'Scared to his death'
Scott McCahon still chokes up when he thinks of David Bauders.
The Forest Grove High School social studies teacher coached Bauders on the FGHS track team and taught him history and government in the classroom.
Bauders was a light, McCahon said. "If you had a dark day, he would brighten it up."
After graduating in 2009, Bauders studied sociology and psychology at the University of Portland, then became both a Washington State Trooper and a first lieutenant in the Washington National Guard.
He was the kind of platoon leader who popped his head into a room just to let his soldiers know he cared about them. He was the kind of brother who texted his sister to let her know he loved her. He was the kind of kid who once won Forest Grove's "If I Were Mayor" contest.
And when Bauders' platoon got called overseas in 2016 for its first deployment, he was excited to go, said his sister, Corinne Horton.
So when the 25-year-old Bauders shot himself in Iraq on May 6, 2016, everyone was shocked.
Since that day, Horton, 37, has been trying to figure out what went wrong. What could have driven her upbeat, dedicated, resourceful brother to commit such a desperate act?
She has searched through hundreds of pages of reports from the official investigation into her brother's death and wondered about the value of the military's suicide-prevention trainings. Why didn't anyone recognize her brother's distraught state?
According to a 2016 report from the Pentagon, suicides among active-duty soldiers increased from 145 in 2001 to 265 in 2015, peaking at 349 in 2012. (See accompanying story below)
With this year's Veterans Day still in the rearview mirror, Bauders' story reminds us there's still a war going on. Local youth are still leaving their loved ones to go overseas and fight a shadowy, destructive enemy. Bauders himself knew that while he wouldn't be on the front lines, he and his platoon could still be attacked. He was willing to lay down his life fighting the enemy.
But when he died, the "enemy" was nowhere in sight.
Friday, May 6, was supposed to be a day of rest.
Bauders' 176th Engineering Company had been given the free time after days of hard work in Iraq's 110-degree heat.
They'd arrived at the al-Asad Airbase in late April 2016, tasked with renovating buildings on the 25-square-mile base for the Iraqi Federal Police to use as a training camp.
The needs were clear: fix wiring, replace broken hardware, build stair steps. But Bauders' platoon discovered they had no access to tools or supplies for the job.
Tools weren't the only thing missing. In the 19-foot trailers where they slept, the soldiers had only cots — no chairs to sit in, tables to eat on or lockers to store belongings.
Fortunately, members of the platoon they were replacing told Bauders and his soldiers they could scour the base for whatever they needed. That's what the departing platoon had done. So Bauders and his unit scavenged around, finding tools, lumber, appliances and furniture.
Bauders was particularly excited when they found some abandoned gym equipment. A gym is a big deal for soldiers because it's a way to build up morale, bond with peers, release stress and set personal goals.
According to a U.S. Marine investigation, Bauders discovered the gym while out scavenging one day. Noticing a lock on the door, he broke a window to get inside and decided to come back the next day to retrieve the equipment.
Several of his soldiers questioned or advised against doing so, especially when they found the window boarded up the next day, indicating the gym was not abandoned. But the building had several boarded up windows and had no power.
But most seemed to think it would be fine. Bauders cut the lock, the soldiers gathered up the equipment and hauled it back to their living area.
The next afternoon, Friday, May 6, Bauders was meeting to discuss the coming week with two soldiers, including one who spoke with the News-Times extensively but did not want to be identified. We'll call him John Doe.
Bauders was happy, upbeat, personable. Then the handheld radio crackled to life. A Marine captain wanted to see Bauders. The two soldiers waited in his office while Bauders went off to find out what was up.
The Marine captain told him Iraqi police officers had reported that coalition forces stole their gym equipment.
A half hour later, remembers Doe, Bauders returned, noticeably flustered and upset.
When he told Doe and the other soldier to go gather the rest of the platoon and the gym equipment and meet him back at his office, Doe was startled by the uncharacteristic urgency from a man he'd come to think of as "Cool Hand Luke."
The two soldiers ran the whole mile and a half to the platoon's living quarters and began gathering up the gym gear and rounding up platoon mates.
Meanwhile, the Marine captain called Bauders back to his office, where Bauders acknowledged taking the equipment, saying it was for "troop welfare." He also acknowledged breaking the lock.
Bauders then returned to his own office and asked the two people he shared it with to give him some privacy while he made a phone call. It was about 5:25 p.m.
According to the official record, Bauders called his company commander, who was stationed in Kuwait. The phone call lasted about four minutes and 30 seconds.
Waiting nearby, his office mates heard a shot.
When Doe returned to Bauders' office, he saw several military personnel running around frantically.
"He shot himself," someone yelled.
Bauders lay on the ground surrounded by people trying to resuscitate him. Blood soaked the floor.
In an interview during the investigation into Bauders' death, his company commander gave this account of that final phone call with Bauders:
"1LT Bauders notified me that he and the rest of his Platoon, 26 total personnel located at Al Asad Airbase had broken into and stole weight lifting equipment from an Iraqi gym in a neighboring LSA (Life Support Area). They had been caught by a Marine Captain who required them to return the stolen property and was going to refer the case to CID (Criminal Investigation Unit). Although he did not give any indication of suicidal ideology, after getting off the phone with 1LT Bauders, and discussing the incident with his Platoon Sergeant ... I became worried that he would become depressed about possibly losing his military and civilian careers."
Nearly 30 minutes after receiving Bauders' call, the commander tried to call him back but got no answer. He texted Bauders, asking that he call back, then contacted two officers stationed in Kuwait and told them about his concerns.
At 7:20 p.m., the commander learned Bauders had killed himself.
Doe thinks the problem was bigger than the gym equipment and those last interactions with the Marine and the commander. He sees the circumstances preceding Bauders' suicide as "a perfect storm," a complicated combination of problematic factors that ended in a preventable calamity.
Under the "storm" theory, one circumstance was that Bauders and his National Guard unit had been forced to join with an Illinois unit almost at the last minute, giving them an unfamiliar battalion commander.
The battalion commander might have affected the decisions of the company commander, who repeatedly denied Bauders' requests:
- For a medic and mechanic to accompany his platoon to Iraq
- For tools and supplies — plywood, hammers, drills — that would allow his platoon to carry out its assignment
- For an experienced platoon sergeant who could have been Bauders' right-hand man. The sergeant Bauders wanted had deployed before so offered the wisdom of experience, Doe said.
A battalion commander supervises the company commander, who is the leader of a unit. There are four platoons in a unit. Bauders was the leader of his platoon.
The unfamiliar battalion commander might have been the one blocking Bauders' requests, Doe said.
But in a statement, the company commander himself acknowledged that he didn't know Bauders well: "I saw him one weekend a month, other than that I didn't have a personal relationship with him."
Horton, an Army veteran who works for the Veterans Administration in Texas, said she thinks all the denials and missing equipment were because her brother's unit wasn't technically supposed to be in Iraq.
"Apparently we have to fly back to Kuwait every 90 days for a minimum of a few hours but as long as a few weeks because the government underreports how many troops are 'in' Iraq," Bauders had texted his girlfriend.
So the tools, furniture, medic and mechanic were all 500 miles away in Kuwait, along with the company commander.
Bauders was more or less on his own.
A sister's struggle
Horton is frustrated by what she sees as errors, inconsistencies and missing information in the investigation.
"But is that because of sloppy investigative work or were these documents left out on purpose? I don't know," she said.
It's still not clear, for example, who told Bauders he could lose both of his careers. The Marine captain? The company commander? How did they deliver that news? How did Bauders react?
In another instance, the company commander's written description states that he didn't think about Bauders becoming depressed until after their phone call, while talking with the platoon sergeant.
But in a separate interview, he said he thought about it during the call, stating: "1LT Bauders was concerned about what would happen to his military career and civilian job. (The commander) further stated he felt 1LT Bauders would become depressed about the situation and told him he needed to stay on mission and not worry about it."
An awareness of Bauders' possible depression — or the delivery of any potentially devastating news — should have triggered suicide-prevention tactics, notes Horton, who wants more detailed transcripts of pertinent conversations.
When she asked the military to reopen the investigation, she was told there's no reason to do so because its purpose was to determine the cause of Bauders' death, which has been ruled a suicide.
But Horton wants more than a cause-of-death ruling. She wants to change what she believes is a toxic atmosphere and questionable leadership. She also wants soldiers to get the support they need.
She has been talking to a lawyer she hopes can subpoena records she believes may be missing from the investigation files.
A complicated picture
In hindsight, Bauders' military comrades who were interviewed for the investigation struggled to come up with other factors that might have contributed to his suicide. One said Bauders ate poorly, subsisting on meal replacers and energy drinks.
Others mentioned a shooting incident from his state trooper job that still disturbed him.
Another said that while everyone liked him, Bauders wasn't particularly intimate with anyone.
At least one comrade had butted heads with Bauders and found him "impulsive."
The company commander described Bauders as "very personable, but I thought he was always guarded, he was very prideful and someone who could not take criticism very well."
To a certain extent, these are normal personality factors that many people carry. But under extreme pressure, could they have contributed to Bauders' suicide? Did the conditions Bauders was serving in prove to be a deadly combination?
The U.S. Marine investigation into Bauders' death concluded not long afterwards and included this recommendation:
"Recommend that the 176th Engineer Company send a different platoon from Kuwait to replace 1st Platoon. The recent events have caused apparent instability and have severely degraded morale. The platoon needs time to stabilize and Iraq is not the location to do so."
Partly due to Bauders' suicide, Doe left the military after his tour of duty ended earlier this year. Now he's in counseling, where Bauders comes up often. But while he's still haunted by Bauders' death, Doe doesn't lambaste the military.
"It's natural to feel like you could have done something different," he said. "I feel like at the time, the situations we found ourselves in were so foreign to us we did the best we could with what we had."
According to one platoon member: "I think that Lt. Bauders was a man just like myself. He wanted to lead his soldiers with kindness and not with (an) iron fist. I think he got too scared when a CPT (captain) told him that he would go to jail for stealing the gym equipment. (Thinking) that he would get sent home with no job ... and no one to help him, he took his own life. I think Lt. Bauders did not look far enough in his future to see the light ahead. Lt. Bauders was a good man that was scared to his death."
Military suicide prevention remains a challenge
David Bauders was one of thousands of active-duty military members who have committed suicide while serving.
In 2012, those numbers peaked at 349, with more active-duty soldiers dying from suicide than in combat, according to a Washington Post investigation.
The tallied suicides pervade all branches of the military, from National Guard members, who train primarily on weekends, to the other, full-time military branches.
They persist despite numerous suicide-prevention programs and near-constant reminders about how to identify suicide warning signs and keep an eye out for distressed peers, according to an active military friend of Bauders, who was a 2009 Forest Grove High graduate.
The military's suicide prevention program, ACE (Ask Care Escort), has been nationally recognized by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, which receives support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
ACE encourages soldiers to directly ask fellow soldiers whether they're feeling suicidal, care for those they're worried about, and escort them to find appropriate help so they're never left alone. The training includes information about suicide awareness, warning signs, risk factors and intervention skills.
Statements from those in Bauders' platoon reveal they did receive the military's basic suicide-prevention training. Still, recognizing suicidal tendencies is not a black-and-white science. Statements from Bauders' comrades are consistent: He made no suicidal threats around the time he shot himself nor at any time before.
While Bauders was outwardly upset right before he fired the shot, it appears neither the two soldiers he'd been meeting with nor his office mates suspected he was distraught enough that they needed to implement ACE.
Bauders' company commander, however, appeared to be aware of Bauders' fear that he might lose his careers and of the possibility he could become depressed.
Bauders' sister, Corinne Horton, wishes his company commander had used ACE during his final conversation with Bauders: "What's the point of shoving ACE down everyone's throat if you aren't going to hold them to it?"
"We take suicide prevention training seriously and our Soldiers know to take immediate action when they recognize suicide ideations," said Karina Shagren, Washington Military Department communications coordinator. "We will never know why Lt. Bauders took his own life, and it would be incredibly unfair to speculate."
Despite all the training that urges care and compassion, there still appears to be a stigma attached to suicide.
For example, Bauders' name wasn't initially included in the Washington National Guard's Fallen Heroes website.
In an email to Col. Jonathan Beddall, Horton wrote:
"When my mother asked why 1LT David Bauders' name was not included on the Washington National Guard's Fallen Heroes website, you responded, 'We do not put the names of soldiers who committed suicide on the website. We do not want to be seen as endorsing suicide.'
"Col. Beddall, your response is insulting and hypocritical. You don't want to be seen as 'endorsing' suicide, but your policies undermine the Army's principles of Suicide Prevention. By undermining suicide prevention, the Washington National Guard is, in fact, endorsing suicide ...
"The numbers don't lie — in 2016, the rate of National Guard suicides rose by 24 percent. During Operation Inherent Resolve, more soldiers have died by suicide than by ISIS. Your refusal to commemorate these soldiers implies that their service to this country was not honorable and de-values the loss felt by all who cared about them. Your policy implies that mental health casualties are worth forgetting. By equating operational stress with shame, you discourage soldiers in crisis from seeking help ...
"Honoring my brother on your Fallen Heroes website does not endorse suicide. If anything, it serves as a reminder of the tragic and painful losses we must endure when we fail to care for the emotional well-being of our brothers and sisters in arms."
The organization later reconsidered and added his name.
"First — please know the Washington National Guard genuinely cares for its members and their families, and continues to extend our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Lt. David Bauders," Shagren wrote in an email to the News-Times. "Moving forward, we will remember him as a dedicated public servant who spent his short life putting others before himself."
By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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