Traumatized by Iraq and the deaths of two comrades, local Marine Travis Twiggs couldn’t overcome his inner demons
PART 1: MARINE CARRIED WAR HOME INSIDE OF HIM
Be on the lookout, authorities were warned, for a white, late-model Dodge hatchback bearing Arizona license 606RFC, believed occupied by two brothers who had carjacked it from the Grand Canyon two days earlier.
The Border Patrol had tried to detain the vehicle at a checkpoint near Yuma, but the driver sped away, and officers were now in pursuit. Both men were said to have violent criminal histories, and anyone coming in contact with them should consider the suspects armed and dangerous, the bulletin warned.
Thus informed, anxious deputies and police officers from communities along Interstate 8 joined in the chase, speeding brothers Travis and Will Twiggs, both St. Charles Parish natives, toward an unlikely destiny on the morning of May 14.
But that fateful call to arms was only half right.
Until they had wrecked their own car at the Grand Canyon and uncharacteristically forced their way into someone else’s, these guys were no criminals. Will Twiggs, 38, lived a quiet life in Metairie, and other than driving under the influence now and then, he didn’t get into trouble. Travis Twiggs, 36, knew violence all too well, but it was in the line of duty, as a Marine staff sergeant who had pulled a staggering five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002.
He was good at what he did, utterly devoted to duty and country, but all that time in “the sandbox” had messed with his head. Although physically fit, he was an emotional wreck, a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder if there ever was one.
Never mind that the explosion from the enemy mortar attack wasn’t the sergeant’s fault, couldn’t have been avoided. Ever since Lance Cpl. Jared J. Kremm and Lance Cpl. Robert F. Eckfield Jr. had died under his command in Iraq in the fall of 2005, they were with their sergeant always. Every day. Every night. Everywhere.
Travis Twiggs had returned from earlier deployments with battle scars from the combat he had seen with his men. Although his injuries were not visible, were “only” psychological, he was no more whole than if he’d had a leg blown off. The only way he knew how to cope was to get back in-country with his Marines.
But once he lost Jared and Bobby, he spiraled out of control. And no amount of treatment, or counseling, or booze could persuade him he was not to blame for their deaths or teach him how to live with the guilt.
Those Arizona cops had no way of knowing it, but when he sped away from that Border Patrol checkpoint and took off through the desert with his brother at his side, Travis Twiggs wasn’t running from them. He was running from his demons.
A little dynamo
Thirty-six years ago, a lot of thought went into the naming of Douglas Twiggs’ second child.
“I wanted his initials to be TNT,” the elder Twiggs recounted last week in his office near New Orleans’ City Park.
It was an inspired choice. During a carefree childhood in a quiet neighborhood along an out-of-the-way stretch of the Mississippi River’s west bank, young Travis Nathaniel Twiggs proved to be quite the firecracker.
“He was very mischievous as a little boy,” said his stepmother, Nancy Twiggs. “We had a ditch in the front of our house, and Ama was rural, and when it would rain, he would ‘accidentally’ fall in the ditch. He was just all boy, and he just had a wonderful time playing and getting into things that little boys do.”
At Luling Elementary School and Hahnville Junior High, where he was never a particularly committed student, his teachers called him Travis, but everyone else knew him as Te-Beaux. Bestowed on him by his maternal grandmother, Wilma Taylor of Bush, it’s a Cajun term of endearment akin to “handsome little man.”
He left Ama as a teenager and moved in with his mother in New Orleans, then moved with her to Miami, where he graduated from high school. Away from Louisiana, he retained the nickname, but its spelling inevitably got anglicized to T-Bo.
Douglas Twiggs had been a military police officer during a two-year stint in the Army from 1966 to 1968, and he supported his son’s decision to enlist in the Marines in 1993. But it confounded him and his wife that the boy who never had much use for discipline would choose to embrace it in a military career.
“You see how these drill sergeants get up in their face and they’re screaming at these young recruits, and you’d think, how could Travis put up with this?” Travis’ stepmother said. “That just seemed foreign to me, but he thrived on it. He really desired that structure.”
He took basic training at Parris Island, S.C., and subsequent postings included Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Hawaii. About nine years ago, with the Corps looking more and more like a career commitment, he married the girl back home.
“Kellee was the consummate Marine wife, so supportive, so strong,” Nancy Twiggs said. “She had lived down the street from the boys’ mom here in New Orleans, so they kind of knew each other.”
They lived in Beaufort, S.C., during the time that Travis was assigned back to Parris Island, and in Jacksonville, N.C., once he was posted at nearby Camp Lejeune. In time, they would welcome two daughters, Ireland, now 8, and America, 4.
Everyone was included
When the family members from Louisiana would visit, they would revel in the chance to spend quality time with the young couple and, later, to share the girls with their doting parents. Once Travis settled in at Camp Lejeune as a sergeant, those family gatherings at his home took on a whole new dynamic.
“What was so beautiful about visits to see Kellee and Te-Beaux is that there were always young Marines invited, no matter what we’d do,” Nancy Twiggs said.
Young, unattached Marines in Travis’ unit who would otherwise miss out on a family holiday meal, or an ordinary Sunday barbecue, could find a home away from home with Sgt. and Mrs. Twiggs.
“The ones that had no place to go or were left on the post, he would invite them all to his house,” Douglas Twiggs said. “He’d say, ‘Today, I’m Te-Beaux or Travis, but tomorrow I’m Sgt. Twiggs again. Let’s keep it like that.’ He and Kellee were just so outgoing, and so giving. We would sit and just marvel at them.”
Travis’ father-figure devotion extended to late-night phone calls, when one of his Marines was in a jam, too drunk to drive back to the base or unable to post bail after some barroom dust-up or driving infraction.
“Anytime they would call, he would run,” his father said. “That was, to us, beyond the call of duty.”
Eventually, Travis got sent to the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. When his relatives would see him again stateside, he would seem happy, well-adjusted. But he wouldn’t talk about what he had encountered overseas.
“He’d never, ever discuss with us anything about the war,” his stepmother recalled. “When we’d go to their house, he never shared what was going on. It was just something he dealt with.”
What was unsaid, and undealt with, was his very real struggles to get back in step with duty, family and life back home after enduring the realities of war with his brethren from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (“The Ready Battalion — Never to Quit”). The only way he could get his arms around it all was to recommit. Redeploy. Re-engage.
His folks didn’t understand how his number kept coming up for duty in Iraq. Unbeknownst to them, he kept volunteering.
A classic, and serious, case
It was classic post-traumatic stress disorder.
The anxiety condition can affect people from all walks of life, after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Among the typical symptoms, trauma victims with this disorder might be prone to relive the disturbing event and get upset by reminders of it; isolate themselves from others, including friends and loved ones who have been close to them; and stay tense, nervous and irritable. They often rely on alcohol or drugs to offset the effects they feel, and they could be at greater suicide risk than the population at large.
More attention than ever before is being given now to the psychological effects of wartime duty on American servicemen and women. Just last week, the military reported that the number of troops with new cases of PTSD increased by half in 2007, spurred in large part by the effects of the buildup of American forces in Iraq and the increase in violence there and in Afghanistan.
About 40,000 troops have been diagnosed with the condition in the past five years, and it is assumed that many others are going undiagnosed because the troops either don’t recognize the problem or they want to keep it under wraps amid a military culture that historically has viewed any psychological issue as a sign of weakness.
The impact of Travis’ wartime experience on his psyche was “a very common story by our military people coming back,” Donna Scarborough, a clinical social worker who was involved in treating him for PTSD during his time at Quantico, Va., said in a posting on the PTSD-related blog Wounded Times (www.woundedtimes.blogspot.com). “Many do not appear to be harmed because they have no ‘visible’ wounds. However, those of us in the mental health field that work with the men and women who serve in the military every day know how deep these wounds go.”
In a brave and groundbreaking first-person account of his struggles with his battle-induced disorder, published five months ago in the Marine Corps Gazette, Travis said he returned from his second deployment in Iraq to find himself “more irritable, paranoid for no reason, unable to sleep, and had trouble focusing when around other people.” After a month at home, he said, “I began yearning to go back.”
Kellee tearfully told him to “go, bring the boys home safely and get this out of my system,” Travis wrote. “From that day forward, my symptoms went away. After all, I was going back to the fight, back to shared adversity, where the tempo is high and our adrenaline pulses through our veins like hot blood.”
Just weeks after he arrived for the third of his four tours of duty in Iraq, on Oct. 27, 2005, a shell exploded in a building while members of his platoon were inside. Kremm, 24, of Hauppauge, N.Y., died at the scene, and Eckfield, 23, of Cleveland, Ohio, died later at a nearby medical facility.
In an online tribute to Eckfield, he wrote, “I wish that I could erase that horrible day from my memory . . . but I can’t. I feel responsible and always will for not bringing you both home. Kellee and I pray daily that your family can find peace. I miss you brother.”
Two years later, in the Marine Corps Gazette, he would write, “The true horror of war is coming home without all of your Marines, because at some point you have to look at yourself in the mirror and wonder, ‘Did I give them my all? Did I train them to the best of my ability?’ I could not answer yes to either question.”
Deeper and deeper
Travis’ condition worsened.
A physician’s assistant who treated him in 2006 said he had the worst case of PTSD she had ever seen. Meanwhile, he hastened his own downward spiral by heavy drinking that proved an unfortunate chaser for the many and varied medications he was taking. He drifted in and out of detox, psychiatric care, PTSD-specific treatment programs. A successful run last fall as a Marine martial arts instructor buoyed his spirit, but a shoulder injury forced him to give that up and prodded him toward another bout with depression.
As part of his latest treatment program, Travis visited the White House on April 24 as part of a Marine Corps cadre known as the Wounded Warrior Regiment. After a brief ceremony, each of the veterans had an opportunity to shake hands with President Bush. When Travis’ turn came, he said, “Sir, I’ve served over there many times, and I would serve for you any time.” Then, instead of the perfunctory handshake, Travis gave his commander-in-chief a hug.
Or it might have been a final, tortured cry for help.
There it was, the ultimate canvas for God’s paintbrush: the Grand Canyon, natural wonder of the world, America’s candy-striped geological masterpiece. Spruce and firs and Ponderosa pines, majestic in their silence, framed the panorama beneath an immense open sky. Suddenly, a deep blue Toyota Corolla with a Virginia license plate came out of nowhere, lurching toward the precipice, spraying gravel, shattering the calm. In an instant, its front wheels dipped off the edge and the car began to hurtle toward eternity.
And then, just as fast, it jolted to a stop — snagged on the branches of a tree growing from below the drop-off.
It wasn’t going any farther, and it couldn’t go back.
The two men inside were jostled but essentially unharmed. After some momentary confusion, they managed to grab their backpacks, clamber out and start up toward the park road.
Back on solid ground, perhaps they stopped for a moment to ponder the route that had brought them to this point: one, a battle-hardened Marine, haunted by the ghosts of war; the other, his older brother, attuned to his suffering and willing to do anything in his power to ease his brother’s pain.
In that moment, they didn’t know where they were going or what they would do, but one thing was certain — they couldn’t go back.
A Marine’s Marine
For Staff Sgt. Travis Twiggs, commitment to the Marine Corps ideal and responsibility for the fighting men who served with him were obligations he relished. From duty at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to jungle warfare training in Okinawa, Japan, to combat conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was a Marine’s Marine: leading from the front, taking care of his own, becoming the kind of role model that America’s military wants in its noncommissioned officers.
But when he returned from Iraq, Sgt. Twiggs’ war was just beginning. More than most, he struggled to adjust to stateside duty away from the battle. The camaraderie-under-fire that he left behind in Iraq was a siren song that threatened to destroy his ability to function as a Marine, as a husband and a father, as a person.
The anxious behavior, the surliness, the need for the adrenaline rush that he could get only in the kill zone, the dependence on alcohol to dull the other symptoms — the evidence was unmistakable. As he lived and breathed, Sgt. Twiggs was a poster child for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Back in Iraq in the fall of 2005, things went from bad to worse when two Marines in his unit were killed. As time passed, the guilt the sergeant felt over the loss of his platoon members exacerbated the other problems borne from his battlefield experience.
From the time he returned from that deployment two years ago, his life became a whirlwind of treatment programs interspersed with periods of non-combat duty, anchored by loving family members, some who understood what he was going through, others who had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.
In the midst of his latest treatment at Bethesda Naval Hospital’s inpatient psychiatric unit, he contrived early last month to drive to Louisiana to see his dying grandmother. While back home, it was only natural that he would reconnect with his oldest and dearest friend, his big brother, Will.
They were three amigos, those boys, and from the outset, Willard Twiggs was protective of little brothers Travis, known as Te-Beaux, and Ryan.
Willard “was always so well-spoken, and they were still small,” recalled their stepmother, Nancy Twiggs. “He was going to watch out for them and be the pack leader, the decision-maker.”
They lived in Ama, one of those long, narrow River Road communities so common to both sides of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It was rural, wooded country — the right place for little boys to grow up. A sister, Kimberly, came along a few years later, and they brought her into the fold, teaching her all the important stuff they knew, such as how to play football and wrestle.
Willard was studious, polite, an avid sports fan and a bright, happy kid. He made the district honor band as a French horn player, and he was editor of the Pow Wow, the Luling Elementary School newspaper.
And then, when he was 11 years old, he cast a spell over New Orleans.
As New Orleans’ first-ever contestant in the National Spelling Bee, Willard became a local celebrity. He won the metropolitan spelling bee in April 1981, besting other middle school spellers from New Orleans and suburban parishes, and earned an expense-paid trip to the national event. The winning word that punched his ticket to Washington was “ineluctable, ” which means not to be avoided, changed or resisted.
As in, Willard’s devotion to his brothers was ineluctable.
At the National Spelling Bee about a month later, he lasted until the fourth round, finishing 71st among 120 contestants.
Willard became Will at some point during his time at Hahnville High School. After graduation, he did a stint in the Navy, then entered the maritime industry, working for companies that deal with the international shipping at the port of New Orleans.
As an adult, living alternately in New Orleans and Metairie, Will smoked too much and drank enough to be stopped for driving while intoxicated three times between 1992 and 2003. Otherwise, though, he stayed out of trouble, and he maintained the happy-go-lucky personality of his childhood, quick with a smile, eager to make other people laugh.
After evacuating to Houston with his girlfriend for Hurricane Katrina, he returned to New Orleans, but not to the shipping business. He found work instead in recovery projects, one house or landscape at a time, starting with his aunt’s flooded home in Kenner.
“After the storm, Will came over and totally took over,” his stepmother, Nancy Twiggs, said. “Everything was destroyed. He took down all the walls, just out of the goodness of his heart for his aunt. He was just devastated that that had happened to her.”
Douglas Twiggs called his oldest son “a good heart.”
“I think Will wanted to be a carpenter,” he said. “My daddy was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker. Will always liked that kind of stuff, too.”
All this time, Travis was wrapped up with his own intense career in the Marine Corps, and he and his wife, Kellee, had two daughters. He and Will didn’t see each other as much as they once did, but they stayed in touch and remained close, according to family members.
“For Te-Beaux, even with all his training, Will still seemed to be the big brother,” their father said.
‘They didn’t have any plan’
It’s unclear how Travis left Bethesda in early May. He had talked his way out of a hospital treatment program at least once before; this time, he might have gotten a weekend pass. However he got out, by the time he was listed as AWOL, he was well on his way to Louisiana.
On the night of May 6, he and Will dropped in unannounced at their parents’ home in Ama, then drove to Covington to see their ailing grandmother. The boys never said anything about a pending road trip.
“They didn’t have a plan,” their stepmother said. “I even asked them, ‘What’s your plans?’ They didn’t have any plan.”
Travis checked in with his dad by phone two nights later, again from Covington. From that moment forward, there are lots of questions, and very few answers.
One day, the guys were hanging out together around New Orleans. The next thing anyone knows, they were wanted by police in Arizona — for carjacking a vehicle at the Grand Canyon.
Described as armed, violent
Around 3:15 p.m. on Monday, May 12, two men were seen by several tourists walking away from an accident where a car had driven off the edge of the Twin Overlooks site at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, National Park Service police at the canyon reported.
The car, with a Virginia license place, was found lodged in a treetop, just off the edge of the overlook.
Four hours later, another tourist reported that two men had carjacked his vehicle from a nearby South Rim location. The carjackers matched the general description of the two men in the earlier incident.
The suspects, described as armed and having violent criminal histories, were identified as Travis and Willard Twiggs. Police launched an extensive search. Travis’ history of post-traumatic stress disorder was noted by authorities, who went on to speculate that the car-over-the-cliff maneuver was a suicide attempt.
To relatives a time zone away, none of this made any sense. Violent criminal behavior was not in their nature. What were they doing at the Grand Canyon anyway? And suicide? No way.
Days later, a law enforcement officer would tell their father that the incident appeared to have been “a desperation carjacking,” not a crime of opportunity.
“Even when we first heard that the authorities there thought this was an attempted suicide, we were like, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Nancy Twiggs said. “If they had wanted to commit suicide, why do you go to the Grand Canyon? We feel like they fell asleep, just dozed off at the wheel. But we have no idea.
“I don’t know what they talked about between New Orleans and the Grand Canyon. That’s where all of the facts just fade away. I just figure that once Travis was out of Bethesda, I know he was probably overmedicated for a really long time, but once he was away from Bethesda he was probably not on any of his medicines.”
The brothers remained at large Tuesday. On the morning of Wednesday, May 14, Border Patrol officers at a checkpoint on Interstate 8 west of Sentinel stopped them for questioning, after seeing them driving suspiciously on a highway service road that no one ever used. When asked to pull into a secondary holding area for further questioning, they took off, eastbound down the interstate, through the desert.
Travis, once described by a military physician’s assistant as the worst case of post-traumatic stress disorder she had ever seen, was prone to combat flashbacks. On the gravel road near where he lived, the ping of gravel hitting the underside of a passing car would make him duck. While on vacation with Kellee and the girls once, something at a rest stop suddenly made him think he was back in Iraq. The sensations came without warning and seemed altogether real.
Whatever induced him to drive away, the authorities gave chase, with a Homeland Security helicopter and 20 or so police vehicles joining the pursuit. Eighty miles later, a police spike strip punctured their tires, and they drove on for another mile before coming to rest in the sandy wasteland off the highway.
“I suppose, and we can only guess because we don’t have any clue, but with a chase — and the adrenaline — I think he just thought he was being pursued by the Iraqis and just felt like he was not going to be taken prisoner and neither was Will,” Nancy Twiggs said.
As officers surrounded the vehicle and prepared to approach it, two shots rang out from inside. Travis had shot his brother at point-blank range, then turned his gun on himself.
Murder-suicide. Casualties of war. Inexplicable, incomprehensible personal loss. They all apply.
“Te-Beaux and Will were inseparable in many ways,” the boys’ father said last week. “For that to happen, whatever was going through Te-Beaux’s mind, when he actually shot his brother, they were in everything together. They had a pact, you can count on it. But those last two minutes of their lives will haunt me forever.”
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, June 7-8, 2008.