This is one of the hardest pieces of journalism that I’ve written in a long time.
As it appears online, the family members of a friend of mine — Sgt. Ian McConnell, 24 — are traveling today from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to his hometown in Woodbury, Minn. They’re preparing for his funeral at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, a U.S. cemetery in nearby Minneapolis.
It’s common that when a person dies with most of his or her life seemingly ahead of them, friends and family create online memorials. Ian is no different. His sister, Meg, posted one on Facebook over the weekend, and it has overflowed with stories of his compassion, selflessness and sense of humor as a human being and his honor, courage and commitment as a Marine.
A key detail hasn’t been shared publicly, though.
Ian killed himself.
With a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he ended his life on the 4th of July, shocking those who know him as an upbeat, kind young man who went out of his way to regularly pick up the spirits of those around him. He left no note explaining why, his family said.
Count me among the shocked. I’ve known Ian for more than a year, and he’d demonstrated all those positive characteristics while staying in touch regularly after we met last year at the Yellow Schoolhouse, a small patrol base in Marjah, Afghanistan. We attempted to meet over beer in Virginia just a few weeks ago while he was nearby for training. Our schedules didn’t match, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Some readers of this blog undoubtedly remember the schoolhouse. We arrived there at the start of Afghanistan’s fighting season last year, and quickly found ourselves in a situation with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, where chaos reigned supreme outside the wire.
I captured much of that in this feature story published last May. Ian spent much of his seven-month deployment last year based there as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, disarming improvised explosive devices and pitching in on patrols.
When I arrived at the schoolhouse as a scared, but determined first-time combat correspondent, Ian was one of the first Marines to make photographer Tom Brown and I feel at home. He was curious about Marine Corps Times and journalism in general, and asked lots of cheerful questions.
With a knowing smile, he also approached me after my first firefight, asking how I felt and what I thought. I had handled the routine ambush pretty well, but it was nice to hear. He wasn’t the only one to check on me, either, and that speaks volumes for those Marines.
Ian had his demons, though. As a member of Pendleton-based 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, he was assigned along with Gunnery Sgt. Benjamin Lepping (of Sarah Palin tattoo fame) to handle the improvised explosive devices the platoon there encountered regularly.
It was exhausting, dangerous work, and for all his courage, it weighed on Ian, Meg said. His deployment ran from April to November, first with 3/6, and later with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, which replaced them in theater in August 2010. Nearly a year later, he still struggled at times with things he saw in Marjah, although he rarely talked about it.
Add in the usual ups and downs in life that we all struggle with, and the results were tragic — and in no way reflective of the courage and optimism with which Ian typically carried himself.
I struggled with whether to write about Ian once I learned what happened. Like many others, I consider suicide a painful and private matter for a family to handle as they see best. They’re the ones who must pick up the pieces.
Meg and I discussed it Friday, and again Saturday after she huddled with her family and pastor. They decided that if sharing it could help someone else, it was worth it. They asked me to post this blog entry as they brought his body back to Minnesota today.
“We want to make a difference,” Meg said. “We know this happens, but if we can help make this happen to less people, it’s worth it.”
Maybe it’s because another combat veteran considers opening up about his or her problems. Maybe it’s because the family of someone else struggling with demons listens a little more closely. With any luck, as long as people are talking, these kinds of tragedies decrease.
For the record, there were 52 suicide in the Marine Corps in 2009 and 37 in 2010, according to this briefing. There were 17 more through the end of June this year. It’s a problem for everyone, too — for every 100,000 people, about 20 kill themselves.
A few months ago, Ian dropped me a line after learning that I had received the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Major Megan McClung Award for dispatch reporting done while embedded with his unit. As usual, he was upbeat and optimistic.
“Take lots of pictures at the banquet for us,” he said in a Facebook message. “You deserve it. And thanks for telling the stories you did. With the truthful pen and gritty wit that really captured how life was for us. Hope to work with you again someday.”
In some ways, Ian, I hope you think we are now. Rest in peace, brother.