(in which Berman reaches the end of Nathan Thibodeau’s war diary and debates whether its tragic contents would make a good news story)
The diary is just as explicit about the things that happened during his second tour, like when a bullet ripped through his camos, grazing his leg. It wasn’t much of a wound, but it got him a Purple Heart. He wrote that it scared him and made him mad at the same time. He said he charged toward the shooter and fired three shots into him before he knew what was happening. He said he expected to sleep well that night. But the next day, he admitted he hadn’t slept well at all. In that entry, he said the man he shot looked to be fifteen or sixteen years old.
Nathan kept writing when he came home and decided not to re-up. It was the same degree of detail, all the ordinary things he’d missed so much while he was gone were recorded in that careful hand. As weeks went by, he wrote more and more about the peace-of-mind thing. He was dreaming about Iraq, watching his fellow soldiers fall in action, and seeing himself avenging their deaths by taking out one insurgent after another. And often, he said, when he turned the dead soldier over it was a child or a woman or an old man.
He said Jen could tell he was struggling. Sometimes when he woke up from an especially violent dream, she’d be cradling him in her arms, trying to soothe him. But even that didn’t seem to help. The dreams kept coming, and he began to be afraid during the day, too, back at the paper mill. Sudden noises made him drop to the floor. If someone approached him from behind, his first instinct was to turn around and grab them by the neck.
After several months, as the war ground on, he confided in the journal that he really felt like he’d failed in what he set out to do—protect those he loved. He said watching the news—and the steady warnings from the President and the Vice President about the threat of another attack—made him think we’d never be safe again. He kept writing similar things, searching for some understanding, some reassurance, some peace. And he admitted he couldn’t find it. Jen suggested he visit the VA hospital and get some counseling, but he’d never had much appreciation for shrinks, and everyone had always considered him a strong person, who could handle whatever came up. He refused to go.
But he wasn’t getting a handle on it. His behavior at work got so erratic that his supervisor sent him home for two weeks to get a grip on himself. That upset him even more. He wrote that no man in his family had ever been a head case. He thought he just needed to get this figured out, and get on with it.
A couple days after that he wrote that he’d bought some fresh bullets for his rifle. And two days after that—the day he killed his family—he detailed his intentions in the book. He said it was clear to him that no one would ever be safe and secure again in the world where terrorists could strike at any time. He said it was clear to him that all the stuff he’d always been told about the importance of defending your country, the stuff he’d been hearing since he could remember, was sadly not true. He said he’d had a dream the night before in which insurgents broke into his house, raped and murdered his wife and daughter, and then beat his two boys to death. And all the while it was happening, he’d sat in a chair by the kitchen window and watched them do it.
He said that finally told him what he had to do. He was going to spare all of his loved ones that kind of horror. He was going to take them all, including himself, to a safer place, a place where he knew there would be peace. He added the time to the date on that last page in the book—2:30 P.M.—and one by one, as his children came home from school, and Jen came back from shopping, he shot and killed them, then turned the gun on himself. The last words on the page were, “I guess violence can be a good thing if you do it for the right reasons.”
I closed the diary and laid it on my desk. His parents had given it to me hoping I would use what I found to resurrect their son’s reputation. Now that I’d read it, I wasn’t sure if I could do that or if Fred would let me do that kind of story even if I wanted to. I walked over to Fred’s office to talk about it. He was on the phone when I reached his doorway; he waved me in while he finished his conversation. I held up the diary.
“This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read.” I laid it on his desk, but he didn’t pick it up.
“Is there a story here?” His voice was flat. DeMarco seldom let feelings enter into his news decision-making. I tried to approach his question the same way.
“Truth is, I don’t think we can do precisely the story his parents were hoping for. They feel awful that their son committed such horrendous crimes, and they’d like us to do something to help the community see him as the man they knew him to be. I wouldn’t ask you to let me do that kind of a white-wash story and I know you wouldn’t agree to it. So I don’t know if there’s any other story here or not.”
Demarco rubbed his hand over his shiny, bald head, and stared at the book.
“So what’s in there? Anything useful? Or just the insane ramblings of a wacko ex-soldier?”
“Maybe you should read it and find out for yourself.”
“Nah,” he launched into his favorite Jack Nicholson impression, “I have neither the time nor the inclination to read that diary. If we’re gonna’ do anything with it, you’re gonna’ have to tell me what, or at least give me an idea what we could do with it. I mean, right now it’s an exclusive, right? Not exactly an exclusive in good taste. You know what the cops say when we do stories that make us look sympathetic to criminals. But we have it and no one else does. Give me the short version of what goes on in there, and maybe we can figure something out.”