Exclusive: One Iraq veteran’s harrowing journey from the battlefield to suicide (Part I)
“He said three times that he should have just died in Iraq and I would have loved him forever, because he didn’t think we were going to get back together,” Krissy Caudill, Sgt. First Class Spencer Kohlheim’s fiancée said after his grandmother found him hanging in her garage less than a month after he returned from Iraq.
–> (At right: SFC Kohlheim minutes after his vehicle was hit by an IED in Kirkuk.)
What happened in Afghanistan
Soldiers speak of the firefights, of the thrill of getting shot at. In the mountains of Afghanistan a firefight can happen any day, and it can be a powerful, almost drug-like fix.
A fight, no matter how short, fills the void of routine — of standing at guard, staring at rocks, eating bad food, using port-a-potties and having no Internet. The sounds of incoming explosions, the whizzing of bullets going by and the release of the trigger pull fills a purpose for being deployed.
But IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), planted by insurgents targeting American troops, can be done without. It’s the one attack all soldiers fear. The bombs reach up from the earth and rip your arms from your shoulders, legs from your torso, or if you’re lucky, rattle your bones, inside your head, for days, months, years afterward. Soldiers will tell you they’d rather get shot at any day than deal with IEDs.
Sergeant First Class Spencer Kohlheim was deployed to Afghanistan before Iraq. He saw what IEDs did to four of his buddies there in 2006.
A few years later, he was deployed to Iraq. His vehicle would take direct hits from IEDs in two separate attacks.
What happened in Iraq
Sergeant First Class (SFC) Spencer Kohlheim, 38, was from LaGrange, a town tucked in the Northeast corner of Indiana. During the winter months, metal irrigation arms span the snowed-in farmland like one-armed giants.
He went to Prairie Heights High and joined the Army right out of high school. Whenever he was deployed, Indiana seemed to be calling him back. But Spencer Kohlheim’s last deployment was to Iraq, and he brought the physical trauma he experienced there, back home to LaGrange.
On a sunny April morning in 2008, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Spencer Kohlheim’s vehicle led his platoon on convoy from Tikrit North to the volatile city of Kirkuk, Iraq, on a mission guiding Army tractor trailers bearing the new heavily-armored Mine Resistant (MRAP) vehicles to a distant outpost.
A tall platoon sergeant with a deep scar on one cheek, Kohlheim’s pale blue eyes gave him a sensitive but restless look. He’d volunteered for the mission because he couldn’t stand to be stuck in the battalion’s command center for too long.
In Indiana, citizen soldiers run in generations of families. For several years after 9/11, the Indiana Guard outpaced states as large as Texas and California in total numbers of Guardsmen recruited. It’s a tight knit group, with only a few degrees of separation between any Hoosier deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But Kohlheim had been deployed more than anyone had heard of — over seven times in twelve years between his service with the Guard and regular Army.
In fact, Kohlheim had to volunteer just to get to Iraq. His unit wasn’t selected as part of the 2007 massive mobilization of over 3,500 Hoosiers from across the state. Command Sergeant Major Rodney Spade, Kohlheim’s superior in Afghanistan, said Kohlheim called him up and asked to go. (<– At left: Kohlheim receiving a get-well card after his release from the base hospital.)
“He reminded me a lot of myself,” Spade said of Kohlheim. “He was out of control sometimes, opinionated, but a hard worker and a hard trainer.”
When Kohlheim went outside the wire, he often put himself as leader of the convoy. That morning it was in the driver’s seat of the five-ton truck with rollers on the front that looked like the heads of an old push mower.
But the rollers didn’t work if the bomb was “command wired” — if it had a human waiting and watching for when to detonate it. This was how Kohlheim’s lead truck exploded just outside Kirkuk. We felt the blast four vehicles back, and watched the ball of black smoke rise in the sky. Then we saw Kohlheim running towards us carrying his rifle.
A man had given them the middle finger from the roadside just before the IED went off, riddling their five-ton with shrapnel that just missed his gunner’s head. Kohlheim seemed to be moving everywhere, gesturing to Iraqi Army and Police, helping to load his vehicle onto the tow trailer. He moved in his body armor like some kind of superheated android who had initially tried to drop his smoking vehicle into first gear and grind out of the kill zone, with fluids leaking through the shrapnel holes.
By the time he got in our Humvee, Kohlheim’s hand was shaking just to lift the water bottle to his lips. He spent the night being evaluated in the base hospital for concussion symptoms.
“I think we all got our melons scrambled a little bit,” he said the next day. “This morning I woke up and I remembered everything. Last night I couldn’t remember too much.” He smiled at the get-well card the guys presented him. When the platoon got back to FOB Speicher, Kohlheim made sure all his soldiers signed sworn statements so those who’d been close to the blast could get their combat action badge for having been in the line of enemy fire.
By the end of the summer I was in Baghdad and got an email message from Kohlheim’s ex-wife, Beth. She said one of the Indiana Guard’s family liaisons had called to tell her Spencer had been hit by another IED. “He says it was another concussion, but I’m not supposed to even know that much,” she wrote.
For Kohlheim, a second concussion meant confinement to the base. “The second hit, I said he’s done,” CSM Spade later told me over the phone. “He was mad at me. He didn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks.
Spade caught Kohlheim going outside the wire a couple of more times.
“He thought as a leader, you lead from the front,” Spade said, not quite excusing his disobedience. Spencer never told his Command Sergeant Major that he was suffering any effects from the blasts. But by the end of summer there wasn’t that much time left. Roughly four months later, the 76th Brigade’s 3,500 soldiers started re-deploying back to Indiana.
By mid-December the 76th Brigade was finalizing their out-processing paperwork at Camp Atterbury, including the military psyche evaluation that consisted of a briefing and a questionnaire covering any issues related to trauma the soldiers had encountered in Iraq.
A Guardsman who served with Kohlheim said of the screening process for Post-Traumatic Stress: “Before you leave country you do a questionnaire of what you were exposed to, and if you are feeling these symptoms. That gets printed out on your records. If a soldier doesn’t want to get held up [from returning home faster], they don’t have to check it. Back in the States, it’s the same out-processing. If you don’t bring it up, [the Guard] won’t pursue it.”
“Leaving Iraq he wasn’t flagged for risk,” CSM Spade said. “We had a list who we thought could fall into that depression mode. Kohlheim did not come on the radar. He and his girlfriend were planning to get married. He asked about his promotion to First Sergeant.”
James Foley has been embedded with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes periodic dispatches for Raw Story. The lead editor on this story was Sahil Kapur, in Washington.