Revisiting massacre site helps veteran feel whole, but one year later, he's still haunted by what-ifs
By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 27, 2016
Investigation continues a year later
Completion of the Umpqua Community College police investigation within one year of the Oct. 1, 2015, tragedy is unlikely.
Instead, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office hopes to have the analysis completed by the end of 2016.
“We’re hopeful that everything will be wrapped up by the end of the year, but it’s impossible to put a timeline on things,” Dwes Hutson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, told the News-Review in Roseburg, Ore.
According to Hutson, the sheriff’s office has been waiting for details from the FBI and the Oregon State Crime Lab.
If the report is completed at the end of 2016 it will have taken 15 months. Eleven months after the shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., the state’s Division of Criminal Justice released a 48-page final report.
ROSEBURG, Ore. — Chris Mintz is an opportunist.
He is an actor, was never wounded and is part of a conspiracy to ban guns.
He is a money grabber.
He is the very best of humanity.
You can find all of these sentiments online with a quick search. The “rants and raves” section of Craigslist for Roseburg, Ore., had intermittent postings from locals after the Oct. 1, 2015, massacre at Umpqua Community College.
Some praised Mintz for his actions during the killing spree that left nine dead plus the gunman, and up to nine wounded. Others were frustrated with the attention he received afterward. “Sad sad man,” an anonymous writer posted. “Karma will catch up to you and all those around you sucking off the saddest thing to happen to Roseburg.”
The writer was talking about the money. Mintz, then 30, awoke from a medically induced coma famous and rich.
Rich is a relative term. But for a man who was mopping floors and living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a sudden windfall from a GoFundMe donation page set up by his cousin was a shocking development.
More than $800,000 in donations rolled in over five days, aimed at helping with medical bills and child care for his son, Tyrik. Mintz also bought a house and a car and donated $35,000 to funds for the victims, he said.
His name rocketed across front pages around the world. #ChrisMintz was trending. Reporters mobbed anywhere his name had a connection. They even tried to reach him through his barber. Others stuffed candy and toys into baskets to leave for him with notes to get in touch for an exclusive.
Producers with “Dancing with the Stars” invited him to be on the show before he even got out of the hospital. “They know my legs are [expletive] broke, right?” he said when told about the invitation.
The media wanted to tell Mintz’s story, and almost immediately, they got it very wrong.
The Daily Beast reported that Mintz charged the gunman (he didn’t). The Los Angeles Times said he deployed to Iraq (he didn’t). A Fox affiliate in Randleman said he served in the Army for a decade (his time in uniform was shy of three years). His friends and family were responsible for some initial inaccuracies, putting their own spin on the events and recalling spotty details about his Army record. The rush spread to media outlets starving for details on the rare good angle from a mass shooting, and in their expediency, Mintz said they did not verify key facts.
This worried him. On top of surviving multiple gunshots, losing friends to a mass killer and hearing criticism that he received more money than the families of victims, he was terrified of accusations of stolen valor. While men from Battle Company lost lives and limbs, uncovered mass graves and broke the back of the Islamic State of Iraq in Diyala province, there sat Mintz behind a desk at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord — except for the month he spent in a Navy brig in Bremerton, Wash., following his AWOL and marijuana charges. Mintz said he pleaded guilty in a summary court-martial for going AWOL over two weeks to work odd jobs to recoup lost pay from his demotion following the marijuana violation. He missed the tour. It was his great shame. And like the deaths of members of his unit thousands of miles away, he felt responsible for the lie.
The public scrutiny was unrelenting for months. Mintz was invited to NASCAR races and speaking engagements. Readers of The Oregonian newspaper voted him 2015 Oregon Person of the Year. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society awarded him the Citizen Honors Award medal in March. He was sent enough T-shirts from a military-focused company to fill half a closet, and a painting by an admirer depicting Mintz with a Superman-like cape hangs in his living room.
Then, suddenly, the attention stopped.
The trips became less frequent. Reporter visits to his front door slowed to a trickle, and friends and acquaintances who rushed to his side to bask in the light of TV cameras were no longer hanging around. The people in Roseburg still stop him around town, at the gym or a park with Tyrik. He doesn’t go many other places.
“Everyone is a threat until they’re not,” Mintz said, describing a troubling mix: suspicion of anyone he encounters coupled with strangers constantly approaching him to offer words of admiration. Some confess their darkest moments to him — how they were attacked in their own lives or are battling demons in their hearts. The concept of a hero that most people carry is a simplistic one: a person who bears all without faltering. They want Mintz to carry their pain, too.
But Mintz is faltering.
He doesn’t work or go to school and spends most of his time caring for Tyrik, working out or rebuilding a metallic blue 1972 Chevrolet C-10. He is, as he described, “alone in a world filled with people.” It used to be that no one wanted to understand him. Now almost nobody can.
Mintz’s struggles dealing with isolation, death and violence run parallel with the stories of his Army buddies. Their relationships were resurrected after Oct. 1, and Mintz began to hear how members of Battle Company fared in the last decade. Some had few words to describe their deployment, and others said they grew uncomfortable when their service came up among strangers eager for firsthand details of war.
Mintz will never be part of the brotherhood, that exclusive club of infantrymen who have gone to war. But in a way, his confrontation with the gunman was vindication that he had finally proven his grit.
“Ever since I got kicked out, I felt like I let my brothers down,” he said. “I didn’t get to finish my enlistment. On Oct. 1, I finished it.”
With that pride comes a thread of guilt — a moral turbulence of second-guessing every decision.
“There’s going to be things I have to deal with for years. How many people didn’t I save? Did I save anyone? Should I have gone straight to the classroom? It’s the ‘what-ifs’ that haunt me.”
The fierce magnetism of those ‘what-ifs’ pulls Mintz back to Umpqua Community College. Mintz said he parked outside Snyder Hall and sat in his car in the early months, watching the building disappear behind ribbons of falling snow. He goes there when he can’t sleep, which is most nights. Sometimes it’s 3 in the morning and the tears do not stop.
There are other times he slumps against the door to Snyder 15 to be close to his friends, as he calls the dead, and to be close to that moment. There’s a small dark stain on the concrete from his blood, and a gouge from the pistol round when the gunman tried to shoot Mintz’s phone. “Parts of me are warped and gone forever,” he said. “Going back makes me feel whole. It makes me feel complete. I come back so my friends are not by themselves.”
Carrying the burden
There are very few people who understand Chris Mintz.
One is Sharon Kirkham. She admired him long before anyone else in Roseburg even noticed the broad-shouldered guy with stud earrings and a fast machine-gun laugh. He was young enough to be her grown son, homeless by any definition, yet he stopped to recognize something in her that came to define his Army service — the feeling of not measuring up to others. And he knew exactly how to help her in that moment.
Back in Snyder 16 on that day, Kirkham was focused on trying to save Kim Dietz’s life. Several minutes had passed since the first shots were fired, and the gunman was executing students at will. It shocked Kirkham that someone would run toward the sound of gunfire. But she wasn’t surprised it was Mintz.
Even after he was shot five times, Mintz kept his promise to Kirkham. He didn’t leave her. He was never more than a few feet away from Kirkham as she watched Dietz die, using his body to block Snyder 16 from the gunman.
“I get to hold my grandbabies because Chris put his life on the line,” she said.
She went to visit Mintz in the hospital soon after he came out of surgery. Mintz’s eyes welled when he saw her. “He was in a wheelchair, all bandaged up,” Kirkham said. “And his first question was: ‘Are you OK?’ ”
It was the man she knew, carrying the burden for others, she said. She knows about the late-night visits Mintz makes to the college, and how sometimes he just sobs at the thought of failing to help more people. “I don’t know how he’ll ever get over that,” she said. “He may never have peace. I pray he’ll come to terms with this.”
There is one holdout who does not consider Mintz an upstanding citizen: The U.S. Army. In November, Mintz will travel to Washington to appeal his other-than-honorable discharge with the Army Review Boards Agency. The board reviews bad discharges in light of several factors, including personal circumstances and accomplishments after military service that can shed light on a veteran’s character.
There’s more on the line than the possibility of GI Bill benefits and VA treatment for his lingering Army injury, a break that limits his hand motion so much that a physical therapist thought he had been shot in the wrist. The upgrade would be among the final chapters of Mintz’s redemption. Being there for others in the most dangerous situation is what he was always capable of doing. It didn’t take combat for him to prove it to himself.
What comes next is more elusive.
“I ask myself what my purpose is every day,” he said. “I know I’m supposed to be here for something. I just don’t know what that something is.” He is considering public speaking to raise awareness on issues facing parents of autistic children. Going back to school is another option, though returning to Umpqua as a student is almost unimaginable, he said.
He recently took his dog for a walk around the block when a stranger stopped in the road. “You’re a superstar,” he yelled. Mintz sighed at the memory. “I need to shed this town to find happiness,” he said. “Roseburg is kind of like kryptonite. This is not a peaceful place.”
The only thing keeping him rooted in Roseburg is Tyrik. His mother lives close by and they share custody.
Tyrik sat transfixed by a Disney movie as Mintz crisscrossed the house in July. His tan-and-stout pit bull Azazel playfully alternated between jumping on Mintz and snuggling quietly under Tyrik’s feet dangling from the couch.
Tyrik still cannot speak; he communicates with hums and laughs, and reaches for his father’s hand when he wants to show him affection. He gives Mintz kisses too.
Mintz laughed along with “Toy Story” on the screen, but he said he was concerned about the sleepless nights and anxiety that the first anniversary of the shooting will bring.
The dreams are constant. He sees the gunman standing over him. He sees Kirkham screaming over Dietz and the police buzzing around him, all out of order, like a cut-up film flickering through a projector.
There will come a time, he hopes, when those images won’t come to mind when he thinks about the first day of October. On Oct. 1, 2015, he became a reluctant hero. For him, Oct. 1, 2009, is more significant. He became a father. That defines him more than those moments outside Snyder 15, he said.
But you cannot stop time, he said. Fall is beginning to settle in around Roseburg, and fluctuations in the air pressure fuel constant throbbing near his hip plate and down the titanium rods in his legs.
Despite the pain, he plans to mark the anniversary by participating in a 9-kilometer run to raise money for scholarships in the names of those who died Oct. 1.
For now, the day belongs to the shooting.
Tyrik’s birthday party will wait until Oct. 2.
Maybe Tyrik sensed his father’s turmoil. He groaned and rocked wildly. Azazel yelped. Mintz rushed to hug his crying son.
“It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s OK,” he whispered to Tyrik.
“Do you hear me? I love you. It’s OK.”