January 4, 2008 – While serving in Iraq, Noah Pierce survived the bombs, the snipers, and countless encounters with the enemy.
But his family and friends say it was the guilt that finally overcame him.
“The demons and the pain…he’s too sensitive,” said his mother, Cheryl Softich. “He couldn’t handle the innocents that were killed, the kids he got attached to. He was a good boy, he had a heart.”
When Noah came home from Iraq in April of 2006, he was 22. He had served two tours of duty there; two years of his young life. He tried to readjust to life back in Eveleth. He went hunting with his step-dad equipped with creedmore scopes, and partied with friends.
But it was difficult. Noah was depressed, he suffered from nightmares, and drank to get through the days. Doctors diagnosed him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. They recommended he get counseling. But he didn’t go, instead spending much of his time convincing himself and others that he was getting better.
“He says, ‘Ma, you worry too much, I’m fine, I’m happy.’ A week later he shot himself.”
Cheryl says her son struggled for 14 months before taking his life last July. Though he was thousands of miles from combat, Noah could not forgive himself for a life-altering moment in Iraq. While on a road in Fallujah, an Iraqi man was approaching the soldiers. They ordered him to stop, but the man kept getting closer. Noah was ordered to shoot the man. He later found out the man was an innocent Iraqi doctor.
“There was something about that incident that ate up my son every single day,” said Cheryl. “I found a note that he wrote to the doctor and it says, ‘I am so sorry.'”
It’s been six months since Noah died. Cheryl visits the place where her son took his life, in a secluded area, tucked back in the woods not more than a mile from his childhood home. Even though its where he died, Cheryl says she feels close to him here. She is able to remember the happy Noah, the boy who loved life.
“He loved to hunt with Dad, loved to fish with his friends, all he ever wanted to do was serve his country,” she said.
And after 9/11, Noah was even more determined to enlist. He joined the Army right before his 18th birthday. His best friend Tyler says before he enlisted, Noah was easy-going. He smiled all the time, and made jokes. Together they spent their time outdoors. Tyler says Noah was excited to serve, but when he came back from his second tour, he noticed something had changed.
“You could see obvious changes,” said Tyler Newberg. “He had something else on his mind affecting his daily life, you know?”
But it wasn’t just Tyler who noticed the difference; his family became extremely worried. They encouraged Noah to go to counseling, but Noah said asking for help was a sign of weakness.
Cheryl has now made it her mission to teach others about PTSD. On December 15th, the local AMVETS Post 33 in Virginia was named in honor of Noah. She hopes that everyone who walks through the door will learn about the disorder, and how they can get help.
Two military medical studies found that almost 20% of soldiers and marines home from Iraq suffered from a mental illness. Between 12%-20% of them met the criteria for PTSD. Now, in honor of her son, Cheryl is determined to get other veterans the help they need.
“Noah died so others could learn about PTSD,” she said.
When soldiers sign up, Cheryl wants a clause saying they must go to counseling when they return from combat. She wants to call it, “Noah’s Clause”. She plans to contact members of Congress, and go to Washington, D.C. if necessary.
It’s not mandatory,” said Cheryl. “It needs to be mandatory so they go, otherwise they’re not going to go. They just wont.”
And if she can save just one other life by getting the word out about Noah and PTSD, Cheryl says her mission will be a success.
“It is my goal in life to make my son so much more and I will do that,” she said.