The New Yorker
September 29, 2008 Issue
By William Finnegan
When the Twiggs brothers got to the Grand Canyon, on May 12th, Willard called his girlfriend, a married woman in Louisiana, on Travis’s cell phone. She had to see the canyon someday, he said. “It will make the hair on your arms stand up. It’s that beautiful.” A few minutes later, driving east along the South Rim past a spot called Twin Overlooks, Travis made a hard left and drove his car, a Toyota Corolla with Virginia plates, straight toward the edge of the canyon. There is no guardrail at Twin Overlooks, and the canyon at that point is nearly five thousand feet deep. The Corolla jumped the curb, but it did not take the plunge. It got hung up in a small fir tree, clinging to the Kaibab limestone just below the rim.
“I don’t think there was much field research done,” Ken Phillips, a National Park Service ranger, told me. He showed me a spot two miles west of Twin Overlooks where a man and a woman had driven into the gorge successfully. There was a longer straightaway for gaining speed, and a clearer path to the big drop. Double suicides are rare, and it isn’t always possible to tell if both parties were willing participants. In the case of the couple, Phillips said, witnesses got a good look at their faces as they swerved, and said that both looked determined. It turned out that they were on the run from serious criminal charges.
Travis and Willard Twiggs were not in trouble with the law. Willard, thirty-eight, was a former maritime-logistics specialist in New Orleans. He had been working construction, intermittently, since Hurricane Katrina. Travis, thirty-six, was a Marine Corps staff sergeant stationed in Quantico, Virginia. He was a decorated combat veteran with one tour of duty in Afghanistan and four tours in Iraq. In January, 2008, he had created a minor stir by writing, in the Marine Corps Gazette, an article about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Publicly acknowledging emotional problems has never been a smart career move in the military, particularly in the Marine Corps. But Twiggs, who was known for his grit and his charm, gave his piece, titled “PTSD: The War Within,” an upbeat ending, emphasizing his recovery, and he soon found himself working with a new unit, the Wounded Warrior Regiment, spreading the word about the treatment and prevention of P.T.S.D. In late April, in that capacity, he met President Bush at the White House. Rather than simply shake the President’s hand, Twiggs bear-hugged him, proclaiming, “Sir, I’ve served over there many times—and I would serve for you anytime.”
Three weeks later, he tried to drive into the Grand Canyon. Witnesses said that the brothers behaved oddly after the crash. They tried to reverse the Toyota out of the tree branches where it was wedged but could gain no traction. They did not want anyone to call for help. One seemed interested only in finding his cigarettes. They put on backpacks, said they were going to continue with their plans, and set off on foot before park rangers arrived. The witnesses said they assumed that by “plans” the two men meant hiking into the canyon, but Ken Phillips believes that the Twiggs brothers just went across the road and waited in the scrubby piñon-juniper forest there while the rangers cleared the wreck.
Beyond the tow truck and the rangers directing traffic, they would have seen the afternoon’s shadows crawling across the canyon’s far walls, picking out the huge, hallucinatory, floridly named formations—Vishnu Temple, Wotans Throne, Ottoman Amphitheatre. It is a landscape suited to an apocalyptic frame of mind. An hour after the last rangers left, while dusk was falling, the Twiggs brothers approached two tourists, who had stopped their rental car to admire the view. A .38 revolver was displayed. The Twiggs brothers got into the car and drove away. Now they were in trouble with the law.
From the towed car, park rangers had already deduced who they were. They had called Kellee Twiggs, Travis’s wife, in Virginia. She had missed a call from her husband earlier that afternoon, she said; he had left no message. He and Will had disappeared a few days before. She was stunned to hear that they were in Arizona. She explained about the P.T.S.D. and said that Travis had been “out of his mind” the last time she saw him. He was a highly trained marine—a martial-arts instructor, weapons expert, and skilled combat tracker. “I’m very scared,” she said. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to him or your people.” Anyone who approached him should use his nickname, Tebeaux; it might help him understand that he was in America and that they were not the enemy. She added that her husband’s combat flashbacks were worse if he had been drinking. (In the towed car, the rangers found beer cans and an empty fifth of Jägermeister.) Will, she said, was not a fighter but might “man up to impress his brother.”
Ken Phillips got a photograph of Travis Twiggs. “I’ve made a lot of wanted posters,” he said. “But this was the first time I had to crop out the President.” The bulletins that went out over the wires gave both Travis and Will a “violent criminal history,” although before the carjacking neither had any such thing. A local lawman told me that he’d been informed they were extremely heavily armed, although all they had was the .38—“and in Arizona that’s not even close.” The Twiggs brothers might be bent on committing “suicide by cop,” according to one alert. That possibility seems closer to the mark. The two men were certainly leaving the world as they had known it. The lingering, punishing question is why. Travis, who had two young daughters whom he doted on, might have believed that he was back in Iraq. Will’s thinking was more opaque. They drove into the night, and there is no record that they ever spoke again to anyone but each other. Two days later, they were dead.
The dartboard on the back porch had Osama bin Laden’s face on it, and the wings on the darts were red, white, and blue. Kellee Twiggs was cooking jambalaya. “You cut him and he bled green,” she said, flinging shrimp into a pot. She meant that her late husband’s devotion to the Marine Corps was total. A portrait of Twiggs in full dress uniform hung near the front door of her house, a few miles south of Quantico, in Virginia. A shadow box of his medals and ribbons stood near the dining-room table. His ashes sat on a mantel in a brass case decorated with the Marine Corps eagle, globe, and anchor.
I heard the same thing from Twiggs’s fellowmarines. “He was the strongest person I ever knew in the Marine Corps,” Chris Wahl, who served under Twiggs for four years, including two deployments to Iraq, and now owns a bar in Buffalo, said. “Just a sick motherfucker all around, and I mean sick in the best way possible. He knew how to lead men.”
Kellee’s landlady, Pamela Beggan, told me, “I’m not a big fan of the military, but I really liked Travis. He just had a wide streak of goodness. He always seemed a little over the top in terms of physical energy—he’d work out in the basement at 3 A.M. for a couple of hours before he went to work—but I just put that down to being a marine.”
Kellee and Travis met when she was five and he was eight and they lived on the same block in New Orleans. “He loved Rambo,” she said. “When we played hide-and-seek, you had to be on Tebeaux’s team, or you’d get the bejeezus scared out of you.” Kellee is a trim, lively woman with short, hennaed hair and a lush Louisiana accent. She was wearing jeans and a burnt-orange T-shirt. Tebeaux is Cajun; it means “handsome little man.” Kellee and Travis both came from large, blended families. Travis was a middle brother. “Will was the smart one,” Kellee said. “He read the paper. Tebeaux was the mischievous one.” Will and Travis idolized an uncle, Ricky Taylor, who had been an infantryman in Vietnam. Another uncle, Dave Twiggs, had been badly wounded there. “It was the eighties,” Kellee recalled. “MTV was just coming out. So we’d use tennis racquets and get up there and air-guitar it. Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Pink Floyd.”
Travis enlisted in 1993, and Kellee was in college when he came home from the Marines to visit. “He always had long hair. Then, to see him, in 1994, all buff, with his head shaved, it was, like, hello.” They married in 1999, and Twiggs tried civilian life for a year, working for his father’s shipping agency in New Orleans. “He was a hit,” his father, Douglas Twiggs, said. “Tebeaux made so many friends on the river. The blacks called him T-Bone. But he just didn’t have enough structure here. He needed regimentation.”
Kellee Twiggs said, “Tebeaux liked being in his cammies and being in the woods, teaching boys things, how to survive. We got back in the Marines in January, 2001.” She served up plates of jambalaya for her daughters—Ireland, nine, and America, four. Then she shooed them into the living room, where a wide-screen TV was playing cartoons, and went out to the back porch for a cigarette.
Travis had acquired a new nickname in the military. Apparently, after pulling an extra-long duty shift at Guantánamo Bay, he had fallen into a heavy sleep, and a general had stuck a sign on him: “Here Lies the Mighty War Pig.” After his marriage and reënlistment, the young marines in Travis’s platoon began calling Kellee Mrs. War Pig. The Twiggses’ house near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, became a surrogate home for many of Travis’s men—they were invited for Sunday barbecues, holiday meals. “He was like their dad,” Kellee said. “They came to him at 4 A.M. with their problems—financial, marital, whatever—and he always got up.” And when his unit—Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment—was sent to war, Kellee volunteered as a liaison between those deployed and their families.
Her right foot and ankle carry a huge tattoo, “Travis,” in Gothic script. She noticed me studying it. “He had my name all over him,” she said. “On the top of his left foot. On dog tags off his shoulder. ‘Kellee,’ ‘Ireland.’ He hadn’t got ‘America’ put on there yet.” On his right forearm, she said, Travis had “Gladiator”; on his left, “Spartan.” “My husband was my everything,” she said. “He was my hero.”
Kellee flicked a butt off the porch. It was dusk, hot and sticky. A wide slope of lawn ran down to a trampoline. There were pine trees and pin oaks. America charged out of the house to report a misbehaving dog. Kellee held her daughter’s face. “You got your daddy’s catfish mouth,” she said. “See that?” She pointed to a photograph of Travis scowling; the resemblance to his daughter was strong. “Me and Ireland used to tell him, ‘You’re home now, you can smile. You can stop being a badass,’ ” Kellee said.
Douglas Twiggs told me later, “Tebeaux was like a big kid. When Ireland got a pink Barbie Jeep, motorized, he jumped on it and drove around the yard. That just tickled the kids. He’d tell his marines when they came to his house, ‘I’m Tebeaux today, but on Monday I’ll be Sergeant Twiggs.’ ” And for years Travis did manage, it seems, to leave War Pig at the front door. But after each overseas deployment the transition to family life grew more difficult. “I was more irritable, paranoid for no reason, unable to sleep,” he wrote, in the Marine Corps Gazette. He was not being forced to return to Iraq, though—he was volunteering. The moment that a new deployment, with Kellee’s tearful acquiescence, was in sight, he wrote, “my symptoms went away. After all, I was going back to the fight, back to shared adversity, where the tempo is high and our adrenaline pulses through our veins like hot blood.”
He didn’t talk much, at home, about what he did “in theatre.” On one tour, his unit was assigned to guard the United States Embassy, a task that included searching Baghdad, both on foot and in mechanized patrols, for insurgents launching attacks on the Green Zone. On another tour, in 2005-06, his unit spent seven months fighting in Saqlawiyah, northwest of Falluja, in Anbar Province. Mike Tucker, an embedded writer and former marine who went on patrol with Twiggs, wrote, in “Ronin,” a book published last January, that Twiggs was “regarded in the U.S. military as one of the best combat trackers alive.” His men adored him, Tucker said.
Travis never doubted the wisdom of the war, Kellee said, and he was frustrated by the press coverage it got. “He could see how it was helping people. But all they showed were the bad things. His thing was, everybody flew flags after 9/11 for seven, eight months. Then it got ‘old.’ He was pissed about that. Americans didn’t appreciate the military. Then, after his third tour, we’d be watching the news and there would be some horrible American shit going on—some adoption-fraud scam, or some people who threw a baby into a lake in a garbage bag. And Tebeaux would just start crying and shouting, ‘What the fuck am I fighting for?’ ”
Kellee said, “Nobody even noticed it in Two-Six”—Travis’s battalion—“but I did. He got so twitchy, it became impossible to cuddle with him. He loved movies, but he couldn’t sit still to watch one. You could just see the wheels turning. You wanted to keep him busy, keep him talking about things so he wouldn’t start talking about other things. He’d get upset when people asked him stupid things, like did he kill anybody, and he wouldn’t talk, but other times he’d start talking about I.E.D.s, and how horrible they were, how they put soap in them, so it sticks to you, and how they can detonate them with anything—a cell phone, a walkie-talkie. He’d hear a car coming up our gravel road here and he’d just hit the floor, just bam, because the tires crunching sounded like machine-gun fire to him. Or he’d just go sit upstairs and watch for lights—watch for Iraqis, because that’s what he used to do in Iraq. I’d call his name, get him back to bed, and the only way I could get him to sleep was to put him in a bear hug and rock him. Then he’d sleep. But as soon as I moved he’d wake up.”
Travis started drinking heavily, and having trouble concentrating. “His therapy was to cut the grass, with his iPod on,” Kellee told me. “He did that a lot.”
It was dark now, with a full moon rising. Kellee hadn’t touched her food. “He volunteered,” she said. “We volunteered. He did what he did because he was fucking awesome, and he kicked ass because he loved his country. And when he got sick, got saddened, his government, his Marine Corps, let him down.”
She started to cry. “He was so beautiful,” she said.
It has been called by different names—shell shock, battle fatigue—in different eras, but P.T.S.D., in its combat form, has been around for as long as war has. Odysseus and his men had it. Although Twiggs used the word “paranoid” to describe his mood when he was Stateside, the more accurate term, used by P.T.S.D. researchers, might be “hypervigilance”—a normal adaptive strategy for surviving combat, except that the “on” switch is not easily turned off. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a P.T.S.D. specialist, thinks that even calling it a disorder is misleading: P.T.S.D. is an injury. There are degrees of damage, ranging from standard combat stress, which can be treated with a few days’ rest, to full-blown complex P.T.S.D., which is very difficult to treat, let alone cure. It is best understood, though, as a psychic wound, one that can be crippling, even fatal, in its myriad complications.
Compared with other American wars, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be producing victims at a high rate. A recent RAND Corporation study estimated that three hundred thousand veterans of America’s post-9/11 wars—nearly twenty per cent of those who have served—are suffering from P.T.S.D. or major depression, and many more cases are expected to surface in the years ahead. This elevated rate is generally attributed to the rigors of a long war being fought without conscription: multiple deployments and heavy use of National Guard and reserve units. And on the ground, at unit level, the discouragement of anyone with stress symptoms from asking for help is intense. The same RAND study found that, mainly because of the stigma still attached to P.T.S.D., only half of those afflicted have sought treatment.
The suicide rate among veterans and active-duty military personnel has been rising as well. The number of soldiers who killed themselves last year was the highest since the Army began keeping records, in 1980. When Dr. Ira Katz, the Department of Veterans Affairs chief of mental services, learned earlier this year that preliminary internal reports suggested that a thousand veterans in V.A. care were attempting suicide each month, he sent a colleague an e-mail saying, “Shh! . . . Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before somebody stumbles on it?” Another e-mail, written in March, 2008, by Dr. Norma J. Perez, a P.T.S.D. program coördinator in Texas, said, “Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out.”
Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, is said to be considering making some P.T.S.D. sufferers eligible for the Purple Heart. Wounded veterans are symbolically popular figures, if individually painful, and sometimes frightening. Certainly, most politicians want to be associated with their cause. And yet the difficulty of maintaining the troop levels necessary for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed the Bush Administration at odds with veterans’ groups. All such organizations supported what became known as the New G.I. Bill, which would provide increased education benefits. The Administration opposed it, on the ground that the appeal of a college education might sap troop levels. John McCain, himself a veteran, agreed. Ultimately, at the end of June, President Bush signed a modified version of the bill.
In the Marine Corps, the Wounded Warrior Regiment, created in 2007, marks a step toward the assumption of longer-term institutional responsibility for casualties, both physical and mental. “Used to be, we met them at the hospital door, shook their hand, thanked them for their service, gave them a discharge, and said goodbye,” Colonel Greg Boyle, the regiment’s commander, told me. “Now it’s marine for life.” Boyle did not mean that there would always be a place, a job, for disabled marines but that his regiment would track them and offer support throughout their post-discharge lives. P.T.S.D. victims are among those for whom the regiment is designed. It was Boyle who decided to send Travis Twiggs to the White House. “Nice guy. I liked him,” Boyle said.
Travis Twiggs didn’t announce his P.T.S.D. at first. When he returned from Iraq in 2006, after his third tour there, he was transferred to the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, at Quantico. His superiors believed that his extensive field experience would be useful in the evaluation of new weapons systems and equipment. But without his beloved combat platoon, Kellee said, Travis was bereft: “He felt like he wasn’t in the Marines anymore.” And, at his office job in Virginia, his P.T.S.D. quickly became impossible to ignore.
His sergeant major recognized the symptoms, and, in June, sent him to a physician’s assistant, who prescribed the antidepressants Zoloft and trazodone. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are the main drugs used to control P.T.S.D. But, while his medications were being evaluated and adjusted, Twiggs was, by his own account, blunting their effect by mixing them with alcohol. He told Kellee that he couldn’t stand to look in a mirror. He was racked with guilt, in particular over the deaths of two young lance corporals in his platoon. The only thing that really helped, he wrote, was returning to Iraq. He went, in late 2006, on a weapons-testing mission for the Warfighting Lab, and, once again, his symptoms vanished. He wasn’t fighting, but at least he was in theatre. He was also good at his job.
But once he was home, in January, 2007, “he went batshit,” Kellee said. His P.T.S.D.—anger, sadness, drinking, flashbacks—took a toll on their marriage. She went to counselling for P.T.S.D. spouses—sessions led by Travis’s therapist. “I didn’t really see the point,” she says now. “I mean, a twenty-two-year-old girl gets up and says, ‘He’s got guns all over the house, including a 9-mm. he puts between the mattress and the box spring. And one night I woke up and he had the gun up to my head, calling me an Iraqi. So I had to talk him all through that, and get him to put the gun down.’ How long do you think that marriage will last?”
Travis soon landed in a locked ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital. “At Bethesda I was not exactly a model patient,” he wrote in his article. “I was experiencing psychosis where I would fight my way through the hallways and clear rooms as if I were back in theater. The hospital police would have to be called in to secure me.” He was later transferred to a veterans’ hospital in West Virginia, where he saw several doctors, “and it seemed that each one had a different medicine. I often wondered if they ever talked with each other.” At one point, he wrote, he was taking twelve different medications a day—Kellee recalls the number reaching nineteen, and says that the drugs turned her husband into “a zombie”—“and I was experiencing visual and audible hallucinations that I firmly believe were a direct result of being overmedicated. On any given day I was sad, mad, or depressed. I often felt that I was weak and not worthy of calling myself a Marine anymore. I slept covered in sweat every night and constantly shook uncontrollably. I got to the point where I believed PTSD was nothing more than an acronym created for weak Marines.”
This was raw, vivid stuff for the Marine Corps Gazette. Twiggs went on to describe his recovery, through therapy and reduced medication, and wrote, “I am back doing what I do best and what brings me the most enjoyment—training Marines and sailors.” He offered bullet-point advice to policymakers and P.T.S.D. sufferers, and included his e-mail address in case anyone in trouble wanted to contact him. But the article was primarily confessional: “My only regrets are how I let my command down after they had put so much trust in me and how I let my family down by pushing them away.” His P.T.S.D. was “not completely gone,” he wrote, but “life with my family is wonderful again.”
Twiggs was sought after as a motivational speaker, and he became the Wounded Warrior Regiment’s P.T.S.D. poster child. His symptoms, however, returned. He became impossible to live with. He was sent back to Bethesda Naval Hospital and was once again, Kellee thinks, overmedicated.
The experience that continued to cut Travis Twiggs most deeply was the loss of Jared Kremm and Robert Eckfield, Jr., the young lance corporals in his platoon. They were killed at Saqlawiyah, on October 27, 2005. Golf Company’s firebase was an old Baath Party hotel near a main supply route to Jordan and Syria. The hotel compound was taking daily rocket and mortar attacks from Al Qaeda in Iraq and from the Black Flags Brigades, a Sunni insurgent group. Twiggs was leading foot patrols through villages and along the banks of the Euphrates, searching for insurgents and for weapons caches. He was in his element. But some of the facilities at the hotel were poorly secured. There was no running water, and portable toilets had been set out in tents in the compound. These outhouses were vulnerable; Twiggs later told Kellee that he thought that the toilets should not have been outside at all, but in some downwind corner of the sprawling hotel—the stench would be worth the increased security. But he was not the commanding officer on the base. Still, experienced noncommissioned officers regularly let their superiors know what they should be doing. His unit had been at Saqlawiyah for only a month when Kremm and Eckfield took a direct mortar hit in the rest-room tents.
Twiggs was one of the first on the scene. Kremm had been hit in the face; Twiggs watched him die. Eckfield was alive but had severe head wounds. Eckfield was transported to a hospital near Falluja, and died that night. Kremm was twenty-five. He was from Hauppauge, Long Island, where he had been a high-school football star. Eckfield was twenty-three, and from Ohio. Twiggs had trained them both at Camp Lejeune, where they had been regulars at his and Kellee’s house. The Defense Department announced that they had died “from an indirect fire explosion,” and gave their families uninformative explanations.
Christopher Lowman, who was one of Twiggs’s closest friends, and who was also a staff sergeant in Two-Six—he is now a gunnery sergeant, and back in Iraq—told me, “When you train these boys, you tell them every day, ‘You do what I tell you, exactly what I tell you, and I will get you home.’ ” Mike Tucker talked to Twiggs the night that Kremm and Eckfield died, and later wrote, in an e-mail, “Something broke in Travis. . . . That night, he told me, ‘I feel responsible for their deaths.’ ” On a tribute Web site, FallenHeroesMemorial.com, Twiggs wrote, “I wish that I could erase that horrible day from my memory . . . but I can’t.”
Travis’s family, most of whom live in and around New Orleans, remained largely unaware of his struggles. His brother Will was an exception. Will came to Bethesda and spent a week at Travis’s bedside in March. In a journal that he kept on Navy Lodge stationery, Will wrote, “My loyalty has unequivocally been to Tebeaux. I hope God doesn’t take him away from me too.”
“Will thought of Tebeaux as a hero,” Kellee said. “And it really bothered him when he realized how bad he was hurting.”
“Everybody was crazy about Will except Will,” Nancy Twiggs said. She is Will and Travis’s stepmother. She and Douglas reared them both, for the most part, in Ama, Louisiana, twenty miles upriver from New Orleans. They still live there, in a one-story brick house with a big yard backing onto a patch of woods. Nancy put on a video of Will, eleven years old and flaxen-haired, competing in a citywide spelling bee. He gets “aphasia” right, then wins it with “ineluctable.” Travis, age nine, rushes onto the stage and hugs his brother. After the video ended, we sat in silence for a minute while Douglas and Nancy composed themselves.
“It’s like they’re still here,” Nancy said.
“We thought Will might be a sportswriter,” Douglas said.
Nancy and Douglas Twiggs are hospitable, heartbroken people. Will, they say, was a devoted, protective older brother. He and Travis were especially close. Each could mimic the other’s voice, and, even as adults, they liked to trick people over the phone, pretending to be the other. Will was disappointed, they thought, when Travis, in high school, suddenly decided to go live with their mother, in Miami. It was the first big decision he had made without consulting Will.
Will joined the Navy out of high school. In a snapshot taken aboard a ship in San Francisco, he looks, in Navy whites, very young and frail, like a bird that has left the nest too soon. The physical contrast with Travis, who was six inches shorter but many pounds of muscle heavier, is stark. Will did not last long in the Navy. He went to work for a German-owned ship-chartering company in New Orleans, where Douglas, too, worked at the time. Will did logistics, and seemed to do well, but he turned down the company’s offer to send him to Hamburg for advanced training. “He didn’t want to leave New Orleans,” Douglas said. “Both of his friends lived here.” He smiled faintly at the old joke.
Will was passionate about his friends and his family. When his uncle Ricky, the Vietnam War infantryman, died, Will was inconsolable. This loss evidently intensified his fear of losing Tebeaux. “He loved showing Tebeaux off when he would visit,” Douglas said. “He was so proud of him.”
“We all were,” Nancy said. “Tebeaux made a better American out of me. He really believed in this country. I remember watching the first airstrikes on Afghanistan on TV. I thought, There’s Tebeaux. He’s in there, and he’s going to catch Osama bin Laden. I truly believed he would find him, and that his picture was going to be on the front of the Picayune, saying, ‘I got him.’ ”
“Oh, I did, too.”
Whenever Travis was Stateside, he and Will would try to rendezvous at Nascar races around the South. Both men idolized Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Earnhardt was killed at the Daytona 500 in February, 2001; the Twiggs brothers were watching in a highwayside sports bar in Florida, having failed to make it to the track in time for the race. They embarked together on an epic bender of mourning, greatly worrying their families.
Will was jealous, Kellee thought, of Travis’s devotion to her and their children, and Douglas and Nancy don’t disagree. “He couldn’t appreciate that Tebeaux had found the love of his life, and had kids that let him love even more, and that none of it meant he couldn’t still love his brothers,” Douglas said.
Will’s own love life was chaotic and tormented. He had a string of girlfriends, and seemed drawn to troubled women, usually older than he was, often with drug habits. “They always seemed to have kids and work in bars,” a friend of Will’s told me. “Drama, drama, and more drama.” Will became attached to the children of his girlfriends, and was distraught after one boy attempted suicide by slitting his wrists after Will left his mother. With his last girlfriend, the married woman, Will convinced himself that her husband was after him, and started sleeping with a pistol and a knife under his pillow. Will had his own drug problems, and a drinking problem.
He left his job with the German company for one selling marine radar systems. He travelled for work, and earned a good salary, but at some point, according to Douglas, he simply lost interest. He became increasingly withdrawn, and seemed happiest under his Walkman, listening to classic rock and country. He quit his sales job just before Katrina. Afterward, he began doing construction work, but inconsistently. He lost weight, and let his hair grow long. “I started calling him Will o’ the Wisp,” Douglas said. “It was like watching one of those Japanese planes you used to see in those old black-and-white movies, shot down and spiralling toward the ground.”
A silence followed. It had been nine weeks since their sons’ deaths.
“Neither would ever have done it alone,” Nancy said.
“We sit out on the patio just about every night and try to figure out what went wrong, that our boys would do a final,” Douglas said.
“I almost feel like it’s getting worse,” Nancy said. “Like the shock is wearing off.”
“It’s like a big wave in the surf that just knocks you sideways and holds you down, no matter how you fight it.”
After Travis was again released from Bethesda, in April, he and Kellee tried to regroup.
“He had bad thoughts,” Kellee said. “I had bad thoughts. But I told him, ‘We are badasses. What you’ve done in the Marines, what I’ve done as a Marine wife. We’re awesome. We’re killer.’ And we agreed, we’re in it together.”
Travis had moved out of the house, into the barracks at Quantico, but he and Kellee tried to do things that would help them feel like a family. They took the girls to Washington, D.C., for a weekend. They walked the Mall, took in the sights.
Travis was at odds, however, with his colleagues at the Warfighting Lab. He believed that he had received a promotion, to gunnery sergeant, from the Wounded Warrior Regiment. But he was still officially under the command of the Warfighting Lab, and his recent performance there was not thought to merit promotion. (What he had actually received from the Wounded Warriors was a billet to gunnery sergeant, not a promotion, Colonel Boyle explained to me.) Already feeling insecure about his standing as a marine, Twiggs took the dispute as a rejection, a personal humiliation. He wanted to go to Louisiana, where one of his grandmothers was dying, but his commanders considered him too unstable to travel alone. They wanted to send an escort with him. Twiggs saw more humiliation. He could not show up at his grandmother’s accompanied by a guard.
He and Kellee planned another family weekend, but Travis didn’t show up. Kellee was furious. When he finally arrived, on Sunday evening, he was drunk. She wouldn’t let him in the house, or allow him to see the girls. Instead, they sat together on the front porch and talked for half an hour. Her regrets from that night are ferocious. “If I had just brought him inside,” she said. “Just taken him upstairs and made love to him, or tried to. Just told him it would be O.K., played that role.” She never saw him again.
He drove on to Louisiana, on unauthorized leave, in their blue Toyota, with America’s car seat still in the back. He met up with Will, and together they went to see their dying grandmother. He visited other relatives, including Douglas and Nancy. They, too, are plagued with regrets. “I told him, ‘Tebeaux, you’re really not acting like my son,’ ” Douglas said. “If I’d known anything about P.T.S.D., I never would have said that.” Nancy recalled a letter Travis had sent from Iraq to be read at his younger sister’s wedding. “It said, ‘You may not be able to see me, but I’m there.’ I thought of that when we saw him so messed up. We could see him, but he wasn’t there. It just wasn’t him.” Douglas said, “None of us had ever seen him like that. It was like he was in a trance. He didn’t sound like himself. He was flatlining, like he had no personality. He had lost all that stuff of his, that love of trying to fool people. He said, ‘Dad, I think I’m very sick.’ ”
Travis and Will were drinking while they made the family rounds. “They were acting very funny, real cocky, smartalecky,” Nancy said. They borrowed money from Kellee’s mother, Debbie Graham, and from one of Will’s ex-girlfriends. Douglas offered to fly back to Maryland with Travis—he would buy the tickets. Travis asked for cash instead. When Douglas refused, Travis insulted his father. By Friday, May 9th, he and Will had left Louisiana.
They told no one where they were going. Debbie Graham, who was close friends with Will, told her family she was afraid that the brothers were going to pull something like the ending of “Thelma & Louise,” the 1991 film in which the main characters, played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, drive into the Grand Canyon. Kellee rejects the analogy to this day, even though her mother turned out to be weirdly prescient. Travis loved movies, but, Kellee said, “my husband was so manly, he would never go out for a chick flick.”
Travis and Will drove west. Near Killeen, Texas, they dropped in on their uncle Dave Twiggs, arriving in a rainstorm on the night of May 9th. According to Douglas, Dave was disturbed by his nephews’ appearance and sat up late with them. He advised Travis to turn himself in at Fort Hood, which was just up the road, in the morning. Travis said he would. Dave loaned them a hundred dollars. Travis and Will stayed up into the night and left in the morning, but they did not stop at Fort Hood.
In El Paso, they dropped in on Kim Barron, an old friend of Will’s. She, too, was disturbed, particularly by Will’s appearance. He was gaunt, and unusually quiet. He grabbed her and hugged her and told her he loved her. Travis, by contrast, seemed fine. He talked with her husband, an Army lieutenant colonel, while she tried to talk to Will. His face wore a stricken expression that she thought she recognized—she had been his confidante through many love troubles. If the brothers stayed the night, which she and her husband urged them to do, Will would tell her what was going on, Kim thought. But they stayed for only half an hour. Travis said that he had to get back East; if he’d known how far it was, he never would have come. Later, the Twiggs family wondered what to make of that. It did not sound like the remark of a man who had entered on a suicide pact. Will made a little joke about the long drive. At least, he said, he had good company and good music.
When Kellee got the Toyota back, months later, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was in the CD player. There were other CDs in the car—by Linkin Park, Blue October, Enya—but the lyrics of “The Wall,” a dark, solipsistic rock opera, fit well with P.T.S.D.: “Mother will they put me in the firing line? / Mother am I really dying?” And: “I don’t need no arms around me / And I don’t need no drugs to calm me. ”
And: “Would you like to call the cops? / Do you think it’s time I stopped? ” And: “Goodbye cruel world, / I’m leaving you today.”
Travis, while he was hospitalized, made paintings—lurid depictions of his nightmares. “Stained” shows a marine holding an eyeball, blood everywhere. “The Wall” is a self-portrait showing a marine in uniform clinging hopelessly, with bleeding fingernails, to a brick wall. The darkness of the paintings is profound. Leafing through them in a basement hallway, next to Travis’s weightlifting setup, Kellee said, “I think guilt is what killed him, what made him let go, made him disconnect, from us, from everything. He thought he’d let us down, let the families down, let the boys down who died, let the command down.”
Will’s journals also seemed to be full of morbid brooding. He quoted rock lyrics, with multiple underlining: “These broken dreams have GOT TO END.” To a girlfriend, he wrote, “There’s only a couple of options to get you out of my life: 1) Die 2) Make you hate me.” But Kim Barron doesn’t think that Will was suicidal. They had discussed it in the past, she said, and she believed she knew his mind. Still, his determination to look after his younger brother, to stick by him, was, she admitted, a formidable force. “He was always crazy overboard protective,” she said.
The Grand Canyon, of course, is the biggest, baddest, most all-American way to go; Evel Knievel always wanted to jump it. Thelma and Louise, for that matter, were not ordinary “chicks.” They were stylish outlaws, with a battalion of cops on their tail. But dyadic death, which refers both to suicide pacts and to homicide-suicides, is generally less glossy in life. Even on a great stage, like the Grand Canyon, it’s a slinking exit, a slithering away from pain and human connection, suffused with shame, not a blaze of glory.
Kellee also thought that it required two, that the fraternal combination made the worst possible: “Tebeaux was a ticking bomb, and Will was the fuse. Will made him truly not give a shit anymore.” Later, she said, “I think Will helped Tebeaux make up his mind.”