It’s day 795 since we found you. You died while we were sleeping. It was November 4, 2017, and we were merely a few feet down the hall. We didn’t know when we went to bed, when you told us you loved us and took the puppy into your room, it would be the last time we saw you alive. You didn’t know either. I’ve been asked to share your story. Where does a story like yours begin? How do I describe you, what happened to you, and what, in turn, has happened to us in mere words? In a few paragraphs?
It was your dream to serve your country. You joined the Army and headed to Ft. Benning in Georgia for boot camp. Infantry. That was where you wanted to be. After graduation, you got your orders – Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. We joked about it, you liked the cold, growing up in Minnesota. You thought it would be a grand adventure, although you had hoped for a deployment.
You left and I looked at the distance between you and home. It’s 3,250 miles. You did well. They made you vehicle commander of the Stryker, as a private. You worked up to specialist and we thought you’d be a lifer. The military was a good fit for you. The camaraderie and the brothers you met were so important to you. They told me later, you were a natural counselor for anyone who needed help.
You loved playing club hockey with the guys – it was your favorite sport. Remember when you asked if you could play in 9th grade, and I said no because you didn’t know how to ice skate? A year later you didn’t ask, you told me you were playing. And you did. You’ve always been a natural at pretty much anything. You stayed on the JV team, but you didn’t care. You had us bring all your hockey gear with us when we drove your truck up for you.
When dad got pulled over for speeding in Montana (it had a Hemi), the officer asked if we had any weapons. Dad replied, ‘Just hockey sticks.’ Ironically, it was that love of hockey that led to this hole in my heart.
You took a slap shot to the groin in a friendly game. It changed your life. There you were, all those miles away, with only yourself to advocate for you. And you weren’t in any condition to do that.
You struggled with the pain for the next 16 months of your service. Chronic pain. I recently went through your medical records, looking for more answers. I counted up almost 250 pain pills and no trip to Anchorage to see the specialist. I wasn’t there. I had no idea how hard it was for you. How alone you must have felt. How that prescription medication wrapped itself around your mind like a snake.
I remember telling you to be careful when you mentioned pain pills. I wouldn’t let you have them when you had your wisdom teeth out, and here you were 3,250 miles away, forming an addiction and unwittingly becoming a statistic in a war that has no winner. In Minnesota alone, we lost 422 souls in 2017 to this crisis.
You were discharged in April of 2016, and it didn’t take us long to figure out something was wrong. When we did, we tried everything. You were stubborn. You only wanted care from the VA. I could write a book on the unbelievable course of events that ensued, but will only highlight a few.
You got denied because the local post office sent back your mail and you missed your appointment. It was missing our PO Box number. In a town of 200, that seemed a little hard for me to swallow. We started again. Your liaison even stamped in ‘EMERGENCY’.
Did you know the priority mail envelope that contained your hearing appointment was finally delivered to me, four months after you died? Yeah, you can’t make this up. It was lost in that tiny little building for a year.
We applied because of your pain. You ended up getting disability because of severe depression and anxiety. I think I would have qualified by then as well.
Dad and I paid for your surgery – after we finally had you seen by a urologist – which was supposed to take place in Alaska. That remains a mystery. The local urologist I took you to gave you zero hope, but an urgent care doctor knew of a newer surgery that had been successful for other guys with groin injuries – like hockey players. It worked for most of your groin pain, but you had a much bigger problem.
So, next, we started treating the depression. We got you seen locally, once again, with friends pulling strings to get you in asap. We kept hammering away at all the outsourced VA appointments they had you scheduled for. We were going all over the place for appointments, just to get you accepted into the VA. And I continued to work on how to help you with the disease you were struggling with – substance abuse disorder. Not a lifestyle choice.
I remember you telling me how much you hated it – the addiction. And honestly, John, if we had it to do all over again, I’m still not sure we could have gotten you out from underneath it. It’s the most terrible thing I’ve seen. Things are changing, but not fast enough. I went to hear a speaker, a doctor who is working hard on treatments and education. She said withdrawing from opioids is ‘inhumane’.
I think you tried a few times to beat it on your own, and you were so violently ill and in so much pain. I wish I would have understood at the time. I wish I could have saved you. I wish I could have traded places with you. I would have in a heartbeat son. I think you know that.
So, we thought you were doing better. You seemed happier. You agreed to counsel and were taking the meds. The VA refused our request for EDMA therapy and said they wanted you to counsel over FaceTime. I knew you’d never open up to a guy on a screen. I wanted to scream. When we finally got you in to see your health care team, they told you to continue to take the meds and they’d see you next year.
Why didn’t I go with you into that room and plead with them for help? I had advocated for you two kids all your lives, and I felt so helpless. I wasn’t allowed to call and ask questions about you – you belonged to the government. You were over 21.
What you were was a victim of one of the greatest evils this country has seen. Over 70,000 deaths in 2017 across this nation. I believe the total number is somewhere around 750,000.
And when we woke up on the morning of November 4th, to the puppy crying, you were ice cold. Your life was stolen by a drug we’d never even heard of – fentanyl.
A part of us died that day as well son. I miss your smile, your laugh. I miss the way you put on your socks – pulling them over your army boots and securing those laces. I miss your help in the kitchen. I even miss your smelly feet.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kristin Schlegel of The Portal: Portal-ity Thoughts. Follow her journey on Instagram here and her website here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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