The Few, The Proud, The Shattered

Tina Richards' son returned, suicidal, from Iraq battlefields. Now, the Missouri woman is waging her own war in Congress.

It is the middle of a winter's night in 2005 when a Marine corporal named Cloy Richards, working guard duty on the graveyard shift at Camp Pendleton, wakes his mother with an anguished phone call.

"Mom, I've got a gun in my mouth, and I'm gonna pull the trigger," Tina Richards recalls her 21-year-old son saying. "I killed too many women and children. I don't deserve a mom and a sister."

Startled, Richards checks her cell phone battery. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't going to lose him," she remembers. She throws on her clothes and leaves her home in Bakersfield, California, for the base in Oceanside, talking to Cloy most of the way. By the time she arrives, four hours later, he's put the gun away.

Tina Richards
Charles Steck
Tina Richards
Terry Lierman, chief of staff to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is one of numerous political players whose attention Tina Richards has captured.
Charles Steck
Terry Lierman, chief of staff to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is one of numerous political players whose attention Tina Richards has captured.

Two years before Cloy's first suicidal episode, the gung-ho Marine grunt shipped out on his first of two combat missions to Iraq. It was an adrenaline rush he'd been craving since joining the corps at seventeen, the long-awaited opportunity to test his mettle. But for Tina Richards, a single mother, it was a dreaded prelude to years of emotional turmoil.

Cloy fought in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. The following year he took up arms in the infamous Battle of Fallujah. He dodged his share of ambushes by mortars and small-arms fire. He watched a grenade sever his commanding officer's hand. During one attack he witnessed a Marine officer cowering beneath a truck whimpering, "I don't want to die."

A cannon cocker (or "gun bunny," in Marine slang), Cloy says he never encountered a situation where he had to shoot an Iraqi. Still, the howitzers he operated boast a "kill radius" of 165 feet. As he puts it: "Pretty much everybody around is disintegrated." Cloy's unit carried out some of "Shock and Awe's" most brutal bombardments. Most times, they struck late and rolled through the ravaged villages under the cover of night, seeing no more than piles of smoldering rubble.

Cloy came home from Iraq disillusioned and depressed. At night came shakes and sweats as he relived sifting through the body parts of women and children following an artillery strike in Fallujah. He cursed himself for letting a friend take his guard duty and then get killed by a car bomb.

The afternoon of Cloy's first suicide attempt, Tina Richards says she spoke to one of Cloy's superiors at Pendleton. "My son needs help," she tells him. Richards says the officer (whose name she cannot remember) tells her that only a Marine can request aid for a mental issue. Feeling helpless, she heads back to Bakersfield.

A few weeks drift by, and then a second frantic call comes, again in the dead of night. This time, Cloy tells her he must see his girlfriend immediately — or he'll kill himself. His mother races to the base, talking to Cloy periodically as she motors to Las Vegas to pick up the young woman and bring her to Pendleton.

"I remember my dad telling me, 'Tina, you can't do this. You'll lose your job. You'll lose your house,'" recounts Richards. "I said, 'Do you think I spent two years praying for his life when I had no idea where he was — 6,000 miles away — so that he could come home and have me not even try to stop him from killing himself when he's so close?'"

Richards knows well her son isn't right in the head, but she doesn't know what to do. She places repeated calls to Veterans Affairs hospitals in California and hears a familiar refrain: "We can't help you. Your son needs to call himself."

Cloy, meanwhile, shuts down completely. He won't want to talk about the suicide attempts. He won't talk about Iraq. He won't talk about anything.

Several months pass.

When summer arrives, Richards learns that her father, who lives in Salem, Missouri, is dying of cancer. It occurs to her now that Salem — a small town of 5,000 in the rolling hills of the Ozarks — might be a soothing place for Cloy to heal. Perhaps, she thinks, it may bring him back to the happy days of his boyhood spent in California's Central Valley. She decides to sell her house and move.

On July 15, 2005, Cloy is released from active duty and enters the Corps' Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). The Richardses leave California for Missouri. Tina Richards plans to make a small vacation out of the drive, stopping to camp and fish (Cloy's favorite pastime) along the way.

Cloy spends most of the trip sulking, irritable and quick to berate his half-sister, then eleven years old. When his mother cautions him about his heavy drinking, he becomes enraged. Fed up with the vacation and his family, he sets off on foot, ranting and raving, his mother remembers.

Pacing the Capitol Hill terrace in her caramel-hued suit and cocoa-colored pumps, Tina Richards looks more K Street lobbyist than peace activist. "There are some Iraq veterans here who have a flag they want to deliver to the congressman," says Richards into her cell phone, talking to a staffer for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "We're being barricaded by Capitol police, and I wanted to know if he wanted to send a representative out here."

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