All photos by Nina Berman except archival image William Wold.
As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent, between 2005 and 2006 Kevin Sites gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time. His technology-driven, one-man-band approach to war reporting helped usher in the “backpack movement” and served as fodder for his debut, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars. Kevin’s latest book, The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You About What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War, is out January 29 from Harper Perennial. The harrowing accounts detail the experiences of 11 US soldiers and Marines who have been ravaged by modern warfare and its psychological aftermath. What makes Kevin’s reporting unique and essential is that it didn’t stop on the battlefield—he followed his subjects home.
Below is an excerpt of The Things They Cannot Say’s opening chapter, which chronicles the tragic demise of Marine William Wold. Kevin first interviewed William while covering the Iraq war in 2004, only minutes after the 21-year-old corporal and his fire team gunned down six insurgents inside a mosque in Fallujah. Back then, William was wired for combat, calloused from killing and watching friends die. This excerpt picks up with William’s story seven years after meeting Kevin in Iraq and explains how the decorated Marine’s life was irreparably broken by the things he saw and did in the name of his country.
We’ve paired the text with photos from artist Nina Berman’s Purple Hearts series, which is comprised of portraits and interviews with American soldiers who were seriously wounded in the Iraq War, focusing on their struggle to find identity and purpose after returning home. For more information about the project, visit NoorImages.com.
William Wold. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sites
William Wold seemed fine initially when he came home from Iraq, according to his mother, Sandi Wold, when I speak to her by telephone seven years after my conversation with her son in Fallujah. Wold had begged his mother to sign a parental-approval form when he wanted to join the Marines at 17, taking extra online classes to graduate a year early in order to do so. But after four years of service, he had had enough.
“They were going to promote him to sergeant, but he didn’t want to reenlist. He just wanted to be normal,” she says, echoing his own words from our videotaped interview. His much-anticipated separation from the Marine Corps would come in March 2004, but in the interim, she had promised to treat him and a couple of Marine buddies to a trip to Las Vegas as a coming-home present. She and her second husband, John Wold (William’s stepfather, whose last name William took), met the three Marines at the MGM Grand and got them adjoining rooms next to their own. Sandi was elated to see her son home safe and in one piece, and she wanted to see him leave the war in Iraq behind as quickly as possible.
“There’s no way I can show you how much I appreciate your willingness to die for me,” she remembers telling the three. But she tried her best anyway, going so far as to hire in-room strippers for them through an ad in the Yellow Pages.
“They talked me into buying them suits and renting a stretch limo. These guys show up and they go out partying that night, these guys are pimped out, I’m spending so much money it’s stupid,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Those Marines swam down some drinks, just the three of them. The hotel called my room—‘Do these Marines belong to you?’—as they’re stumbling down the hallways.”
When the strippers show up at the Marines’ room, Sandi says the sound of partying was like its own war zone. Then around midnight there’s a loud banging on the adjoining door.
“The door swings open and it’s Silly Billy, drunk and laughing, and he introduces us to them [the strippers]… I could’ve gone a lifetime without meeting them,” Sandi says.
“He says, ‘Mom, I’m going to need an extra $1,200.’ ‘Dude,’” she remembers telling him, “‘you gotta be fucking shitting me.’ But I’m counting the money out, he’s dancing around, happy as can be.”
The whole trip, she says, was indicative of the closeness of their relationship. He would always stay in touch with his mom even while he was in Iraq.
“He would hang out with the snipers at night,” Sandi says, “because they always had satellite phones, and he would make sure to try and call me almost every week. It would just be, ‘Hey, I’m fine, can’t talk long, love you. Bye.’”
“He was through and through a mama’s boy. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t share with me,” she says. “Sometimes I had to tell him I just don’t want to know.”
But Sandi says she began to sense something was wrong after William made a trip back East to see a woman he had met while doing presidential-protection duty at Camp David. He had called her his fiancée and said he planned to marry her, but the relationship ended after his visit.
“He flies back there and doesn’t last 24 hours,” Sandi says. “He lost it. He calls me and tells me to find him a flight home. ‘I can’t close my eyes, I can’t sleep,’ he tells me, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I think he knew he was so unstable he was going to end up hurting her.”
The extent of his post-traumatic stress became clear to Sandi that summer after his discharge.
“Fourth of July was just horrible for him,” says Sandi. “Some neighbors had firecrackers they were setting off in the distance.”
But for William, that set off a surge that couldn’t be grounded.
“He just starts twitching. ‘It’s going to be OK,’ I told him, but he pushed me back and screamed, ‘You don’t know what’s going on in my brain; there’s no switch that can shut off what’s going on in here.’ He’s sweating and pacing, just the look in his eyes. It went on for 30 to 45 minutes. I visibly see his pulse, 250 to 260, he’s going to stroke out. How do I stop it? I need to get three octaves above him. That’s what Marines respond to. He’s looking for someone in authority to take control. Now we’re talking insanely loud, I’m screaming at him, ‘You need to bring it down!’—trying to use military phrases. I start screaming at him, ‘Marine, stand down! Marine, stand down! Marine, stand down!’ About the fifth time I did it, it had an effect.”
Wold stopped shouting and began to calm down, perhaps beginning to realize how much of the war had actually come home with him.
“Afterward, I think he was mortified that he was in a position to hurt me,” she says. “Before he left for Iraq he had a sparkle in his eye, he cared about people. He made a commitment to his country, and he took it seriously. But when he came home, he was torn and tattered. I hired psychologists, we tried to do everything for him.”
“On the backside of my house, we have a gazebo, and there’s a pond. It’s where I’m talking to you right now,” Sandi tells me. “It’s the place where you get right with the world. It’s surrounded by trees. No one can see you. He loved being here. He lived with us for a while, then bought a house, but after a while said he couldn’t live alone anymore. He just couldn’t do it.”
With everything he had seen and done in Fallujah in November 2004, Wold told medical professionals he was having difficulty adjusting to civilian life and was struggling from nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional numbing. He was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He had also reportedly suffered from a blast injury in Iraq, which I could find few details about, but medical records indicate he was experiencing serious cognitive difficulties consistent with traumatic brain injury.1 Like so many other service members coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan physically or psychologically damaged, or both, Wold’s life began to revolve around a potent cocktail of painkillers, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants he used to cope with his injuries.
According to Wold’s military and medical records, at some point after his return from Iraq he began abusing the powerful painkiller OxyContin and became addicted to it. Wold grew more restless and agitated, Sandi says, until the day he told her he was going to reenlist. He had been home for a year and a couple of months, much of it spent shuttling between doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. But few were able to bring him comfort or relief. His frustration fed on what seemed like perfect logic to his damaged brain—while his time with the Marines was the source of injuries, it was also when he felt most protected.