Cold December: Sgt. Spencer Kohlheim hangs himself in his grandmother’s garage after harrowing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan
Spencer hanged himself with his phone still displaying his ex-girlfriend’s house number.
It was a cold December night, and the last of Sgt. Spencer Kohlheim’s life. He was at the Detroit Street Bar with his brother, when he called his ex-girlfriend Krissy to come to meet him. He was clearly intoxicated, she said, and he talked non-stop about getting back together.
“I told him being drunk one night in a bar is not going to solve it,” Krissy said. “He didn’t have any patience. He thought if I said, okay, the problems would all go away. He said he wanted to come home with me. I told him my Dad didn’t approve of that. He got in the truck with me and we started arguing. I told him to get out and to call me in the morning. He got out of the truck and punched the passenger side door. I called my friend who was the bartender, and she told him to calm down before the cops came. He said, ‘Call the fucking cops, I don’t care!’ Then he went to his car and tried to give me his ATM card. He said, ‘Take it, and you’ll be fine.’ I told him I didn’t need his money, I needed him to be okay. He said, ‘I know, but I don’t know how to fix it.’”
“They denied me anyways,’ he said, ‘I have nowhere to go,’” Spencer told her. “Three days prior he called me at 1:00 a.m. in the morning and said he was going to kill himself, and I got up and went to his grandma’s. He was passed out in his car in the driveway.”
“This time he turned his car sideways in the middle of the street to block me from leaving,” Krissy said. “He’d never done anything like that before. I started to get mad and a little scared. I called my Dad. My Dad said the first place he was going to go was to our house, so he told me to go to a family friend’s house.”
Krissy eventually made her way back to her parents that night, and Spencer continued to call her in an increasing panic. “By the time he got to his grandma’s, I had 52 missed calls from him in eight minutes. He called my parents home phone at 3:14 am. He was a nervous wreck. ‘I need to talk to you,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how to fix this, I don’t know how to fix this.’ We talked for maybe six minutes. He said, ‘I can’t fix this.’ I told him I loved him and to go to sleep. He said he was out in the garage and had just opened one of his lockers from Iraq. There was silence for a little bit. Then he was balling hysterically. He said, ‘I want to say I love you, and you were the one I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.’ I asked him why he was saying this. ‘I can’t take it Krissy,’ he said, ‘I hope that everything will be okay for us and you too. Just remember I love you, I will be in my garage,’ he said. ‘I’m going to chill out here for a while, I love you, I love you.’”
“I called his grandma’s phone, he didn’t answer. I was tired and it was 3 a.m. I just thought he was doing what he’d done before- pass out.”
“He’d talked about killing himself three times.”
All the facts are unclear, but in the early morning of December 19th, about three weeks after he returned from Iraq, Spencer stayed in his grandmother’s garage. He was probably very intoxicated. Friends and family speculate he may have been trying to say goodbye to them at the bar and on the phone throughout the night. Hindsight and guilt will often do that. Sometime after he got off the phone with Krissy, he looped a rope over the garage’s rafters. Spencer hanged himself with his phone still displaying Krissy’s house number.
The next morning, Spencer’s grandmother couldn’t find him. She called his brother Ryan, who he’d been out with. Ryan supposedly sent him a text message: “Are you still alive?” It was almost 11 a.m. when his grandmother found Spencer hanging in the garage.
On Route 9 heading out of LaGrange, there’s a cemetery on a hill. One blizzarding January day, this reporter drove out there in a rental car and asked the groundskeeper to show me Spencer Kohlheim’s grave. At first we couldn’t find it. Then the groundskeeper kicked some snow off a nameplate the size of a rolled up newspaper. Spencer’s gravestone was flanked by two frozen tall boys of Miller Lite and a bottle of Fire Schnapps, with a partially covered wreath below.
“I don’t think it was planned,” Edgar Pimental said. “I think he was in one of those moments when nothing went right all day. I ask myself every day, why didn’t this guy call me?”
Krissy, too, is often wracked with guilt. “I think back now, if I’d just let him sleep on our couch that night, he would have stayed. My Dad agreed. But others said it would have just postponed it. When he was in Iraq, he told me he put his gun up to his head. After, he called me crying and said I’ve done something I thought I’d never do.”
Spencer’s stepdaughter, Nicole, remembers the day before. “The last time I saw him he came and took me to the license branch to get my driver’s license [renewed], and it was the old him again. He asked about school, about so much more than he has asked about in a long time. ‘I just want you to know you’re doing a good job,’ he said. I just laughed at him. The next morning they called us and told us they’d found him.”
It’s hard to tell what combination of circumstance and depression triggered Spencer’s suicide. Over time, the fact that the VA denied him on his initial visit, seems less of a significant factor compared to his alcohol abuse, coupled with his immediate panic over losing Krissy. But hovering over the whole tragedy is the question of how badly the concussions hurt Spencer physically and depressed him psychologically. He clearly needed professional intervention and couldn’t get it in time.
But even if Spencer was broken in the civilian world, most of the soldiers who packed the funeral and spilled out into the frigid morning afterward, had no doubt that he could have led them into combat again. Maybe this reveals something about the lonely path they unknowingly chose when they became combat veterans, and why few friends and family can understand the problems that come with readjustment. Sgt. Clouse said that he almost couldn’t walk through the door of the funeral home for the wake. His wife had to remind him about his duty — something Spencer probably would have done.
“He had a ton of friends, so many the church couldn’t even hold all the people,” Krissy said. “He was very well loved in LaGrange. It confused and shocked a lot of people. His biggest thing was he felt like a daddy to 47 soldiers. They looked up to him.”
“He was loved by a lot of people,” Beth said, “and he helped a lot of people, but just couldn’t seem to help himself.”
The obituary in the Ft Wayne area paper read:
Spencer D. Kohlheim, 38, of LaGrange, died Friday, Dec. 19, 2008, 11:46 a.m., at his residence due to Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Born May 23, 1970, in LaGrange, to Harry and Maureen Giles Kohlheim. Spencer was a 1989 graduate of Prairie Heights High School. Following his graduation, he enlisted in the United States Army, where he was currently ranked as a Sergeant First Class…
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.