By Gretel C. Kovach MARCH 28, 2014
He rarely spoke of it. Not to his family or best buddies, fellow Marines or medical staff watching over him.
But Cpl. Farrell Gilliam had endured far more by the time he died this year at age 25 than most people could comprehend.
The Camp Pendleton infantryman survived three months of combat in 2010 with the “Darkhorse” 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin, Afghanistan — one of the deadliest battlegrounds of the war.
Amid firefights and insurgents’ bombs, Gilliam saw limbs strewn across the ground. He loaded broken, bleeding bodies for medical evacuation, and grieved for the friends they could not save.
Gilliam’s tour ended early when his legs were blown off by an improvised explosive device, or IED. “Farrell’s Fight,” his struggle on the homefront that his big brother helped him chronicle online, included more than 30 surgeries and three years of rehabilitation.
It was a story of triumph over wounds that would have been fatal in earlier conflicts. A story that was coming to an end, but not how anyone who knew him expected.
Gilliam was months away from a medical discharge from the Marine Corps and a new life as civilian college student. Physically, he had one surgery left to remove hardware in an arm. Psychologically, he was suffering from invisible wounds he hid behind smiles and upbeat banter.
Or so his family discovered on Jan. 9, when Gilliam committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his barracks room in San Antonio.
Gilliam finally succumbed to his battle wounds, said Sgt. James Finney, his former squad leader in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger — to him Gilliam was killed in action just like the other 25 from their battalion.
“It was an 8,000-mile sniper shot,” said Finney, 27, now an infantry instructor. “His passing was directly due to a situation because of his wounds received in Afghanistan. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
The suicide rate for active-duty troops spiked in 2012 to nearly one a day, a record during this era of warfare and twice as high as a decade before. At least 350 took their lives that year, more than the number of service members killed in combat. (Final numbers for 2012 and a year-end tally for 2013 are pending, a Pentagon official said.)
Last year, 45 Marines committed suicide and 234 tried to. It was by far the highest number of suicide attempts for the service since at least 2003.
Among veterans of all the armed forces, at least 22 commit suicide daily, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Gilliam’s death blindsided his family and friends. Amid their raw first waves of grief, anger and irrational guilt, they pray that sharing his story might inspire others to stop suffering silently. Or spur a family to intervene. Or close a gap in support or education.
“I want no family to have to go through the pain that we are going through. If there’s just one person who gets that help that saves them … then it’s worth it,” said Gilliam’s brother, Daniel Lorente, 30, of Palo Alto, who cared for him full time as his non-medical assistant early in his rehabilitation.
As a teenager, Gilliam scored high on tests but was uninterested in school. He was introspective and brash, a gun-lover who wanted more excitement than the Navy had offered his parents. He enlisted with the Marines at age 17 so he could serve his country and “blow s* up.”
“He just wanted to be a grunt,” said his mother, Lisa Gilliam of Fresno.
After a sea tour, Gilliam volunteered for combat. He deployed in October 2010 as an infantryman and designated marksman to Sangin, a Taliban stronghold in southwestern Afghanistan where U.S. Marines were taking over from British forces.
Four Marines died in a bomb strike on the first day. Gilliam served on the quick-reaction force, manning the Mark 19 grenade launcher or .50-caliber gun, pitching in with litter teams after roadside bomb attacks and shootouts.
When he called home Christmas Day, apologizing for upsetting his mother by missing the holiday for the first time, he sounded like a man fighting to survive.
“Is it bad?” Lorente asked. “Are you guys doing OK?”
“We are taking hits. S* is just rough right now,” Gilliam said. “We are doing everything we can.”
Gilliam shielded his mother from the worst so she wouldn’t worry. But Lisa Gilliam, a pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in surgery and trauma care, realized after that phone call that her son was going to need help.
“I could tell in his voice,” she said. It was exhausted. Haunted. “I knew he was not going to come home the same as he left.”
A week later, on Jan. 5, 2011, Farrell Gilliam stepped on an IED. The Marines were walking through a desert neighborhood of mud-walled compounds near their base, toward a distant radio tower.
Gilliam, a team leader, was at the back of the patrol. About 10 Marines had trod ahead, marking a narrow path as they went, before he triggered a pressure plate buried in the dirt.
Finney heard the explosion. He looked back and saw a cloud of dust. No one answered him on the radio but he could hear yelling. When he crested the hill, he saw Gilliam inside a bomb crater.
One of Gilliam’s grenades had detonated in the explosion, mangling his side. His feet were blasted away and his right arm broken.
Gilliam was the first from their squad of “Regulators” to be wounded. “I didn’t want to believe it, but at that point we’d kind of gotten used to guys getting hurt,” Finney said.
By then, 24 had been killed with the battalion. Gilliam and the Lima Company quick-reaction force had responded to 18 urgent casualty evacuations, most of them limb amputations.
Navy hospital corpsmen and Marines worked rapidly to stop Gilliam from bleeding to death. They cinched his legs with tourniquets, stuffed his guts back in his belly and injected him with morphine.
One Marine held down Gilliam’s thrashing body while another calmed him, assuring him he would be fine.
On the drive to Forward Operating Base Nolay, a corpsman jammed his fingers in Gilliam’s wounds to keep him awake. To keep him alive until the medevac flight crew finally put him to sleep.
Gilliam was terrified he would die on that helicopter, like a squad leader from his company, Sgt. Ian Tawney.
Lisa Gilliam heard her son speak of it only once. It was after he arrived on Jan. 9, 2011, at Bethesda, Md., and the National Naval Medical Center. He was in the intensive care unit, suffering terrible flashbacks.
“What are you afraid of?” a chaplain asked.
Gilliam recounted every detail. His voice was hoarse from the breathing tube that had just been removed. He was crying.
“I remember putting one of my guys on the medevac. They took off and he died later,” his mother recalled him saying.
Then one day they put him on the helicopter, too. And Gilliam was afraid. So afraid.
“That I was going to die later, too,” he said.
Both legs had to be amputated above the knee because of debris rammed into his flesh, trauma from the explosion and infection. Gilliam also lost half of his abdominal muscles, a section of arm bone and portions of his testicles.
On the upside, his brain and face were intact, he kept both arms, and with help from hormone treatment, he could expect to father a child normally.
When Lisa Gilliam’s husband, from whom she was long separated, called saying their son was badly wounded and may not live, she screamed into the phone as if he were dead.
Gilliam’s family members thought he was protected in the war zone by his training and armored Humvees.
“I didn’t know what an IED was. I had to look it up,” Lisa Gilliam said. “What the hell are they out there doing looking for IEDs? I thought they were shooting guns behind bunkers like you see in the World War II movies.”
Her daughter Sarah, 22, just didn’t understand. “I thought she was trying to tell me he was dead. I couldn’t comprehend: he’s lost his legs but he’s alive?” How could that be?
The first year of recovery was rough for Gilliam. He was overcome by bouts of anger, fear, depression and frustration, even as he fantasized about returning to combat.
“I remember him saying, ‘We need to hurry up and get me better so I can go back.’ I was like, ‘You are going to kill Mom if you go back!’” his brother Lorente said.
Gilliam responded: “What? This time around if I step on an IED, I’ll just get new (prosthetic) sticks and I’ll be fine!”
Medications clouded his mind and made him vomit regularly for five months straight. He flushed them after one surgery, then had to order more to cope with the pain.
illiam sometimes slipped into what his mother called “black moods.” He would sit, unresponsive, for hours or even days at a time.
“He would just, like, check out. He would be fine and then it would be like turning off a light switch and he would just be somewhere else. You couldn’t reach him. You couldn’t talk to him,” she recalled.
In time, those dark spells grew shorter and less frequent.
These were normal struggles for a young man coming to terms with half his body blown away, according to his father, Mike Gilliam, a civilian defense worker from Ridgecrest, Calif. Family and fellow Marines tried to help him adjust.
“His first sergeant told him, ‘You ain’t got that much to be angry about.’ He knew it. He just had to get over it and get some perspective. And he was,” Mike Gilliam said.
“You’ve got lots of guys out there who lost both their arms and one leg and they just lay in their bed twitching. Or they get their brain rattled and they don’t think straight anymore. They lose their jaw.
“Good grief, he came out pretty good. The politicians, they loved to pose with him. He was a photogenic case,” he said. A handsome young man with dark almond eyes and a mischievous grin whose bedside visitors included the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps.
Gilliam got over his “attitude problem,” his father said, and tried to recover as quickly as possible. Soon he was zipping around corners of the VA Palo Alto on one wheel of his chair, a move immortalized as a “Farrell turn” at the hospital where Gilliam’s portrait still hangs.
“Every time I saw him, he was in good spirits,” said Finney the former squad leader. Even while coming out of physical therapy, which can be tiring and painful. “He always acted like he was going to beat it.”
In October 2011, Gilliam transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, home to one of the nation’s top rehabilitation programs for the more than 1,500 Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans with an amputated limb.
He would be far from family in California, but they thought the Center for the Intrepid — with its surf tank and other amenities — offered him the best long-term chance of recovery.
Gilliam moved into the wounded warrior barracks at Fort Sam Houston, among its detachment of about two dozen Marines and equal number of staff members.
On Jan. 5, 2012, he celebrated the first anniversary of his “Alive Day,” when Marine amputees mark the moment they cheated death in combat, and toast those who weren’t so lucky. Gilliam wrote on his Facebook page: “One year ago today I got blown the f* up, but I’m here on the river walk in San Antonio getting hammered with my buddies.
“SUCK IT TALIBAN, YOU LOSE,” he wrote.
More than 500 people hit “like” on the post. After a long string of supportive comments, including jabs at Taliban living in caves, Gilliam wrote: “this just made my day.”
During visits home last year for the holidays, he seemed to be thriving. Independent again, full of life and plans for the future. And more outgoing than before he was wounded.
Gilliam had reconciled himself to a wheelchair because his missing abdominal muscles made it difficult to use prosthetic legs. But he didn’t let that confine him.
He bought a big truck with hand controls and drove it to New Mexico to see a friend. Cruising with his sisters, he would dance in the driver’s seat to anything from Angels & Airwaves rock to classical music.
Gilliam ate only organic food, worked out diligently and adopted the Paleo Diet. On Thanksgiving, he propped his cookbook on the counter and mixed up pumpkin muffins with almond flour.
“I was in awe,” his brother Lorente said. “Whatever they are doing in San Antonio has changed my brother into this young man who was going to be able to take over the world if he wanted to.”
There was a nice young lady in the picture. A part-time job waiting for him and studies toward an English major at Arizona State University, for which he had already started online classes.
Gilliam loved reading — especially Kipling, Wordsworth and Emerson — a pastime he shared with his good friend James McCain. The two were going to be roommates after Gilliam left the Corps.
Gilliam had served with the U.S. senator’s son, a 25-year-old Marine veteran, before deploying to Afghanistan. When they reconnected after Gilliam was wounded, McCain was impressed to find “practically the only other person on the planet” who knew about the philosophy of naturalism.
He was “a really deep young guy I really enjoyed talking to,” McCain said. They spoke almost every day.
“The sweetest guy I ever met really. There wasn’t an angry bone in his body. When I would get pissed off, I would end up calling him. ‘Jim, we’ll be alright,’ he would say. That taught me a lot about life,” McCain said.
Gilliam never mentioned wanting to kill himself, not even in jest, McCain said. But he remembers the one time his friend revealed the burden of his wounds.
They were drinking beers one afternoon about six months ago. Gilliam was on the couch when McCain got in his chair to wheel over some refills. “Man, this is the best beer-getting chair!” McCain joked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome when you don’t have to be stuck in it the rest of your life,” Gilliam said.
McCain and Gilliam celebrated New Year’s with friends in Arizona. After exchanging a pile of books, Gilliam left on Jan. 3 for Texas. “‘Alright man, see you soon,’ he said. And that was it,” McCain said.
“He seemed fine. His normal self.”
Gilliam told his sister Sarah that he had a great time in Arizona and didn’t want to return to San Antonio. “He didn’t want to sit in his room and wonder when he would see everybody again. It just went downhill from there,” she said.
He sat alone in the barracks drinking a bottle of Scotch, ignoring his sister’s protests.
“It was an overwhelming sense of isolation, from everybody and everything,” Sarah said.
A couple days later, on Jan. 5, on what he now called his “Survival Day,” Gilliam wrote a long post on Facebook. He ruminated over each moment of the IED attack and thanked everyone by name who helped him.
“Three years ago today I won (or lost) a game of hide and seek with an IED in Afghanistan,” he wrote.
“Doc Brown, Doc Gojar, Gutierrez, Griff, and Finney, and countless other surgeons, doctors, nurses and corpsmen helped keep my name off the KIA list.
“Every morning I wake up and realize that I am actually alive, I think about all of you,” he said.
He mentioned his hope that stem cell technology could give him a new pair of legs, then wrote: “I love you guys. I think about you every day and will continue to do so until I can no longer think due to Alzheimer’s, dementia, or death. Thank you.”
On Jan. 9, three years to the day after he returned to the United States from Afghanistan, Gilliam sent a mass text to his closest relatives and friends.
“I love you. Far more than you know,” it said.
Responses filled all of their phone screens: I love you too, brother; Love ya, Gilly …
Sarah was worried. “How ya doing by the way?” she texted.
“Seriously though are you ok?”
“IF YOU REALLY LOVED ME YOU WOULDN’T MAKE ME WORRY.”
An hour after that, a barracks resident heard the gunshot.
Lisa Gilliam saw two Marines at her door and thought they were gathering donations.
They said her son had passed, but she couldn’t believe it. She screamed: “How do you know? How do you know!”
Gilliam didn’t appear to suffer from depression, PTSD or suicidal tendencies. He quit all medications several months earlier, as far as his family knew.
“The universal reaction was, ‘Where did this come from?’” his father said. “No one was under the impression that he was going through any kind of battle in this regard.”
To this day, he can’t accept it. Maybe a brain lesion or seizure was to blame, he wonders, though naval investigators ruled the shooting a suicide.
Lisa Gilliam was disturbed to learn that her son hadn’t received psychological treatment for two years.
He didn’t seem to need it, she agreed. As in the civilian world, the military can’t force personnel into psychological care unless they appear in danger of hurting someone, she was told.
“He put on a great face in the day. But I think nights, alone in the barracks there at San Antonio, were probably hell for him. The Marine Corps and the military in general, they need to look at these different stages. They can’t say just because they aren’t showing signs, that there’s nothing going on upstairs,” she said.
When the troops return home, “the war is not over for them. It rages for them in their heads and their hearts. Farrell’s physical was the least of his problems, apparently. We didn’t think so, but look at where we are at now.
“That’s what PTSD is. It’s like a tumor that you can’t see. If it’s not treated, it’s going to kill you.”
As a family, they have so many questions about Gilliam and other combat veterans.
Why bother to heal their bodies if you can’t heal their minds? Why do wounded Marines have single rooms instead of being forced to buddy up? Why couldn’t Gilliam live with a Jack Russell therapy dog like he wanted? Why is it so easy to sneak a gun into the barracks?
And the most important question of all. The one they know can never be answered: Why did he leave them?
As the Corps grapples with fallout from 13 years of combat, it encourages Marines to look out for each other and for signs of distress. Many are reluctant to ask for help because of the stigma against psychological care, a fear of appearing weak and mistrust of medical providers who haven’t seen combat.
“We are a stubborn breed,” said Capt. Ryan Powell, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.
After Gilliam died, Marines who served with him in Sangin started talking about the battalion’s 26th KIA.
Mark Soto, the father of a “Darkhorse” Marine who struggled with suicidal impulses but got help, started a petition. It asks the Corps and Defense Department to add Gilliam’s name to the memorial stone at Camp Pendleton for the 5th Marine Regiment war dead.
It quickly gained more than 1,000 supporters.
Jim Binion, whose stepson Sgt. Matthew Abbate was killed in Sangin, encouraged readers of his “Hella Sick Clothing” blog on Facebook to sign the petition.
When some objected to Gilliam being counted among the KIA, Binion replied: “Farrell woke up to pain every day, and PTSD like you can only think of in nightmares, and one night the demons got him.
“If you have a problem with us pushing for Farrell, feel free to leave the page. But I know what Matt expected from me. He would not leave a brother behind.”
Finney, the former squad leader, said Gilliam deserves respect for being one of the few Americans who volunteered to be a Marine grunt. On top of that, “he goes to a combat zone and receives a Purple Heart. It makes him 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent.”
Then he quoted from Henry V. The same words Gilliam used on Memorial Day 2012 when he beseeched the public to “remember our fallen, so they will not die.”
“Our 25, the giants of our generation, who fell in battle against the mighty Taliban, in the far off lands of a place called Afghanistan. A place the rest of us will never leave.”
Then from Shakespeare: “He which hath no stomach to this fight let him depart. But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers! For he today that sheds his blood with me shall always be my brother.”
McCain said he doesn’t understand why one of the strongest people he ever met wanted to end his own life. “We never will,” he said. “He’s just gone and I will always love him.”
Lisa Gilliam is proud of her son, but angry too. “He overcame so much. He was wounded to a horrible degree and yet he, he got through it. He did everything they asked him to do.”
So many surgeries, they stopped counting. All of his physical therapy. Learning to respond gracefully when children pointed and stared.
To kill himself, “sorry for my French, but it’s a big f* you to everybody, to everybody that had a part in his care and helping him come so far,” his mother said.
The family is strong and will persevere, but “it’s devastating,” his brother Lorente said, starting to weep. “It was such a battle on the homefront. It was a battle for us as a family for so long. I hate to see my Mom have to suffer, and my sisters …”
Sarah is angry too, they all are. “But maybe that’s the whole problem — he fought for so long and he just couldn’t anymore,” she said. “It’s easy to think you did this to me. But it wasn’t about any of us. It was about what he was going through.”
Then there’s the guilt. “We wish we could take the pain away. We wish we could have done more,” said his sister Erin, 20.
Now they mourn him, each in his own way.
Gilliam had a generous and gentle heart, his relatives said. When Sarah needed a kidney transplant in December, he argued with his mother that he should be the one to donate since he was younger.
When Erin admired a $1,500 special edition set of Harry Potter books, he gave them to her at Christmas. “He was very insightful. He took the time to know people,” Erin said.
Gilliam’s father had returned to work immediately after Gilliam was wounded. He didn’t know what else to do. No one knew what to say to him then, and they know even less now.
“You see your son in a box, you find out what you believe,” Mike Gilliam said. For him, it’s the resurrection. “I anticipate seeing him again. … He got a head start on the rest of us. But we will see him.”
What to feel is more difficult.
“Everybody around me is screaming their heads off. I’ve got nothing. I’m just kind of dealing with the situation. I am kind of waiting until the lights are out and everybody is tucked into bed and there is nobody around.
“A parenting thing you know, you deal with the problems after nobody else is around,” he said.
A son dies young, before his father — Mike Gilliam expects he will be dealing with it for years.
“What he was going to be. I miss that” most of all, he said. “What he was gonna be …”
Strangers and friends. Medical staff from both coasts. Marines who fought with him in Afghanistan. Hundreds and hundreds across the country paid their respects after Gilliam died.
“They came from all over,” his brother Lorente said. “It was really moving how many people’s lives he touched. It was absolutely humbling.”
It started in San Antonio at the airport.
“We have the privilege and the honor today to be escorting a fallen warrior home to his final resting place,” the announcer said. Everyone in the terminal froze and fell silent.
Gilliam was loaded into the cargo hold of the plane under the scrutiny of his staff sergeant. The Marine escorted his body, standing vigil beside him every moment, until he was buried.
When the plane landed in San Jose, firefighters shot two arcs of water over the aircraft in salute. Police stopped Friday afternoon traffic to make way for the hearse and more than 100 Patriot Guard motorcycle riders.
On the drive to Fresno, every overpass was crowded with people. Firefighters standing at attention atop their trucks. A Marine honor guard. Sheriff’s deputies. Forestry workers.
Finney, Gilliam’s former squad leader, was among the Marine pallbearers who carried his coffin draped in red, white and blue.
After a volley of rifle fire in salute and the playing of taps, the Gilliams released a flock of white doves at Beth Israel Cemetery in Fresno, where he was buried Jan. 21 with full military honors.
Gilliam’s sisters tattooed his final text message prominently on their bodies. When she feels sad, Erin Gilliam rubs the flesh of her inner bicep where her brother’s words are inked. Sarah Gilliam has the words on her wrist.
“If anything good comes out of this,” Sarah said, “I just want it to be that somebody gets help that nobody thought they needed.”
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