Men in every generation tell stories of the people they served with and the ones that never come home. You build incredibly strong bonds living so close to one another and sharing experiences that no one else will ever understand. You go overseas, live under intense stress for 365+ days then head home.
William Hamilton from Redondo Beach, California was not the Soldier of the Month or a Medal of honor winner. He was a guy that had your back and was desperately looking for people to have his. He joined the Army looking for adventure and fun. He got a whole lot more than most he bargained for.
I met him when we were both inprocessing into the 82 Airborne at Fort Bragg, We would do paperwork all day and every night we would go find an under 21 strip club and spend whatever money we could strap together. As a high school drop out, it had been years since I had a friend to hangout with. I think Billy felt the same way.
When we arrived at our unit in August the famous 2-325 A.I.R. they were already in Iraq. Having come into Iraq through Saudi Arabia and Task force Ranger. These were hard dudes. Fighting battles form the border up to Baghdad. Losing friends and living in unthinkable conditions. By the time we made it to them hey were living in different parts of an Iraqi mansion with running water and a small internet cafe. They looked at us cherries as undeserving of attention or respect. Which we were.
I went to AT (anti-tank) !. I loved my Platoon from Sgt. Levi Peffer to Christopher Pusateri. They all taught me a lot and I think of all of them daily. Billy went to At-2, a great platoon with tough leadership. The first time I remember seeing Billy on a mission in Iraq. He was running across the compound just before leaving because he forgot his weapon. He was very tough, but could bring a lot of unwanted attention to himself.
We returned home from our first deployment in February 2004. Thankfully I turned 21 in Iraq and was able to go out drinking with the soldiers that I bonded with. Me along with Rodriguez, Lafreniere, Ellis, Price and Lopez became close friends and referred to ourselves as the "scuds". Billy went on a trip with us to Wilmington, NC. We got into a fight in the club and Billy suplexed everyone trying to fight us. He was a beast and fighting was in his blood. For the most part, Hamilton found himself outside of any circle of friends and drifted alone.
"Thankfully" for Billy we deployed again in late 2004 to Baghdad and then Mosul. Overseas he was in his element. The missions were straightforward and he was always around fun people and strong leadership. In February 2005, SGT Christopher Pusateri, a hero of mine and friend to everyone, was killed by small arms fire. I am certain this incident left Billy feeling completely lost.
After the deployment I went on my normal trip to Texas with Emmaneul Rodiguez and Billy went home to California. We both signed in from leave early and I still remember seeing him for the first time in a month. Normally a stocky well built kid, his face was now sunken in and he looked to have lost 20-30 lbs. I immediately called a friend of ours and said "you’ve got to see Billy he’s on crack". Sure enough he was.
The first day after leave he came down to the formation area with flip flops on and his PTs on backwards. That same weekend I remember drinking bears in the barracks and Hamilton came in with a literal crack pipe. I had never seen one before or since. We pushed him out of the room and continued with our barracks party. Everyone soon caught on, He failed a urinalysis and was discharged shortly after.
In 2005 the military or the VA system was not quick to help a soldier who needed it as they are now. If a soldier "pissed hot" they were kicked out. They weren’t sent to mental health to see if there are underlying reasons for the drug habit. He was confined to his small barracks from and could only leave to go on his discharge appointments. Nowadays he would have been sent to a rehab facility and given a PTSD discharge with a VA pension. Instead they diagnosed him with PTSD was shown the door.
The death of our friend Christopher Pusateri changed his life forever. His mother said when he got home, “He was tormented by it; when he first came home he didn’t sleep, I could hear him crying at night,”. Doctors at the VA hospital diagnosed Hamilton with schizoaffective disorder and he was hospitalized nine times at the Palo Alto VA’s psychiatric ward, often for weeks at a time.
May 2010 his father called local sheriff’s to take Billy on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Staff at the Calaveras County hospital, where Hamilton was taken, wrote that he was “delusional” having “hallucinations…speaking of demon women and flashes of light.” They attempted to contact the Palo Alto VA, but were told “they do not start transfers this late in the day.”
After three days at the avid Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Billy was discharged. That was the last time his mother ever saw him. William Hamilton died when he stepped in front of a train on the Union Pacific track alongside Highway 99 in Modesto. He was 26.
I hadn’t spoken to him since 2005 and have since gone through my one ordeals with mental health and PTSD. The scars we’ve acquired both mentally and physically live with us.
As we remember memorial day, let’s not just remember those that have fallen on far away battlefields. But also remember those deaths that are a direct result from them. Let’s not forget the lies that bring us to war and the lives of so many that are lost. Everyday veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kill themselves. We are losing this generation’s finest and bravest and they deserve better.
Eric Durtche veteran of four deployments to Iraq 2003-2009. I currently live the Houston suburbs with my wife and two children. I have been awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Valor, and Bronze Star.