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Marine's final battle: Years of fighting PTSD, brain injury end in postwar casualty

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — That very first kill haunted him most. There were many others, to be sure, but long after he’d returned to Memphis from three deployments with the Marines, Paul Oliver voiced the greatest pain while recounting his lethal encounter with an Iraqi insurgent who ignored a command to disarm and raised his rifle.

It was one of the memories that drove Oliver into seclusion in the back bedroom of his home just off Summer Avenue, where he pulled blankets over the windows and kept his mattress on the floor so he could feel vibrations from any intruders. For days at a time, friends and family members say, he hunkered down there, fighting through fitful sleep and the nightmares that unspooled in his head.

At times like those, Oliver told others, he saw the faces of all the people he had killed. But there was more to the memory of the Iraqi insurgent than just the man’s face. It was what Oliver heard the instant after he pulled the trigger.

He heard the combined, piercing screams of the insurgent’s wife and small child.

“He heard that scream for the rest of his life,” said Oliver’s mother, Nancy Oliver.

Paul Oliver’s life ended Dec. 6, 2013, in that same back bedroom on Lynncrest Street. He was 30 years old. The ruling from the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s office said he died from an accidental drug overdose, citing a toxic mixture of Xanax and Oxycodone — prescription drugs for anxiety and pain.

But if a drug mixture was the clinical cause of death, the emotional and physical wounds that Oliver brought back from the war zones were contributing factors. Having endured horrific combat during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and at a forward base in Afghanistan in 2004, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

Those scars earned Oliver a 100 percent disabled rating from the Veterans Benefits Administration. And they seemed only to deepen in the years after he left active duty in 2005.

Oliver’s story — told through interviews with family members, friends and fellow Marines, and from text messages, court records and a journal he kept — traces a tortuous journey.

It begins with a big-hearted, high-spirited and almost prototypically All-American boy — he’d been prom king and football captain at Catholic High School — going off to war and serving bravely and effectively, probably saving the lives of comrades.

It ends with his transformation into a shattered, haunted and sometimes suicidal war veteran who self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, got in trouble with police and struggled, unsuccessfully, to find a purpose and get his life back on track.

“Mentally, he never came back from the war,” said his sister, Mary Frances Oliver.

Violent killings tortured his soul

Oliver’s story would be tragic enough by itself, but veterans’ advocates and government officials fear it will be repeated over and over as the last of the 2.6 million service personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 return home.

About 19 percent of the returning service personnel will suffer from PTSD, with a similar ratio afflicted with traumatic brain injuries, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a sign of the challenges facing returning warriors, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day, the department reported last year, with the rate highest among younger, newly discharged personnel.

Anticipating a deluge of patients with PTSD and brain injuries, the VA two years ago began hiring up to 1,900 additional health professionals nationwide. They include 21 at the Memphis VA Medical Center, where Oliver was scheduled to begin a six-week residency program just the day after he died.

“It’s tragic to see what war and PTSD does to someone,” said Nancy Jordan, psychologist and supervisor over the trauma recovery center at the Memphis VA.

As traumatic as combat might be on anyone, there were signs throughout his life that Oliver would be particularly ill-suited to the killing it sometimes required.

“His soul was so sweet. I don’t think war was ever going to set right with him,” said his girlfriend, Pamela Klusmeyer, a longtime friend before the two began dating.

Josh Jacobs, a close friend as far back as third grade, concurred, saying Oliver was generous almost to a fault. “He would do anything for anyone without hesitation. He led with his heart.”

Oliver’s sensitivity was obvious to fellow Marines, as well. He was a “really deep person with a rough exterior,” recalls Jake O’Dell, a member of Oliver’s platoon. “He was a tough guy, manly. He was very emotional, but he didn’t want people to know about it.”

Oliver grew up in Southeast Memphis, the son of a food-industry salesman and a nurse. After his parents divorced when he was 13, Paul lived with his dad, who, by all accounts, he idolized and considered his hero.

Ron Oliver said his son was a “great kid” who smiled constantly and loved all sports and competition. But he, like other family members and friends, saw a softer side, as well, including Paul’s early and abiding love for animals.

“He was quiet until he got to know you,” said Oliver, 62. “He was kind of my shadow.”

While his son was at Catholic, Oliver would pick him and friends up after school and take them wakeboarding on McKellar Lake or organize street-hockey games in an office building parking lot. There were BMX bike-racing events at Shelby Farms, baseball games and swimming.

The younger Oliver’s competitive nature was on full display at Catholic, where he excelled in sports.

Mario White, who went on to play college football, was the established star of the team as a dangerous wide receiver. He remembers his first practice with the brash but unproven linebacker.

“I was on offense, he was on defense. The first time I caught a pass, he laid a lick on me, and from that point on, I thought, ‘OK, he’s pretty good.’ ” he said.

It was more than just athleticism that made Oliver stand out. His energy and intensely competitive nature also impressed teammates.

Before one football game, Oliver wanted to do something “crazy” to get fired up, White recalls.

“He drops on the ground, grabs this worm, dangles it in the air like a spaghetti noodle, and then just drops it right in his mouth. I thought, ‘Man, I’m glad this crazy dude is on our team.’”

If male classmates took note of Oliver’s athleticism, females were struck by his easy charm, good looks and crooked smile.

“He really brought a light,” said Lauren Fuchs, who met Oliver while they were ninth-graders at St. Benedict at Auburndale, which Oliver attended before transferring to Catholic. “He walked into a room and made everyone smile.”

It was during his time at Catholic that Oliver developed bonds with a teacher and coach who became something of a mentor to him. Tony Ludlow, who taught history and was athletic director and an assistant coach, was impressed with Oliver’s depth and sensitivity.

“He was mature beyond his years. He was a deeper thinker than most of the guys his age,” Ludlow says. “If you needed a student to take a leadership role and would be respected and looked up to by the other students, Paul was that person.”

Ludlow cultivated Oliver’s fascination with history, especially the Civil War.

There was something else about Ludlow that drew Oliver’s attention: He was a Marine, having served from 1975-85.

“He liked the teacher so much — that was the inspiration,” friend and classmate Ethan Stamper says of Oliver’s decision to enlist.

Ludlow said he always encouraged students to go to college before joining the Marines. But Oliver opted for the delayed entry program, signing up as a 17-year-old and formally entering the service a few months after his 18th birthday and graduation, on Oct. 8, 2001.

In between came the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Oliver graduated from boot camp at Parris Island on Jan. 4, 2002. After making it through the Marines’ School of Infantry, Oliver was assigned to a sniper platoon as the buildup toward the March 2003 invasion of Iraq began.

During the long trip over to Kuwait aboard an amphibious assault ship, Oliver wrote in his journal about his desire to help others. He also took note of how he differed from other Marines.

“While they gamble and talk stupid, I read,” a Jan. 14, 2003, journal entry said.

Because he hadn’t completed sniper training in time for the invasion, Oliver was transferred to the CAAT (combined anti-armor team) platoon of Weapons Company in the 2nd Battalion of 8th Marine Regiment. Set up to destroy tanks, the platoon essentially became a quick-reaction force fighting from Humvees.

Oliver and the other men of CAAT platoon immediately bonded. They called him “Ollie” and would go on to serve with him through three deployments over a three-year period.

“Ollie would cheer us up — he was our jokester. He never had a bad day,” said Jessie Holton.

Another platoon member, Mike Rose, said Oliver “was a genuine good guy” who proved himself time and again. “I would never hesitate to have him next to me. I know he would take care of me,” he said.

Oliver, for his part, described the men in his new platoon as “downright awesome” in a journal entry.

During the invasion, CAAT platoon’s first combat came in Nasiriyah, Iraq, a critical crossroads on the main highway to Baghdad defended by Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards and Fadayeen Saddam, a paramilitary organization loyal to him. Along a notorious route nicknamed “Ambush Alley” and other areas, the battle raged for 11 days, dissolving into street fighting as Republican Guards discarded their uniforms and battled in civilian clothes.

“It was basically a free-fire zone,” his fellow platoon member O’Dell said.

Oliver chronicled his first brush with combat, which involved action against hidden, dug-in Iraqi tanks.

“My destiny has arrived. Dying scares me. There is still so much I haven’t done ...,” he wrote on March 24. “It didn’t really hit me until muzzle flash was pointed in my direction.”

For Oliver, the horrors of war were just beginning. During a firefight along the Euphrates River, Iraqi forces lobbed mortars at the platoon from the opposite bank, severely wounding one member.

He later was dispatched to check out a hospital, apparently used by Iraqi forces, where he found buckets containing dismembered body parts. “I could see he was pretty shaken up,” O’Dell said.

On one particularly bloody day, CAAT platoon members pulled dead and wounded Marines from amphibious assault vehicles that had been disabled by both enemy and friendly fire. One had been hit by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade, while the other had been mistakenly strafed by an American A10 ground-support plane.

Oliver’s attachment to kids and animals was the source of further anguish during the Iraq invasion. On one occasion, CAAT platoon came upon a bus carrying civilians that had been inadvertently shot up by another Marine unit. There were several fatalities.

“One kid came out and asked why we killed his family,” recalls Holton.

In addition to the human casualties, it was the wanton shooting of animals, including livestock and stray dogs, by some adrenaline-fueled Marines that further troubled Oliver. “This place scares the hell out of me, not the war but the people I’m fighting with. They are killing anything,” he wrote in a March 27 entry.

Oliver’s journal doesn’t mention any of the Iraqis he killed, but he wrote that he agreed with the “War is Hell” truism. “There is nothing good about it. I hear kids cry all day. I see unarmed civilians get their heads blown off. However its (sic) those same ‘unarmed civilians’ that were shooting at us earlier.”

After the invasion, on the five-week cruise back to the U.S., the strain of the combat began to show on Oliver and other Marines, O’Dell recalls.

During the first week, Marines remained on a “combat high,” only to come down hard afterward. For Oliver, the change was especially pronounced, as he became lazy and apathetic, “like nothing really mattered,” O’Dell said.

“You could tell he wasn’t the same person ... Each deployment it got worse.”

His journal entries during the trip back to the U.S. reflect the change, as well. Oliver wrote that he no longer viewed war as a matter of “duty and honor” and that, for combat-hardened Marines, “home” was back on the front. He anticipated that once the ship reached port there would be a “celebration that everyone who was not there wants to have.

“Perhaps we will get drunk enough to relax ...,” he continued. “Oh wait I forgot I’m only nineteen. It is illegal to drink. It is perfectly legal to make heads explode from a very long distance away.”

For CAAT platoon, the next deployment came in November 2003, when the men were shipped to Afghanistan. There, they rotated between heavily defended Bagram air base and a forward base at Asadabad, in the Korengal Valley near the Pakistani border.

Mountainous and isolated, removed from access to reinforcements and reliable air support, the geography heavily favored the Taliban. The Marines, who had been the hunters in Iraq, became the hunted. “They had us in their cross hairs, instead of them in ours,” Holton said.

In Asadabad, the platoon usually was subjected to rocket attacks at least twice weekly. Marines called the road out of the base “IED Road” because, as O’Dell said, “every time you went down it, you got blown up” by improvised explosive devices.

At least twice daily, the Marines went out on patrols, where they encountered two types of Taliban fighting units: amateurish insurgents they called the “Jayvees” and the “Varsity,” skilled and well equipped, and using Russian-made night-vision goggles better than the ones the Marines had.

Asadabad was the scene of perhaps the most intense fighting Oliver experienced — and the place where he probably suffered his traumatic brain injury. He was the driver of a Humvee during late-night patrol in January 2004, when two platoon vehicles were subjected to a well-planned ambush by the Varsity.

Nonstop horrors take a toll

It began with the powerful blast of an IED that knocked a turret gunner unconscious and slammed Oliver’s and Holton’s heads against the windshield with enough force to crack the bullet-resistant glass. As tracers from machine-gun fire lit up the night, the Taliban fired a 90 mm antitank rocket that passed so close to Oliver’s and Holton’s vehicle that the propellant burned their faces, Holton recalls.

Oliver gunned the engine to get the Humvee out of the line of fire, leaving just in time to avoid a rocket-propelled grenade, Holton said. Oliver then climbed to the turret and manned the M240 machine gun to suppress enemy fire. He later drove back to the other vehicle and used a thermal sight to guide the gunner on the other vehicle who was able to kill two remaining Taliban fighters with a Mark 19 grenade launcher.

Holton said the incident illustrated Oliver’s skill and versatility. “He was one of my most dependable Marines. He knew everything ... He could’ve moved over and fired the Mark 19.”

Because he led the patrol, Holton received a commendation. But he gives much of the credit to Oliver and a turret gunner on the other vehicle, Justin Johnson.

“If it wasn’t for Johnson and Ollie, we wouldn’t have gotten out of there,” Holton said.

In his journal, Oliver called the Jan. 24 battle “the most intense firefight ever.”

“I am one lucky SOB,” he added. “I adjusted fire right on a group of three enemies. Dropped em. We called in air and ended with 20 dead enemies total. Pretty f ... ing good considering there was only 8 of us.”

Three days later, another ambush wounded four platoon members, two of them severely, Oliver wrote. “My truck went over the IED then it blew up on the next. My nerves are shot.”

The fighting continued in the weeks that followed, and on March 30, 2004, Oliver wrote that he “saw someone get shot in the mouth and drown in their own blood.” He doubted that the war would ever end because, he wrote, “these people don’t care.”

As if the combat in Afghanistan weren’t intense enough, the Marines’ relationship with civilians was fraught with suspicion and outright hostility.

Civilians were killed accidentally by Marine vehicles, and in crossfire during battle, Holton recalls. Returning to base after an ambush that wounded one of their members, CAAT platoon came upon a few male Afghans, perhaps 17 to 19 years old, taunting them and laughing, clearly indicating they had helped set the trap. It was the only time he recalls Oliver being extremely angry.

“We got out and whooped their ass,” Holton recalls. “Paul actually kicked one in the face — I’m pretty sure it knocked out a tooth.”

While accompanying medics to treat sick and injured civilians, Oliver and other Marines were appalled to discover victims of “Bacha Bazi” — or “Boy Play” — a type of child sexual abuse frighteningly common in parts of rural Afghanistan. Afghan men painted their beards red to indicate they were interested in buying boys, who were made to dress up as girls and dance for them, after which they were raped.

One of Oliver’s most troubling memories, he told friends and family members, was of him and other Marines pulling a man off a child during one such rape.

“That tore us all up,” Holton said of finding sexual abuse victims.

Following the second deployment, O’Dell noticed further signs of PTSD in his friend. Oliver became increasingly listless and unmotivated, drinking heavily, getting into fights and often staying in his bunk too late. “He missed formation half the time,” O’Dell said, and on 3- to 7-mile runs, “he’d make it maybe a quarter-mile or something and duck out.

“I was always lecturing him. Nothing worked.”

Oliver and many other men of CAAT platoon were in a position to avoid further combat deployments. They were given the opportunity of a relatively cushy stint in a California base where they would help train Marines bound for the war zone.

But when some platoon members, including O’Dell and Rose, were ordered to a third deployment because their entrance date was later, Oliver became incensed. He insisted on being deployed with his comrades, even though it appeared they would be headed back to Iraq.

“He said, ‘If those guys can’t leave, I’m not leaving. If O’Dell and Rose are going to go die, then I’m going to go die with them,’ ” O’Dell recalls. “He was the catalyst for the other guys choosing to stay.”

The third deployment, however, was relatively uneventful, with the platoon attached to a Marine Expeditionary Unit sent to the Middle East, and just one brief reconnaissance stint in Iraq.

Upon returning, when he and Oliver remained roommates, O’Dell noticed deeper troubles.

“We were having a lot of nightmares, combat nightmares,” he said. “We all had a difficult time sleeping.”

O’Dell recalls one night when Oliver awoke from a particularly troubling dream, in which he had heard someone whisper his name. “He opens his eyes (in his dream) and sees a dead Marine just sitting there looking at him,” O’Dell said.

“Hey, man, could you stay up with me?” O’Dell recalls Oliver asking him. “I don’t care if you fall back asleep — I just want you to try to stay up with me.”

Although it’s not known whether Oliver used drugs while in the Marines, O’Dell had reason to suspect he was, based on the farewells they exchanged upon leaving the service.

“We hugged. The last thing he said to me — he pointed to me and said, ‘Don’t do drugs.’”

Oliver left active duty as a corporal, later to be promoted to sergeant, and his troubles seemed to fade upon his return to civilian life in Memphis at the age of 22.

“When he came back, he seemed like the same old Paul to me,” Stamper recalls.

Oliver worked odd jobs, including stints in liquor stores. He tried going to classes at the University of Memphis, Southwest Tennessee Community College and technical schools but inevitably withdrew because he was uncomfortable in large, crowded rooms and disgusted with the disrespect shown by students who slouched in their chairs and talked back to instructors, friends say.

As the years progressed, friends and family members noticed a change. Oliver seemed to to be drifting further, unable to stay focused or commit to any task. He briefly moved to Chattanooga to learn to become a paramedic, and later to Pennsylvania to grow organic vegetables — both trips ending prematurely.

“He came back, he was just fine for a while,” Oliver’s dad said. “It (PTSD troubles) gradually came on. He couldn’t hold a job. He smoked pot, drank too much. He couldn’t readjust.”

Drugs and alcohol were recurring issues in Oliver’s postmilitary life. O’Dell, who visited and kept in touch with him, said that in addition to marijuana, Oliver dabbled in mushrooms, salvia and other hallucinogenics. He also took prescription medications, sometimes to excess, to alleviate nightmares and anxiety.

Klusmeyer, his girlfriend, recalls that Xanax, in particular, “was kind of a sore point” in their relationship.

Drinking was more of a cyclic, occasional problem. One Thanksgiving, Oliver told his father the only turkey he would be consuming was Wild Turkey, the whiskey. “If he couldn’t sleep, he’d go back to binge-drinking,” Ron Oliver said.

Some of Oliver’s troubles, based on his journal entries, stemmed from missing the intense bonds he had formed with CAAT platoon members — men in whom he had trusted his life, men whom he could differentiate just “by their breathing patterns,” he wrote.

“No woman will ever know me the way these reckless bastards with guns do,” Oliver had written after his first deployment.

Barely six months after leaving the Marines, he wrote, “I miss my boys more than anything.”

Other platoon members shared the sense of loss. “We literally loved each other more than we loved our own families,” Holton said.

Despite efforts by his family and friends to help, Oliver’s steady descent continued. He showed more and more of the classic PTSD symptoms: exaggerated fright response, prolonged sleeplessness and a strong aversion to crowds. He became increasingly isolated, going days or weeks without contacting friends.

“His persona was changing, and he was pushing everyone away,” said Jacobs, the longtime friend who also served with the Marines in Japan.

Ludlow was familiar with the delayed onset of PTSD. His brother, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, had committed suicide. “It was just in the last couple of years that it showed itself ...,” he said of Oliver’s troubles. “PTSD has sort of a snowball-rolling-down-a-hill effect.”

Oliver tried going to PTSD sessions at the Memphis VA, but he couldn’t relate to the non-infantry service members in the meetings and left, O’Dell said.

Increasingly, Oliver expressed guilt over the killing he had done. He never said how many kills he had, but he recounted the most troubling, including the Iraqi insurgent with the wife and small child.

“He told me the souls of the people he killed were haunting him,” Ron Oliver said. “He told me, ‘I wish they would’ve killed me, instead.’ ”

Klusmeyer heard his anguish about the dead, also. “He saw their faces, he saw replays of the shot. He saw it all,” she said.

His mother told Oliver his devout Catholic upbringing and reality of combat were clashing. “He said, ‘Mother, I’m a murderer,’ ” she recalls. “He could not forgive himself.”

Sorrow at root of angry clashes

Nancy Oliver lived on Lynncrest just a few doors down from her son, and late at night he would text message her and come down to talk, or just sit on her couch and cry. At one point he told her, “It hurts to breathe,” and in a text, he wrote of feeling sad all the time.

“He cried so much, and he was ashamed of his crying,” she said.

Although no one knows the number of times, Oliver made multiple attempts at suicide, once by hanging himself with a belt, which broke.

In one journal entry, he wrote of sitting in a truck bed watching the sun set over the Mississippi River. “I have become everything I hate ... I’m at the river and the pain returns. ... Please give me the strength not to pull the trigger.”

In another, written five years after returning from war, he says, “I’m still in the desert.”

Oliver’s isolation and self-loathing only deepened. He sometimes told Klusmeyer to “find someone else” because she deserved better.

“On his worst days, he would lock himself in to protect the rest of the world from his bad mood and bad feelings,” she said. “There’d be days when he wouldn’t leave the house.”

One of Oliver’s few sources of comfort came in the form of a 145-pound dog — a lab mix named Scout that he’d gotten from another Marine. “The dog was his life. He would’ve missed a hundred meals to make sure Scout got fed,” Klusmeyer said.

Recent studies of veterans help explain Oliver’s despair. Researchers have identified a condition they call “moral injury” suffered by veterans who have taken lives during wars. Those veterans, according to a study of soldiers who fought in Iraq, tend to have more severe problems with anger, alcohol abuse, suicidal thoughts and relationship issues than other service personnel who endured intense combat, and even witnessed the deaths of comrades, but did not take lives themselves.

Oliver, although he still had a kind, generous side, experienced difficulty controlling his temper after returning from the service. His anger level “could go from zero to sixty” in a moment, his father said.

He also had some relationship problems, particularly with one former girlfriend. Oliver was jailed on charges that included domestic assault and vandalism as a result of fights with her.

Shortly before 3 a.m. on Jan. 16, 2012, police responding to a call about an assault and domestic violence found a highly irate and apparently drunk Oliver at the woman’s Southeast Memphis home. (The Commercial Appeal does not identify victims in cases of alleged domestic violence).

She claimed he knocked on her window demanding to speak to her and when she refused, he broke her bedroom windows and a kitchen door. When she let Oliver in, he allegedly grabbed and pushed her, according to an affidavit. Oliver told police the woman had struck him in the nose.

Once in the squad car, Oliver made threats and referred to his background as a Marine sniper.

“If I had my Springfield (rifle) tonight someone would have died,” he said, according to the affidavit. “I’m going to kill that bitch.”

To those who knew Oliver, the threatening statements showed how far he had fallen. “That sounds like someone totally different. I never knew that Paul,” said Ross Feaster, another classmate from Catholic.

The domestic charges earned Oliver notoriety in the form of an article in The Commercial Appeal. But they also put him on a track that might have saved him.

Oliver was placed in Shelby County Veterans Court, established in 2012 and tailored to the needs of defendants who have been in the military. It includes a structured program in which veterans must check in weekly, regularly attend counseling sessions at the VA and undergo drug-testing.

Oliver was in the program three months, and he appeared highly determined to overcome his problems, said Judge Bill Anderson. “He was doing great. He was one of the most respectful young men I’ve ever seen.”

Under the Veterans Court requirements, Oliver was slated to begin a six-week inpatient PTSD treatment program at the Memphis VA the second week in December. Veterans are taught coping skills, anger management and meditation. They also talk and write at length about the traumatic events that triggered their condition.

“If you apply yourself, it works,” Jordan, the VA psychologist, said of the program. “PTSD is treatable.”

Despite the progress he was making with the Veterans Court, Oliver suffered setbacks. Walking back to his car after one VA session, he was robbed at gunpoint — an event that deepened his despair about Memphis and society in general, Holton said. “The longer we were out (of the military), the angrier he got.”

On Nov. 23 of last year, Oliver left a voice-mail on his father’s phone saying he’d had another bad day. “ ... I just called to say I love you. You’re my hero, man.”

Oliver was planning a party to commemorate his upcoming “lockup,” as he called the scheduled six-week PTSD program, for Saturday, Dec. 7. He never made it.

Two nights earlier, he and Klusmeyer had attended Trivia Night at a local sports bar, after which he felt ill and went home early. The next day, based on calls made on his cellphone, Oliver contacted a drug dealer.

On Friday, Dec. 6, Klusmeyer became concerned after not hearing from Oliver. Returning from her job as a nurse at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she stopped by his home on Lynncrest. Scout met her at the door and, as if knowing what was wrong, led her to the back bedroom.

There, Oliver lay dead on the mattress, his arm reaching down toward the floor. “I’m sure he was cuddling Scout,” Klusmeyer said.

Despite Oliver’s history of suicide attempts, Klusmeyer and others said they believe his fatal overdose was an accident, noting his plans for the party and the upcoming PTSD treatment program.

“I feel like it was accidental, but you never know,” Klusmeyer said. “There were times during our relationship that I thought I might find him like that, but that was not one of them.”

Later that night, as emergency medical personnel and the Medical Examiner’s team finished their work with the body, Nancy Oliver waited nearby. When the body bag was carried out, she persuaded the personnel to unzip it so she could see Paul one last time.

She cupped her son’s face in her hands, expecting to see peace in it but instead finding pain and worry.

“It’s been an honor to have been your mother,” she said softly to him as the medical personnel nearby suppressed sniffles.

The funeral a week later drew an overflow crowd to Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Sailors and Marines, including several members of CAAT platoon, passed Oliver’s open casket and placed their eagle, globe and anchor insignia in his hands. Many patted his chest and said, “Ollie, love you, man.”

As the 85-car funeral procession wound its way to the West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery, family members were struck by the show of respect offered by so many Memphis motorists who saw the Marine and U.S. flags adorning motorcycles and recognized that a warrior was being laid to rest. They not only pulled over, but got out of their vehicles and stood silently, hands over their hearts, as the procession passed.

The day after the funeral, Ron Oliver visited the fresh grave and was heartened to see, there in the loose dirt over his animal-loving son’s body, a set of deer tracks.

Oliver’s death hit the Veterans Court officials hard, prompting them to “redouble our efforts” to help veterans, said court coordinator Jerry Easter, himself a Marine who fought in Vietnam. “We give them training on how to kill, but not how to come back into the world. ... Then we wonder why we have issues.”

Anderson, the judge, was particularly devastated. “I don’t mind telling you, I cried on a number of times over his death,” he said. “We lost one we shouldn’t have. He was a fine, fine young man.”

Oliver’s comrades from CAAT platoon, meantime, continue to grapple with his death and their own PTSD. “We all have it — it never goes away,” Holton said.

Back on Lynncrest, Nancy Oliver has hung a gold star in her window — the traditional symbol of a family with a fallen service member. She also keeps an altar to her son and sleeps on his old mattress.

“I am only surviving this because I know God has stopped his suffering. And I’m eternally grateful to God for that, because he suffered 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.

At his home in Bartlett, Ron Oliver endures what he calls “good minutes and bad minutes” ever since the death of the son to whom he devoted so much of his life. He knows how close his son came — maybe only a few days — to being saved.

In the dining room and in a sun porch, the senior Oliver keeps pictures showing a young, exuberant Paul with his whole life ahead of him. Before the deployments, before the horrors of Ambush Alley and IED Road, before his head became an echo chamber for anguished screams, and before he turned to booze and drugs to deaden the pain, Paul is pictured playing street hockey, snowboarding and attending the prom.

“I don’t think a father could love a son more than I loved that one ...,” he said.

“He was my hero, too.”
 

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