GREAT BARRINGTON — The veterans weep as they talk about their fellow Marine, Milo Imrie, and what happened in Afghanistan.
They weep about the inner wars that tormented them after. But, Imrie, and more than 30,000 others since 9/11, couldn’t survive the aftermath.
Seven years after he returned, seemingly whole, Lance Cpl. Milo Imrie, 29, died in 2018, by his own hand, with a gun he had made, alone in the Arizona desert, in a motel room whose door number was his birthday.
He was afraid he would hurt others.
Now, a documentary made in the Berkshires, “Lucky Milo,” reveals Imrie’s thoughts, and his life and mental health crisis reveal more about the 20 years that America unleashed its might into Afghanistan after 9/11.
Imrie is one of the many who couldn’t go on: Veterans die by suicide at a rate of about 17 per day — that number might be higher — and at a rate that, since 9/11, has outpaced combat deaths fourfold, according to A July white paper on U.S. military deaths by Boston University and the Watson Institute at Brown University.
It is a national crisis.
From an apartment high above Castle Street, Edmund Milligan Marcus, Imrie’s boyhood friend from summers spent at a camp in Michigan, talks about how Imrie left behind the foundation of “Lucky Milo” — made with Marcus' filmmaker parents, Donald Marcus and Lisa Milligan, of Egremont. The team is looking for a company to distribute it. There are 30 diaries, as well as video footage found on Imrie's cellphone. After Imrie's death, his father shipped it all off to the filmmakers with his blessing.
The pieces he left are a window into Imrie's mind and spirit, and those who knew him say he was sensitive, compassionate, principled. It is the tale of a charismatic boy who put off college until after his service, who had joined the Marines as a response to 9/11, feeling that was the place he could contribute best.
Edmund Marcus hopes the film will help veterans by telling the story of their crisis, partly through Marines who were in Imrie’s platoon. The team began sharing the film last year, and had to make a fresh cut with new footage last month, after a chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country that left 13 U.S. service members dead in a terror attack.
The movie pretty much made itself, Marcus said. Behind him, on the computer, is a photo of Imrie that illustrates the fissure that cracked apart his life — his life before, and after, he had joined the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — it's also known as the Darkhorse unit. A pile of Imrie’s worn diaries is stacked on a table.
“It was all there, we just had to put the puzzle together,” he said. “We joke that Milo was our casting director because everyone in the movie is incredibly compelling — these nine Marines that we interviewed have, each of them, precious and unheard insights.”
Some speak of unsettling connections among the war and the poppy fields of Afghanistan, as well as America’s opioid epidemic. Afghanistan produces 85 percent of the world’s heroin and morphine, according to the United Nations. It’s also a trade that fuels the Taliban.
Imrie’s diaries, which Marcus reads in the film as the voice of his friend, trace his descent into psychosis, thought to be brought on by a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and the more insidious “moral injury” — as one veteran put it. There were other factors — an accident while drinking, a year of solitary confinement in jail, after he attacked a close friend, as well as the death of his mother.
'Thank you for your service'
The blast from the improvised explosive device comes as the soldiers step around a corner. It is captured by one of their helmet cams. The soldier with the camera goes down, and Imrie is heard trying to help him. The beloved Afghan translator who we see just before he steps on the bomb was blown to pieces, Marcus said.
There were many more moments like it. And when their tour was done, Imrie and the others were dropped right back into American life with no adjustment. For Imrie, help was elusive.
“People know it’s probably really hard to get your leg blown off,” Marcus said. “It’s all these lingering things years and years later. We know that he had at least four major explosives-related head traumas, which he talked about.”
After Imrie was sentenced to jail for attacking his friend with a shovel, he was placed in solitary confinement, amplifying his mental symptoms. His journals suggest that he might have been abused there.
“It’s basically, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” Marcus says of his treatment.
‘Insult to the soul’
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics reveal a continuous and monumental struggle for sanity and health.
A July white paper on U.S. military deaths by Boston University and the Watson Institute at Brown University says the rate of 9/11 veteran and active duty suicides alone is higher than for those of previous wars — 30,177 have taken their lives. That’s more than four times the estimated 7,057 killed in war operations.
Add veterans of the global war on terror and Vietnam and the numbers are higher: From 2005 to 2018, 89,100 U.S. veterans total died by suicide. U.S. veterans also have a higher rate of overdose death, researchers have found.
The Veterans Administration has not published data beyond 2018, but researchers say the current estimate is likely 95,460, with 6,364 veteran suicides per year.
“It’s really an insult to the soul,” Steven Peck says in the film. Peck, who knew Imrie, is a Vietnam veteran and the CEO of U.S. Vets, a nonprofit that advocates for veterans and helps them with housing and counseling.
Apart from war operations, Imrie’s fellow Marines say in the film that they had been ordered to regularly wait until poppy farmers had distilled their crops into heroin before they would “kick in the doors” and remove the drugs.
“We gathered up those pallets, and that black tar heroin went wherever it went,” said Zachary Arnold, who served with Imrie.
In the U.S., veterans have a high rate of overdose death. Arnold suggests an ironic link between this and Afghanistan's export; he expressed bitterness over the pharmaceutical industry, noting the recent multibillion-dollar attempts at settlement agreements for its role in creating the opioid epidemic.
“We know these people are doing wrong, and what they have done is use me and my brothers and my friends and scared me and my brothers and my friends in the representation of freedom,” he said. This is followed by an Afghan child, who says that, when the Americans came, “I have become addicted.”
It was painful for the Marines to speak of what they saw, but the love and loyalty that Imrie inspired in his fellow soldiers gave them the courage, Marcus said.
"They told us raw, honest, terrifying things — things that are not easy to say."