September 22, 2008 – Travis Twiggs, a Marine veteran of five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, drove his car over the roadside curb and stopped at the rim of the Grand Canyon.
His older brother, Will, was in the passenger seat. Spent Budweiser cans and an empty bottle of Jagermeister littered the floorboard.
Travis, absent without leave from the Corps, had spent much of the previous week on the road. Three weeks earlier, he had been photographed next to President Bush during a rally at the White House to support wounded veterans. Now, he was poised for a fatal fall.
Will called his girlfriend, a married bartender in Louisiana. He told her the Grand Canyon was beautiful. He told her he had written something in his journal and wanted her to find it. The call, she would say later, felt like a goodbye.
Travis called his wife, Kellee. She did not pick up. Travis hit the gas pedal.
Looking to go home
On May 9, a Friday, Travis had left the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., looking forward to going home. Kellee had called him from their house in Stafford, Va., hoping they could spend another weekend together.
“I don’t know if this is helping you, but it’s helping me,” she said.
Travis, 36, had been living at the Bethesda center for a few months. He was first placed in detox after being arrested and jailed for being drunk and combative outside a Mexican restaurant in Stafford. Kellee, 33, told him that maybe it would be best if he lived there as an outpatient. She didn’t want their daughters to witness another episode like that.
But the situation looked to be improving. The previous weekend, the family had gone to Washington, D.C., and acted like tourists. Travis and Kellee, married for eight years, sat on the National Mall and watched the girls play.
Travis told his wife how he had met President Bush recently during a trip with the Wounded Warriors, a support group he had joined. Everybody else shook hands with the commander in chief, but Travis made Kellee laugh by saying he met him with a bear-hug. Travis had told the president, “I’ll fight for you every day.”
Kellee was hoping that this weekend would also be filled with good family memories.
Ireland had not seen much of her father through her childhood, and their second daughter was born during Travis’ second tour in Iraq. They named her America.
Travis arrived at the house and pulled the car into the grass yard next to the driveway. Then he suddenly backed up and hit a tree.
“What the hell are you doing?” Kellee yelled.
He was drunk.
“This is family time,” she said, exasperated.
Travis crashed on the couch. When Kellee awoke the next morning, a Saturday, he was gone.
Travis returned in the middle of the night, around 4 a.m. Sunday, blasting music out of his car stereo. Kellee came out of the house to meet him. She saw that he was drunk again. She told him to stay in the car. “I’m not doing this,” she said.
By daybreak, he was gone again. Kellee knew that her husband had slid back into his old habit of drinking heavily to numb the pain.
Anguish rooted in war
That pain began after Travis’ second tour in Iraq. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Travis volunteered for a third tour, even though his daughter America had just been born. Kellee told him to go get this war stuff out of his system.
“You go, you get those boys home and you be done,” she told him. “Family time for a little while, OK?”
During his third tour, in October 2005, two of his men died in an explosion. They were in a tent that housed the bathrooms at a temporary base. Travis, a staff sergeant, blamed himself for not thinking to move the restrooms to a safer place.
Shortly after returning home, he started receiving treatment for PTSD, getting an increasing supply of prescription medicines. He supplemented the medication with healthy doses of alcohol.
To most friends and family members, he was the same old Travis. He was a loving dad who doted on his wife and daughters. He was easygoing, with a prankster’s spirit. On weekends, his home was filled with Marines for backyard barbecues.
But Travis was suffering. Kellee, his childhood sweetheart, could see that.
Travis would hit the floor when he heard a car pull into their gravel driveway. He would patrol the house in the middle of the night. He would speed down highways thinking he was being chased by Iraqis.
Travis floated in and out of detoxification clinics and medical facilities. At one time, he was on 12 medications, including painkillers, anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. At times, it appeared the treatment was taking. He would keep his drinking under control. There were no violent episodes.
It was during one of those stretches that Travis wrote an essay for the Marine Corps Gazette, chronicling his battle with PTSD and urging others to get help.
“Looking back, I don’t believe anyone is to blame for my craziness, but I do think we can do better,” he wrote. “We have got to make our Marines and sailors more aware of PTSD before they end up like me.”
A jokester without joy
At 6 a.m. Sunday, two hours after Kellee had ordered her husband to stay out of their home until he sobered up, Travis called his father, Douglas. “I want to come home,” he said.
Douglas and Nancy, Travis’ stepmom, lived in Louisiana but happened to be visiting relatives in Maryland. Travis said he’d come meet them.
But when they met, Travis’ perpetual smirk was gone. He didn’t make the cornball jokes he had always made with his father. He was withdrawn. His father and stepmother had never seen him that way before.
Travis asked about his grandmother in New Orleans. She had cancer, and doctors said her time was short. Travis said he hoped to see her again before she died.
At the end of the day, as Douglas and Nancy prepared to fly back home to New Orleans, Travis and his father had a talk out by Travis’ car. Travis said he didn’t want to go back to the Bethesda hospital. His father said, “You’ve got to go back.”
That evening, Travis returned to Stafford. He told his wife that he wasn’t going back to the hospital. Instead, he was going to visit his grandmother in Louisiana.
Travis was angry, stubborn and, again, drunk. Kellee pleaded with him to go back to Bethesda. “You need to do this the right way,” she said. “Just don’t leave.”
Travis left. He was bound for his hometown of Ama, La., outside New Orleans.
On Monday morning, commanders from the Bethesda medical center called Kellee. Travis had not returned as expected. They wanted their Marine back.
Protective big brother
Travis called his big brother, Will, who lived in Metairie, La., outside New Orleans. He told him he was on his way.
Even though Travis was stronger and beefier than his older brother, Will always played the role of protector. The two had formed a tight bond as boys, finding adventures in the tall trees and grass surrounding their home near the Mississippi River. Will did a stint in the Navy and returned home to a job in sales. He had recently left that job and was working construction, a job that allowed him to grow his hair to his shoulders again.
Will spent most of the day looking impatiently out the window of his aunt’s home as he waited for his little brother to show up.
The brothers spent much of the next day together, including a stop at their boyhood home in Ama, visiting with their dad and stepmother, sharing old stories and laughing.
When they came back to their aunt’s house at dinnertime, Travis called his Marine commander at Will’s urging.
The officer said he would try to get Travis some leave to visit his grandmother. Travis then called Kellee to tell her where he was.
On Wednesday morning, Travis answered his cellphone. It was his commander. The request for leave had been denied. The Marines wanted Travis back as soon as possible. Something hardened in both brothers’ eyes, as though a switch had been flipped.
The men packed the car. Travis said they would head to see their grandmother, then he would drop Will off in town and head back to Bethesda. He asked his aunt for gas money for the long drive back.
But the brothers didn’t make it past the neighborhood bars that Will favored. Their aunt, looking for Will, found the two parked outside one of those haunts. Furious, she demanded her gas money back, and took Travis’ cigarettes for good measure.
The brothers hit the road. They visited their grandmother at a hospital in Covington. Then they kept going. By Friday night, they had stopped to visit extended family outside Killeen, Texas. On Saturday night, they stopped briefly at a friend’s house in El Paso.
Kellee repeatedly tried calling her husband. But he never picked up.
The brothers passed through the tiny towns of West Texas and crossed the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. They did not want to be found.
At the Grand Canyon
When Travis hit the gas pedal at the edge of the Grand Canyon, the vehicle lunged forward and lodged against a small tree. It was all that stood between the brothers and the depths below.
Travis and Will sat in the stuck car for a while. People driving past on the scenic East Rim Drive pulled over to help. They asked Travis and Will if they wanted them to call police. The brothers said no.
Several bystanders tried putting weight on the back of the car while Travis put the vehicle in reverse. The tires dug a rut but didn’t gain enough traction to back the car out.
After a few minutes, Travis and Will reached into the back seat. They grabbed their backpacks. Bystanders heard them say something about continuing with their plan. Then the two left.
A few minutes later, officers from the National Park Service happened upon the car. They looked inside and saw a cooler filled with ice. Empty beer cans and the empty bottle of Jagermeister were scattered about.
A park ranger ran a check on the plate. He called Kellee to tell her what had happened. Kellee, who hadn’t heard from Travis in five days, told the ranger about her husband being AWOL, his severe PTSD and how he could get violent when drunk.
If Travis was at the Grand Canyon, she said, “he’s at the end of his rope.”
About two hours later, around 7 p.m. Monday, at the Lipan Point overlook area, Travis and Will approached a Florida brother and sister who were visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Travis showed a handgun but didn’t say a word. The brother and sister gave up their rental car.
National Park rangers put out a bulletin telling law-enforcement officers to be on the lookout for Will and Travis Twiggs. “Unpredictable, likely to attack,” the bulletin said.
A release was prepared for the media. Grand Canyon National Park staff could not immediately find a picture of Will. But they did have one of Travis. It had been taken at the White House three weeks earlier. The president’s face and body were carefully cropped out, but Bush’s right hand, resting on Travis’ shoulder, remained in the photo.
A chase ensues
Travis slowly drove the stolen rental car toward the Border Patrol checkpoint near Wellton, about 30 miles east of Yuma. The checkpoint was on Interstate 8, but Travis drove down a small road next to the freeway, hoping to slip past.
It was Wednesday morning.
An agent tried to get Travis to stop. Travis turned the car around and sped away on the freeway. The chase was on.
Travis hit speeds as high as 100 mph as he headed east on Interstate 8. After about 70 miles, he took an exit and headed north up Painted Rock Dam Road. Four police cars, one of them from the Border Patrol and three from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, were on his tail.
After about a dozen miles, the road hit a dead end. But Travis made his own path. He drove into the desert, kicking up a large cloud of dust.
He drove out of the haze and headed straight for the officers. He swerved past one vehicle and sped between the other three. Ten minutes later, he was back on Interstate 8 and heading east.
The pursuit continued for 63 miles. Officers from the state Highway Patrol joined in. Others came from Pinal County. Helicopters from U.S. Customs and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office flew overhead.
An officer from the Tohono O’odham Reservation, having heard police requests for help, made his way to Exit 162 on eastbound Interstate 8. He set stop sticks down on the freeway.
Travis’ car hit the sticks, puncturing a rear tire. It spun off the freeway and came to a stop.
Officers shouted at Travis and Will to come out. Travis responded by waving a handgun out the driver’s-side window. Police took cover behind their vehicles.
Travis put the revolver to the left side of his brother’s head and pulled the trigger. Then he put the gun under his own chin and fired. The shot missed his brain. He put the gun to the right side of his head and pulled the trigger again.
His body slumped over, his head resting on his brother’s lap.
Douglas is haunted by the final 10 minutes of his sons’ lives. He tries to figure out what went wrong that May 12 morning, why they did it.
“I taught them to love life,” he said while holding back tears during an interview in Ama.
Will worked in construction. He liked the job, and there was plenty of work on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. He had told his aunt he was thinking of moving to Oregon for a change of scenery, but he didn’t seem despondent.
Travis carried the memories and trauma of war. But he didn’t let on to his father how badly he was suffering. Even when his confessional essay was printed in the Marine magazine, he didn’t give his parents a copy.
“That’s our biggest regret,” Douglas said. “We didn’t know what he was going through. He didn’t talk about it.”
Kellee, left to raise 8-year-old Ireland and 4-year-old America on her own, wishes her husband had followed the advice he so eagerly dispensed to other Marines suffering from PTSD: Get therapy, don’t depend on medicine alone, and don’t mix the pills with alcohol.
In the days that followed Travis’ death, the hospital in Bethesda sent Kellee the belongings from his room. Included were some drawings Travis had made while he was a patient there.
One showed a man clutching a bedsheet that looked like a brick wall. In his open mouth and his empty eye sockets were flames. Another showed a childlike drawing of a woman and two girls standing by a tree. On the other side of the tree was a hulking, grotesque red monster. A third drawing showed a Marine with bloody cheeks and an eye dangling out of its socket. It’s how Travis described the body of one of the soldiers he saw killed in an explosion.
“If you look at this, what do you think? You think he’s a little hurting?” Kellee asked while rifling through the art in the basement of her home. “This just goes to show you how sick he was.”