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.

Camp Pendleton

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.

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."

It's the afternoon of July 17, 2007, just a few hours before Illinois Senator Dick Durbin will see that cots and deodorant are delivered to colleagues in anticipation of the Senate's all-night debate on the war.

Richards is busy choreographing a press conference, rally and march for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), part of its "Funding the War is Killing the Troops" campaign. Television cameras are out in force, trained on Richards and three IVAW members. The event is to culminate with symbolic gravitas: the delivery of tri-folded, funeral-size flags to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and Hoyer.

Because Democratic leaders are difficult to reach inside the Capitol, the plan is to deposit the flags at their legislative offices. In the middle of IVAW's media briefing, however, Richards learns that Pelosi is about to hold a news conference on the Capitol steps. IVAW decides to march with some 40 followers to confront the Speaker directly.

As soon as the activists arrive on the sun-scorched terrace, Capitol police come jogging toward the group and promptly erect steel barricades to prevent the protesters from reaching Pelosi's podium. "You've got to have permits, ma'am," police officers demand. "You can't be on the terrace."

The determined look on Richards' face indicates she's tempted to breach the barricade. In the five months since the 44-year-old Marine mom became a rising star in the escalating anti-war movement, she's twice been arrested by Capitol police for disorderly conduct.

Richards seems to reconsider, though, as she glances toward the Iraq war vets standing rod-straight on the Capitol steps, each of them holding the flags waist-high as if at a military funeral. She makes up her mind and dials Hoyer's office to urge someone to come outside and accept the flag.

A taskmaster who describes herself as "pro-military," Richards grows impatient a few minutes after hanging up with Hoyer's office. She calls again. "It's really hot out here, and the soldiers are wearing black shirts. Will it be much longer?"

Just then Terry Lierman, Hoyer's chief of staff, comes bounding down the steps. "There she is!" he calls, reaching to embrace Richards.

Just a few weeks prior, Richards and Lierman talked about the war that's claimed more than 3,600 American lives and the troubles veterans face upon their return home. It is but one of many meetings Richards has secured with the political establishment since she temporarily moved to the nation's capital as a citizen lobbyist.

"I go in with a story of a soldier and a face to pierce the political bubble of Capitol Hill," Richards explains. "There's no humanity there, no humanity whatsoever. It doesn't matter the number of people who send letters, or how many people have called, or faxed, or whatever. That doesn't touch them — where going in person does."

The cameras swarm Lierman as an IVAW member gives him the flag and begins rattling off Democrats' failures since they gained the majority. Lierman listens for a moment, smiling, before interrupting the veteran. "There're two sides to every story, but I'm really proud you're doing this."

Lierman turns back toward Richards. "It was good to see you, my dear," he says, planting a kiss on her cheek. "This means a lot to me."

On the night of March 20, 2003, the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment crosses over the Kuwait border into Iraq. Cloy Richards mans the radio in his truck. The plan is to plow through southern oil fields on the way to the Fertile Crescent. It will be a treacherous, 115-mile trip from there to Baghdad as the Marines try to navigate a web of canals, swamps and unsteady bridges — plus thousands of Saddam Hussein's supporters.

During the first four days of the three-week trek, Cloy's unit takes on sporadic gunfire. On the fifth day, all hell breaks loose. As Cloy tells it, his Alpha battery is approaching Nasiriyah, a city just north of the Euphrates River. A perfect storm erupts: a blast of thunder, sheets of rain and the piercing whistle of rocket-propelled grenades. It's an ambush.

The Marines dive for cover as a mortar explodes a few vehicles ahead of Cloy's and blows off his commanding officer's hand. Cloy and his fellow gun bunnies ready their cannons and aim for a series of lean-tos, the mortars' probable source. When the command to fire comes over the radio, says Cloy, "We took the cannons to the mud huts and blew them all to hell."

Two months later, when it's time to return to Camp Pendleton, Cloy is told he'll be staying behind in Iraq and reporting to Najaf to support the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment until October. The extension exasperates but doesn't surprise him.

"Right before we'd left, the cops caught me at a hotel party with other Marines and civilians, lots of marijuana and Ecstasy and underage drinking. They booked us all, dropped us off at the base, and we got tested for alcohol and drugs. Those who tested positive got kicked out after we came back from Iraq. Those who popped clean were in trouble for a long time. I popped clean, but I got chosen for some pretty crappy duty in Iraq."

Back home in California, Tina Richards is devastated. "Every day he was in Iraq I relived signing that (enlistment) contract," she says.

In October 2003 Cloy returns, as promised, to California. His mother has rented a place in Oceanside, near Pendleton, so Cloy and his friends can unwind during their leave.

The vacation, though, is cut short when Tina Richards learns that her closest friend — "Aunt Annie" as Cloy knew her — is critically ill. The Richardses drive to Oregon to be with Annie, but she dies just a few hours after they arrive. Tina Richards expects her son to comfort her, but instead he leaves the hospital without a word and heads back to California.

Says Cloy: "I couldn't handle coming home and the first thing I have to deal with is death."

Cloy refuses to answer his mother's calls over the following days, so she drives all the way to Oceanside to confront him in person. He responds by slamming the door in her face. "He wanted nothing to do with us, absolutely nothing," Richards recalls. "I didn't see him until Christmas, when he came home to tell me he was being deployed again."

Richards knows Cloy is in no condition to return to Iraq. Mentally, he's a mess.

"I told him we could sell the house and move to Canada," says Richards. "I told him I'd buy two baseball bats and break both his legs. He would heal — just not in time to go back to war." But Cloy will hear none of it. He tells his mother his first duty is to the Marine Corps.

The Richards family spends the evening of February 2, 2004, at Medieval Times, a Southern California theatrical restaurant that they'd long wanted to visit. The following morning, on his mother's 41st birthday, Cloy reports for duty to begin his second tour.

Several weeks later Cloy calls home from his new base in Fallujah. It is about to become the worst place to be stationed in Iraq. At the end of March, four American contractors in Fallujah are decapitated, their bodies burned and strung from a bridge. Graffiti all across the city proclaims it a "graveyard for Americans."

For Cloy's unit, the month of April, 2004 marks another period of chaos and sleep deprivation, akin to the initial invasion, as the U.S. military tries unsuccessfully to capture Fallujah. The Marines not only bombard the city with cannons, but are also responsible for securing some of its borders.

"We got attacked within twenty seconds of entering the edge of the city," recalls Cloy. "We were trying to set up an outpost to operate from, to keep our weapons and stuff, and as soon as we got there people were shooting at us from the hospital across the street."

Hundreds of Iraqi civilians in the months after the Battle of Fallujah beg the military for compensation. Cloy works security for the Marine liaisons paying out the claims. Day after day he listens to the Iraqis weep over lost limbs and dead relatives — tales he will replay in his dreams after he leaves the battlefield.

On August 15, 2004, Cloy's friend, 24-year-old Pfc. Geoffrey Perez does Cloy a favor, relieving him at a checkpoint so he can get a few hours of sleep. An hour into his slumber Cloy hears a huge "boom" — a car bomb exploding at the checkpoint. Perez is dead.

Tina Richards, meanwhile, has no idea what her son is going through. In his weekly calls he only wants to discuss life back home. This second tour is much worse than his first. She is afraid every time the doorbell rings. She makes her daughter answer the phone. She mixes anxiety drugs.

"I was nuts, I was overmedicated, but I couldn't get out of bed. All I could do was watch the news," she says.

In the spring of 2004 Tina Richards spends a week in the hospital on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After recovering, she begins to stay up late at night writing repeated letters to her senators and congressmen, pleading with them to end the war. A lifelong Democrat, she starts stumping for presidential hopeful John Kerry.

Finally, just before the November 2004 elections, Cloy comes home. "First I looked him over, to see that he was in one piece, and then I held him," his mother says.

Cloy has a constant ringing in his ears. Otherwise, he seems OK.

The day after his homecoming Cloy discovers that his fiancée has been cheating on him. Cloy had lent the guy — a fellow Marine — the couch in the couple's apartment while he was in Iraq. He goes into a tirade and starts swinging his fists. His fiancée proceeds to throw him out of the house. Says Cloy, "She thought I was going to kill her, or kill him, and she was probably right."

Homeless and heartbroken, Cloy takes to the bottle. "Rum, scotch, tequila, vodka, beer — lots of beer — and malt liquor. I pretty much stayed drunk twenty-four seven — at work, before work, after work. I got pretty good at staying juiced at work without getting caught," he says. "Ecstasy, coke and weed were everywhere. Everybody was trying to find a way to deal with things. We were Alpha battery, and we became known as Alpha Tap-a-Keg-a."

When the Richards family finally arrives in Salem in July 2005, this following Cloy's two suicide attempts, he refuses to leave the borrowed RV. A few days later he convinces his grandfather to drive him to St. Louis so he can catch a plane to California.

Cloy spends the next nine months bouncing between different friends' couches. Wireless phone companies turn down his job applications. Frustrated and upset, he repeatedly calls his mother in Missouri. "You need to go to the VA," she says.

Richards is hoping Cloy will finally see a therapist. But Cloy can't even schedule an appointment. Showing up at the LA hospital is fruitless — it's too crowded, he tells his mother. He can't even get an operator on the line. Eventually, he gives up altogether.

Cloy flies to Salem for Christmas in 2005. He acts as rash as ever. One night he drinks so heavily that he totals his mother's car rounding a bend at high speed near Lebanon. "I don't know how he lived," Richards says.

In March 2006, Cloy returns to Missouri for a court appearance and decides to settle down, once and for all, in the Ozarks.

Richards, meanwhile, has become a regular reader of liberal blogs and closely follows anti-war groups like St. Louis-based Veterans for Peace. Every Saturday she and a friend host their own midday protest in front of Salem's City Hall. She has even signed on as campaign manager to Veronica Hambacker, the Democrat challenging Republican Jo Ann Emerson for the 8th District U.S. Congressional seat.

Around the same time Cloy moves to Missouri, Richards notices that Iraq Veterans Against the War is planning a march from Mobile to New Orleans to help Hurricane Katrina refugees. It is the third anniversary of the Iraq war. Richards has long been asking Cloy if he is interested in attending anti-war rallies. "No," he replies. This time Cloy says yes.

On his first day in New Orleans, Cloy Richards finds himself sitting in a Port-A-Potty when the following lines come to him:

When will there be peace on earth?

When the earth falls to pieces

When all men are gone and all life ceases

Our glass lives quickly shatter

Though our sons die in Iraq their dreams still matter

Even if they've died to make a politician's pockets fatter

My first instinct is to kill these ignorant bastards faster

'Cause all I see when I sleep

Is my brother's blood being guzzled by a Jeep

So I bury my face and muffle my screams

I'm a grown-ass man I'm the big bad Marine.....

"I had nothing to write on," he says, "so I just started tapping it all into my cell phone."

At home in Salem he puts pen to paper, writing verse about losing pals to drugs after Iraq and about his nightmares. He writes about his survivor's guilt: That hot Iraqi day when you were slayed/Watching my back so I could sleep unafraid I/heard the explosion from where I laid/And instantly I watched the skies go grey/I watched my life just float away/How could things go this way/You were my brother in arms and you took my place.

By Tina Richards' account, the next few months are almost blissful. "He seemed so happy, so relaxed, so much more easygoing, more like his old self," she says. "We'd both stay up late at night, and he would come into my room to read me something he'd written. He'd say, 'Does this sound good?' Or, 'What do you think of this?'"

For the first time Richards begins to learn about her son's experiences in battle. Cloy decides at last to visit the VA for therapy.

In July 2006, at the John Cochran VA Hospital in St. Louis, Cloy starts on the lengthy process of applying for disability for what the Richardses figure is post-traumatic stress disorder. It will be another two or three months (the Richardses haven't kept any records of their visits) before Cloy can get an appointment with a caseworker.

According to Tina Richards, the caseworker tries to discourage her son from reporting what he thinks are PTSD symptoms. Instead, Richards says, the worker characterizes him as having "childhood issues."

"If I hadn't been there with him," she fumes, "I don't think the paperwork would have been submitted at all."

After the first round of appointments, Cloy has to wait another five months for a session with a psychiatrist. In the meantime, both Cloy and Tina become regulars on the anti-war circuit. They go to Camp Casey in Texas for Cindy Sheehan's annual stakeout of President Bush's ranch. Cloy participates in IVAW "Warrior Writers" workshops.

On January 27 this year, Richards attends a peace march in D.C. with a busload of Missourians. She plans to stay an extra day in the capital for sightseeing — that is, until Cloy calls her, frantic. He has gotten notice to report in St. Louis on March 24 for an annual muster of the Individual Ready Reserve.

"Mom, they could send me back," he says.

"Oh, no they won't," Richards replies. "I promise you."

On January 30, Richards attends her first congressional hearing: "Exercising Congress's Constitutional Power to End a War." She listens as the Senate Judiciary Committee discusses responses to President Bush's call for a troop surge. When Senator Orrin Hatch says opposition to the plan would demoralize the troops, Richards suddenly pipes up: "Stop the surge!"

Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin raps his gavel, but Richards continues: "Bring the troops home, please! My son is broken! He cannot go for a third time and come back!"

The next day Richards begins visiting various lawmakers' offices armed with one of Cloy's poems. She has to convince someone that her son shouldn't return to war.

In the six months since Richards relocated to Washington, she has maxed out her credit cards and collected parking tickets of unspeakable sums. She has no income, no health insurance and shares a cramped, $700-a-month bedroom in a Maryland house with her thirteen-year-old daughter.

It's a fragile existence, to be sure. But to a woman who ran away from home at eleven and never finished high school, the life of a D.C. lobbyist is clearly exhilarating. "I used to be a very private person," points out the CEO of Grassroots America, the nonprofit Richards incorporated to formalize her lobbying.

Hair curled, nails manicured, briefcase swishing against her hip, Richards walks into Congress with the look of her former profession: claims adjustor for State Farm Insurance. She begins each day by filching a copy of Congressional Quarterly Today from a lawmaker's office, then heads to the cafeteria to plan her agenda over several Marlboro Lights.

On the way to a hearing she pauses outside an elected official's office to print "BRING THE TROOPS HOME" in the official's guestbook. Inside the offices her insistent but non-confrontational style contrasts with the noisemaking tactics employed by more radical activists.

The lobbying is slow going in the beginning. "Sorry, you're not a constituent," plenty of lawmakers' assistants say. Richards keeps going back, until she finally secures sit-down sessions with politicians from both sides of the aisle.

The responses to Cloy's story, she says, vary from tears to indifference. According to Richards, California Representative Jerry Lewis replied, "Well, ma'am, your son signed the paperwork, didn't he?"

Richards presses on, ever mindful that on March 24, 2007, Cloy must report to his reserve unit, and he doesn't yet have VA paperwork saying he's unfit for service.

In late February, Richards has a meeting with one of the most respected voices on military issues in Congress: retired Marine Corps colonel, Representative John Murtha. An early critic of the war, the Pennsylvania Democrat promises to look into Cloy's situation, according to Richards.

Two weeks later, as the House is preparing to approve the supplemental defense spending bill that includes a resolution for a September 2008 troop withdrawal, activist videographers capture a chance encounter between Richards and Representative David Obey of Wisconsin. The Democrat is one of the longest-serving members of Congress and voted not to invade Iraq four years ago. Their six-minute exchange becomes unpleasant when Richards asks if Obey will vote against the supplemental.

"We're using the supplemental to end the war, and it's time these liberal idiots understand that," Obey replies. Richards presses him. The congressman's tone grows bitter. "Do you see a magic wand in my pocket? How the hell are we going to get the votes? We ain't got the votes for it. We do have the votes — if you guys quit screwing it up — we do have the votes to end the legal authority for the war."

The video surfaces on Dozens of hate e-mails come pouring in. "Here's a poem," writes Eric Goethe. "Roses are red, violets are blue, your son is a Moron and so are you."

Within days Richards is appearing on 24-hour news channels to defend her targeting of Democrats. When Glenn Beck, the conservative CNN talk show host, characterizes her as "far-left," she counters: "There are a lot of people on the right who want the war to end. It's not a right-left issue. It's a right-wrong issue."

March 24, 2007: Richards hasn't heard back from Representative Murtha and Cloy has gotten no news from the VA. He reports to a Marine Corps detachment in St. Louis sweating and praying his name won't be on the activate list. Moments after roll call, Cloy learns he's off the hook. He barely has time to process the information when a representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs approaches. "Are you Cloy T. Richards II?" asks the man, extending an envelope.

"Service medical records show you were not treated for post-traumatic stress disorder during active military service," the paperwork states. "However, the VA exam dated February 12, 2007, shows you have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to your military experiences. Service-connected compensation has been granted for post-traumatic stress disorder because you were exposed to extremely stressful events during your active duty military service...."

The VA has determined that Cloy is 70 percent impaired because of PTSD. He also rates compensation for an injured knee and for the ringing in his ears. He will receive monthly payments of $1,319 retroactive to July 15, 2005 — the date of his honorable discharge — and "until further review."

Only a week after getting the good news, Cloy receives a disquieting phone call from a Marine major. The Corps is beginning an investigation into Richards and two friends from IVAW over a street-theater event that the Marines conducted in D.C. on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion — while in uniform.

According to Cloy, the major insinuates that he could lose his newly acquired disability benefits if he continues to participate in "political" activities while in uniform. "What killed me was, in every speech I give I always make sure to say that the Marine Corps is a great institution," Cloy complains. "I love the Marine Corps, and I have no problems with it at all. I'm just disgruntled with the way the military treats us when we get home from war."

Cloy calls his mother in tears to relay the latest development of his post-war drama. Tina Richards is busy conducting a sit-in in Speaker Pelosi's office. A few weeks later, Richards calls for a "Summer Swarm on Congress," asking that 10,000 citizens come to Washington to help her lobby.

By July only 300 volunteers have come forward. Says Richards, "I'm disappointed, but what can you expect when only 1.6 percent of our country is affected by the war?" Nonetheless, the more word spreads of Richards' activities, the more calls she gets from military families seeking assistance.

"I remember the day Cloy called to tell me the news that he'd gotten his benefits and he wasn't being deployed," says Richards while parking her car a few blocks from Capitol Hill last month. "I was ecstatic for two minutes, until he said: 'But Mom, there are a lot of Marines who got orders to go back. There's no one fighting for them.'

"I was consumed with guilt, the same guilt that I'd feel when I'd learn that a soldier had died in Iraq, and it wasn't Cloy. I'd be ecstatic, you know, and then all of a sudden, I'd feel so guilty knowing that another mother had gotten the news that it was her son who was killed.

"How can you stop and celebrate something like that? I decided that I would go home when the war is over. I can't celebrate until every mother's son and every mother's daughter is back."

Cloy, for his part, is getting on with his life. He's taking classes towards earning a B.A. at Southwest Baptist University and driving a forklift to earn some extra cash. He's cut back on drinking and continues to write. Perhaps the best sign of progress: He has put his bimonthly sessions with a therapist on hold. Says Cloy, "If I need to call him I can, and if I need to see him, that's OK."

As for the Marine Corps, it eventually decides to call off its investigation of Cloy, but only if he agrees to stick to uniform regulations. Afraid of losing his disability and G.I. Bill money, Cloy says, "I decided I'm just going to fade into the black."

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles

Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.