma and its 7,500-member Army National Guard are left to face the state’s bloodiest day in combat since Korea. Three soldiers are dead and two seriously wounded.”
Before Cody and the Thunderbirds returned home 14 men had died and scores were injured. One soldier cited by O’Connor affirmed what anyone who has been to war knows, “Everybody wants to see combat, until they see it.”
Cody, like many others in his deployment, saw a lot. According to family and friends, Cody returned changed, he was distant. He told his mother “something was wrong.” That something was Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), a war disease whose symptoms vary: flashbacks, disassociation, depression often self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, and, worst of all, nightmares and flashbacks.
During a flashback, you are in the present and the past simultaneously, unsure which is real. You don’t know how you got to this moment; a song, an aroma, a sound, a conversation, a movie? Anything can trigger it and you’re left with very little control. In your mind, you’re in combat. Someone must guide you out or it continues until you wear out or pass out.
The nightmares arrive unannounced, until someone wakes you because they hear you screaming, or they run their course and you wake up shaken and confused. Then the long night begins, fighting sleep fearing the nightmare will return.
According to Cody’s mother, he had all the classic PTSD symptoms. He had sought help, but almost nothing was working. Cody, according to reports, spent his last night watching a war movie with a friend. Then something happened.
Only Cody knew what triggered his taking up a weapon and firing at parked cars out the window. Did Cody try to tell the assembled police responders what it was? The police say he was “mumbling” something but they couldn’t understand what he was saying. In a sense, Cody had being trying to say something since he returned from Afghanistan.
At some point, according to Tulsa police accounts, Cody raised his weapon. Only Cody knew where he thought he was or what he was seeing. We do know there were a lot of police around. We do know they brought in one of their armored vehicles. The police simply followed protocol, but did being surrounded and confronted by an armored vehicle have any meaning to Cody or was he in another reality?
Cody can’t tell us now. Seventeen-year veteran officer Gene Hogan ended Cody’s life with a single rifle shot. Nine days earlier, Hogan had led the fifth annual Jared Shoemaker Memorial Walk, named for a U.S. Marine and Tulsa police officer killed during a deployment to Iraq in 2006. It was not immediately known if Hogan was given a specific kill order or if the Tulsa Police Department leaves that decision up to individual officers.
According to Stacy Bannerman, author of “When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind,” writing for Truthout.Org on May 26, 2014, “National Guardsmen have been found to have rates of PTSD as much as three times higher than active duty troops after combat.”
She continued, “The vast differentials in mental health outcomes between reserve and active duty are primarily due to: the lack of post-deployment unit support; markedly poorer post-deployment mental health services and follow-up; and the rapidity with which citizen soldiers return to civilian life after combat.” Remarking on Cody’s death, she said it was “not isolated.”
Locally, H. Caldwell “Callie” O’Keefe, VFW Post 577 chaplain and U.S. Marine veteran of Vietnam, said, “The needs of these veterans are not being addressed by the VA [Veterans Administration]; there needs to be a lot more therapy.”
Caldwell’s remarks echo concerns that Defense Department and VA doctors have been encouraged to downgrade PTSD findings to lower levels, such as “personality disorder.” Caldwell said, “If they call it personality disorder they (DoD and VA) don’t have to pay as much.”
In 2013, the Army completed a study of PTSD diagnoses at Madigan Army Medical Center which was prompted by the discovery of a memo released by the Seattle Times quoting a Center psychiatrist telling colleagues, a soldier who retires with a post-traumatic-stress-disorder diagnosis could eventually receive $1.5 million in government payments.
The memo claims, “He (the psychiatrist) stated that we have to be good stewards of the tax payers dollars, and we have to ensure that we are just not ‘rubber stamping’ a soldier with the diagnoses of PTSD.” Such findings, it was claimed, could cause the Army and VA to go broke. The Army has resisted media efforts to release the complete study.
“People,” Caldwell said, “who have seen combat are getting fucked-up. The public has no idea how prevalent PTSD is and if they did it would scare them to death, as if they’d had to go there themselves.”
The VA has been under fire recently because of long delays in veterans getting treatment. There have been calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, publicly chided veterans groups for not joining in calling for Shinseki to go. The groups responded to the senator, calling his attack a “cheap shot,” among other things. [Update: Shinseki resigned on May 30, 2014.]
In the end, Cody Young was a young man who served his country with honor and in the process came home a walking casualty. To those who knew him, it doesn’t really matter if he was killed by the Taliban or the Tulsa police; he will be missed by his family and friends no matter who ended his life.
We must ask what Cody has taught us about sending our young men and women into the meat grinder of war as well as understanding their needs when they return. The sad fates of Cody and the thousands of other veterans who have returned home to die of gun violence are not the stories that parades celebrate; they don’t make society feel good.
Looking back, it never occurred to me that the skateboard kid with the Orange Julius would, in a few short years, become, like me, a veteran who served at about the same age, me in the Vietnam theater and him in Afghanistan. If I realized what he was going through, I would have tried to know him better. In war, we all become casualties.
Cody’s name will not be on a marble wall, but he should be remembered by the people and the country that he served. I like to think that somewhere in the dimensions of the cosmos, Cody is skating half-pipes with no memory of what brought him to that place.
Richard L. Fricker lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His last book, The Last Day of the War, is available at https://www.createspace.com/3804081 .