The last time I saw Slater, I knew something was wrong.
I ate my dinner. He drank his.
It was the night after Thanksgiving, and he’d been through hell. A broken leg. A busted nose. Lingering back injuries. Arrested by Swat cops after firing a shotgun in his house, believing he was about to be robbed. Rehab. Jail. Eviction.
Despite all this, Slater seemed calm. Too calm. And I began to worry.
After our dinner that night at the end of 2019, Slater asked me to come to his next court appearance.
I promised I would.
And then he did something unexpected: he hugged me.
At first, I took it as a gesture of friendship. Later, I realized it meant a whole lot more.
I first met Slater when I was researching a screenplay and needed to come up with authentic-sounding dialogue from someone who had seen combat.
Slater seemed ideal, but after two tours in Iraq with the marines, he had such a gripping personal story to tell that I put aside my screenplay and instead profiled him for the Observer in 2014.
On our first encounter, he scared the hell out of me – he was 6ft 1in, 230lb and heavily tattooed. The bearer of Popeye-sized arms and a lawn-mowered haircut, he possessed a fierce natural squint.
Slater’s nickname, spot-on for his daunting look, was “Bear”. But appearances were deceiving. He was articulate, soft-spoken and self-deprecating. Inside his house, he introduced me to his French bulldogs, Beaux and Daisy, who smothered me with wet, slurpy kisses. A jar of marijuana buds and an industrial-sized bong sat on his glass-topped coffee table.
“It’s the only thing that keeps me calm,” he said.
At 18, he had enlisted in the marines because it was “the most badass” of all the services. Since his full name was Christian Slater, just like the actor, his radio call name in the field became “Hollywood”.
But otherwise, everyone just called him Slater.
On his first tour in Iraq, Slater was in the NBC unit, searching for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. On his second tour, he was in mortuary affairs.
The name was a euphemism. This was the detail that picked up the bodies – and the body parts. Even if some guy’s remains were unviewable, the marines had vowed to return every last piece of him to his family, in keeping with their motto of “No marine left behind,” which they spelled out with sandbags atop their bunker at the Al-Taqqadam airbase in central Iraq.
Slater and 20 other marines had prepared for their mission by watching videos of suicide bombings and plane crashes. They collected colored ping-pong balls and chunks of raw meat, both meant to simulate body parts, and methodically scattered them around the grounds, then inventoried them on diagrams of human bodies.
A veteran warrant officer told them their mission in Iraq would be the most honorable a marine could perform. But she cautioned, “nothing we tell you in class will prepare you for what it will be like in the field. Absolutely nothing.”
Her words proved prophetic. Early on in Iraq, as Slater propped up one slain American so others could take fingerprints and check for exit wounds, the man’s brain tumbled from his skull. Most of the other marines dashed outside the bunker to throw up, but Slater held his position.
Later, after an IED explosion obliterated an armored personnel carrier, two marines lifted up a corpse, only to watch it come apart in the middle and spill its innards on their boots. Meanwhile, others collected the various body parts – an arm, a leg, a face, a penis. “Picking up human confetti,” recounted Slater.
The marines called their dead “angels”. By the end of their tour, they had sealed 182 “angels” in body bags and metal coffins for flights back home.
Facebook Twitter The coffin of late US Marine is displayed for his family and others to honor. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA
They also recovered the remains of Iraqi civilians, children and enemy insurgents. Slater would never forget how anguished and angry their relatives looked when they were handed the bodies.
Under a full moon and within range of Falluja snipers, Slater and the others extracted what remained of an Iraqi mother and her child after an army fuel truck rolled over her hatchback.
To numb the horrors, Slater worked out maniacally at the base gym. Multiple sets, multiple reps. Dead lifts, presses, rows, curls and more, using up to 270lb of weight. Anything to help forget the work. He took endless showers “to get the day’s business off me”.
On the day they finally left to return home, everyone in the unit turned to face the mortuary affairs bunker and shoot it a middle finger.
After Iraq, Slater served as an embassy guard in Mozambique and Latvia. During a Nato summit in Riga, he posed for photos with President George W Bush. But then things started to slide downhill.
Visiting his family in Mississippi, he was emotionally flattened, but quick to anger if they cut him short when he talked about Iraq.
Every time he walked out the door, he saw the faces of the dead staring back at him. Every mail box, trash bin and newspaper kiosk loomed as a hiding spot for an IED. He would stay up for 72 hours, then sleep the next 72, as if on extended sentry duty.
A serious spinal injury Slater had suffered during a tank-riding mishap in Iraq flared up anew. After surgery at the Bethesda naval hospital, he contracted a systemic and near-fatal infection. When a military doctor tried to acupuncture his ears for the pain, Slater threw him out of the room. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder shortly after.
Slater drank heavily and became addicted to painkillers and antidepressants. He shuttled in and out of treatment programs, but not always willingly.
When they were preparing for their mission in Iraq, Slater had led the others in their morning runs and calisthenics and pushed them to buy field gear, pay bills, update wills and sign powers of attorney. In Iraq, he was the hi-tech wizard who repaired the radios, generators and engines and operated the tracking devices inside the Humvees.
“He was ‘the be-all, end-all, go-to guy,’” recalls Dan Cotnoir, a now-retired sergeant who was in Slater’s unit.
Some had bristled at his gung-ho attitude. He was “a self-proclaimed meathead, what we called a ‘hot shit’ marine”, says Jessica Goodell, another member of the mortuary affairs team. “He was so hardcore, always in shape, always doing jobs above his rank, always taking on more responsibility and always telling me what to do.”
But post-Iraq, Slater became the “go-to guy” nobody could go to. In 2008, the corps retired him on medical grounds.
Despite the corps’ motto, he felt that if he died, “nobody was even gonna hiccup”.
The average number of daily suicides among veterans has risen slightly over the past two decades, from 16.4 in 2001 to 17.2 in 2019, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2019, the suicide rate among veterans (31.6 per 100,000) was substantially higher than the rate among non-veterans (16.8 per 100,000), the department said at the end of last year.
The Covid surge has raised new concerns about a possible spike in suicides. By February of this year, the department had reported more than 20,000 Covid-related deaths among veterans and VA employees since the start of the pandemic. While mental health consultations for veterans by phone or video had increased, some VA officials worried because many facilities had stopped in-person visits to limit the virus’s spread.
Politicians have taken note. “Far too many of our fighting men and women come home suffering from invisible wounds of war,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democratic chairman of the US Senate veterans’ affairs committee. “And the isolation of the pandemic has often made that suffering worse.”
Slater tried to kill himself multiple times.
Once, pumped full of booze and drugs, he nearly succumbed to hypothermia on the Gulfport, Mississippi, porch of his sister, Holly Slater Gibbs. Later, back east, he tried twice more to do himself in.
Others from Slater’s unit went through similarly dark times. One female marine spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse after escaping a perilous relationship in which another marine, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress, had regularly threatened to kill her and himself with his gun when he wasn’t hiding in closets. A third died mysteriously. A fourth tried to kill himself using the same meds the Veterans Administration still gives him to this day. Others in the unit absorbed so much psychological trauma that they have never been the same.
Facebook Twitter Slater had two dogs, Beaux and Daisy. Illustration: Vin Ganapathy/The Guardian
Although they were eligible for Purple Hearts, few of the mortuary affairs marines sought them. How could they justify getting medals for their trauma, they felt, when they had been sending their comrades home in pieces? It seemed disrespectful and selfish to become such glory hounds.
Slater moved to Oregon in 2010 and seemed to rebound. The climate was a relief from the heat and humidity of his native south and the sandstorms in Iraq. The waterfalls, rivers, old-growth pine forests and snow-capped mountains gave him solace.
He found a therapist in Portland, the first one he had ever trusted. When his nerves became too jangled or his old war injuries flared up, he turned to marijuana, for which the state of Oregon granted him a medical prescription. He began working towards his college degree, intending to open a private security business. His French bulldogs produced a litter of pups. To have living, breathing creatures in his care felt good. They became his family.
He made friends, too. One was Jessica Goodell, his fellow marine. While she was attending college in upstate New York and working towards her PhD, he showed up with bags of food, cleaning supplies and kitchen utensils.
“I want to take care of you,” he told her.
Although their relationship in the field had been prickly, they ended up becoming close friends.
When I interviewed Slater in 2014, he felt he was on the right track. “I’m working on my degree,” he said. “And I’m not trying to kill myself.”
Afterwards, we occasionally met for a beer.
In some ways, our friendship was remarkable. Here I was, an ageing child of the 1960s who had done everything he could to avoid Vietnam. And here he was, a combat-hardened marine who had performed the most gruesome duty imaginable. The difference between us could not have been more profound. I felt honored to be his friend.
Sometimes, he would bring along his friend Kat Figaro, AKA “Fig”, a marine who had served with him in Latvia. She was smart and sassy and, to my great delight, both a lover of birds and someone who cursed like a marine.
Other times, I would consider Slater in the context of my own family and, in particular, a now-estranged relative through marriage who fancied himself an authority on war. Not because he had ever served in the military, but because he had read some books on military history, always voted Republican and kept guns in his house. Trying to have a discussion with him was futile since he would steamroll me with his self-professed expertise on the nature of combat.
How satisfying it would have been, I imagined, to watch Slater, in his quiet, self-effacing way, talk about his time in Iraq and reduce this blowhard to a puddle of shame.
After our post-Thanksgiving dinner, I texted Slater several times so I could show up for his court appearance. I never got a reply.
In January, I learned why. Two weeks after our dinner, he had taken a fatal overdose of drugs. His body was not discovered for three weeks.
Friends knew he had been self-medicating. Inside the house where he lived before being evicted, they had spotted heroin, human growth hormone, ketamine and propofol. In his new apartment, where his body was found, police discovered a syringe, a burnt spoon, pills and his bong.
“He just danced with the devil once too often,” says his friend Dan Cotnoir.
Many believe he hadn’t intended to die. Just one night earlier, he had told Cotnoir and his wife, Lori, that he would come to stay with them in Massachusetts.
Others, however, felt his dying was a deliberate act. When the police found his body, they discovered his driver’s license, his Marine Corps ID card and his wallet laid out on a countertop, as if to leave a message.
Nationwide, there are numerous law firms that specialize in suing the Veterans Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs over allegations of malpractice.
One attorney, Peter Bertling, who is based in Santa Barbara, California, pointed to two cases he has handled that are linked to the West Palm Beach, Florida, VA medical center.
Last December, Bertling filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Sgt Brieux Dash, a 33-year-old Iraq war veteran, who, in 2019, hanged himself at the center. A report by the VA’s inspector general later found that Dash had received “reasonable care”, but also faulted the facility for failing to ensure adequate mental health training for staff, failing to correct physical hazards in the facility and failing to fix security cameras that had not been working for three years.
Bertling is preparing to file yet another suit in connection with another veteran, who had also been under treatment at the West Palm Beach facility and who fatally shot himself while lying next to his wife in bed.
Meanwhile, Bertling recently won a $1m settlement for the family of Gary Steven Pressley, a 28-year-old veteran who fatally shot himself in April 2019 in the parking lot of the Carl Vinson VA medical center in Dublin, Georgia, to “escape the excruciating pain and suffering he was experiencing”, according to the lawsuit. In the suit, Bertling accused the veteran’s VA physician of cutting off Pressley’s pain medication.
Another Bertling lawsuit, still pending, alleges that the hospital switchboard operator and her private employer, with whom the hospital had contracted, failed to heed family warnings about the anguished veteran.
“These things are preventable,” says Bertling. “But medical or mental health providers do not follow the VA’s own policies, pain or PTSD are not properly treated and staffing is often inadequate or incompetent.”
In the wake of Pressley’s death, VA officials stated that it does not comment on individual suicides or pending litigation. It added: “However, suicide prevention is the VA’s highest clinical priority, and the department is taking significant steps to address the issue.”
A major obstacle to helping veterans, according to Tester, has been “the stigma to getting help.”
Men like Slater are reluctant to ask for VA assistance, anticipating endless forms, skeptical shrinks and social workers and inept doctors.
“No one is gonna fight to claim they are broken,” says Cotnoir. “They’re too proud to do that. They want to fight to be better. If Slater needed more help, the VA should have been tripping over itself to get it to him.”
And ex-marine Jessica Goodell adds, “The military wants people who will deploy. If you show signs of struggling, they reprimand you. And suicide is considered weak and selfish.”
After returning from Iraq and struggling with her own PTSD, Goodell went on to write a highly acclaimed book about her combat experiences, Shade It Black. (The title refers to the way the mortuary affairs marines would diagram a corpse when limbs or other body parts were missing.)
Goodell believes civilians need to better educate themselves about what members of the military must do in combat, and about the trauma that endures after they come home. And yet, she is frustrated by what she terms “a dissonance” in the messaging. “On the one hand, the military struggles to tell the public what it does,” she said. “On the other hand, it doesn’t want the public to know.”
Since taking the gavel as chairman of the veterans’ affairs committee in January 2021, Tester has successfully championed laws to improve mental health outreach during the pandemic and bolster suicide-prevention efforts. Programs are under way to better educate VA mental health care providers; conduct alternative therapies with animals, sports, recreation and art; do more outreach in rural areas; and study the impact of living at high altitudes, which is thought to exacerbate instances of suicide and depression.
When the VA doctors changed Slater’s meds, his friends told me, he resumed self-medicating. Soon he was babbling incoherently, sleepwalking and hallucinating about fires and squatters in his crawl spaces. Then he got busted for the shotgun incident.
From jail, Slater had called Gibbs asking for bail money. But he was evasive about what had happened. She pushed him to re-enter drug treatment and offered to fly from Mississippi to Oregon for his court appearances.
He never spoke to her again.
Gibbs believes the Department of Veterans Affairs failed him. “The doctors gave him so much crap,” she said. “Uppers, downers, mood modifiers. They use the cookie-cutter method for returning veterans. Give them as many pills as they want.”
The VA in Portland declined to comment on Slater’s case. It also declined to let me see his medical records, even though I was authorized by his sister to see them.
After Slater died, the Washington county medical examiner’s office in Oregon sent an investigator to his apartment to deal with his body. Steven Hargis, Washington county’s chief medico-legal death investigator, said the procedures the investigator followed were nearly identical to the ones Slater himself had employed when he was processing the “angels” in Iraq.
Early in 2020, as Slater’s dogs cavorted at their feet, 20 of Slater’s closest friends gathered at a house in the Oregon woods to memorialize what they termed “all his Slaterness”.
Their recollections were telling:
“An outstanding leader …
always had your back …
ran at every challenge full throttle …
never wanted anyone else to carry his weight …
wrestled with burdens no other person should have to carry …
wanted to heal himself …
would stare at you if you ordered only a half rack of ribs …
the biggest goofball in the world …
made you feel loved and cared for …”
At the time of his death, Christian Hyde Slater, sergeant, United States Marine Corps, was 36 years old.
• This article was amended on 19 May 2022. An earlier version said the average number of daily suicides among veterans had been “steadily rising over the past two decades, from 81 in 2001 to 125.5 in 2019”. Those figures are for all US adults; for veterans, the relevant figures are 16.4 in 2001 and 17.2 in 2019.
• In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 and online chat is also available. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org