Manhattan Project #23 Meet the Thibodeaus

(in which Jed Berman meets with the family of a gulf war vet who kept a diary of his military service, then returned home and killed his wife and children)

I called the soldier’s parents back and arranged to see them the next morning, and asked the assignment desk to give me a photog to shoot an interview with them. They lived in what reporters always refer to as a modest home, two-story frame, with a small yard and a snowmobile on a trailer beside the garage. They both came to the door when I rang the doorbell. I was surprised to see how young they were; neither of them looked to be more than fifty. His hair was mostly gray, hers was blonde, but I figured that might have been helped along at the beauty salon. They looked to be in pretty good shape, and they were both wearing snazzy sweatsuits, with white stripes up the pant leg. Their home was furnished nicely, fairly modern looking, with a big fire going in the living room fireplace.

They ushered us into that room and offered us a seat on a couch close to the fire. My photog, Jeanie, put her gear down and I added the stand lights I was carrying to the pile. We sat down and the parents sat down in two overstuffed chairs facing us. Even though they looked youthful, their faces bore the shadow of great sadness. We made a little small talk for a couple of minutes, and then the mother reached over to an end table beside her chair and picked up an inch thick bound volume with the words “My Diary” on the cover. She clutched it to her chest with both hands, like you’d hug a child to show them how much you love them. The small talk ended abruptly.

“You see, Mr. Berman, this is all we have left of him, really, except for some pictures.” She motioned toward the mantelpiece over the fireplace. It was crammed end-to-end with photographs of their son and his family. They had color eight-by-tens of the children, obviously done at a studio. In every photo, they looked happy and healthy, including the shot of their son in his Army dress uniform. A broad smile made his face glow with good intentions. I recognized that picture; it was the one they’d given all the stations after their son committed his terrible crimes. I remember thinking what a contrast we presented to viewers when we described the enormous horror of his actions while showing them a picture of a handsome, happy–looking young man.

“Are you sure you want to share that diary with us, Mrs. Thibodeau?” I asked, trying to be as sensitive as I could in this painful moment.
Her eyes welled up and her head sagged down until her chin rested on the top edge of the book as she tried to keep it together.
“Have you ever lost a loved one to violence, Mr. Berman?”
“Please call me Jed,” I told her, hoping it would help her relax a little.
She repeated the question. “Have you, Jed, have you ever had someone so very dear to you ripped away by violence?”
I nodded and told her about my mom and Einstein and the Manhattan Project. “So, yes, Mrs. Thibodeau, I have had that experience. Not exactly like yours, but the feeling I am still dealing with twenty five years later is exactly like yours, I feel as if my mother was ripped away from us in a very violent way.”

“Would you ever consider sharing that story with others, Jed?”

“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know how I would do it. As a journalist, I need to focus on other people’s stories. Other than a few fun pieces, I never put my personal experiences on TV.”

“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure that’s right. But we need to do this because we just can’t bear the thought that all of our friends and everybody who’s heard about what Nathan did will forever see him as a monster or something. He was a wonderful son and a terrific husband and father. But something awful happened to him after he enlisted, well, actually after he spent so much time in Iraq, and it stripped away that good, good man and left a terribly misshapen shell. And we think people should know what happened.

We’re not pacifists or anything; Frank served a hitch in the Army after high school. We just want people to know that Nathan was a decent, God-fearing person who lost his footing in service to his country. We think other people should know about that, and he explains it all in here.” She held up the book. “Will you tell people Nathan’s story, Jed?”

She reached toward me with the book in her hands. I stood up and took hold of it. Slowly she released her grasp, as though she could barely stand to let it go, as if she were actually placing her son in someone else’s keeping. I sat down again.

“Mrs. Thibodeau, I’ll do the best I can. I think you and your husband are courageous people to offer this book to us. To get started on this, it would be helpful if you gave us your son’s story up to the point where he started writing in this book.”

They agreed to do that, and Jeanie set up the camera for the interview. It lasted nearly an hour, with several timeouts for both of them to compose themselves. I knew whatever we did with the diary, we would end up using only a few minutes of the interview, but I wanted to be sure I had all the information I could get about Nathan Thibodeau before I met Corporal Thibodeau in the pages of his journal. By the time we left, the fire had burned down in the fireplace. We spent about three hours with the Thibodeaus, talking and shooting video of the photographs and mementos Nathan had left behind in his bedroom when he struck out to make his way in the world.

I took the journal home with me after the late news and sat down in the living room. It was about 12:30. At 4:00 A.M. Jane came looking for me and dragged me off to bed. I finished reading it the next day at work.

When I opened the cover, I found pages neatly filled from top to bottom with small, careful handwriting. Every page of Nathan’s diary was a letter to his parents, every single day of his military life, but he never sent one of them. He kept in touch with his wife and kids by email and satellite phone. His folks told me they got most of their news about Nathan from his wife.

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