In memory of a Veteran, In honor of them all

Our government must be “Out in the Cosmos Somewhere”

February, 3rd, 2010, his family and a small group of friends including myself, lost a uniquely selfless man.  Kenneth G. Markley.  Those that knew him well called him “Coz”.  “Coz” was short for “Cosmos,” a nick-name given to him by his closest friends, “because that’s where it seems like he’s at all the time, out in the cosmos somewhere,” was the response I got when I asked how he’s acquired the title.”  Coz appeared to enjoy, even be proud of, the “AKA” his friends had dubbed him;  I thought it was a little mean , so initially, out of respect, I called him, “Ken”.

After many hours of conversation and fellowship, Ken became “Coz” to me, as with his other friends. He liked it when I called him that.  I think Coz and I developed a special relationship quickly because I was able to relate to him in a way that his other friends could not.  Coz and I shared the experience of having an illness that affects a person’s mind; all aspects of it, the ability to process thoughts, interpret emotions, and differentiate between reality and hallucination. Our symptoms were different, but Coz and I both suffered from a PTSD.

Ken spent 3 weeks as an in-patient in a VA hospital fewer than six months before his death; however, the 10cm tumor on his adrenal gland only during his autopsy. The tumor could have been entirely responsible for his symptoms. I say “could have been” because it likely wasn’t the primary cause of his illness. He undoubtedly was suffering, long before the end of his second tour in Vietnam, from PTSD. The tumor exacerbated him symptoms at the cost of his life; had it been diagnosed and treated, Coz might still be alive. Had Coz’s PTSD been acknowledged and treated, a great many things might have been different for Coz.

Ken would have turned 62 the week after he died and would have collected his first social security check a month later. He worked as a heavy equipment operator most of his adult life, the bulldozer being his specialty. He’d acquired equipment operation skills while serving his country for four years in the Vietnam War. Ken was frequently vocal about his disdain for our government, but he wholeheartedly loved his country, the United States of America, and he believed in the ideas and principles this country was founded upon. He believed in and loved God. Ken executed much of the “dozer” work in the private community he lived in for many years; as a result, one of the streets bears his name, “Markley Avenue.” Some of the things “given” to Ken in exchange for serving his country did not serve him as well as the operator training he’d received.

Until his final year, Ken’s little “gifts” expressed themselves as tiny eccentricities with a small dose of paranoia; the kind of quirks that real friends accept, even if they don’t understand. After the war, Ken made a life for himself. He built a home, worked hard, bought some retirement property, and established a healthy savings. He was a productive member of society; however, as previously mentioned, Ken had some quirks.

Ken always had to “protect” himself, a PRIMARY symptom of PTSD. He owned guns and he knew how to use them. On one occasion, someone was reportedly trespassing on his property and Ken fired his weapon. His actions earned him a four year prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. Go figure. We spend four years training him how to maintain, load, and fire a weapon, ask him to use that weapon to kill people and then put him in prison for shooting a gun. By the way, as I’ve been told multiple times by his friends, “stone cold sober, or with 12 beers in his stomach, Coz could shoot the gonads off of a mosquito at 100 yards; so, if he had wanted to hurt or kill anybody, they would’ve been hurt or dead!”

I met Ken when he was first released from prison. The woman he’d been living with prior to his incarceration spent every dime he’d had. He’d sold his house prior to going to prison; so, coming out, the only thing he had was his retirement property. Ken started over; he got a job operating equipment and stayed with his best friend, Frank, while he worked toward finding an apartment. Ken found an apartment, put his property up for sale and started making plans for the future. Unfortunately, a year later, the economy crashed… Ken lost his job, he lost his apartment, and he was forced back to his friend’s house to start over again. By this time, Ken’s “quirks” were becoming much more serious.

Ken started barricading the door to the room he was staying in. Ken was setting traps, rigging alarms, and calling Frank in the middle of the night declaring that, “Someone was out there in the woods.”  He kept looking for work, kept trying, but his behavior got more and more bizarre. He was going days without sleeping. He wasn’t using any drugs, not drinking. Finally, at Frank’s suggestion, Coz agreed to go to the VA hospital to seek help. He was admitted to the hospital and was there as an inpatient for 3 full weeks.

Yes, any idiot can tell you that Ken’s symptoms looked like “schizophrenia”, but the VA health care professionals aren’t supposed to be idiots.  They are supposed to be educated, experienced, ethical professionals; as such, it was their responsibility to rule out all other possible causes for Ken’s symptoms. The VA was supposed to help him, but they didn’t. They sent him home with a stack of prescriptions that left him too sedated to converse, to interact with people, to have a life. Ken kept every appointment at the VA hospital, each of which was carefully noted in a small note book that we found after he died. Ken told the “professionals” during his appointments that he couldn’t tolerate the medication, but no one listened. Unable to function on the medication, Ken stopped taking it and resorted to selling it to make ends-meat, not because that’s what he wanted to do, but because it was the only option he saw. Eventually…Ken ran out of “options.”

On Feburary 3rd, 2010 Ken’s roommate and friend, Jerry, came home to the apartment they were sharing on Frank’s property. Ken’s car was there. The door to the apartment was unlocked, but Ken wasn’t inside. Ken never failed to lock a door behind him. Jerry called for Ken, no answer. Jerry dialed Ken’s number, he hears a ring, he follows it and he sees Ken’s feet sticking out from behind the dump truck. Not able to go any further, Jerry ran across the property to me yelling, “I think Coz killed himself.” Jerry quickly described what happened, I started heading toward the back of the property dialing 911, “I want to report a possible suicide,” I said when the dispatcher answered. The woman on the other end of the phone started asking me the usual questions while I was still headed to the back, and then I got to him.

My memory of the next several minutes, the next two days really, is forever burned in my mind. “Never mind…I mean…. it’s not a possible suicide….he’s dead….he killed himself.” At first I thought what I was seeing was intestine lying on the ground, but his belly had no wound. It was dark, no moon. I took a step closer, toward his head, and then I saw it. Ken had put a 357 magnum to his head and pulled the trigger; half of his head, face, and brain were missing. “Are you sure he’s dead?” I hear on the phone. “Yes, I’m sure he’s dead, his brain is laying all over the f&^$ing ground!” She’s asking questions and I’m trying to answer through the repeated, “Why God, why, why did he have to do this,” that was running through my brain. I know this is graphic and I apologize to his family and friends, but it is necessary.

This experience, finding my friend the way he was, was traumatic to say the least. I was unable to work for three days. The memory plagued me for days, weeks, months, and on occasion, still, five years later. Think about your own emotional reaction, just to my recollection.  In Vietnam, how many friends did Ken see die? How many of his friends’ bodies did he see mutilated? Ken saw many. Unlike many veterans of war, Ken talked about it and he talked about it often. It was painful to see the anguish in his face when he recalled finding the remains of “one of his brothers.” Not one of us, unless we’ve been there, can begin to imagine, the trauma, the emotional devastation, that our military service men experience, or the damage it creates.

After Ken died and the details were revealed, we found that Ken had broken into Jerry’s locked gun case and drove to Walmart to buy ammunition. We found the box and the receipt. We found his notebooks; with all of his neatly recorded appointments, job contact information, etc. We found something else, notes about jobs and other various things that he thought would be helpful to his friends.  Ken cared about his friends and family. He would bring little treats home from his thrift store shopping sprees, and quite literally, give you the shirt off of his back. In the winter, I wear Ken’s field jacket.  In the top drawer of my dresser I have a wallet he gave me, I stopped using it just before it was about to wear out. Those of us that remember Ken, our Coz, remember him for who he was, how he lived, and the sacrifices he made, not for the way he died.  We all tried to answer the question, “why did he do it?”

Most thought it was part of his symptoms; concluding that he decided to kill himself before the enemies in his mind “could get him.” I could also imagine Coz saying, “F…,” to the government that was supposed to be his advocate, supposed to help him when he needed it. No longer wanting to be the burden to his friends that he perceived himself to be and unwilling to accept the scraps he was about to receive from social security, maybe he decided to end it, maybe a little of both. Regardless of why he did it, Ken is finally free from being imprisoned by his own mind. During the time that I knew Ken, he accepted Christ as His Savior; more than even his best friend, Frank, Coz came to trust God. Today, Coz is free from his prison, in the presence of His Savior.   I understood Coz’s prison which is why I don’t pass judgements on his actions whatever the reason for his actions; they were not formed with a sound mind.

Today, I picture Ken sitting in his private, God given mansion; sitting on the arm of his favorite chair, eating a pot full of beans and chatting with Jesus. Sometime during the conversation he says, “Ya know JC, if you want, I can get the dozer out and tweak them streets of gold just a little.” Every time I go to turn on the air compressor I hear, “now don’t open that valve too fast, you’ll blow the hose,” so I don’t. When I think of Coz now, it makes me smile; however, when I think about how he died, I don’t ask why he did it, I ask, “Why did it ever get to that point!?” Then the anger boils inside me!

Why? There are a lot of “whys.” Questions, questions that I would like to pose to our President, to our federal government. Why gentlemen and ladies, was Kenneth Markley and every other foreign war veteran not entitled to, immediately upon discharge, a minimum of two years of ongoing psychological therapy for post traumatic stress? Why aren’t they entitled to unlimited, as needed, counseling resources for life? We OWE it to them. As was stated in the presidential debate last night by Dr. Ben Carson, “They (American Servicemen) have kept their promise to us; we have not kept our promise to take care of them.” Why do they have to travel long distances and wait in long lines to receive substandard care.  Coz’s care was substandard. Why didn’t they find the tumor growing on his adrenal gland? Because they didn’t look, that’s why!  It was easier and less costly for them to slap a psychiatric diagnosis on him, give him a handful of prescriptions and send him home. Our government, collectively, has been trying to deny that Vietnam War veterans have been developing cancers and tumors related to chemical exposure for years; they’re certainly not going to allow the VA doctors to go looking for it!

So Mr. President, you’ve ordered an investigation into VA services. It’s about time. It’s too late to help Kenneth Markley, but at least you’ve ordered it done. Is this investigation going to lead to truth, identify real problems, and admit to what can only be described as criminally inadequate? Or, are you, Mr. President, just going to parrot back the standard, “everyone is working hard, there are some minor adjustments to be made, but it’s working as it should.” These are statements I’ve heard you make during your speeches about Obamacare, yet another government disaster inflicted upon the American people (and another article to be written).  It seems to me that our current administration is having a difficult time differentiating between reality and hallucination; perhaps that’s because they don’t live in the reality of the average working American, or in the life of the average veteran. Maybe someone needs to investigate the REAL causes into the symptoms of dysfunction plaguing our current administration and the governing body; because, it appears that our federal government is “living out in the cosmos somewhere.” Maybe we should slap a psychiatric diagnosis on them, medicate them, and send them home because, collectively, our federal government, not of sound mind, is “our in the cosmos somewhere.”

Note: An excerpt from this article was published in the Naples Daily News under the title: “For Coz’ Sake” by now retired editor, Jeff Lytle, June 1, 2014.