Alibi V.21 No.3 • Jan 19-25, 2012 

From the Foxhole

Benjamin Colton Barnes

Another broken soldier

Barnes, an Iraq War veteran, died at age 24 in Mount Rainier National Park.
Barnes, an Iraq War veteran, died at age 24 in Mount Rainier National Park.

Fleeing for his life, Benjamin Colton Barnes, Iraq War veteran, took to the snowy wilderness of Mount Rainier National Park on New Year’s Day. Wearing only sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt, he managed to make it several miles on foot through the frozen wilderness.

When his body was spotted from a plane in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 2, he was hours ahead of a pursuing SWAT team equipped with winter gear and snowshoes. Given how far back they fell off his trail, it’s evident the SWAT team was in no rush to reach him.

As darkness set in and temperatures dropped below freezing, the unlucky private slogged on ahead, desperate and deranged, while the search team hunkered down to wait for the inevitable: the death of yet another broken and malfunctioning American soldier.

The search team hunkered down to wait for the inevitable: the death of yet another broken and malfunctioning American soldier.

Private Barnes, 24, had been in trouble for a long time. He’d been discharged from the Army for alcohol issues and had lost a child custody battle. He was also dealing with the suicide of a close friend and fellow Iraq War veteran who killed himself two months earlier.

In his addled state, Barnes never imagined that his pursuers could be hours behind him. He knew he was facing extermination at their hands. So he thrashed on by starlight until his legs, long numb with cold, simply stopped responding. Like a well-trained soldier, he went on until he could go no further.

His body was discovered half-submerged in Paradise Creek, bordered by high bluffs of snow. The cause of death was drowning with hypothermia a contributing factor. The search team, when they finally reached him, took pictures of themselves at the scene. They observed he had lost a sneaker in the chase.

Maybe exposing our sons and daughters to the ravages of war has become too easy for us.

The only reason the death of Benjamin Colton Barnes has attracted such attention is that he did not go alone. After driving past a park checkpoint—fleeing an incident in which he opened fire on a New Year’s Eve party and wounded four people—he fired upon a park ranger who blocked the road with her vehicle. She later bled to death.

Had Barnes simply headed off into the frozen wilderness to die, his story would have been unexceptional. After all, scores of returning veterans, traumatized and afflicted, have committed suicide over the last decade. While their deaths are viewed as tragic or unfortunate, they have become an acceptable consequence of war.

Maybe exposing our sons and daughters to the ravages of war has become too easy for us.

Until all our children share in the risk of military service by way of a draft or compulsory service, war will remain an attractive option for politicians looking to make statements. Only an involved and engaged population with sons and daughters at risk has an incentive to keep the government under control.

Our birds are coming home to roost, one by one. When they did as they were told, we extolled them. When they went off the tracks, we abandoned them. Now they are landing among us, firing their weapons in our faces and freezing to death in sneakers in the shadows of our mountains.

The Department of Homeland Security is now listing returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as psychologically unstable and susceptible to recruitment by terrorist organizations.

Welcome home.

Alex Escué Limkin served in the U.S. Army for 15 years, including a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He documents his experience as an Iraq veteran at warriorswithwesthusing.org.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.