Richard Miles was, by all accounts, a keeper. Those who worked with him describe him as "warm" and "positive." He was a well-educated fellow, some might even say brilliant. Loved his job at the Science Center, especially when he had the chance to share his passion for science with the thousands of children who visited. He was well respected as a go-to expert on astronomy in Iowa. He was a decorated veteran and patriot who enlisted shortly after the 9-11 attacks. He appeared more youthful than his age, possessed of a broad playful grin neatly under bushy arched eyebrows that made his face seem perpetually inquisitive. Had two lovely children he loved well and deeply. His friends were loyal and miss the hell out of him, which says a lot.
That's a lot to live for, man. Or at least it seems so, as one tries to piece the man's life together after the fact.
So, can someone - anyone - tell me why Richard Miles is dead?
Oh, by now you've probably seen enough to know how he died. Frozen to death in Water Works park in Des Moines, huddled alone in the brush with no shoes or coat. Under those stars that so captivated him. After trying to check himself into the veteran's hospital two days earlier for the post traumatic stress that was haunting him, and being sent away with a bottle of prescription sedatives and a promise that a psychiatrist would eventually call him.
So why? Why did we bury such a man, on the day that would have been his 41st birthday?
Don't even try to tell me it was an accident. This was a man who earned the Army Commendation Medal for Leadership and Duty and the Combat Action Badge from Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. A leader of men with years of survival experience in the harshest of situations, a man who had spent years studying physics and the world around him at the highest levels. He was not a drunk, or an addict, he had his full mind about him. We might like to think it was an accident, because that would be easier to write off our consciences. But one would have to think Richard knew what he was doing. And felt he had no other choice.
That's what should bother us. That should kick our butts and make us demand some change. Least we can do.
We hung lots of ribbons and flags to welcome them home. We talked the talk of supporting our military, but we didn't walk the walk. And as a result, 22 ex-soldiers a day are killing themselves. Just handing them more drugs isn't solving it. Not everyone who comes home from combat has really left it, it seems. Or, as Iowa Veterans Affairs Director Pat Palmersheim explains, "Not everyone who lost their life in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan actually died there."
According to the Veterans National Recovery Center's Bob Krause, there are 10 VA psychiatric beds open in Iowa - 10! In fact, 20 beds were recently closed down in Marshalltown to cuts costs.
"After every war we've needed psychiatric beds but in this war we've decided that we`re going to shut them all down right in the middle of the war. It didn't make any sense but that's what`s occurred," Krause said in an interview.
You want to know why Richard Miles is dead? There.
Richard did just what he was supposed to. He recognized that he couldn't beat PTSD alone. He tried to let people know he was struggling, he sought out help, he prepared for the lengthy inpatient stay he knew he needed to put his life back on track. Instead, he got another bottle of pills.
Somebody explain to the little girl that he hugged goodbye and before he went to the park to die, why we're shutting down beds for veterans in this state.
Senator (and veteran) Joni Ernst, in reaction to the waste of Richard Miles' life, is calling for an "examination" of VA practices in Iowa. You can guess how that will turn out - bureaucratic excuse-making and a lot of fancy terminology and data. Data does nothing to save a single life.
The family of Dillion Nastlund, a local veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who killed himself on a lonely gravel road while failing the same kind of demons, aren't waiting for examinations. They founded Operation Engage America, to create expos where veterans or their loved ones can come to learn about all of the services that are available from many different sources - services that can help a troubled veteran to realize they are not alone. This year's event is June 20 at the capitol building in Des Moines. For anyone who loves a veteran, it's a place to begin.
You might also want to call your legislator and tell them that instead of closing the VA beds these people need, that we as a state want to do right by our vets. We want the services they need provided to them when they need it, not just at VA hospitals, which are inaccessible to a lot of veterans out here in rural Iowa, but through any of our health facilities.
We can't know what they are going through, because we haven't had to see and do they things they have. All we can do is fight beside them now for what is right.
Richard Miles made headlines for a few days as a frozen body found in the woods. People sighed and maybe murmered what a shame it was, before they went on with their day. Not good enough.
Let Richard Miles be remembered as the last - the last Iowa veteran turned away when they need help. That - that is the least we can do.