September 3, 2008, Scottsdale, AZ – Police identified Michael Murray, 22, of Scottsdale, as the motorcyclist who died Monday evening after crashing his 2008 Honda into a pole near the 4300 block of Hayden Road.”
The report does not mention that Murray, a former member of the 3rd Marine Division and a two-tour combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, was a casualty of war.
“That isn’t what the official records say, but there is a lot of truth to that,” said his mother, Silvana Smith. “A lot of these kids come back from the war and they have such burdens in their hearts, like Michael did, that they can’t quite readjust.”
The director of a local U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program aimed at helping returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder told me recently that many Iraq war vets show signs of PTSD. They have trouble concentrating, difficulty with anger management, survivor guilt and controlling what they know to be reckless impulses. For example, driving a motorcycle a little too fast at night on a city street.
“Michael was the jewel of our family,” his mother told me. “But it wasn’t the military part of his life that made him so. It was his heart. He was a mediator. A peacemaker. He was our heart and soul. Sounds strange for a boy who was in the Marines, doesn’t it?”
She said that Michael joined the service out of high school because he was looking for a challenge. During a tour in Afghanistan he pestered his mother to send candy and over-the-counter medicines for impoverished civilians.
“Iraq was different,” she said. “We found out just recently that he had to put one of his best friends in a body bag. He didn’t talk to us about that.”
Michael returned from his final combat tour in May. From the beginning, his family noticed changes.
“He would have to compose himself to stop from reacting angrily when people thanked him for his service,” his mother said. “He was burdened by the death that he saw, I guess. He felt guilty for surviving. He couldn’t appreciate the good things happening to him. It was as if he felt that he didn’t deserve them.”
Michael went to the VA. His large Italian family wrapped him in a blanket of support.
“But that’s not always enough,” Silvana said. “Michael’s father made a good point. He said that in the Marines you’re trained to be tough and independent and not to ask for help. That helps you survive in a war. But back home, that can kill you.”
Michael was enrolled in community college, with thoughts of becoming an emergency medical technician. He had a girlfriend. He volunteered at an animal shelter. He was a gardener. His future was filled with bright possibilities; his past with dark memories.
“I think that every returning soldier or Marine should be forced to go to therapy,” Silvana said. “As it is, they have to ask, and I know that Michael felt like he didn’t want to take up space when someone else might need it more. I believe that a lot of these kids think that way and it keeps them from getting help.”
The former Marine was on his way home from his grandmother’s house when he lost control of his motorcycle, struck a curb and crashed. An accident like that could happen to anyone. His family knows this. They also know that the location of the tragedy, though reported accurately in the newspaper, can be misleading.
Michael Murray was on American soil when he died, but he had not left Iraq.