Telling Weldon’s story

by Sgt. 1st Class John S. Wollaston
10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command Public Affairs

“Saying goodbye to someone that was a friend, a co-worker, a Soldier you were entrusted to mold and develop is one of the hardest things a leader ever has to do — especially in a situation that didn’t involve that person being in harm’s way. And it never gets easier no matter how many times you have to go through it.”

I wrote and spoke those words almost eight years ago from the pulpit of the Memorial Chapel at Fort Myer, Virginia. The Soldier I was speaking about during that solemn ceremony was Pfc. Joshua Weldon, a 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) ceremonial announcer, who had recently passed away.

Josh was my Soldier.

I first met Josh when he was in advanced individual training and I was at Fort Meade, Maryland, for an advanced journalism course. I can still remember the terrified look on his face when I called out to him from across the chow hall to come and sit with me. His fear turned to relief when I introduced myself. The next three weeks became a great opportunity of mentorship, which I hoped would help him succeed as a Soldier, especially in light of his first duty station in the Army.

Upon Josh’s arrival to The Old Guard, he was eager and ready to learn and took the job, quickly becoming an integral part of our team. His first mission was narrating a promotion with then Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George Casey as the host. Casey returned from the mission impressed that a private was able to give instructions without hesitation.

But not everything was wine and roses. Josh came to us battling shin splints. The condition had actually cost him being named honor graduate of his class at the Defense Information School. We did our best to mitigate the problem in various ways, but you could tell the pressure to get out and do physical training like the rest of the Soldiers was getting to him, and the pain he was experiencing was wearing on him.

The first warning sign that something wasn’t right flew by all of us. Hindsight being what it is, I probably should have started an intervention right then and there.  Josh had an on-again, off-again relationship with an AIT classmate who was assigned to the Virginia National Guard. During the Fourth of July weekend in 2008, I was having a platoon cookout at my house, and Josh and his parents were there. Josh had not brought his girlfriend with him, because she’d broken up with him the week prior via private message. So imagine my surprise the day after the cookout when he shows up at my doorstep, girlfriend in tow. They were back on again, and they were getting married. My wife and I shared a look of surprise but said nothing.

Throughout the rest of the year Josh bounced from profile to profile as the problems with his legs continued. Because he was unable to maintain a regular training regimen, weight became an issue, and it added to the stress Josh was already feeling. The prescribed pain meds were helping, but only to an extent.

By Halloween, Josh started showing up late to formation or calling in giving excuses for why he couldn’t make it, and his attitude at work turned sour as well. After a round of counseling statements, I realized the sessions weren’t working and sensed that what was going on with Josh was more than just burnout from our rigorous schedule and heavy workload.

I called his squad leader into my office, and we both agreed to help Josh. We devised a plan to re-engage the doctors on his behalf to try and get his leg problems fixed and to get him additional help if necessary. We also debated whether to let him go on leave and start everything after he got back or to

deny his leave and begin assisting him now. I ultimately decided to let Josh go on leave, thinking the time away from work would do him good and hopefully he’d return with a new outlook.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I found out Josh had died at his parent’s house on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, after overdosing on OxyContin, which was prescribed for his leg pain. He went to sleep and simply never woke up.

The news hit me like a brick to the head. My first thought when the shock of the news had worn off was a selfish one: “Am I going to get in trouble?” The next few days, the whole month really, was a blur of responses to questions about what had happened, consoling my Soldiers and trying to answer their questions of how this happened when I didn’t have an answer myself.

All the while the mission never stopped. The one job that stuck out the most to me though is when I had to coordinate Josh’s memorial service with his parents — those same two people who’d sat on my porch just five months prior, who told me they felt like their son was in good hands with me and trusted me to take care of their child. I worried now that my ability to lead the other Soldiers in my platoon had been damaged, that I had somehow let them down, too, by not preventing Josh’s death.

I felt I failed them all.

I know that’s not the reality, but to this day that’s how I feel. I saw that Josh was in trouble, but if I’d only moved a little faster, if only I’d denied his leave, if I’d recognized the signs of his mental pain sooner.

If only.

This is only the second time I’ve talked about Josh’s death to anyone outside my family or the Soldiers who were in my platoon at The Old Guard. I was ashamed and embarrassed to talk about it for fear of someone thinking I was a bad leader.

The first time I talked publicly about his death was three days after a Soldier in our battalion had taken his own life. He was well liked, a good friend to his fellow Soldiers, and his death came as a shock to all that knew him, just like Josh’s.

I was acting battery first sergeant that day, and what I said to the Soldiers assembled before me was, “Take the time to notice the people around you, the Soldiers to your left and right. We’re in an electronic world and spend so much time wrapped up in our smartphones, tablets and game consoles that we totally ignore those around us. Pull your eyes away from the screen and focus on the people around you. Ask how they’re doing. Listen to what they say. That simple act could very well save a life.

“Taking the time to notice a change in behavior or attitude of a fellow Soldier could save them and you from going through the pain I went through, from having to carry the burden I carry today. It could very well save you from doing what I had to do, and that was to look into the grieving faces of parents who’d entrusted me with their son and tell them I was sorry, knowing full well that apology will never give them what they want.”

The one thing I left out of those remarks eight years ago that I should have included was that Josh’s death was totally preventable. Josh’s squad leader and I knew something was wrong with him; we saw the signs of a Soldier crying out for help; we devised a plan and were ready to implement it upon his return from leave, but I ended up tossing a 15-foot rope to a drowning man 17 feet away.

My message to anyone who reads my story is don’t wait. Don’t look at the clock and say, “Oh, its 5 p.m. We can talk to him or her tomorrow.”

Tomorrow may never come.