"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ll never forget the first time I saw John Wiley Needham. It was at Denver International Airport in late 2007. John, a private in the Army, was wearing camouflage clothing, toting his backpack and helmet over his shoulder. His father, Mike Needham, told me that John, a fun-loving champion surfer from Southern California, was called “Needhammer.” He was tough, built like an NFL quarterback. Yet he seemed nothing like these descriptions when I first set eyes on him, limping through the baggage claim, slouching. He avoided making eye contact with anyone.
At the time, John was part of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colo. He had done a long, bloody combat tour in the al-Dora neighborhood in Baghdad. His medical records confirm he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also had a brain injury. Both were the result of combat.
John received an Army Commendation Medal for saving the lives of his comrades by firing on an insurgent who had a grenade. He also got a Purple Heart for the shrapnel that entered his leg when the grenade exploded. Those honors, and others, were important to John. They were things he held onto, helping him to remember that at one point during the war, he was a hero.
John told me he felt slighted that some medals he had received were never actually pinned on him in a ceremony. He blamed it on his breakdown. He felt he became a pariah after he cracked, and certainly some of my interviews with others in his platoon confirm that. We was drinking a lot. He became reckless on missions. It was the bloodshed. He recalled one incident in which his unit killed suspected insurgents in a truck. He was sent to inspect the truck and when he opened the door, a man slid out, his brains spilling on John’s chest as women and children watched and cried, yelling at him. John thinks they were the family.
John’s father and Andrew Pogany, an ardent advocate for veterans care issues, were concerned. They worried that John was not receiving care for PTSD and a brain injury. Eventually, John was taken to psychiatric care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Weeks later, he was ripped away from that care. That’s when I came in, at the airport in Denver, to witness John in his epic fight for his care and write about it for Salon. He was being sent back to Fort Carson where commanders, linked to his unit, were based. He worried he’d be harassed.
I wasn’t surprised to hear John say that a sergeant had told him “I will break your fucking face” even though the sergeant knew John had been suicidal. He called John “a pussy and a scared little kid,” John said.
With the help of his advocates and some sympathetic Army insiders, John managed to receive an honorable discharge in July 2008, instead of being punished. Everyone thought his recovery from war would start. Weeks later, when I received a call from John’s father, Mike, I was shocked. Mike told me that his son had been accused in the beating death of a girlfriend, 19-year-old Jacqwelyn Villagomez. John was in jail in Orange County facing a murder charge.
The legacy of PTSD
There were questions about whether the Army and Veterans Affairs had let John slip through the cracks of their care system. “We couldn’t get him everything he needed psychiatrically,” Mike told me in an interview that was part of a lengthy Salon series of investigations into Army care by me and fellow reporter Mark Benjamin.
The investigations — two series that ran in 2009 — were called “Coming home: The Army’s fatal neglect.” Through interviews and stacks of medical records given to us by Fort Carson soldiers and their attorneys and families, we discerned a pattern of suicides, prescription drug overdoses and murders that might well have been prevented if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of common war injuries, including combat-related stress and brain injuries.
In a subsequent investigation, we uncovered a tape that had spurred an investigation at the highest levels of the Army. In it, a psychologist admitted he was pressured to not diagnose soldiers with PTSD but to instead label them with disorders that would effectively leave them with lowered or no benefits for mental health care. The Army, investigating internally and quietly, absolved itself of any wrongdoing. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee declined to launch a formal probe. The response to Salon’s hard work was, by and large, silence.
All things considered, John was lucky. He would at least receive benefits. Yet the Army’s disability ratings system sold him short when it came to assigning percentages gauging his level of disability on a scale of zero to 100 percent. By law, John should have received 50 percentage points for his PTSD alone. John, in his initial rating from the Army, received 20 percent for lingering back problems and a mere 10 percent for his PTSD, according to his medical records. There was nothing for his brain injury.
A higher rating might have afforded John more care as he arrived home, including immediate access to professionals. John’s father recalled his son freaking out, “naked, wimpering,” not long after arriving home in San Clemente, Calif. John needed emergency psychological assistance, and Mike said his son met a confusing, cold bureaucracy.
What all this is leading to is Jacqwelyn Villagomez. Would she have have lived if the Army, and later the VA, been more sensitive to the explosive psychological issues surrounding a troubled soldier like John?
The question cannot be answered. But I will never forget what so many soldiers, particularly infantrymen like John, have told me. Mostly young adults, still impressionable, in their late teens and early 20s, they said they were trained to be killers — good killers. They are proud of it. They have medals to show for their service and deserve to be thanked for what they’ve done. However, when the troops come home and leave the military behind, they need to learn to turn off the “kill” switch. They need to learn how not to feel naked without a gun. They need to feel like ordinary Americans again.
Some of the soldiers I’ve met who were kicked out of the Army without any benefits are experiencing some of the worst symptoms of PTSD and brain injuries that I’ve seen. They want care, and in some cases the VA won’t give it to them.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
The last interview
After the series ran in Salon, I joined forces with Denver filmmaker and Oscar-nominee Daniel Junge to make a documentary about John. For that film, I conducted extensive interviews with John at his home.
John told me he felt like a ghost. He said he could not reconcile all the violence he had seen in the past, as if he didn’t know he and others were capable of it. Wanting to go to war and getting into the middle of one are very different things, and believe John, you never want to experience the latter. Facing a long time in prison for murder, John could not conceive of his own future. He said he could only live in the present. He didn’t like to tell his story, but was making an exception for me and the film because he hoped that something could be learned from his tale.
He told me that retelling his experiences triggered his PTSD. Many soldiers have told me that. So John preferred just to surf like he did before he joined the Army. Now, thinking back on that summer in 2009, watching John sitting on his board, rolling with the swells, waiting for a good wave to ride into San Clemente State Beach, I can say I caught a glimpse of what used to be: the pre-Army John, a cocky kid-man with colorful tattoos, a heart full of poems and a wry smile. He gave me the sense that he would do just about anything for a friend in need.
Now all that’s left are facts to speculate upon — including the facts surrounding Villagomez’s death that opposing lawyers will never spin in a courtroom because John is dead.
He died last year of opiate intoxication, according to coroner’s records. The coroner was unable to determine the manner of death, leaving room for even more speculation about John. Did John commit suicide? John’s father, Mike, won’t accept that. John was at home recovering from back surgery the day he died. He was talkative, though understandably weary. Later, John was found sprawled at his bed, motionless.
Mike, who has retained an attorney, believes the VA and VA contractors were negligent. It turns out that pain medication given to John was a lethal combination. Mike says the VA refuses to discuss the case and release his son’s medical records. Losing John, Mike tells me, has devastated the entire family. Mike feels “hollow” and says it is a “challenge just to make it through every day.”
It turns out that I was the last reporter to have interviewed John. But it won’t be in the documentary as planned. CBS bought the footage to the film and will broadcast parts of the interview on “48 Hours Mystery” on Saturday night (10 p.m. EST/PST, 8 p.m. MST).
John’s story is just a piece of much larger puzzle. I’m reminded of the spate of soldier-involved slayings in recent years.
Stories like that of Kenneth Eastridge, a former Fort Carson soldier convicted along with his fellow soldiers, Louis Bressler and Bruce Bastien, in connection with the 2007 point-blank shooting of fellow soldier, Spc. Kevin Shields, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Last month, Eastridge, who is serving 10 years for accessory to murder, was denied parole.
And earlier this year, a jury convicted former Fort Carson Cpl. Robert Marko, for the 2008 murder of Judilianna Lawrence. Sheriff’s investigators told me at the time that Marko bound Lawrence to a tree, gagged her so she could not be heard, raped her and then slashed her throat.
The list goes on. My years of reporting on the other side of war — the part where soldiers return home from the conflict — have also taken a toll on me. I’ve spent many long days (and nights) speaking to soldiers and their families, hunting down records, hearing about the carnage, unearthing pictures and videos. I’m there for the post-traumatic part. Some of the emotional pain, the raw anguish of so much death, rubs off on the investigator. I may be impartial, but I’m also human. I’m prejudiced in favor of life. Life is precious.
I have found inoculation against the cynicism and callousness that I’ve seen in some of my war-weary colleagues by surrounding myself with people who absolutely relish life. The most inspiring lovers of life I’ve found are soldiers and Marines who’ve been to war and back. Many of them got into no trouble at all other than they were injured and had to figure out how to navigate their new lives.
And (what else is new?) too many have faced hassles and obstacles for no good reason when it comes to obtaining care for PTSD and brain injuries both in the Army and through the VA. These men and women are persevering as best they can. A few have shared some surprisingly angry words about America, a country they believe has failed to uphold its promises to wounded warriors. That’s discouraging to me.
Nonetheless, I’ve found deep meaning in continuing a mission that began years ago. I’ve started another documentary, and this one I’m directing. It’s an independent film about soldiers who are literally willing themselves to recover from their wounds of war — from PTSD to lost limbs. It is called “Recovering.”
The title implies no finality because I have learned that recovery from the wounds of war is an ongoing process. For those of us helping the recovering, all we must do is accept that war leaves its wounds. We must care — and really mean it. The most nefarious of all wounds, we all know, are those that nobody sees. There’s a lot of pain out there and there’s a lot of hope — hope from all quarters that troops can return and be what the rest of us truly are, beautifully flawed human beings. In other words, war really is hell, nobody is perfect and even soldiers and Marines need love — especially soldiers and Marines. Especially John Needham.
Michael de Yoanna is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who won an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative radio journalism in 2011. You can view his past work at Salon here, visit his personal website here, and follow him on Twitter @mdy1.More Michael de Yoanna.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)