Cleo DeLoner is a disabled combat veteran in Phoenix, AZ. I interviewed her on December 9, 2015. I'm presenting Cleo's story in its entirety (both in text and audio), so I'll let her introduce herself below.
TRIGGER WARNING: This is an extremely intense interview. If you're uncomfortable with themes of rape, child abuse, self-injury, military combat, PTSD, or discussion of violent suicide methods, please read with care.
Alright, well, my name is Cleo DeLoner. I'm 45 years old and originally from New Mexico in the Four Corners area. I was born in 1970, May 25, it was a rare, stormy evening on a Monday... No! 23:50 hours. 11:50pm.
Anyways, so, my mom was 18 when she had me, she already had two kids. She was a full-blood Hispanic, she married a Native American man, and so three of my siblings look very Native American. My youngest brother is full-blood Hispanic, he's six years younger than me, and I showed up white with blonde curly hair. I am the product of a rape, apparently by a white man.
She was an extreme abusive alcoholic, and I was a constant reminder to her of her trauma and you know, I was a human being, so she couldn't just lock me in a closet and forget about me. So she was extremely abusive and she took it out on me, you know, punching, slapping, kicking, you know, "I should have aborted you, I found you under a rock, I found you in a trash can, you're not my real kid."
My brothers and sisters learned very quickly that if they did anything wrong, they could blame it on me and I'd get the shit kicked out of me, even if I wasn't there. You know? At random times, she would just decide that I didn't get to eat dinner that night and I remember my sister sneaking in slices of bread to me at night in my room.
When I was three, my sister, she had seen my mom smoking and she wanted to see what it was like smoking. She was four. And my mom was outside hanging the wash on the clothesline and so my sister went into my mom's room and she took a cigarette and a book of matches and she took me by the hand and took me into the bathroom and she closed the door and she put the cigarette in her mouth like she saw my mom doing. And she's trying to strike the match, but she's four and it wasn't really working too well, and just as my mom came in—she heard the screen door slamming—she got the match lit. And she got scared and she dropped it into the trashcan and lit stuff on fire, the shower curtain on fire, so she blamed it on me, and so, to teach me a lesson to not play with fire, my mom sat me down and held me down and went through an entire book of matches one by one, lit each match of back of my left hand, through the whole book of matches.
I have a third degree burn scar here. It's covered up with a tattoo now, so you know. A couple of years ago I took a book of matches and I struck a match and I counted how long it took to burn out. About fifteen seconds, and there's twenty matches in a book, and so that's about five minutes of burning. And so I was terrified of fire, still am, actually, even though I smoke. I won't let many people light my cigarette, you know. Make sure it's completely out. She would make me light the gas stove because she knew I would be scared of the flame coming up, she would hold my hand over it and just, you know, stuff like that.
I was a bet wetter for a long time, because of the abuse, and apparently—I don't remember this—but my sister has told me that I was sexually abused and molested by one of our uncles on her dad's side, because he's not my dad. But when I would wake up in the morning and I would have pee-soaked underwear my mom would get just furious and she would make me take the underwear off and she would rub the pee-soaked underwear in my face, and she wouldn't let me wash my face. She'd make me go to school like that, no shower or anything, call me Pee Pot.
So I started learning if I get up early and hide my pee-soaked underwear and change them, you know, she won't know. So I would get up early and change my underwear and ball up the pee-soaked ones and hide them between the mattress and the wall. Of course the smell started getting pretty bad and she found my stash and I was severely punished, so also when I was three, you know, she was tired of waking up with a hangover on Sunday morning with four screaming kids, a different man coming out of her room every weekend. So she called all the local churches to see who ran a bus to pick up kids for Sunday School and church, and it was the First Southern Baptist Church.
So one Sunday she got me all dressed up with my little dress and did my long curly hair and I'm like, "Where am I going?"
She said, "You're going to church."
"Well, what church?"
"You'll find out when you get there."
So off I went to church and we were required to go to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night until either we turned eighteen or graduated from high school. Well over the years, I learned very quickly that my life was not normal and that not all adults beat the crap out of you and yell at you and stuff and so I started seeking parental figures and church became my safe haven and I looked forward to it. And as I grew up in the church and I accepted Christ at nine years old, became a Christian, started playing trumpet in the fifth grade at ten, so I would do solos at church and play in the orchestra and stuff. And it got to the point where if I got in trouble, she would ground me from church because she knew how much I loved it, and so she would punish me that way.
So as I grew in the church, you know, the deacons and the pastor learned about my childhood and my life and so on Saturdays they would come over and they would try to save my mom.
She'd be nice, she would invite them in, she'd offer them coffee, let them talk to her and she was like, "No thanks, I don't need your God, I don't need your Jesus. Please leave," and then I would get the shit kicked out of me for bringing the preacher man over.
I’m like, "Guys, you gotta stop, you don't understand. You’re not going to save her, first of all. And second of all, I'm getting the crap kicked out of me for you guys trying to do this."
So all through junior high and high school I played sports, baseball, ran track, played basketball, soccer was my love. Orchestra band, jazz band, concert band, marching band. I was a very gifted, talented trumpet player, so when I turned 18, I left to go to college in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is in southern New Mexico, about 40 miles from the border of El Paso, Texas. I was a criminal justice and sociology major and I was very involved in the Baptist student union and my church and the band. Marching band, jazz band, concert band, pep band, all that stuff.
I was extremely emotionally disturbed in college and I didn't really realize it until a couple of years ago I found my journal from college and you know, I'm talking about suicide all the time and self-injury.
I actually started cutting when I was 13 and I cut on my face, right below my right eye. The first time I cut, I remember me and my buddy were painting my bedroom blue and we had a bare light bulb and he had walked out of the room to get something and I was painting around the light bulb. Well, the paintbrush touched the bulb and it blew up, and for some reason, I just picked up the glass and just started slashing my face with it and my buddy came and said, "Oh my god what happened to your face?"
"Well, the light bulb exploded." True story. I'm not lying.
And that started my journey into self-injury and cutting. And it was such a relief, just this emotional release, you know you would rather feel physical pain than emotional pain and it became a constant thing and I would sometimes use my dog's claws, you know, on her paw.
“Oh yeah, I got scratched by my dog.”
All those excuses. You know, I know that so many people, when they cut, they generally cut in a place where it's hidden, where they can wear long sleeves or on the inside of their thighs, and it's always—was, at some point—a mystery as to why I would cut on my face where it was so obvious, but I think it was just my way of saying, "Hey, I'm hurting. I'm in pain. You know, somebody help me. I'm bad, here." But I would always make up excuses as to the cutting and so in college, I was cutting quite a bit and…
Motherfuck! Okay, that was not fucking hooah. That was huge. That was more than a backfire.
Des: What is that?
Cleo: That was an explosion. Ummmm, probably some high-powered fuel type fucking thing? So ummm, yeah we should hear sirens any time.
Cleo: Okay that's, really not cool. You think somebody called 911?
Des: I have no idea.
Cleo: I think I should call 911.
Cleo: I'm sure somebody has already, but uhh. Okay how do I get to the keypad, there it is. Do you know the address here?
Cleo: Squaw Peak Resort.
Des: I can go find it.
Cleo: Alright, pull it up real quick.
Des: Oh man.
Cleo: All operators are busy. You got the address?
Des: Not yet. Where the fuck is it?
Cleo, to 911: We are at the Point Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, we're at 7677 N. 16th St. Two massive explosions just occurred about ten seconds apart. I’m sorry, say again? 7677 N. 16th Street.
Des: Yeah. Yeah.
Cleo, to 911: Sure.
Cleo, to Des: She's getting the fire department on the line.
Des: I don't see anything.
Cleo, to Des: I don't see anything either. That's what's scary.
Cleo, to 911: 7677 N. 16th St. Two massive explosions just happened about ten seconds apart. I don't see any smoke, I don't see smoke. I don't see fire. One was just incredibly massive. Well I'm outside in the courtyard so I don't know about any kind of power being lost. It's a, uh... You know what? They seemed really close, probably 100 yards from me, maybe? Negative. I do not see smoke. Sure. Alright.
Cleo, to Des: She just said thank you.
Cleo: I know, right? What the fuck is this...
Des: I guess they're going to wait of more calls.
Cleo: Yeah, who knows.
Des: How often do you hear things like that at a hotel?
Cleo: That was massive. She said, "It could have been a transformer."
It looks a little hazy over there, you think?
Des: I don't know. Ugh. I don't think so.
Cleo: I don't know, I can't tell.
Cleo: Anyways, where were we? Do you remember? Oh, college.
Des: College, yes.
Cleo: Yeah, the self-harm. At some point, I started punching myself over and over and over in the right side of my face. Horrible shiner, swollen eye. I would slam my face into my desk in my dorm room.
I started doing counseling, I think, early on and, you know, one of the counselors I had was actually, at age 20, he was a Presbyterian minister and a social worker. After about six months of counseling we argued back and forth and we decided to sever the patient client relationship and become good friends, and that's what happened, and I got another therapist.
He invited me into his family, his wife was a psychologist and had two kids like seven, eight years old, and here we are 24 years later and we're still super close friends. He's my pseudo-father, as a matter of fact, he gave me away at my wedding. But anyways, so yeah, I was pretty much an emotional depressed suicidal wreck in college and I always wanted to be a police officer and I was too young to get into the police academy, you had to be 21. And so I was really bored with college and I wasn't doing that great anyway, so I joined the Army to be a military police soldier. I joined on my 21st birthday, I went into a recruiter’s office and I took the oath, and that October of '91, I shipped out to Ft. McCall, Alabama, for my basic training and my advanced individual training, which is military police school.
And it was tough, emotionally, mentally tough. It wasn't so physically tough because I was a fit athlete, I was very strong, could run really fast. So when I got done with MP school, my orders came down and I got ordered to Ft. Bliss, Texas, which was in El Paso, Texas, which was 40 miles from where I'd just spent the last 3 1/2 years in college. I was thinking Korea, Germany, you know. Hawaii. Someplace. I had been to El Paso numerous times, so there I was stuck in El Paso, Texas, and I just really embraced being a soldier and a warrior and just thrived, loved it. Loved my job, loved being a cop and in '92, Hurricane Andrew happened in Florida, and so...
Des: I lived through that.
Cleo: Our unit was deployed to Hurricane Andrew. I believe it was October of '92 and we were only out there for about a month, and I, you know, I want to make it abundantly—my memory's really bad because I have a traumatic brain injury, etcetera etcetera, but I'll get to that. But so I don't have a lot of recollection of my time in Hurricane Andrew. We were there only for a month but we did mostly traffic control because all the lights were out and stuff, and so we did a lot of traffic control.
We got back to Bliss and then the thing in Somalia, Africa, happened. It was a genocide on a Biblical scale, 300,000 dead in genocide. The warlord there was using starvation as a weapon and he was feeding his militia before women and children, and they were just slaughtering everybody and so, for the first time in history, you know, the world actually showed that it cared about the people in Somalia and George Bush Sr. addressed the American people in December of '92 and said he's authorizing US forces to go to Somalia. And so our unit was tasked to deploy out to Somalia, and we left in 12 January 1993 and the first American boots to hit the ground in Somalia was in December of 1992, ironically enough two days ago was the 23 year anniversary of the first American boots hitting their soil.
So we got in country in early January of '93 and, you know, the country was in shambles, in shambles. It was a quote-unquote "humanitarian mission," right? We were going there to feed the starving and save the country and I remember stepping off the plane and I was just suffocated by the heat. It was 130 degree weather out there and we were in full combat gear and being MPs, we wore bullet proof vests under our flack jackets so it was even more hot and I remember stepping off the plane and just being suffocated by the heat, I'm just just like, "Ugh," you know. Takes your breath away. I remember looking around, thinking, "Alright, this could be interesting."
It didn't hit me until they started issuing us live ammo, ammunition, hand grenades and real bullets and I'm like, "Oh shit. This is a real thing. I might have to kill somebody. I might get killed." You know?
I remember when we drove from the airport, which isn't like any kind of airport you would find here in the US, it was in shambles, the runway was almost all dirt, we had to land and it was a very rough landing, but in driving from the airport to the University of Mogadishu which, again, is not like a university that you and I would know here, but we drove through the city and the market place and the Somalis were everywhere and they were filthy. Their feet were filthy.
I remember hardly any of them had shoes and the streets were filthy, just strewn with trash and the Somalis were like, "America, America, cigarette, cigarette, water, water, America, water, water! We love you! Water, water, America!"
It was just, it was complete culture shock. You know, you don't see that kind of stuff here in the US unless, of course, you go into the slum of the slums of the major cities and so we get to the university and we had some downtime because the Somalis were cleaning out the areas we were going to be housed in. Once that was done, we set up our cots and our foot lockers and everything, very tight quarters, and we proceeded to work, digging trenches for latrines, bathrooms, showers, and so that first night in country, I hadn't been in there maybe twelve hours and we got in country at eight o'clock that morning.
That night, me and my gunner drew the motor pool guard, we had to guard all the vehicles, and we're sitting on the hood of the Humvee, leaning against the windshield. And he, I didn’t know the kid, and he didn't know me, and he's babbling about Dungeons and Dragons and his new wife, he was 20 years old, and I was 22. I was the highest ranking, he was just gabbing along and we hear a shot. Bam.
We look at each other like, "Is that an accidental discharge?" And then the shit just opened up, boom boom boom boom.
So we rolled off each side of the Humvee onto the ground and I called out to him underneath the Humvee.
I'm like, "Percy, are you okay?"
He's like, "Yeah, I'm good."
And the motor pool sergeant came out and he was wearing his Kevlar helmet, his flak jacket, his flip flops, shower shoes, his PT uniform, his t-shirt and shorts, and he had his M-16, it was the funniest thing.
He called out, he's like, "Who's out there?"
I told him and he says, "Come in, I'll cover you."
So I sent my gunner first, and he did three to five second rushes like we were trained, and got into the building. And then I did three to five second rushes and got into the building. Anytime we got any kind of fire, we would—everything was run on generators, because there was no electricity in this country, so we'd kill the generators and everything went to blackout, and it was black.
So the motor pool sergeant started asking me if I had the night vision goggles and I said, "Roger that, sir."
And he goes, "Well I want you to bring up security on the rear of this corridor."
I say, "Roger that."
So I'm walking down this corridor, I've got my M-16, you know, pointing it out and just as I come up to the very edge of the corridor this lieutenant, he was scared to death, he comes out with his 9mm pistol and he has it on my forehead and he's shaking so bad that the barrel of the gun is bouncing off my forehead, and he's like, "Freeze! Freeze!"
I’m like, "Don’t you fucking shoot, I'm an American! Don't you fucking shoot!"
He's like, “What's going on?"
I say, "I don't know, sir. Put your fucking weapon down. Put your weapon down and take cover."
He was just freaking out and I'm like, "Oh my god, I’m going to get shot by friendly fire my first day in country."
So I did the duck squatting position, put on my night vision goggles, and watched across the street. You could see soldiers doing 3-5 second rushes, going up the ladders into fighting positions on the roofs and stuff. We were in a blackout for about six hours, even though the fighting—the firing—had stopped long before. So that was my first night in country, and, you know, I don't remember a lot of my time in Somalia, again because of my memory.
I was there for four months and I do remember on our ninth day in country, we were doing a food convoy escort, 150 miles outside of Mogadishu. MPs work in 3 man teams and we have a driver, which I was, an alpha driver, an assistant driver, and we have a gunner. So I was a driver for a squad leader and they assigned us as the point vehicle, which is the vehicle that rides three or four miles ahead of the actual convoy to prevent ambushes. We have a backup vehicle, which is called a wing vehicle, which rides about 75 to 100 meters behind us.
So we're cruising along and we come around this slight curve in the road and there were three bandits, gunmen, Somali guys with AK-47s, and they were holding up a cattle car, what we call a cattle car. It's just a very large vehicle with about 80 Somalis clinging to them, we used to call them cling-ons. None of the vehicles had windshields to make more seating space for people, on the hood and all along the windshield area.
Anyways, they were robbing these civilians with AK-47 and they saw us and they just immediately opened fire on us and I stopped the vehicle and the first thing I did was get on the radio, "Halt the convo, halt convo, we're taking fire."
They’re like, "Say again."
I’m like, "Halt the convo, we're taking fire."
So they're shooting at us, we're shooting at them, the Somalis are screaming, the radio is going crazy, bullets are flying everywhere, it was complete and total fucking chaos. My gunner, in the terror, he had what's called Mark 19 Grenade Launcher weapon, and it's a belt-fed grenade launcher. You know how Rambo wears the ammo? That's a belt-fed M-60. It's grenades, they're 40 mm grenades. When one detonates, its kill zone is 50 meters. Everything within 50 meters is turned to dust. It has an internal clicking device. If it rotates so many times without impact, it'll detonate in midair, otherwise it'll detonate on impact. So we're firing and firing and firing, and I'm going left back, right, forward, trying to get into combat position to fight and my gunner launched three grenade rounds, downgrade, who knows what he destroyed, he was terrified. And then the weapon jammed.
I remember my squad leader yelling at Percy, "Get the 19 up, get the 19 up."
He goes, "It's jammed, Sarge!" He goes, "What do you mean it's fucking jammed? Are you trying to get us fucking killed?"
Our lieutenant and our platoon sergeant who were three and seven miles behind us, were arguing over the radio about what they were going to do to help us. Firefights don't generally last very long and there was nothing they could do to help us, and they were tying up the net, and I had no communication, no commo, with my wing vehicle. They couldn't see the gunmen, they thought we were taking fire from this group of civilians in this truck. And they were about ready to mow them down with an M-16.
So when I finally got the vehicle positioned on an angle like this, kind of the hardball into the sand, and my squad leader jumped on top of the roof of the Humvee and he's pulling back on the charging handle of the Mark 19 trying to release the grenade that was jammed, and he couldn't do it.
So we said, "Fuck it."
So he lays down on his stomach in the prone position and he's firing at the bad guys. My gunner is firing his 9 mil and he didn't have a hold of the weapon and it was slowly rotating in the turret because of the angle of the vehicle and just as my squad leader fired off a round, the ammo canon landed right in his line of fire and he fired a round through the ammo canon. Boom! Just a massive explosion, it rocked the Humvee back and forth like this. You know how big Humvees are.
I remember looking up and grabbing my gunner like, "What the fuck was that?"
It was just fucking chaos. There was about, a good three-minute span of time that none of us remember, but we didn't lose consciousness.
The next thing I remember is we cleared the area and I got onto the radio and I called the convoy, "All clear."
And another MP company had come towards us on the MSR, the main supply route, and I remember standing out in the middle of the road and talking to these other soldiers and we get to our relay point, where we drop off the convoy to another MP company, who's going to take it the rest of the way, deliver the food, come back, and we would take the empty convoy back to Mogadishu.
I remember my gunner, he came up to me and he's like, he couldn't even make a complete sentence. You know, this guy lived by a code of honor and he knew every weapon he had forward and backwards, upside-down, reversed mirrored, in his sleep, whatever, and he came up to me, he was white as a sheet and he's like, "Alive. We're alive. Mark 19. Explode. We're alive. Why are we alive?"
I remember grabbing him by the shirt and I said, "I don't know why we're fucking alive, just fucking deal with it," and I shoved him.
Our squad leader had talked to the explosive ordnance EOD and told him what happened, and they said, "Hey, why don't you go recover that ammo canon?"
Because the ammo canon, shredded metal and we threw it off the truck, off the Humvee, and the EODS, said, "Hey why don't you go recover that ammo canon?"
He goes, "Hey, why don't you go fuck yourself? I'm not going send my team back out there. I'll give you the coordinates and you guys can go recover it," so they did and they came back with this mangled metal, couldn't even identify what it was.
They told my squad leader like, "We don't know how you guys are alive. There must have been angels floating around your vehicle, because we should be picking you guys up with a Dust Buster. This doesn't make any sense at all."
So I think it was not even a couple weeks later, our mission was the gate security and like I said MPs work in [three]-man teams and so we would have two MPs at the main gate and the third MP was in what we call an over-watch position, which was about 75 yards back, and sitting in a Humvee with an automatic weapon behind sandbags and stuff and their job was to lay down suppressive fire if the main gate got overrun by the enemy. So our job at the gate was really just, if any vehicle was coming through the gate, if it was an American vehicle or one of our allies we just made sure that their weapon was secure, not loaded, because they're entering a secure compound. If it was a Somali vehicle that was coming on the compound to do work, we had to search it and search the Somalis.
So on this day, for some reason, my squad leader decided he wanted to just kind of take a break and he was going to be in the over-watch position which left me and my gunner at the main gate and again, I was the highest ranking, and so then there we are and we see this crowd of Somalis.
We actually heard them first, in their lingo, and we look and there's just this massive crowd coming towards us and we're like, “Holy shit, here we go, they're going to riot."
So I call on the radio to my sergeant in the over-watch position and I told him, "Standby, keep an eye. We've got a large group of natives approaching the gate."
And as it got closer, we could hear this god-awful scream, like I've never heard before. We quickly realized they didn't intend us any harm and they came up to the gate and the crowd kind of dispersed and in the middle of the crowd was this little 10 year old boy, well probably about 12, and he was on a wheelbarrow, and again not like a wheelbarrow like you and I would know. It was a slab of wood here and a slab of wood here with wooden handles, kind of a flat tires. He was on this wheelbarrow and he had his knees up to his chest, and he was shaking like this and he was just covered in blood and just screaming.
His little buddy was like, "American, American, doctor, doctor, please. American!" He was just crying and screaming and the kid was screaming and the Somalis [screaming].
I look down to find the source of the blood and I saw three wounds, his left heel was completely blown off and I mean just gone. The back of both his calves had a gaping hole probably about four inches long and two inches deep and about three inches deep and they were just blown out. From his heel, it was like muscle and bone and nerves and shit just hanging out, completely blown off.
So you know, in a situation like that, you have to assess very quickly to see, to treat the most severe wound.
I'm not a medic, so I don't carry medical supplies, but we do have a bandage that we carry, we carry on our person and so I put rubber gloves on and I got onto the radio and I called command: "Command, this is Main Gate, this is Main Gate, over."
They go, "Go ahead, Main Gate."
"Roger that, we need a medic at the Main Gate ASAP. I got a boy that's injured, he's bleeding out, he's going into shock, we need a medic now."
They're like, "Stand by, Main Gate."
So I took my field dressing out of my pack and I’m looking and I’m like, "Jesus, I don't know where to put the fucking dressing."
I assessed very quickly that it was the heel that was the worst off, so I bandaged the heel and I'm yelling at my gunner, "Give me your Field Dressing, give me your field dressing!"
And his eyes were like this, he just froze, he was in complete shock. I actually had to take his field dressing off his equipment and bandage up the little boy. The whole time, he's shaking like this, he's covered in blood, the screams, the screams, the screams, the screams.
We didn't have time to wait for a medic because this kid was going to bleed out, and so an American vehicle had approached the gate and we're like, "Hey, you gotta take this kid to the Swedish field hospital. He's not gonna make it."
The Swedes had the hospital there. So, boom, we load him up into the vehicle and just like that, he's out of my life, or so I thought.
He shows up in my nightmares. The screaming is what I can't handle. I can handle the blood and the gore. The screaming. I can't handle the fucking screams.
In my nightmares I can never, ever, ever, ever, ever get that bandage on his freaking foot.
You know, my doctors and therapists have told me over the years, “Clearly, in real life you did get the bandage on his foot and you saved his life.”
It's funny because people ask me, "Whatever happened to that kid?"
I don’t fucking know. It's not like I went and visited him in the hospital. I'm sure he at least lost his left leg, and a couple of years ago me and my gunner connected on Facebook.
We were talking about that day and I tell him, "You know people ask me all the time, ‘What happened to that kid?." I'm like, "I didn't go visit him in the hospital."
He goes, "We did go visit him in the hospital."
I said, "What?"
He goes, "Yeah, you're right. He lost his left leg, lost his left leg. We went to the Swedish hospital and visited him. We brought him some candy and some soda from the PX."
I’m like, "What? If you could show me a video of me visiting this kid in the Swedish Field Hospital, I still wouldn't believe you.”
Why would I block out that memory, versus the memory of the actual trauma of trying to take care of him and the screams and stuff? And I've come to the conclusion that it was because, at the time of the bandaging him up and trying to get him help, I was helping him, and when I saw him in the hospital, I felt guilty because I couldn't save his leg. And it's the only thing I can come up with. My therapist said, basically, confirmed that's probably why so.
Anyway, you know, who knows what the hell happened in Somalia after that. I don't remember a lot. A lot of convoys, a lot of security missions. We were working 18, 20 hour days, in full combat gear in 130 degree weather. Hunting them while they hunt us. So, you know, it was really... Somalia is a horrible, horrible place. It was considered the most dangerous place on earth at the time that we were there and it still is, to this day. It baffles me to think that I spent four months in the most dangerous place on earth and I got out alive. In all honesty, I don't know how any of us got out of there alive.
I don't know if you know, but later that year in October, the Battle of the Black Sea, which is commonly known to civilians as Black Hawk Down. If you've seen the movie, it's a true story. Where we lost 18 rangers in Delta, Delta Force, and had a POW, Michael Durant, who was captured after his chopper was shot down and held as a POW for eleven days. So that's, you know, I remember that day too. Devastating, to be honest. It's almost like it happened yesterday, when I found out they had our guy, one of our guys. I was emotionally wrecked and I was back in the states by then, had been for about five months when that battle took place.
But so shortly after I got back to Ft. Bliss, I was put on a task force and me and my partner, we patrolled residential areas on mountain bikes. Easier to sneak up on domestic disputes, burglaries, that kind of stuff, you know because you don't have the noise of the engine or the lights of a car. And I was losing it.
I didn't want to admit to myself, I think, that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had all the symptoms, the anger, the irritability, the rage, the flashbacks, the sleeplessness, all kinds of stuff. Depression, suicidal, homicidal, and it was really weird because, on three different occasions while we were on patrol I had, I guess, what would be considered trickery of the mind more than a hallucination, but we're patrolling through this residential neighborhood and there was this red kind of poinsettia plant on a brick wall in front of a door. But what I saw was a severed head and all of the junk hanging out. Look again and it's a plant. Another time, there was another basketball goal, one of those small plastic basketball goals for children, there was a red sweatshirt draped over it, but what I saw was a body impaled on a stick. Looked again, it's a sweatshirt. And then the third time, there was a group of soldiers in a back yard and they were sitting around a table and drinking beer, but what I saw was a group of soldiers that were bound and gagged. Look again, you know.
So I thought, "I'm fucking losing it."
At some point, apparently, I threatened to kill my partner and then kill myself.
I let my squad leader know what was going on with me and get into my barracks room one morning and it was like nine in the morning and he's like, "Hey, we need you to go talk to a doctor."
“Fuck you, I'm not gonna go talk to a doctor.”
He goes, "You know, if you don't come with me, I'm going to get the Commander."
I said, "I don't care, get the fucking Commander, I don't fucking care."
So about ten minutes later he shows up with my captain, my commander, and he's like, "You know, I need you to come with us."
"Fuck you, sir."
This is how rageful I was. You don't talk to an officer that way or any superior.
They said, "Well if you don't go with us, we're going to have you strapped down and you’re going to take you."
"Fine, can I take a fucking shower?"
So I took a shower and my squad leaders stood outside the latrine while I was taking a shower and they drove me to William Belmont Hospital and I sat down with a full-gird Colonel, psychiatrist, blah blah blah blah blah. I remember at some point he sat me outside in a chair outside his office and a little while later, I see three of my brother MPs walk in.
I'm like, “What are they here for?"
They're like, "We're going to take you to the psych ward and they’re here in case you give us any trouble."
“I'm not gonna disrespect my brothers, you know, I'll go.”
So they take me to the psych ward and take my clothes, put me in these pajamas, and there was a private, a female private, mental health tech, and she told me, she said, "Soldier, you're gonna have to take off your dog tags."
I said, "Fuck you, private."
I said, “The only way I'm take my dog tags off is if I'm having sex, and I'm not going to have sex in here, I'm a soldier 24/7, I don't take my dog tags off,” so I told her to fuck off.
So I went into my room and there was a camera in my room and I flipped it off and I was hungry because I'd been up since nine, they hadn't fed me and I came out of my room and I said, "What the fuck is a fucking soldier supposed to do around this fucking place to get some fucking chow?"
And this major, female major nurse, she says, "Soldier, chow is served at 17:30, it'll be brought to your room."
I say, "Fine, fuck you!"
I go back in my room, flipping off the cameras. A little while later I hear a knock at my door and I look up and there's this man standing there, and he's a patient. He had an apple and a cookies 'n cream Hershey bar.
Like, "Oh, thanks!" Chowing down.
He became my best buddy in there. He said something to me that scared me to death and still, even frightens me to this day when I think about this. You gotta remember this was in '94. He did two tours of Vietnam and he was a police officer for twenty years, so you can only imagine what he has seen.
He said to me, "You know, Cleo, of all the stuff I saw in Vietnam in two tours, and all the stuff I saw as a police officer for 20 years," he goes, "I've never seen so much violence and hatred in somebody's eyes as I see in yours."
That terrified me. And I’m like, "Really?" And that's when I really started questioning my sanity, I'm like, "You know this guy has seen some stuff and if he sees that violence and hatred in my eyes, there is something really, really wrong with me."
I don't remember how long I was inpatient, but I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar which is a bullshit diagnosis, and because I was diagnosed, I wasn't authorized to carry a weapon. And I was an MP. You have to carry a weapon as an MP.
My first sergeant knew that I was a trumpet player, so he had me try out for the 62nd Army Band, so I got attached to the 62nd Army Band, spent with them for my last 3 1/2 months in the army. I was a bugler for military funerals. I played Taps. Five days a week, I would play three or four or five, six funerals a day. Ft. Bliss, El Paso, is a very big retirement community for veterans because of the weather and the military installation, so a lot of elderly people—veterans—dying off. So they take this combat vet with PTSD and put them in a cemetery, playing the saddest song in the freaking world, you know?
So I get out of the army and I was accepted into police academy in, of all places, Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I was in college, where I wanted to be anyway. So I was out of the army for about three days and started the police academy. I had been doing the testing and the training and stuff. Application process throughout, so I started the police academy, and I was in the academy. I was the only female, and about six months in to being a cop I got fired for mental instability. They knew I had PTSD when I came in. So the sheriff’s department picked me up as a deputy, and spent six months with them, got fired for mental instability. All I knew was law enforcement, so everything gets really fuzzy at this point.
I believe I moved back up to northern New Mexico and piddled around for a while. At some point I came to Phoenix and was working for a security company, where I met my husband. We moved back to New Mexico, I got a job at a Wal-Mart, working loss prevention. Working undercover, catching shoplifters, best freaking job ever. My husband worked as a security officer at a casino and, a little over two years in, got fired for mental instability.
My husband had a heart attack and this would have been... we got married in '97, so I guess he had his heart attack in '98 or '99, and so we moved to Michigan, which is where he is from, to be closer to his family. So we got to Michigan, very small town, and I got a job as a corrections officer at the county jail, which I loved. Spent a couple of years there, fired for mental instability. Ended up going to the corrections academy for the state, eighteen week academy and became a corrections officer for a state prison. Worked there for six months, I actually quit that job.
I saw the officers there, who'd been there 7, 10, 12 years, acting like convicts, walking like convicts, talking like convicts and I'm like, "I'm not going to get institutionalized."
So I walked away from that job, and so all this time, it had been nine years since I had been home from Somalia. I had all the symptoms of PTSD, hardly ever slept, did as much overtime as I could. I thought I was too tough a cop, too tough a soldier, to have any problems. I hadn't cut for six years, and that was over the course of having met my husband and stuff, and I started cutting again. The depression was in full swing. Flashbacks, nightmares. It was a horrible existence.
So on 24 June of 2002, woke up, did the coffee and smoked, checked my email, piddled around, I remember playing solitaire almost all day long on my computer. It was about 4:30 that evening, that afternoon, I decided, “I’m going to kill myself."
And about 5:00, a little after five, I walked into the living room, my husband was asleep on the recliner in just a pair of denim shorts—no shirt, no shoes. I walked quietly over to the corner, I picked up my 22 rifle and my banana magazine. I walked quietly to the door and opened the door and he woke up.
He said, "Where are you going?"
I said, "I'm going to the river."
He said, "What are you going to shoot at the river?"
I didn't say anything, I just left.
There should have been red flags flying everywhere, because I’m not just the type of person who just leaves with a rifle. I don't go off and shoot things.
So I get in my vehicle, it was a king-cab Nissan pickup, put the rifle in the king-cab and I drive about fifteen miles to the Pine River. I back my truck up to the bank of the river, drop the tailgate, I get my rifle and the magazine, set it on the tailgate, I sit on the tailgate. Get the rifle and the magazine sitting to my right. Smoke a cigarette. I got my tape player in my truck playing. There was no CDs back then. I was wearing a—my hair was really long there, I had a ponytail—I was wearing a Colorado Rockies baseball cap. Ponytail was through the back. I was wearing my favorite Scooby Doo t-shirt, baby blue denim shorts and flip-flops.
I had a cigarette. I had one of those charm lollipops, with the bubblegum in the middle? Bonus, you're done with the lollipop and you get gum? Right. The dispatcher's son at the sheriff's office had given it to me. He was like nine years old. I remember it was cherry flavor. So I eat the lollipop, chewing on the gum, smoke another cigarette.
And I just said to myself, "It's time."
I took my headgear off, set it on the left. Took my sunglasses off, set it on the left. Picked up the rifle, put the magazine, locked and loaded a round, took it off safe, put it to my face where I always cut, pulled the trigger. Boom. Just like that.
I didn't sit there, cry and hold the gun to my head and pray and think about this and think about that. Nope. It was 1-2-3-4.
Boom boom boom boom. BOOM.
And the impact threw me back, and then I came forward and the weapon went flying out of my hands, and there was blood from my eye, my nose, my mouth, my face, my ear. I came off the tailgate, and my equilibrium was off and, at the time I didn't know why, but later I found out the bullet fragment a lot of them exited my ear. It was a hollow point, by the way. And so I come off the tailgate and I try to walk a little bit and my equilibrium is off, just bleeding profusely.
I remember thinking, "I did it. I pulled the trigg—-holy shit. I’m still alive. I can still feel and think and hear. I gotta do it again. Where's the rifle? Where's my face?"
I still had that bubblegum in my mouth and I had all this blood and I remember thinking, "I'm gonna choke on this fucking bubblegum,” and I spit it out.
People are like, "You just shot yourself in the head and you’re worried about choking on bubblegum?"
Do you know how many people die from choking on bubblegum a year? I know, right? It's funny. I try to use a little humor in this.
Des: You gotta.
Cleo: Right. So I'm looking for the gun and I can't find the gun. I’m bleeding everywhere and the noise was just incredibly obnoxious and I walk over to the passenger's side of my truck, about seven yards away from it, and I collapsed to my knees and a pool of blood just forms and then I fall to my stomach. And I could see the road about 25 meters out in front of me, and ironically enough, I crawled much like a wounded soldier on a battlefield. And I stood up, I walked around the front of my truck to the driver's side, and I saw my reflection in the window. And my face was out to here, big as a basketball.
I was like, "Ugh."
So I opened the door, I pushed the seat forward, I reached in the king-cab area, I pick up my military rain coat, I ball it up, and I put it to my face.
I remember thinking, "You idiot. This is a repellant of liquid, not an absorbent of liquid."
So I throw it into the back of the truck. Walk around to the tailgate and I see the rifle in the grass on the bank of the river. I pick it up and it just slipped through my hands because of all the blood, I was covered from head to toe. Pick it up again, cradle it in my arms, and I set it in the back of the truck and I close the tailgate. Walk back to the driver's side, put the seat back, get in and close the door, just the seat, put my seatbelt on, because I’m a law-abiding citizen.
I start the truck, I drive to the dirt road, turn right, drive about a half mile to a stop sign, I stop. Because I’m a law-abiding citizen, I turn left because I know that's towards town, right. I drive about a half mile and this noise is just completely obnoxious, and I’m very very weak, I'm losing an incredible amount of blood.
I see this woman walking down the road and I thought she was an angel. I thought I was hallucinating. I had been to this river hundreds of times playing my guitar, fishing, writing, smoking, whatever. Never seen another soul, ever. And on this day at this time, this woman's walking down the road and I’m shocked. I stop the vehicle, put it in neutral, put the emergency brake on, take my seatbelt off, turn the tape player off, reach over, unlock the passenger door.
I open the driver door, I stumble out, and I'm walking towards all askew like a zombie and I said, "Can you help me?"
And she said, "Oh my god, what happened?"
I said, "I shot myself."
She's like, "Oh my God, why?"
I said, "Listen, you’re going to have to drive.”
And I turned around I walked to the passenger's side and she didn't hesitate a second. She got right in the truck and there was blood all over the door panel and the seat and the steering wheel. I get in, close the door, put my seat belt on, she puts her seat belt on, she takes the emergency brake off and she's fumbling with the gear shift.
I said "Do you know how to drive a stick?"
And she said, "Yeah, I'm just nervous!"
And I’m thinking, "Oh my god I’m going to have to shift for her!"
And we start driving and I pull the visor down which has a mirror and I saw my reflection in the mirror and it was devastating and I went, "Ugh."
I pushed the mirror back up and I put my head back on the headrest and I closed my eyes and she says, "What's your name?"
I say, "Cleo."
She goes, "Cleo. Stay awake. Stay awake, keep talking to me. Stay awake."
I said, "I'm tired. I’m tired."
She goes, "Cleo, why would you do something like this? Don’t you have kids?"
I said, "Fuck no, wouldn't bring up kids in this fucked up world."
I remember we were passing all these houses, we're out in the country, and I remember asking her, "Aren't you going to stop and call 911?"
She says, "No, I'm getting you to the Pine River Store."
So we pull into the parking lot of this convenience store, and it's packed with people because they're buying all their fishing gear for night fishing. Now the call came, the 911 came in, at 1 minute to 7pm. 6:59pm. We pull in, she jumps out, I open the door.
She runs over to me—she says, "Stay sitting."
I said, "I wanna get out."
So I'm holding the side of my truck, guiding myself to the tailgate, lean against the tailgate and the bumper and sit down on the ground leaning against the bumper while she's inside calling 911. This woman runs over to me, she throws a blanket over me.
I'm like, "I'm not cold!"
I threw the blanket.
She goes, "I don't want the kids to see all this blood."
I still have that blanket to this day.
This man came up, this older gentleman, he put his foot on my bumper and he's like this on his knee, and he looks down at me and goes, "What's your name?"
He goes, "How old are you, Cleo?"
He goes, "Why would you do something like this, Cleo?"
I said, "Who are you?"
He goes, "Oh, I'm Bob."
"What are you Bob, a fucking reporter?"
His buddy's like, "Leave her alone, leave her alone until the cops get here."
So I'm sitting there, it's still light, I said the call came in at 6:59pm. At 7pm, a minute later, the first deputies arrived on scene and they're personal friends of mine because I worked at the sheriff’s office. I couldn't see out of the side of my right side because it was swollen shut, just blown out.
And so Brian came round and I saw Brian and I said, "Hey, Bri Bri."
And he’s like, "Oh my god Cleo, is that you?" And he just collapsed to his knees and he put on these blue rubber gloves, like, "Oh my god, oh my god, something happen with Dennis?"
"No, Bri-Bri, I just wanted to die."
He said, "Oh my god."
I saw Mark walk by. I said, "Mark, you gotta secure the weapon. There's a round in the chamber, it's not safe, you gotta secure the weapon."
He's like, "Don't worry Cleo, I'll take care of the weapon, just listen to Brian."
I’m still thinking military, police, you know, safety. And so the ambulance shows up a minute later and they didn't know where the bullet had existed so they put a c-collar on me and put me on a board. My blood pressure was like 80 over nothing. They started an IV. They couldn't put the oxygen mask on my face because it was blown out so they had to hold it kind of skewed for me to get oxygen. And the noise, again, was still, you know, obnoxious.
So they got me in the ambulance and I remember seeing all the bright lights. I couldn't hear anybody. I couldn't hear out of this ear and I could see their mouths moving. They were panicked, and I couldn't say anything because they were holding the mask. So they're flying Code 3 lights and sirens to the hospital, and this poor medic. It was her first trauma call. She was young.
En route to the hospital she says, "I have to put a tube down your throat, your blood pressure's dropping."
I said, "Fuck you, you're not touching me. I know what that is, that's life support. I’m conscious. I'm alert, I'm talking. Get the fuck away from me."
I was very combative, I was just full of rage. So they get me to the emergency room, they cut off my shirt and my bra—my favorite Scooby shirt.
One of my deputies was my husband's cousin. And he had come on scene and saw that it was me, so he ran lights and sirens to my house, ran into the house and he told my husband and said, "Get your shirt and your shoes on, your wife just shot herself."
I can't imagine what that was like for [my husband].
I remember him walking into the emergency room and looking at me laying there and he was just like, "Why would you do something like this, Cleo?"
I said, "Don't you fucking start with me."
This is the third person who's asked me this in the course of what, 15, 20 minutes? So they thought all the bones in my face were shattered and they were going to have to do reconstructive facial surgery so they were going to transport me to Saginaw, Michigan, 40 miles away to a St. Mary's Hospital.
My husband said, "Well, I’m going to go with you."
I said, "No, you’re not going to come with me. Just go home and call my brother in Arizona."
So they transport me to St. Mary's and we pull up to the emergency room and the nurses are rushing out to help the paramedics get me and one of the nurses said, she goes, "Wow, you’re our most popular patient and you're not even here yet."
I said, "What the fuck you talking about?"
She said, "The phone's been ringing off the hook for you."
I was like, “Who the fuck is calling me?”
They put me in this glass room.
Nurse says, "You want me to bring the phone in?"
I said, "Sure." So she brings the phone in.
I said, "Hello?"
It was my little brother, and we were very, very close at the time, he's six years younger than me. Toughest guy I've known and he was bawling.
He says, "Why would you do something like this Cleo? You’re my rock. What would I do without you?" He goes, "This is the worst day of my life."
I go, "This was a pretty good day for me too."
He goes, "Did [your husband] do this?"
I started laughing and I’m like, "What? [My husband] wouldn't have the balls to do something like this."
He goes, "I don't believe you. You would never do something like this, you’re way too strong.”
He goes, “I'm coming down there."
I go, "You don't need to come down here, spend the money, leave work. You just—I'll be fine."
He goes, "I'm coming down there and you’re going to look me in the eyes and tell me you did this."
So, by this time, my head was all wrapped up in a very bizarre way because the wound's here below my right eye, and they have to keep mynose and my mouth free so I can breathe. Blood was matted, I mean, I wasn't cleaned up, it was all in my fingernails, between my fingers.
My best friend, who's a deputy, and his name was the same as my younger brother, he was off that day. And I knew he was off.
What I didn't know what he was en route to my house, but he didn't call and say, "Hey, I’m coming over."
He had stopped at the convenience store to buy a can of chew and a bottle of water and he met up with a buddy and they decided to go throw a line in the water. So he never made it to my house. Had he got there before? Would I have done it the next day? Would I have ever done it? Who knows. Probably not even relevant.
So dispatch immediately called him once they found out who the victim was and initially he was like, "Fuck her. She's my best friend. I'm not going to go see her. She wants to go out like this, she won't even fucking talk to me, fuck her." And then he broke down crying, and then got angry, and then he broke down. He said, "Well, she is my best friend, I'm going to go see her."
So he walked into the emergency room a little after midnight. I'm sitting up in the bed, my head's all wrapped up weirdly, and I’m eating a chicken salad sandwich and he walks in ands says, "You're eating?"
I said, "Yeah."
He goes, "How could you eat?"
I said, "I'm hungry, I haven't eaten all day."
He goes, "What the fuck?"
I said, "What do you want me to do, what do you want me to say?"
He goes, "That hurt?"
I said, "Yeah."
He goes, "Good!"
I said, "That's fair."
And then he looked me dead in the eyes and he said something to me that just drove a knife through my heart and I’ll never forget it to this day, and for that split-second, what I saw in my best friend's eyes was confusion, hurt, pain, anger, sorrow. He looked me dead in the eye, he said, "What happened to my friend? I just want my friend back."
It was the only time in the 13 years and six months whatever it's been, yeah six months, 13 years and six months, that I ever feel guilty about shooting myself. There’s actually a piece in my book called, "I just want my friend back.” It's dedicated to him, and so I don't remember, it couldnt've been the next day because my brother couldnt've gotten there that fast, so it was probably the day after. Him and my younger brother—my two youngest brothers lived here in Arizona—they flew to Chicago. My oldest brother lived in Wisconsin, he drove to Chicago, picked them up, and they drove to Michigan and they were smoking dope, you know. They were discussing how they were going to kill [my husband], because they said they thought [he] did this. And they had a video recorder and they were going to record him publicly apologizing to me, and then they were going to murder him on tape.
See, everybody in my life thinks I'm so strong, you know, because I went through the child abuse and the military and the combat and, "Cleo would never do something. She's way too strong!"
So I get up that morning and I got my IV pulled and I went into the bathroom and I used the bathroom and then I had this bright idea to brush my teeth which didn't work too well because my face was blown out, so I gave up.
I walked outside the bathroom into my room and all three of my brothers were standing there and I said, "What the fuck are you guys doing here?"
I crawled back into my bed and my younger brother goes, "Holy shit, I've got a lot more respect for 22s."
And my oldest brother is like, "Holllly shiiiit."
And my youngest brother was like, "Fuckin’ A!" He looks and me and goes, "Did you do this?"
I looked him dead in the eye and I said, "Yeah, I did this."
And he says, "What the fuck?"
“What do you want me to say?”
What do you say? Imagine my surprise when I realize I was alive, when the gun, when I shot myself. That I was going to face all these people? You never think you're going to face them when you attempt suicide. You got some 'splainin' to do! They got me on video, the doctors, the nurses, wouldn't let them photograph me or videotape me for about six days because the damage was just too extensive, so they got me on video, apparently, at some point.
There is actually a video of them back at my house and my brother is sitting at our kitchen table and he's got my rings and my watch and my POW-MIA bracelet and my dog tags and he's cleaning the blood off of them with q-tips and alcohol pads and they brought them back to me in the hospital. But they couldn't clean the blood out of the truck, they couldn't face that at all. I've only seen this video for the first time two years ago. My brother refused to let me see it, but he finally broke down and gave it to me a couple years ago. It's pretty remarkable.
So, at that point, obviously, the next stop is the psych ward. My best friend, she was a childhood friend, we went to college together and stuff, she lived in Chicago and she had come down that night. She drove me to Ann Arbor to the VA and I walked onto the ward and the bullet hole is right here, you can kinda see an indentation there. And it was bleeding profusely for like two weeks, I had to carry Kleenex around with me because it just bled constantly. They hadn't cleaned me up completely. I mean, I had taken a shower, I couldn't figure out why my ear hurt and my ear still had a lot of blood caked onto it.
The psychiatrist told the nurses, “You get this soldier cleaned up right now.”
They sat me in a chair and they started cleaning my ear with alcohol and a cotton ball.
And there was a patient there saying, "Look, there's a hole, there's a hole!"
And that's when I first knew that a lot of the fragments had exited my ear. If you can see here, you see the scars from the shrapnel? It went out the bowl of the ear right there. So a hollow point expands and spreads, so all the bones in the right side of my face were broke, they were clean breaks.
I spent, geez, four and a half months in the psych ward and they didn't even know how to treat me. I was so sick, I was so symptomatic. Their only goal was to keep me alive. Of course, they put me on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. I had my own room, I was the only female on the ward, had a camera, of course. Couldn't get your privileges for three days to go out and smoke and wear your civilian clothes. I never got mine for six days because I was considered a high risk and always had to have an escort.
Over the course of the next year, I was in and out of the hospital. I'd be out for two weeks and back in. Out, in, out, in. I was doing 30-45 days at a time. I was heavily medicated.
When I got out the first time, I drove back to that convenience store. I remember it was raining really hard.
I ran into the store, I said to the clerk, I said, "You remember about four and a half months ago someone was brought in here who had shot themself?"
She goes, "Oh, yeah it, was you. Hi, Cleo."
I go, "You know me?"
She goes, "Yeah, I'm the one who put the blanket on you."
I go, "Yeah you probably don't want that blanket back." I said, "Hey, you wouldn't happen to know the name of the lady who brought me here, would you?"
She goes, "Yeah, she works right across the street at that school for the developmentally disabled."
So I drove over there, I run in the building, I see this lady and I go, "I'm looking for [name]."
She goes, "Hi Cleo. [It’s me]."
I'm like, "You recognize me?"
She goes, "Yeah. I've been keeping up with your progress through the deputies and stuff."
I said, "Can I ask you something? I've been to this river hundreds of times and I’ve never seen anybody.” I said, “What were you doing that day? What were you doing out there?"
She goes, "You know, I was walking towards my friend's house. We were walking towards each other, to meet each other. It's a good thing you ran into me instead of her because her husband shot and killed himself and she would've never been able to handle it."
I was thinking, "God, this is insane,” you know?
So I thanked her, we talked briefly, and I have no recollection of that.
My truck had been sitting there for months, splattered with blood. My brothers couldn't handle cleaning it up, so I called my buddy, who was my father figure, about seventy years old.
I said, "Hey, can you do me a favor?"
He's like, "Sure."
I said, "Can you help me clean the blood out of my truck?"
He goes, "Yeah, bring it over!"
So I drove over to his house, we get a bucket of soapy water, sponges, hose. Scrubbed it, we couldn't get it out of the seat, you know. It was cloth, had to get seat covers, but we got the majority of it out.
I divorced my husband. I didn't want to put him through this emotional merry-go-round rollercoaster that I was on. I knew that it was going to be many hospitalizations, breakdowns, probably more suicide attempts, so I divorced him and moved to Bay City, about 40 miles south of that, and stayed there in an apartment.
I was in and out of the hospital. Tons of medication. They tried DBT, EMDR, tried all that on me, didn't work. Tried to hypnotize me, didn't work. I was just incredibly sick, so they diagnosed me with severe posttraumatic stress disorder.
I left Michigan in, I believe, 2003, and I moved out here to Arizona. I had got my social security disability within two months of the shooting and I had applied for my military disability. I got the military disability, I think, in 2004. I bought a house and a vehicle here in Arizona and that's where I’ve been ever since.
Since the shooting, I’ve been hospitalized 32 times in psych wards, some court-ordered, every medication known to man, my best friend was Haldol. Had a couple psychotic breaks. I had two more suicide attempts in 2009. I tried by carbon monoxide. Loaded my dogs in the same truck that I shot myself in. Sat there for like 45 minutes my eyes are, you know, running, my nose is running, everything's burning.
I said, "Geez, how long does this carbon monoxide thing take?"
I get out of the truck and the cloth had fallen out, so I just gave up. I didn't get hospitalized for that. I didn't even hardly tell anybody about that one.
Then, in 2010, so five years ago a little over five years ago, March 23, I OD'd on 90 Ativan tranquilizers and was rushed to the hospital and woke up three days later in the hospital. That was my last suicide attempt.
In 2008, I had been hospitalized numerous times, was in therapy twice a week, back and forth to the VA constantly, tons of medication, but I wasn't getting any better. I wasn’t even maintaining, and the doctors at the VA decided that the medications weren't working so the last resort for depression and suicide is ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, electroshock therapy. So they shocked my brain three times a week for six months. I've had 180 shock treatments to my brain and all it really succeeded in doing is shredding my memory. It wasn't working. It didn't work. It made me more paranoid. I got suicidal halfway through the treatments and had to be put in the psych ward right here in Scottsdale, actually.
It wasn't getting better. I was literally living in the dark. I would lay in my bed in the dark for hours, just thinking of ways to hurt myself and kill myself and I was just... that emotional distress is just beyond my ability to describe that kind of pain. You know? It hurts, it hurts, hurts.
I started going back to church and got involved in my church in Celebrate Recovery and was giving from my testimony, reading from my book. There was a time that I didn't leave my house except on Tuesdays to go to therapy. I was so bad that I was having my groceries delivered, I had my groceries delivered for over a year. I was scared to leave, I was super paranoid. Before I would walk out my back door to smoke in my yard I would check my neighbor's roof for snipers. I was just wrecked. I was wrecked. I was not functioning, I was not participating in my life at all. I was heavily medicated on the Ativan, which would knock me out for 12-14 hours. I’d be awake maybe eight hours, back to sleep. No energy, lethargic, super depressed, cutting, cutting, cutting. Several times a week. You know, it was just... it was out of control.
I can't even describe that pit of darkness that I existed in. I was just enveloped, you know, by the darkness. It had its claws in me and all I wanted to do was die. It's all I thought about. At some point, and I’ll never do this again, I called the suicide hotline.
I wasn’t doing very well, but apparently I was part of some mental health program, and by this time I had been training in Kenpo karate, and I was a green belt. Kenpo is a very violent, aggressive art.
They knew my history and instead of sending help, I'm sitting there on my couch and my phone rings, like, "Hello?"
The guy says, "Hey, this is Officer So and So from Mesa Police Department."
I said, "Alright."
He goes, "How you doing?"
I say, "I'm doing fine."
He goes, "Let me ask you something. Do you have any weapons in the house?"
I say, "Yes, sir. I have a 380 automatic."
He says, "Where is it?"
I said, "It's unloaded in a gun case in my closet."
He goes, "Okay. Hey would you mind stepping outside for me?"
I'm like, "Sure."
I open my door and I step outside and there's a SWAT team out there.
I mean, I'm talking the van, the SWAT van, 8 patrol cars and they got shotguns and M-16 and pistols pointed at me and they're screaming, "Get down, get down, get down, get down!"
So I got down on my stomach, you know, spread eagle.
And like four officers, you know, one on my neck, one my hip, they're cuffing me and I’m like, "What the fuck is going on?" And they said, "The doctor wants to talk to you."
“You send a SWAT team for a suicidal person?”
They said, "Well you know, with your combat experience and military police, police—civilian law enforcement, corrections, and martial artist, you're the kind of person that could really fuck us up, so we're not taking any chances with you."
So they send me to some civilian psych ward and my cousin called my therapist the next day and he got me out of there within in an hour.
He said, "What the fuck are you guys doing, pulling M-16s and shotguns on a PTSD combat vet? What's wrong with you people?"
I’ll never call a suicide hotline again.
The local police know my history, have been to my house a couple of times, and they told me, "Anytime we come here, just so you know, there's going to be a lot of cops and a lot of guns,” because I'm the type of person with all my training that could, you know... I would never disrespect my brothers and sisters in blue. Why would you think I would do that? You know, I mean short of a psychotic break, you know, when I wasn't even in control, maybe, you know, but so I just, that's not going to happen again.
So anyways, uh, yeah. I got involved in the Warrior Fighter community on Facebook, a military veteran community and I continued to write. I'm a writer, I'm an author, that's my catharsis. I purge onto paper. Every word that I write is drop of blood from my tortured soul, you know, and so I published a couple of books and I traveled around the country doing speaking engagements, talking about suicide prevention and awareness and PTSD.
I have a traumatic brain injury from the explosion in Somalia, from the gunshot and, obviously, 180 shock treatments probably didn't help so that's why my memory is so, so bad. But earlier this year, in January, my manager, she's the one who gets me all my speaking gigs, she lives in South Carolina, she called me up and told me about this PTSD TBI treatment program in Bethesda, Maryland.
I went out there in February. I stayed there in a hotel for sixty days and I did three treatments a week. It's bio feedback and they just put electrodes on your head, you sit there for four minutes, completely quiet with your eyes closed. That's it. You don't have to talk about your trauma, it's non-invasive, there's no pain. And basically, what happens is, it causes the synapses to fire and communicate and it heals the broken part of the brain. Basically regenerates it. Takes all of the noise out.
Basically, the doctor explained it to me, she said, "Think about a game going on inside your head, and since your traumatic brain injury, half the team's been on the bench. So when the synapses communicate and it restores it, now all the players are in the game."
So my brain has been restored. About four years ago, I woke up with a Boston accent. Never been to Boston before. Never. People from Boston thought I was from Boston. It's called Foreign Accent Syndrome, a result of a TBI that can manifest years later. Then I woke up with a stutter. So I was a stuttering Boston accent and I feel like I speak pretty well, so now I have this speech impediment with this accent. Foreign Accent Syndrome, I researched it, it's very rare. So I show up to Maryland with a Boston accent, stuttering. All these horrible severe PTSD TBI symptoms, and after the first treatment, the stutter was gone. After the second treatment, the accent was gone. And throughout the course of the 25 treatments I did in the 60 days, all my symptoms are gone. I haven't had a single nightmare, no flashback, no suicidal ideations, no depression. The quality of sleep I get? Phenomenal.
I weaned myself off all my psych meds in March while I was in the hotel room, so I'm psych-med free since March, and I had been on it for 13 years, heavily dosed. No anger, no rage, no irritability, no paranoia. It's gone. Everything’s gone. All the hurt and all the pain that I've endured for 45 years, gone. Gone.
It's like God reached down and put his hand on my shoulder and said, "There you go kid. Try again." God chose to heal me. He took it all away. Everything.
I got back 31 March, I saw my therapist who I’d been with for 4 1/2 years. I saw him twice for debriefing sessions, so now I haven't been in therapy since April. First time in 13 years that I haven't been in therapy, that I haven't been on psych meds.
All the symptoms are gone. For years I was just full of rage and anger, I thought the gun was a sure thing, you know? I was so pissed that God didn't let me die.
I'm like, "Really, dude? I shoot myself in the head?"
So, for a lot of years, I was just full of this rage and anger and probably my worst symptom other than suicidal ideations was my irritability, and I just feel for the people that are in my life, walking on eggshells all the time around me. I didn't know when I was going to go off. Stupid shit, little shit. My sister-in-law put a pack of crackers on my counter, I put her in a head lock and was attacking her. I don't remember it, but my family's told me about it. My brother had to pull me off, you know, stuff like that.
And so all of this stuff is gone. I have been symptom free since probably mid-March and it's amazing. I've been on this road of now discovery of who the not-sick Cleo is. For a long time after the treatment, there was a little part in the back of my mind waiting for the other boot to drop—symptoms are going to come back—but short of another traumatic event or TBI, the symptoms aren't going to come back. I'm healed. I'm like, truly healed.
One of the interesting things, you know, I know a lot of people don't believe in God and that's up to them, but there was a series of miracles that happened that day when I shot myself. One, I never lost consciousness. Some people take a punch to the face and they're out for the ten-count. I was able to drive, that woman was walking down the road. What?
Two years ago, I went and saw a plastic surgeon at the VA to remove the shrapnel from my face because it gives me a lot of pain. I walked in his office and he had my CT scan up on his screen.
It was just lit up like the night sky and he goes, "Let's count these bullet fragments."
We stopped counting at 60. So I have over 60 bullet fragments in my face.
He said, “You know, if I cut your face...” He goes, "First of all, I can't locate all the shrapnel because they're on different layers of your skin, some all the way down on your bone,” in the cartilage of my ear. He said, "If I cut your face, there's a 100% chance I’ll cut a nerve and a muscle which will leave your face paralyzed, you won't be able to open your right eye and the right side of your mouth will droop."
"Well, answer me this, Doc. How did the initial 60 fragments go through my face without cutting a nerve or a muscle?"
"We don't know. It's a medical miracle, there’s no explanation for it."
You figure 60 fragments flying through your face, I've never had a single surgery, no paralysis. A little bit of numbness, that was it.
This scar is not from the shooting. This is scarification. You know what scarification is? Ok, so this is scarification, which I got couple of years ago.
So, 60 bullet fragments that initially flew through my face didn't cut a nerve or a muscle. The doctors have no explanation for it. You would think at least one—statistically—nope. People don't even know, they can't even tell that I shot myself in the face, people thought I was going to look like a monster. Nope. I don't know what you thought, because you knew that I had shot myself in the face, but yeah.
So, you know there's a series of miracles and today, you know, my last book came out on March 23, it's called Trigger Pieces and it's a series of writings, what people called poetry. I don't call it poetry, my stuff's not "Roses are red, violets are blue, you love me and I hate you." It's more like, "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'll lay down suppressive fire for you."
It's you know, some dark stuff about depression and cutting and suicide, combat, stuff I saw as a cop, some things are written from actual events, some are from nightmares, some are from just stuff rattling around in my military mind, stuff like that and you know, like I said, I go around the country and I do speaking engagements for groups and veteran groups and you know, let them know, you know. Even as a suicide [attempt] survivor times three, for me, there's hope. I'm living proof that there's hope. I'm living proof. Especially with the brutal attempt of the gunshot, people still can't wrap their minds around that. Still, to this day if I go to a new doctor, you know, and they find out... they look at me like I'm an alien. People look at me like I'm an alien when they find out I shot myself in the face and lived.
I think what's so compelling about this story is the fact that I never lost consciousness and I took actual steps in saving my life and I remember everything, the thought process, the bubblegum. Had I lost consciousness and been found or woke up, this story, I don't think, would be nearly as compelling, you know? Because I remember everything that happened and the doctors don't understand that either, with a head injury like that, how my memory can be so clear.
So you know, it's interesting, and I mean, maybe God had it happen that way so I can go forth and be strong and help other people and say, "Hey, I know it sucks. It sucks. I know what it's like to be on both ends of the rifle. I know what it's like to feel that insurmountable pain, that emotional distress where all you want to do is die."
I hate when people say, "Suicide is selfish." I hate that they say it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Let me tell you something, PTSD is not a temporary problem. It's something you live with 24/7, moment to moment to moment to moment. It's coward's way out? No, it's not. I hate all those clichés that people have.
I don't understand, you know, people don't educate themselves about it unless they're impacted directly by it. The stigma behind it, which is why I'm glad you're doing this project, because those who [died by] suicide, they're remembered, they're talked about. But those who are suicidal, they get help. But what about those who attempted? You’re ousted from your community, you're crazy, you're weird. People always just wonder when the next time I'm going to attempt is.
"Is Cleo going to get it right this time?"
That kind of stuff. It's exhausting for them and it's exhausting for me. All those late night crisis phone calls when I was emergency Cleo, just in that darkness of constant depression and the cutting. It exhausts the people in my life and it exhausts me. None of that has happened since the treatment. I am truly healed. Healed. Not even cured, healed.
So I think I would just say to those who are suffering from suicidal ideations, or as a suicide attempt survivor considering it again, you know: wait. Wait an hour. Reach out, step out of that darkness and reach your hand into the light. Take somebody's hand. There's got to be somebody who's going to understand you. If it's not a family or a friend, there's so many resources out there that you can call, that you can contact. You know, on Facebook alone, they have tons of them. You know, just don't give up.
My motto is never surrender. It's from my favorite song "Never Surrender" by Cory Hart from back in the '80s.
It says, "No one can take away your right to fight, and never surrender."
I have it tattooed on my arm right there, "Never surrender."
I end my radio show with that on Wednesday nights when I talk on the radio, and my motto, my hashtag that I sign off on every Facebook post is "Nobody dies today," because 22 of my brother and sister veterans are perishing by their own hands every day. 22 a day. It's actually higher than that statistically.
So you know, it's my mission to... if I can impact and change and save one life, it's worth it. On to the next one and the next one and the next one, until we're so strong that suicide has no ground to stand on. He's an asshole. He's a beast. He's a monster. He's conniving.
He infiltrates the lives of people at their weakest moments, and exploits their weakness and whispers in their ear, and screams in their ear, "Do it, do it, nobody cares about you, you're a burden. You're worthless. No one is going to care, no one's going to miss you. You're never going to feel better."
All the lies that suicide tells to us, it gets deafening to where that's the only voice you can hear. You can’t even hear your own voice. He's got such a spot in the real estate of our brain, in our mind, to do that.
I really do wish more people would educate themselves on this epidemic. It's an epidemic, every 40 seconds in this world, somebody [dies by] suicide. It's the [tenth] leading cause of death in America right now and it's a devastating, debilitating place to be, when you're swallowing those pills, putting that gun to your head, tying that noose, running that razor blade across your wrists, driving at 180 miles an hour. When you get to that point, the point of no return, when you cross that threshold, into where you’re actually taking action? It's dangerous. It's a dangerous... it's very dangerous. The red flags and the things that we say and do that are indications that we are heading down that road, people don't want to recognize them, they don't want to see them. They recognize them, but they don't want to admit it.
"Oh, they're going to be fine, they're going to be fine."
And then they get that phone call, "So and So killed themselves."
So it's my mission to save lives through my writing, through my speaking, you know? God has given me the gift of the written word and the spoken word and he has blessed me with a gift to write and he's given me this life, this story. I thank God for every micro-second of my life. Good, bad, ugly. Whatever. Because it made me who I am today and he trusted me, he has trusted me with this affliction. He has trusted me with my history and what I've done, he's knows that I’m not going to go out and slaughter 100 people, that I'm going to take this pain and help others. And if what I went through 10 years ago, 12 years ago, 15 years ago, someone's going through right now and I can help them and they can get through it in two months versus 10 years? Bonus. Nobody dies today.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to RI International for sponsoring Cleo's interview, and to Whitney Rakich for providing the transcription.
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