I am not sure how these stories ends, but I need to tell them.
November 10th, 2010 is my grandfather Benjamin Baum's yahrtzite and marks the 19th anniversary of his death.
November 10th, 2010 marks the first anniversary of the death of Army SPC. Travis Dean Picantine.
November 14, 2010 would have been my father Carl Taalak Ahsoak's 62nd birthday. He passed away on May 28, 2009.
My grandfather was a veteran. He was a captain in World War II and served in England and France. He told me stories when I asked him about the war, but they were those that were appropriate for a 9-10 year old boy. I am sure that he saw things that were horrifying and that he served with soldiers who were affected by the things they experienced. I like to think that he would have tried to help those, particularly those men under his command, deal with the demons that come with war. He was 78 when he passed away.
On September 17th, I was getting ready for the beginning of yom kippur and I read a story on cnn.com about a company that was making memorial bracelets from the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts. The company had introduced an option where you could choose a specific soldier or elect a random selection. I ordered a random bracelet and completely forgot about it as I headed off to services.
A week later, a padded envelope arrived with a black metal bracelet, bearing the inscription SPC. Travis Dean Picantine Army 11/10/09 Fort Drum, NY and a picture of a young soldier. I looked at the bracelet and was surprised at the location. I googled SPC. Picantine and read several stories, which all contained nearly identical wording :
"Army Specialist Travis Dean Picantine, 23, of Sesser passed away Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009, at Fort Drum, New York.
Visitation will be held at the Brayfield-Gilbert Funeral Home in Sesser from 4 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, for family and after 5 p.m. for friends and guests. Funeral services will be 1 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20 at the Brayfield Funeral Home in Sesser with Kirk Packer officiating. Burial will be in Mitchell Cemetery near Sesser."
SPC. Picantine's death, sans mention of any other factors, could really only be one thing. Suicide. This was not what I had expected. I have not yet had a chance to contact his family, but I expect to do so before the year is over. I believe that they will tell me a story that begins with SPC. Picantine trying to serve his country and better himself and ends with his taking his own life.
In many ways my father (who was also a veteran, serving in the Navy in Vietnam) also killed himself, one bottle at a time. But he was such an extraordinary man that it took the better part of 40 years for him to do so. He decided that he was going to go on as long as he possibly could, laughing all the way. He drank himself into a stroke, which revealed two brain aneurysms. In 2002, he had brain surgery for the first time. He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, which didn't stop him from doing much of anything (including drinking).
One year I had time off around the holidays and decided to go to Barrow for a few days. When I arrived, my aunt told me that my dad was in the hospital. He had ongoing problems, between the circulatory issues, the second aneurysm, and the fact that half his body did not work, so it was not unusual for him to be there. They told me that he had been pushing himself around town and he had gotten stuck in a snowbank for several hours.
He looked ok, except for his right (non-working) hand, which was heavily bandaged. The doctor came in and unwrapped his hand, which looked like it had had the fingers replaced with jumbo sausages. Each finger was easily four times what it normally was. The doctor explained that there was swelling from the frostbite and that they were going to try to save the fingers, but things did not look good. My dad laughed and said "Good Luck!"
Two days later, the doctor unwrapped the bandages and my father's right hand looked as if it has been turned into some kind of black wood. The fingers were now roughly half the size that they had started and had somehow become longer. They looked like death and felt like stone. The doctor explained that they could no longer be saved and that my father would have to have all of the fingers on his right hand amputated. He laughed and told the doctor "good luck." After that, I called him Stumpy or Stubbs until the second aneurysm burst.
There were no facilities on the north slope capable of taking care of him, so he moved into a long term care facility on the south side of Anchorage. It was a very nice house that had about seven patients living there, mostly people who needed 24 hour care, but not hospital care. I would go and sit in his room and talk to him, read to him, or just sit and show him pictures from the albums my aunts had put together for him. I would play the cds of Inupiaq hymns or watch baseball while sitting in his room. Eventually he improved to the point where he could go sit downstairs and watch tv, and drink his own meals. But his mind never came back. Even after the first operation, he was still capable, even if not as sharp as before. After the second brain surgery, he could still say "yeah" or "no" or "that's alright", but that was about it. He could barely remember one or two words.
We had one last conversation. We had started guardianship proceedings in State court, and one of the steps was meeting with the court appointed visitor. The visitor, my dad's social worker, the managing nurse, my dad and I all met one May afternoon. While we were sitting and waiting for the visitor to write something, my dad touched me on the knee and said "coffee?" He had eaten lunch sometime before so I asked him if he wanted more coffee. He shook his head no and again said "coffee?" I realized that he was offering me coffee. I told him I was ok and he said "that's alright." He died five days later.
I often question what makes men into the people they are, what influences guide them to make the choices that define them. I try to think of what choices and what situations could lead me to become like these men, what choices lead to success, what choices lead to failure, the bottom of a bottle, or the barrel of a gun. I like to think that I understand what lead my grandfather to devote himself to advising his community, what lead my father to laugh at the consequences of his choices until his body literally broke down, and the thoughts that lead to someone committing suicide. I do not presume to know or understand what SPC. Picantine went through that left him dead on an Army base at the age of 23, but I know that there is a lesson for me to learn from him.
I have tried very hard to become a better person and to make choices that will lead me to do the right thing. This has not been easy and for everyone that praises me, I am sure there are two people who would be happy to tell you what a jerk I am. But I think that SPC. Picantine and the lessons my grandfather and my father taught me that relate to him will play a part in the next phase of my personal development.
A long time ago I was at some function with my mom and a friend of hers came up and told her that Chris, a crazy acquaintance of theirs, had been institutionalized. My mom said she was not surprised by this. I asked her why and she explained that Chris was crazy and that he had no one to advocate for him in trying to get through the bureaucracy that lay between him and the treatment needed to help him. Mentally unwell people cannot navigate the often Byzantine systems set up to oversee the distribution of benefits.
I suspect that, when I have had the chance to contact his family, SPC. Picantine's story will be much the same as many other soldiers. He came back from the war broken and could not get help, so he took his own life. And he couldn't get the help he needed because he could not navigate the administrative maze that is military benefits.
I don't know how much of a difference I can make, but I am going to try. I am going to try and find a way to help. Maybe I can be that force in another man's life that will turn him from the bottle or the wrong end of a gun. I have devoted much of the last ten years of my life to learning how to navigate administrative mazes. Perhaps it is time to help people like SPC. Picantine through the maze.
I don't know if I am strong enough on my own, but I am not alone.