Coming home to LaGrange (Part I of the story here: One Iraq veteran’s journey from the battlefield to suicide)
When we see of images of returning soldiers, more often than not, we see their homecoming. Young wives or husbands crying with joy, group hugs, children picked up and spun around, and parents rejoicing. We do not see what happens when the parties are over, when the vets have to re-invent their former lives and become husbands and fathers, mothers and wives again. Fellow soldiers said Spencer Kohlheim wanted to out-process just as fast as they did. None of them admitted to picking up on any post-trauma issues he might have been having.
“Guys don’t want to sit through no [mental health] screening,” said Edgar Pimental, an old Guard friend of Spencer’s. “He didn’t want to get kicked out. He wanted to be a career soldier.”
Spencer didn’t check that he was suffering from severe headaches or depression. Not to the Army. But after the first IED attack in April, Spencer began telling both his ex-wife and fiancée that he had trouble sleeping. He didn’t eat with his soldiers anymore.
Spencer had proposed to Krissy Caudill on a four-day leave just before he deployed in February. He talked to Krissy constantly, often calling her five times a day on a cell phone he’d bought at the bazaar on base. Krissy tried to listen to him as much as a mother with a full-time job could. Sometimes he told her he couldn’t stand it any more, and she tried to remind Spencer how little time he had left in Iraq.
He went to meet her a few days after he was released from Camp Attebury.
“He came to pick me up in Kentucky on the third day after he was released,” Krissy said. “The first thing I noticed, he looked older physically. He started talking, and we ended up in an argument about his ex-wife.” When Krissy started attacking his ex-wife, Spencer got defensive. “He freaked out,” Krissy said, “and started yelling at me. He said he couldn’t take it, and opened the truck door like he was going to jump out on the highway.”
She was shaken by the incident. Her son had been in the back seat watching. But it didn’t get any better when they returned to LaGrange. “He was very needy,” Krissy said. “I was working at the Chevy dealership in Sturgis (Michigan). He would call my phone non-stop.”
And if he wasn’t with her, Kohlheim would be at a bar, she said. “He’d be at the Legion as soon as they opened for hours upon hours. If he wasn’t there he’d be at Grossman’s or Detroit Street,” Krissy said.
(Photo 2: exterior of American Legion, LaGrange, Indiana)
The American Legion at 100 Industrial Parkway in LaGrange looks like a bingo hall from the outside. Inside there’s a square wrap-around bar with an island of liquor bottles, a big screen TV, round Formica tables. The walls are decorated with photos of local veterans wearing Korean and Vietnam-era uniforms. Everyone at the Legion knew Spencer. It was his home when he was back from deployment.
His first night back in town he was at the Legion. “First thing he said he had to do was karaoke,” said Bill Dunnafin, a neighbor who’d raised boys Spencer grew up with.
“He actually sang good,” his ex-wife Beth said, describing how Spencer crooned golden oldies for almost an hour, “Usually it’s like Spence, ok, get off the stage now.”
But Spencer’s stepdaughter, Nicole, 24, said, “He didn’t seem like a person,” when he called her down to the Legion a few days later. “More like a robot. He’d look through you” she said, “…He smoked fifty cigarettes in like three minutes.”
Beth had been through deployments with him before. She said that Spencer hadn’t been the same since his Guard unit lost four soldiers to a land mine south of Kabul in 2006.
“He felt that a younger guy took his place on that mission,” Bill Dunnafin said, “that if he had been there he could have changed the course of events. He brought the flag home after those four got killed and flew it over the garrison.”
Nicole, who he’d help raise, knew how Spencer was after deployments. “It was a ritual we went through,” she said. “He adjusted and we stayed back. The last time he came home, he never did get ok. He was always different after Afghanistan.” Spencer told Beth, after eight years of marriage, that he wanted a divorce. His binge drinking worsened.
He left a threatening message on a local police officer’s phone when the officer warned Beth that he was looking out for Spencer drinking and driving, but instead of being charged, Beth claims it was arranged for Spencer to go through six months of outpatient mental health and alcohol counseling at the Northern Indiana Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Hospital in Fort Wayne.
It’s unclear whether there was any communication between the VA and the 1/151st unit when he volunteered to go to Iraq. Obviously Kohlheim wouldn’t have highlighted his post-Afghanistan problems. He wanted to go to Iraq.
“He used to be the coolest dad,” Nicole said. “We’d camp out in Army tents. For him to change it was rough on everybody. This time when he came home I just assumed he was the same.”
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.