More service members killed themselves while serving in the Iraq war last year than in any year since the war began, and the suicide count for 2007 is on track to surpass that. The dead are generally junior enlisted soldiers who are single, white and male. They are Mike Crutchfield.
It's two days before Christmas 2006, but it doesn't feel much like the holidays in "The Suck," what soldiers sometimes call Iraq, where the days blend together -- broken up only by brilliant sunrises and sunsets.
Michael Crutchfield taps out a final e-mail to his family 7,392 miles away in Stockton. It is a suicide note -- to his mother, brother, sister and nephew. He hits "send" at 12:13 p.m. Then the 21-year-old Army specialist picks up his military-issued M9 Beretta. He presses it to his chest. And he fires.
Two soldiers passing Mike's office in the Balad motor pool hear the gunshot and a shell hit the floor. Then groaning. They kick the door in and there's Mike, sitting in his chair, his arms hanging limp, his head tilted back.
"C'mon, Crutch! Don't ... quit on me!" screams Sgt. Felipe Godinez, who rushes to his friend. "C'mon, Crutch baby, I'm ... fightin' for you."
Godinez puts his mouth onto Mike's, trying to force air into his lungs. He pumps the air bag after the medics arrive. He pumps all the way to the hospital, until a doctor forces the blue bag from his hands.
Mike is pronounced dead at 12:49 p.m.
"My friend laid on the table with a bullet in his chest; life had already slipped away from him," Godinez writes on his MySpace blog. "It had slipped away from me while I was giving him mouth to mouth on that cold hard concrete way back in the motor pool."
Godinez steps backward, makes his way to the corner of the emergency room and falls to his knees, his back to Mike. Someone tells him to step out of the room and he waits until a chaplain comes, until he feels an overwhelming urge to see his friend one last time.
He stares as Mike's eyelids droop over the blue eyes that can no longer see. Godinez reaches out and closes them, then mumbles, "Crutch, you the man."
A message in silence
"Hey, I know you," Mike says to Jonny Sotello.
Sotello recognizes the slight 16-year-old who couldn't be more than 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, with a high-pitched laugh. The two met a few months back at a group home where kids with nowhere to go end up.
Sotello wouldn't forget him.
Mike stands out. He's not loud or bawdy or the life of the party. It's the way he carries himself, straight-backed with a model-like stride. It's the intensity of his gaze. It's the way you meet him and realize he's deciding whether you're worth being his friend.
Now they are in a Stockton housing program for older teenage boys -- assigned two to an apartment with monthly stipends. The common denominator is heartache; the boys all have someone who failed them because of drugs, abuse or neglect. They don't talk much about their pasts, but they silently understand each other.
Mike's in the corner room of Unit 33, the two-bedroom apartment he shares with Sotello. Other boys in the program are scattered about the Stockton apartment complex, so there's always someone here playing the card game "Magic" or video game "Dance Dance Revolution."
There's also always someone toying with teenage trouble. But not Mike. He refuses alcohol, drugs, even aspirin and caffeine. He has lived with addicts. That won't ever be him. "Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's good for you," he preaches to his friends.
Mike is constantly in motion. He glides everywhere on his gray Rollerblades with clear wheels. He has an almost obsessive routine of push-ups and sit-ups. He swings a broomstick like a sword.
He has an entire astrology book memorized, reciting all of his friends' signs, horoscopes and personality traits.
Mike's stepfather taught him chess and he studies books on famous games, play by play, memorizing the names of the openings. He will play anyone and settles for the computer if no one is willing.
Every morning, Mike gets his roommate out of bed and they walk to their continuation school well before the bell rings. He signs onto a computer to play online chess, amazing Sotello with his rating. While 1,300 is average and 1,400 is good, Mike's ranking is above 1,600.
A lonely life
Mike is the guest of honor. A single candle burns atop a supermarket cake. There are presents in gift bags stuffed with colorful tissue.
The Duarte family has taken Mike into a three-bedroom Stockton home and now is surprising him with a party on his 18th birthday.
A grin spreads across Mike's face. But this is bittersweet. This is not his family.
"You could tell Mike wanted to be close with his family, but he couldn't deal with them," says Danielle Duarte, whose son ran in the same group of friends as Mike and who took Mike in after the transitional housing program ended. "He got tired of it all."
This birthday is so different from the one just two years earlier. On the day Mike turned 16, police raided the garage meth lab in his Lathrop home. It was a family acquaintance who set it up, insists his mother, Anna Alford. Still, they were evicted with nowhere to go.
Mike's brother, sister and nephew moved back with friends in French Camp, where they once owned a house. His mother was supposed to go to a motel with him. But she stayed more often at her boyfriend's, something she wishes she could do over again. Differently.
That's how Mike ended up in the foster care system, seeing his family when someone could wrangle a ride.
Now on his 18th birthday, he is without his mother, brother, sister and nephew. He still loves them but he's angry he is alone. His family has become the one he can create.
He opens his presents. There are the Hawaiian shirts he likes to wear and new wheels for his Rollerblades.
It's more of a birthday than he's ever known.
"You think, coming from that family ...," says Duarte, her voice trailing off before she describes Mike's vow to live clean and find success. "God touched him -- he was special."
Staff Sgt. Alexander Cancela strides into the Discover campus of the One Program, a San Joaquin County continuing education school. He is in his crisp Army uniform and talks of life in the military, mentioning "the experience of a lifetime" and "an Army of one." The Army's pamphlets use words such as "challenge," "teamwork" and "pride."
Mike is graduating in the spring, and he has nowhere to go. He is still living with the Duartes, sleeping on the top of a bunk bed.
He visits the staff sergeant at the recruiting office in a strip mall next to a cigarette shop and a dollar store. This day would change his life.
"When I first met Michael, he was very curious of what it was to become part of our team," Cancela says in an e-mail from Iraq. "He was a humble young man and I felt it was my duty to provide him with guidance even if he did not want to enlist."
Mike talks about opening a clothing boutique. He says he wants to be a computer engineer. Maybe he'll become an architect. He doesn't know how to make any of it come true.
"Once he learned that he could work on computers in the Army, he wanted to add a little more excitement to his job," Cancela says. "He decided to go Airborne and parachute out of airplanes."
Mike signs document after document with his stilted cursive signature that seems to run downhill. He signs the form authorizing the standard record checks. He signs the military processing form. He signs the statement for enlistment.
He's committed his life for the next six years.
Friends are throwing Mike a going-away party. He will be off to boot camp soon. After taking a few sips of a Smirnoff Ice, he heads into a bedroom and closes the door. Johnny Keovilay, who will enlist a year later, pokes his head in and sees tears in his friend's eyes.
"Mike was too afraid he might like it and get addicted and go downhill from there," Keovilay says about Mike's experiment with alcohol. "The military gave him something to believe in. I felt the same way too, when I joined."
Mike writes long letters to his friends from basic training, detailing the mental challenges and muscle spasms from the physical rigors. He's pumped about being in Georgia and North Carolina, shooting rifles, jumping out of airplanes.
He's still selective about the people he lets in, and it doesn't happen very often.
"Hey, I know you," he says to Elliot Mendoza, a soldier from New York.
"And for some reason, I thought I knew him too, just couldn't remember from where," Mendoza says.
Mike always goes straight for Mendoza's refrigerator, seems to clean everything out of it but never adds weight to his small frame. They talk about everything and nothing.
"There were some things he wouldn't tell me about his past," Mendoza says. "I respected it, though; if he felt like telling me, he would. I'd ask once or twice and leave the subject alone if he didn't."
Home for the holidays
Mike looks different. His hair is cut close and there is no sign of the gel he used to spike it with. He's in camouflage, and he has done away with his odd mustaches.
Mike is at Sacramento International Airport waiting for Keovilay to pick him up, his green Army-issue bag at his feet.
He knows he's headed to Iraq soon but doesn't know when. He's home to see his friends and maybe his family, too.
Keovilay sneaks up behind him, undetected. When they make eye contact, Mike's face lights up with his wide grin. They joke and trade military barbs during the drive to Stockton. Mike talks about going to Iraq and helping people.
"He wanted everybody to be happy," Keovilay says.
Mike brings gifts -- a Winchester utility knife for Keovilay, a martial arts sword for a girl he likes. Everything's the same, but it's not. Everyone's working and can't sit around playing card games or debating the meaning of life with him. Mike lectures them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He stays in a motel.
He gets Sotello and Sotello's girlfriend, Payge Simpson, to drive him to French Camp to see his mom and then makes them wait in the car for hours. On the way back, they go through the McDonald's drive-through and Mike orders 20 apple pies.
"We sat in line for 30 minutes," Sotello says. "He just felt like ordering 20 apple pies."
They play "Halo" on the Xbox, drive to Fresno to deliver the martial arts sword. And when it's time to go, Mike jokes about never coming back to Stockton, about how they may never see him again.
It's early evening when the cab honks outside the apartment. Mike takes his time, giving everyone a hug. Even Simpson gets a squeeze when she normally would get a brotherly shove.
As the door closes, someone says, "I don't think he's coming back."
Next: Off to Iraq