Before the final morning came when he could take no more of the sadness and pain, and aimed the cold barrel of a Beretta .40 caliber to his left temple, Chris McDonald was a Marine.
A hell of a good Marine.
In Iraq, he was the guy who had everybody's back. An insurgent's home? McDonald was the first one through the door. Later, Marines would tell Chris' folks they would have followed him -- "Sergeant Mac" -- anywhere.
But in 2009, when Chris returned home to Dalton, Ga., from his tour of duty, he went places no one else could follow: into unreachable depression, addiction, self-destruction. His old, fun-loving, outgoing self had turned inward. Chris, once the life of the party, became haunted.
Chris wouldn't even call the Iraqi war by its official name.
"He called it 'The Evil,"' said his dad, Jeff.
Chris had seen Iraqi mothers -- with kids in their vans -- drive up to U.S. checkpoints. Then, detonation. Mother, children, American soldiers. All killed.
U.S. soldiers shooting children, thinking they were suicide bombers.
Iraqis torturing other Iraqis.
"He looked me right in the eye and said, 'Dad, there can't be a God. There is no way there is a God that would allow that to happen to people,"' Jeff remembered Chris saying.
Officially, Chris suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Its occurrence among American veterans has reached incredible proportions. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide each day.
Last year, 349 active-duty soldiers committed suicide.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. We need to remember more than marching bands, feel-good patriotism and flags in the breeze.
We need to remember 22 suicides a day, the damage of PTSD and the soldiers still fighting their own personal war back home.
"The word has got to get out. This has to stop," said Jeff. "These people are doing what our country asked them to do. Yet they are falling through the cracks at an astonishing rate."
Chris joined the Marine Corps Reserve and was deployed with Chattanooga's Mike Battery, just like Jeff -- who teaches at Southeast Whitfield High -- had done back in Desert Storm.
Coming back from Iraq, Chris entered the Veterans Administration hospital for a hip wound. They treated him with hydrocodone.
Chris became addicted.
"That was his way of hiding the pain," Jeff said.
Chris began to steal and lie. Started taking 12 pills at a time. Thought about robbing liquor stores. Began using heroin.
Jeff and his wife, Paige, Chris' mom, tried a thousand things to help their son. Jeff said they took him to area VA hospitals, where officials did not accept him for their intensive inpatient care.
"Your case is not severe enough," Jeff remembers them saying to Chris.
An intervention worked for a brief period, but Chris needed long-term, inpatient care. Private facilities were too expensive; finally, the McDonalds found a spot for Chris at Chattanooga's Teen Challenge.
Yet last March, on the day he was scheduled to leave for treatment, Chris went into the bathroom, crawled into the tub, pulled a blanket over himself, and did the only thing he knew how to end his pain.
He shot himself.
"It doesn't go away. It is every day I think about my son," said Jeff.
Thousands came to his funeral. Marines told Paige and Jeff how Chris had saved their lives. How he was the best among them.
"Marine after Marine after Marine after Marine," Jeff said.
Here, in the weeks after his funeral, the story of Chris McDonald changes. Alongside the tragedy comes hope.
Thanks to Joey Jones, the well-publicized Dalton, Ga., Marine who lost his legs in the war and was an old friend of Chris', the McDonalds were introduced to the Armed Forces Foundation: a national group that helps veterans find the financial support for treatment they need.
The AFF and the McDonalds began to tell Chris' story on a large level. Comedian Ron White got involved ("He's the funniest son of a (expletive) on the planet," Jeff said), as did NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, (who cried over Chris' story, Jeff said).
All for one reason: to spread the word about the help AFF can give veterans.
"No parent should have to go through what we're going through," Jeff said.
The AFF's website (armedforcesfoundation.org) has many resources. For a suicide prevention hotline, call: 1-800-273-8255.
"If you have problems, call," said Jeff.
Do it as a way to remember Chris McDonald, one of the best Marines around.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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