Beauty of the Norris: a special place for Wade Christiansen
“If he had had his pills over the weekend, there’s no doubt in my mind he would have lived,” said Matt Christiansen, 25, recalling his younger brother, Wade. On Tuesday, May 28, 2013, Wade Christiansen shot and killed himself on a street in Bozeman.
“Some say he was lucky in Afghanistan when the IED didn’t explode as planned. But lots of damaging elements followed. He survived that day, but the war killed him, a little each day. What happened to him was a result of that daybeing forced to take drugs, the extreme burdens of physical and emotional pain.” “He was always brave, always the active one,” continued Christiansen, recalling his brother from Red Lodge. “There was never any doubt that Wade would become a soldier. All through high school, he knew 100 percent he was going into the military. He was smart, too, becoming expert at military history, weapons and tactics. He is the first person I would want to have at my side in a conflict. Wade was going-that’s who he was.”
Wade enlisted in the Army. In 2009, at 20, he was deployed to Afghanistan as a Private First Class. He proudly joined the 82nd airborne as a paratrooper, his love and passion. In mid-January, 2010, Wade was walking on patrol in Afghanistan with fellow soldiers. He said they formed a straight line for their own safety, 15 feet apart. As they walked by a wall, a line of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s), exploded killing everyone in his line except Wade and a medic. The IED nearest him failed to explode. He was still badly injured, suffering substantial loss of his jawbone, facial disfigurement, loss of teeth, the sight in one eye and arm and neck injuries.
“I remember going to Walter Reed Hospital, right after the attack when he was taken back to the states.” said Matt, Wade’s only sibling, two years older. “I got there before my parents. They were coming from Billings and I was coming from Portland. I prepared myself for badbut that was…I was taken aback.” “His face was so swollen, disfigured. But Wade looked up, saw me and said, ‘Whassup?’” Wade hadn’t changed in his humor. “There were the same jokes; the same things we used to think were funny we continued to share.”
Operations replaced his jaw with titanium and rebuilt his face. “They did a remarkable job,” recalled Matt. “They gave him a special contact lens to make the injured eye appear normal but he didn’t care to wear it,” recalled Matt. During rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Wade received a call from an old high school friend from Red Lodge inviting him to join them in Montana with the Red Lodge nonprofit, Operation Second Chance (OSC). A week of activities had been planned for disabled veterans by veterans and volunteers to experience the best Montana had to offer.
He jumped at the chance, a typical response for anyone knowing Wade, a superb athlete and prizewinning snow boarder. With OSC, he rode horseback up the Stillwater River to Sioux Charlie Lake, ATV’d, fished and rafted. Wade reflected on that first trip, “It’s great to get away from all the treatment, the therapy and hospital atmosphere.” He was back in Montana, high in the mountains and reveling in it.
Then, he volunteered, becoming an advocate and spokesperson for OSC, helping other injured vets. “It was typical of Wade to want to do it,” said Matt. “He could no longer be active in the Army. The only alternative, a desk job, was unacceptable.” Instead, Wade obtained an honorable discharge based on his medical condition and was able to resume some of his active life by helping others readjust after the war in OSC activities in Montana. Restoring his sense of purpose was vital to his well-being, said Matt. “My family can’t thank OSC enough for the many ways it helped Wade.” He urged people to support OSC.
Wade was good at helping others as well, not just veterans. One woman had lost sight in one eye too. He inspired her by saying he refused to let it limit him. He stressed that he was grateful for having a second chance, and for all that he was still able to do. He never talked about the pain. Psychologist Dr. Alan J. Bauer, Billings, said that veterans returning often carry the guilt of survivorship. Comments like “I’m lucky” and the need to give back may be symptoms of burying that emotional pain. “War is the loss of innocence. There, you cannot restore, trust or process anger. You need a safe place to process that loss.”
Matt believed many events took their toll, not just one trauma. “He told me of one time being ordered to take the pulse of two friends just blown up. He had questioned, ‘Why?’ after seeing their bare remains. I can’t imagine that experience.” The scars of war continued to challenge Wade. He was in chronic facial pain and suffered PTSD. He was prescribed Oxycodone. Future surgeries offered slight hope for relief but he resigned himself to the present.
“Wade was always so careful not to make it about anybody else. He hated taking the drugs,” Matt shared. “You would not know how he was doing unless you actively inquired. He was always very self-sufficient and struggled to maintain it. We wanted to support him. It was a hard balance for everyone.” Wade saw a psychiatrist for a while but was judged stable and treatment ended. He enrolled in school in Bozeman, Montana State University, had a nice house and a lovely girlfriend, Grace. He was studying photography. Occasionally, he would try, unsuccessfully, to wean himself off drugs. From all appearances, he was healing and regaining his life.
On Memorial Day weekend, 2013, his prescription was late. This was not unusual according to Matt. There were often gaps in Wade’s medicine mail delivery during holidays. “You could drive to Billings in two hours if you needed them but once they’ve mailed them, which they had, you cannot get more,” Matt explained. He believes Wade experienced at least a day or two gap in his 3 pills/day dosage. He started to feel it.
“There should be some counseling when a soldier comes home for his family,” Matt reflected. “They should know what possible side effects may be-what to expect or look out for. We knew nothing.” Matt had moved in with his brother about six months earlier, returning home to Montana to spend time with family and friends. His parents knew only from experience that if there were a delay in his medication there would be a change in Wade. They did not know how serious it could be