The LIFE & LONELY DEATH of NOAH PIERCE
Gilbertson, Ashley, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Noah Pierce's headstone gives his date of death as July 26, 2007, though his family feels certain he died the night before, when, at age twentythree, he took a handgun and shot himself in the head. No one is sure what pushed him to it. He said in his suicide note it was impotence-a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was "the snowflake that toppled the iceberg," he wrote. But it could have been the memory of the Iraqi child he crushed under his Bradley. "It must have been a dog," he told his commanders. It could have been the unarmed man he shot point-blank in the forehead during a house-to-house raid, or the friend he tried madly to gather into a plastic bag after he had been blown to bits by a roadside bomb, or-as the fragments of Noah's poetry might lead you to believe-it could have been the doctor he killed at a checkpoint.
Noah Pierce grew up in Sparta, Minnesota, a town of fewer than one thousand on the outskirts of the Quad Cities-Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, and Gilbert-on the Mesabi Iron Range. Discovered on the heels of the Civil War, the range's ore deposit is the largest in the United States. These were the mines that made the second Industrial Revolution. Range steel became the tracks of railroads, the wires of suspension bridges, the girders of skyscrapers. It became the weapons and artillery of the World Wars. WELCOME TO MOUNTAIN IRON, THE TACONITE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD reads a sign greeting visitors along the highway. There are so many open pit mines that the cities seem perched on tiny outcrops, overlooking gaping holes ready to engulf them. Around the clock, deep metallic groans come out of the ground, and freight trains barrel through, horns screeching. Blasting takes place so close to people's houses, residents open their front doors so the pressure doesn't blow out their windows. Locals are proud of their hardworking, hard-drinking heritage. There are more than twenty bars on Eveleth's half-mile-long main street. On a typical night last May, when I was there, loudspeakers affixed to lampposts blared John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and Harleys thundered through town. One bar closed early, when a drunk got thrown through the front window.
Right from the start, Noah had seemed ill-equipped for life on the range. He was a quiet, sensitive kid. He kept a tight circle of friends and passed time with them building tree forts and playing army in the woods. Noah's biological father, Dale Pierce, a deep-sea diver who worked on oil rigs, separated from Noah's mother shortly after she became pregnant, but Tom Softich, Noah's stepfather, treated the thin-skinned boy as his own. When Noah turned six, Tommy began taking him hunting, and by thirteen Noah had his own high-powered rifle. For practice, they went rabbit shooting together at a small clearing a mile from their house. It became such a regular place to find Noah that his family and friends began referring to the clearing simply as "the spot."
When Noah went missing in July 2007, after a harrowing year adjusting to home following two tours in Iraq, police ordered a countywide search. His friend Ryan Nelson thought he might know where to look. When he pulled up to the spot, he immediately recognized Noah's truck. Inside, Ryan found his friend slumped over the bench seat, his head blown apart, the gun in his right hand. Half a bottle of Jack Daniel's Special Blend lay on the passenger seat, and beer cans were strewn about. On the dash lay his photo IDs; he had stabbed each photo through the face. And on the floorboard was the scrawled, rambling suicide note. It was his final attempt to explain the horrors he had seen-and committed.
Noah Pierce was not the only veteran wrestling with depression and PTSD. This April, Ira R. Katz, Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for Mental Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, became embroiled in scandal when a memo surfaced in which he instructed members of his staff to suppress the results of an internal VA investigation into the number of veterans attempting suicide. …