Different life paths for Fort Bragg shooter, commander he killed
By GREG BARNES AND DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: July 15, 2012
By age 12, Roy Tisdale was helping tend livestock on his family's ranch, demonstrating the character that would one day propel him to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army.
At that same age, Ricky Elder was being charged with felony burglary, the first in a series of juvenile crimes before Elder graduated from high school in 2004 and joined the Army almost immediately afterward.
Six years later, Elder and Tisdale deployed together to Afghanistan with the 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade.
Little is publicly known about the relationship Elder and his commander shared in Afghanistan, other than that they knew each other. What is known is that after the brigade's return from Afghanistan in July of last year, Elder was charged with stealing a $1,700 tool kit from a motor pool. He was facing court-martial and dishonorable discharge from the Army if convicted.
But that doesn't explain his actions on the blistering hot afternoon of June 28. On that day, on a field in a historic district of Fort Bragg, Elder repeatedly shot the 42-year-old Tisdale during a safety briefing before the July 4 holiday weekend. Elder, who was 27, then took his own life, leaving the families and friends of both soldiers asking the same question: Why?
As a teenager in the small town of Alvin, Texas, Roy Lin Tisdale didn't shy away from responsibility.
Each day after school, Linda Tisdale's older son came home to care for the horses, bulls and show heifers the family raised on its property south of Houston.
Tisdale's father, Roy Lee Tisdale, often worked late in his job for Houston Light and Power. On weekends, he traveled the country as a professional bull rider. His mother worked at an Alvin rodeo arena and showed livestock in her spare time. That left Tisdale and his younger brother Charles in charge of caring for the family animals, sometimes even helping them give birth. The boys also worked fairs and livestock shows, making sure the animals looked their best.
"They were right in the middle of all of it," their mother said.
Tisdale did more than just talk the talk of a Texan, those who knew him said.
"You definitely knew he was a country boy and real Texas cowboy," said a friend and former classmate, Army Lt. Col. Stephen Ruth.
Tisdale was a man who put his all into what he did, his friends and family said.
Hutchinson, Kan., is a midsize city with a small-town feel about 40 miles northwest of Wichita. Unlike most cities nowadays, metal detectors don't greet visitors at the Reno County Courthouse. That job is left to R.J. Miller and the other elderly volunteers who operate the courthouse's ancient elevator.
Ricky Glen Elder grew up in this city of small, tidy bungalows that line streets named after numbers and early presidents.
Social media outlets show that Elder had numerous friends in town, but none seemed willing to talk about him. Two who described themselves as Elder's closest friends offered to show a reporter around Hutchinson but then backed out. Elder's family members, contacted at the town's mortuary the day before his funeral, sat weeping on couches. A family spokesman said a reporter was not welcome at the funeral.
That leaves the depiction of Elder's childhood to what could be gleaned from police reports, court documents and a hint from a close friend, who said Elder had a rocky relationship with his mother until he started to thrive in the Army.
The court records and police reports paint a picture of a troubled boy.
Besides the felony burglary charge in 1996, the records show, Elder was charged with disorderly conduct in 1999 and battery and possession of marijuana on different dates in 2000. Those records contain no details because the offenses happened when Elder was a juvenile.
Criminal charges continued to follow Elder after he joined the military. Fort Bragg spokesman Tom McCollum said Elder was charged with assault causing injury in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2007, with drunken driving in Columbus, Ga., in 2009, and with simple assault in Columbus in 2011. Court records show that he was charged with leaving the scene of an accident in Columbus in 2009.
Roy Tisdale's military career almost never came to fruition.
When he enrolled at Texas A&M University, his goal was to become a veterinarian, his mother said.
Linda Tisdale and her husband tried to persuade him not to join the Corps of Cadets. They were concerned, she recalled, that their son would have a difficult time adjusting to a big university after spending his whole life in tiny Alvin.
"We were afraid it would overwhelm him," she said. "We just didn't want him to overdo it."
But Tisdale thrived in the military environment at Texas A&M.
While other students wore civilian clothing when not attending class or a corps function, Tisdale walked around in green Vietnam fatigues and jungle boots, longtime friend Ruth said.
"We all loved him because he was 'Hooah,' " he said.
Tisdale became a member of the select Rudder's Rangers team, which competed against ROTC groups nationwide.
Retired Col. Jim Dunham, Tisdale's first military adviser, said Tisdale's skills as a commander became evident during his earliest days in the Corps of Cadets.
"I had the privilege of watching Roy grow," Dunham said. "Roy was a great Aggie, and I had no doubt he could be a great Army officer."
Another adviser, retired Col. Sam Hawes, described Tisdale as "just overall an outstanding young person, full of energy."
During college, Tisdale began dating Kim Corbett. The two had grown up less than two miles from each other but had never dated until their junior year in college. Corbett attended nearby Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and the two made frequent trips between the schools to see each other.
"They ran the roads back and forth," Linda Tisdale said.
The couple wed a week after Roy Tisdale graduated.
"He was the love of her life," Linda Tisdale said. "I don't know if they ever had a fight."
Shortly after graduating from Hutchinson High School in 2004, Ricky Elder shipped off to boot camp, then was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, Fort Richardson, Alaska.
It didn't take Elder long to assert himself as one tough soldier. Elder earned his Ranger tab after successful completion of the 61-day Ranger school, considered by some to be the most demanding combat course in the world.
In October 2006, Elder deployed to Iraq. Nine months later, medical records show, he was working as a gunner on a Humvee when it was hit by a roadside bomb. The explosion threw Elder out of the turret, causing him to lose consciousness momentarily. His buddy died in the blast.
According to medical documents, the doctors who examined the then 22-year-old Elder shortly after the blast found that he suffered from post-concussion amnesia, as well as "irritability, dizziness, visual disturbance and ringing in his ears."
Afterward, at Elder's request, he was allowed to go to the morgue to see the body of his friend who had died.
"Patient crying heavily. Heard saying in heavy tears, 'I don't want to live anymore,' '' a doctor wrote in a narrative summary.
After he was returned to his room, the summary says, Elder became "instantly agitated after crying on bed" and struck a bulletproof window so hard that it shattered the glass.
The next night, the same doctor wrote that Elder had been calm and cooperative during the day and apologized for his earlier actions. The doctor wrote that Elder's new wife, who had just finished school as a dental assistant, was planning to move to Alaska.
The doctor also wrote that Elder denied any history of psychiatric problems and acknowledged that, although he wanted to return to his base in Iraq, he was "nervous about going back out. Losing his friend is the first witnessed death for him."
The doctor said Elder exhibited signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and "complicated bereavement."
Another doctor wrote later that night that a CT scan of Elder's brain revealed no major medical problems.
On the same day that Roy Tisdale graduated from Texas A&M in May 1993, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army.
Within two weeks, he was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., and later served at Fort Polk, La., where he met and befriended 1st Sgt. Darrell Cassle of the 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
"He was well-liked, highly respected by his soldiers," Cassle said. "They thought the world of Roy Tisdale."
Tisdale would go on to serve as a commander on four different combat deployments, but his first time overseas came suddenly.
Tisdale was leading the battalion's headquarters company at that time, Cassle recalls, and was not scheduled to deploy to Iraq.
But two weeks before the deployment, another company commander broke his foot on a parachute jump.
Tisdale volunteered to go in the commander's place.
Tisdale remained fearless on that and other combat deployments, Cassle said.
On leave in April 2010, Ricky Elder went out with his brother Chad and others to the Grand Slam sports bar, inside the Ramada Inn in Hutchinson.
A bartender at the Grand Slam said he was all too familiar with the Elders because they had caused trouble at the bar in the past and at others in town.
On this occasion, Elder's lawyer, Les Hulnick, said, the trouble started on the dance floor. The bartender said the Elders were escorted outside, where the fight escalated.
Versions of the fight differ.
According to Hutchinson police Detective Thad Pickard's investigative report and a transcript of court testimony, Elder told him that he was leaving the bar when someone hit him from behind, so he turned and swung. The investigative report quotes Elder as saying he "did not know he had punched a chick until he had hit her."
But a witness reported to Pickard that "she heard Elder yell that he was in Iraqi mode" just before he punched 29-year-old Deborah Keough-Douglas.
In a court transcript, Keough-Douglas said the fight started after she accused Chad Elder of owing her $100.
"All I remember is Ricky screaming at me about why I was airing his brother's dirty laundry ... and the next thing I remember is waking up covered in blood," she said in the court transcript.
Keough-Douglas was knocked unconscious and later taken to a hospital. Pickard's report shows that she originally gave him a false name because she was on parole and wasn't supposed to be in a bar drinking.
According to the report, doctors said Keough-Douglas' eye socket was destroyed and her eyelid was ripped in half. She was told she would need many surgeries. Hulnick said she testified that her injuries required $60,000 in medical bills, a figure he disputes.
Elder was charged with intentional aggravated battery and later with reckless aggravated battery, crimes punishable by up to 30 years in jail if convicted.
Despite the seriousness of the offenses, Elder was allowed to deploy to Afghanistan with Fort Bragg's 525th Brigade Special Troops Battalion with the understanding that he would stand trial when he returned.
Stephen Maxwell, Reno County's senior assistant district attorney, prosecuted the case. He declined to discuss his reasons for allowing Elder to deploy. Fort Bragg officials say they knew of the pending felony charges against Elder but allowed him to deploy anyway.
Hulnick said he found it curious that Maxwell, who is in the National Guard, would agree to allow the deployment.
"I've never seen him give anybody a break," Hulnick said.
Shortly after Elder returned from Afghanistan, he pleaded guilty to a single count of aggravated battery. He was expected to be sentenced to probation. His court date was scheduled for the day after he shot Tisdale and then himself.
When she received the phone call, Linda Tisdale screamed.
She hadn't meant to, but it was the only response she could muster when her son, Charles, prefaced their conversation by asking if she was sitting down.
"I was in shock," said Linda Tisdale, who repeatedly saw two sons off to war, sometimes at the same time. "When they're deployed, you never know what's going to happen. But he was in the U.S. He was home.
"I keep saying, 'I'm going to wake up from this bad dream. Nothing's changed yet.' "
A week after his death, the funeral procession carrying Tisdale's body wound its way from Central Baptist Church in Bryan, Texas, to the Aggie Field of Honor on the far side of College Station, the home of Texas A&M.
Along the way, dozens of college students lined the grassy shoulders, waving flags. A group of construction workers stopped working on a new post office to line up and pay their respects, their helmets covering their hearts.
"Folks, war is not always overseas," Rusty Davis, a Tisdale family friend, said during the funeral. "Sometimes, it's here."
Tisdale's death has been met with sorrow and anger by the people who knew him best.
Lt. Col. Lee Evans befriended Tisdale at Texas A&M, where the two men trained together every morning for five years and served together on the school's Ranger Challenge team.
In recent years, both men were stationed at Fort Bragg, where Evans served as commander of the 7th Military Information Support Battalion until Wednesday.
Evans called the shooting an unimaginable and "cowardly act" committed against a man who treated everyone as his equal and was known to keep a cool head and use common sense.
"We can't do anything about that coward who did that to Roy," Evans said. "Cowboys don't like to go out like that. A warrior doesn't deserve to go out like that."
The funeral for Ricky Elder stands in stark contrast to the one for Tisdale. No large crowd, no mourners lining the streets; only a few members of the Patriot Guard Riders standing at the ready in case of trouble.
But judging from social network sites, Elder had a lot of friends who loved him.
One, a former soldier who asked not to be named because his brother is in the Army, said Elder was great with his children.
The friend said he and Elder once volunteered together at an elementary school on Fort Benning, Ga., tutoring children in math and reading. They also earned their expert infantryman badges together.
Friends said Elder was proud of his Army commendations, especially the Ranger tab. Last year, only 42 percent of soldiers who enrolled in Ranger School successfully completed the course.
"I think he was a good guy, overall. I think he just made a bad choice," the friend said.
He and other friends said Elder made no secret that he suffered from traumatic brain injury, and they wonder why he was allowed to deploy to Afghanistan in 2010.
That is just one of the many questions that remain unanswered. Among them is whether Elder was suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury. His lawyer, Hulnick, said the two had a brief conversation about PTSD, but it was never used in court as a possible defense.
So what did Elder mean in his Facebook post an hour before the shooting? "My mind in the past couple of years has folded on itself. I just went to the Dr. and they said I just tested positive for Dementia."
So far, at least, those questions remain unanswered, perhaps buried forever with the soldier responsible for such unspeakable tragedy.