Staff Sergeant Carter Chick was one of the first veterans I covered for The Veterans Project when I started the blog roughly four years ago throughout the duration of my Master's Degree. At the time, I barely knew what I was doing and I had almost no technical knowledge as a photographer. What I did have was a passion for my brothers and the highest level of esteem for a man who taught me what leadership truly was. Carter was one of my best friends from my unit but he was also my greatest mentor in a combat zone. He was tough but he was equally fair. I remember that a positive praise from SSG Chick meant the world to me. I knew his family before I ever met them. He spoke about them non-stop on our deployment to Iraq and I remember particularly how proud he was of his son Chad's budding baseball career. As a college baseball player myself, Carter was constantly asking for advice that could assist Chad in his growth. Things changed when we got home as they always do after deployments. I got out of the Army and went back to school to finish my academic and baseball career. Carter stayed in an active duty role at Ft. Bliss. We stayed in touch as his time in the Army came to a close and he prepared to start his life as a civilian. I remember those days being particularly painful for him. We often had late night conversations that revolved around him having no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Carter and I were very different in that way. I thrived as a civilian whereas he took off the uniform and that was all he knew. It had been the foundation of his existence for the better part of 20 years. He felt exposed without that armor and I saw it when I spent time with him. When I covered him for the project, I remember one of the most confident men in the world suddenly looking like a shell of himself. Most of his adult life was spent dedicated to the Marine Corps and the Army. Instantaneously, that was all gone. He wrestled tremendously with that and I remember his struggles becoming more and more inimical. I won't get into the particulars of our conversations but I could tell he felt like his life was lacking purpose. Those discussions became increasingly dark towards the end. To tell you the truth, they still haunt me in many ways. Then, one day, he was gone. I got the call and I remember feeling as though I was having some bizarre, gruesome out of body experience where I could visualize my own sense of shock. He'd taken his own life and that was it. No more Carter Chick. No more mentor. No more late night conversations. No more ragging on each other about our sports allegiances. No more laughing 'til I cried over his stories of his young Marine days. No more comfort from a man that believed in me more than almost anyone else.
I didn't cry right away. Those tears came later as I began to feel the absence and anger associated with some form of resentment. My first thoughts were directly diverted to his family. What would his wife Nikki do? How did she tell Colt and Chad, their two sons? What would life look like for them from this point forward? Then, for the first time, I experienced some form of bitterness. I was angry with him. I couldn't believe he'd done this to a family that he loved so much. When the tears first came, they were searing droplets, extensions of both dejection and exasperation. As time passed, I thought a lot about his family and wondered what their journey forward would entail. The Veterans Project began to grow as a platform, and much of that success was attributed to the burning passion Carter established in my heart. His death inaugurated a fire in my heart that's hard to explain.
He was and still is, my greatest drive to light on this path of capturing legacies. But... what about his family? Where would their story take them? It certainly didn't end at his passing. Over the past two years, I've had an incessant guilt riddling my conscience. It was easier to push into the work of The Veterans Project, head down, blinders on, then to think about those left behind. The truth is, I knew what I had to do but I didn't know how to embark on such a strenuous excursion. After all, I didn't know what it was like to get that call. I didn't know what it felt like to know your dad, husband, son, mother, wife, daughter wasn't coming home. Then again, that's the power of the individual experience. I didn't really know what it was like to be my veterans either. I simply had experiences that were similar to their's, but that experience didn't exactly parallel because truly, no experience can. With that in mind, I decided to tackle this work fully realizing the cataclysmic weight of these stories. There is no way to truly describe the burden a family faces in the path of loss. So, the goal of this particular work is to let the caregivers tell the story themselves. Nothing in this introduction can possibly illuminate the dark spaces like the narrative of those who've lived it. Here's the Chick Family.
NIKKI CHICK (CARTER'S WIFE)
What do you remember about your husband when you first met? What drew you to him?
Nikki: I met my husband (SSG Carter Chick) on June 9, 2003, at Cowboys Redriver. It was "Urban Cowboy" night. I am not sure what exactly drew me to Carter, but it had something to do with his eyes. He asked me to dance and our first dance was to Johnny Lee's "Looking for love in all the wrong places." Looking back, that was funny because we were in a bar. At the end of the night, he told me he was going to marry me and I told him he was crazy (laughs).
What was the wedding day like?
Nikki: Our wedding day was a blur. We were married a year to the day that we met, June 9, 2004. We got married at the Alexandra Mansion in Garland, Texas. It was a small but very nice ceremony with just our family and closest friends. I do remember that he was late to the wedding (laughs). The boys in the wedding party played golf in the morning and they weren't paying attention to the time.
Can you describe Carter Chick from your perspective of him as his wife?
Nikki: Carter loved his family. The boys and I were everything to him. He loved his boys so much. He was very proud of them. He wanted them both to be great men, better than he was. He wanted them to be able to do anything and everything that they wanted to. He was not the typical romantic man, but he showed his love every day through the little things that he did. He loved his time in the military. It was very important to him.
Picture: Nikki stands next to the bathroom door where Carter left her a message before his last deployment to Iraq.
Can you talk about the day that Carter took his own life?
Nikki: A lot of the day my husband passed is a blur or maybe I blocked it out. When the sheriff told me, I didn't believe him. In fact, I called his cell phone when I hung up with the sheriff. It hit when the sheriff answered Carter's phone. I called my parents first and then I called some family and friends. When the family got to the house, I stopped making calls and let them handle that. I don't remember much about the days that followed. The first night, I remember seeing Carter in my dream. He was very clear, standing beside my bed while I laid there and he told me he was sorry.
What do you remember about him as a soldier?
Nikki: My husband was a very proud soldier. He felt like any guys under him were his absolute responsibility. He was very serious about his job and loved it. He was my hero.
What was the hardest thing about being a military spouse?
Nikki: The time apart was the hardest thing about being a military wife. We spent the majority of our marriage apart. One month after we married, Carter's unit was called up to deploy to Iraq. Not being on post was a challenge, and being 3 hours away was even worse. We made it work because we wanted our children to be raised in one town and not moved around. That was very important to us.
What did you do for the kids to help them when Carter was gone?
Nikki: While Carter was deployed I kept Chad and Colt busy with sports or planning activities with family and friends. We'd make care packages to send to dad. I still remember one time Colt jumping in the box and asked me to send him to daddy (laughs). He must have been about three at the time.
Do you remember some of the toughest moments when he was gone and what specifically were they?
Nikki: One moment that I remember being particularly hard was right after he returned to Iraq from his mid tour leave. I got pregnant while he was on leave. A few weeks after he returned, I found out that the baby was gone. When I went to the doctor, they couldn't find a heartbeat. I miscarried and had a hard time not having Carter home with me.
What was it like when your husband came home from deployments? Could you tell any difference when he he came back?
Nikki: It was hard when he came home from deployments. After his first deployment to Iraq, I noticed a major change in him. He startled easily and didn't like being around others, not even extended family. It was also hard because our oldest, Chad, and I had fallen into a routine without his help and we had to adapt to having Carter home and a part of that routine.
What were the greatest things about your marriage?
Nikki: The strength of our love was the greatest thing about marriage and the fact that we balanced each other out really well. Although we liked a lot of the same things, we were very different too. He challenged me to have more fun and I challenged him to be more romantic.
Having lived the life of a soldier’s wife what would you do differently if you could go back?
Nikki: If I could go back I'd be more of an advocate for Carter's health and lack of care when he was waiting to be medically discharged.
How's it been in dealing with the Army and benefits since losing Carter?
Nikki: Dealing with the Army since he passed has been extremely hard. I'm still having problems getting them to pay and make his grave marker. I'm not sure what the hold up is on that. I've provided everything that they've asked for. The insurance has been good but that's the only benefit we still receive. His pay stopped and I was told we didn't qualify for any other benefits besides insurance.
What are some of the greatest difficulties of being in a White Star family?
Nikki: The hardest part about being a White Star Family is others not understanding. I always worry about the boys and how they will handle the issue as they get older.
What advice would you give to those who’ve recently lost a veteran to suicide?
Nikki: If I could give any advice to anyone who's lost their soldier, Marine, or sailor to suicide I'd say, "Take it one day at a time." Some days can be good days, and it's okay to have a good day. Don't feel guilty about that. Your veteran would want that for you. Carter and I talked a lot about what he wanted for me if anything ever happened to him. He wanted me to find someone else to love and take care of our boys. He wanted me to find someone that would love me as much as he did. Don't let others tell you the way you deal with grief is wrong or that you should deal with it a specific way. Everyone deals with things differently. There is no right way to handle grief.
What’s been the most therapeutic thing for you since Carter passed on?
Nikki: Staying busy with Colt has been the most therapeutic thing for me since Carter passed. Chad's off on his own now so it's just me and Colt. Getting out of the house, even when I didn't want to, makes things easier in finding our new normal. I like to read a good book or find time to go to the spa when I can.
Can you talk about teaching and why that’s so important to you? How does teaching improve or affect your daily life since Carter passed away?
Nikki: I love teaching. I love seeing children excited about something that we do in class together. Teaching kept me busy and allowed me not to think about my husband being gone. The staff at my school respected my space and just let me be while I was grieving. They supported me when I needed it and let me be alone when I needed that. I don't think I would have made it through this without several of them.
CHAD CHICK (CARTER'S SON)
What are your favorite memories of your father?
Chad: My best memories of my dad have to do with baseball. Me and him could sit down and watch the Rangers game and not even speak. Everything was perfect when we were together like that. We'd just look at each other and know exactly what that player did wrong or right. We were always in sync because he taught me everything about the sport. He used to play baseball when he was young and so he took that knowledge and passed it on to me. I remember playing catch with him. I'd always pitch to him and he'd be my catcher. When Colt was in practice during t ball we'd go to the field next to it and play catch, so he could watch Colt and teach me at the same time. That was awesome. I loved that. I could never look at him when I pitched during a game because I was always so nervous. I was always trying to make him proud. I sucked when I could see him. He'd walk down the left field foul line and my pitching would completely change. We even experimented with it at Field of Dreams out in Mansfield. It was about the second inning and I was really struggling. He moved from the bleachers and walked down the foul line to another spot where I couldn't see him and all of a sudden I was striking everyone out (laughs).
Was it tough having your dad gone all the time on deployments?
Chad: The toughest part about my dad being gone was not having him there to watch my baseball games. That was our thing. Him watching me play baseball and watching baseball with him was the best thing in the world. I understood that he had to miss birthdays and Christmas and other holidays like that. That's part of being a soldier. It just hurt not having him there to do our thing together, which was always baseball. I was never scared for my dad because I always prayed. I knew that he was in God's hands and I always knew that if something did happen it was meant to happen. I could play it back in my head any which way but that wouldn't change my dad being gone. His training was great and he was an incredible leader so I knew those things could keep him safe or give him a better chance of living. I remember his first deployment and being a little scared because I was five or six. Still, I knew he was going to work and that was what he loved. He loved being a Marine and soldier.
Was it hard watching other kids with their dads when your dad wasn't there?
Chad: Sometimes it was hard watching the other kids with their dads there while mine wasn't. But, I always told myself, "My dad is better than their dad (laughs)." I always thought, "My dad is defending our freedom while your dad is sitting at a desk or selling cars. My dad is way more of a badass than your dad (laughs)." I remember thinking that when I'd get sad.
What do you remember about the day that you found out about your dad?
Chad: I remember my aunt waking me up. I thought it was weird because she lives in McKinney which isn't close to Royse City at all. I remember thinking, "That's weird." I remember walking into the living room and I saw everyone was there. Our whole family was there so I knew something was wrong. My first thought was, "Who died?" The last time we'd gathered like that, my grandma had passed away. I knew something was wrong and I could tell mom had been crying. She didn't come out and say it was suicide right way. She told me that my dad was out with his friend Jeff hunting and one of them had tripped and the gun went off. I knew that wasn't the true story right away.
My dad had phenomenal trigger discipline and I knew he wouldn't make that mistake. I started to put the pieces together and I found out from research that one of his guys had died on that same day years before in Iraq. They were best friends over there and my dad blamed himself in a lot of ways for his death. It wasn't my dad's fault but he blamed himself. When it hit me, I walked out to the backyard and started to cry. I sat on the deck for about an hour. He'd called me the night before at 2 a.m. and all those thoughts went through my head. I hadn't answered that night and I wonder if I'd answered if things would be different. I remember two of my friends came over here right away and they were there for me. To this day, I still think he's going to walk through the door. It sucks.
What are the toughest things in your life now that he's gone?
Chad: The toughest thing for me is knowing my dad isn't here for advice. Even the simple things are hard. I'm really into guns and my dad could build them like there was no tomorrow. I first bought an AR and I wanted to add a free floating handrail so I needed a low-profile gas block put on but it only had the regular A2 front-site gas block. In my mind, I thought I'll just call dad and ask him. Then I thought, "I can't." I ended up having to take it to a gunsmith. It's hard not to be able to call for any advice. He's definitely my drive to work harder every day. He's a huge part of why I want to join the Marines. My mom thinks I'm chasing something and I think she's right but I don't know what that is yet.
What do you think your dad taught you that will impact you in joining the Marines?
Chad: My dad made me strong-willed and mentally prepared me for a lot. If he hadn't taught me how to be a man and how to hold emotions in when you need to, I probably wouldn't be here right now. It's ironic that the lessons he taught me are the same things that helped me when he passed away. I have friends that tell me I'm as strong as hell and that's because of my dad. He taught me what real leadership looks like. I think that'll definitely help me when I join the Marines.
What's it been like dealing with his suicide?
Chad: I was very depressed when my dad died because it didn't seem like something he'd do. When you think of my dad, the first thing that comes to my mind is, "badass." He was a Marine, did two combat tours with them, then did two tours of combat with the Army. He's a special kind of guy. When he was 13, he didn't go to a regular school. He went to the Marine Military Academy and was a Golden Gloves boxer. He was definitely bred for the job. He was born to serve. He was a hard ass at times but it was always good for me. He was definitely a badass. I just couldn't imagine him doing what he did to himself.
Picture: Chad holds up Carter's golden glove boxing jacket from his high school varsity days at the Marine Military Academy
Has your dad's suicide changed your perception of mental issues that our guys face in coming back?
Chad: I know that you guys see stuff over there that you're not always meant to see. Post traumatic stress is a real thing and you might not think so but when you see a grown man cry over loud noises or things like that, you know it's very real. My dad was a complete hardass and he still would get upset over things like that. It definitely changes your perspective on the issues that our soldiers and Marines face over there. I want to help the veteran community because I hate seeing these guys go through these things. I hated watching my dad go through some of the things he did. My dad had to do some unspeakable things for the service of his nation and he came back and got treated like shit in a lot of ways. More than anything, it pisses me off.
Do you wish your dad would've talked with you more about the things he went through over there?
Chad: Sometimes I wish he would've talked more about Iraq, just so I could have insight into his experiences. Maybe it could've helped me understand why he did some of the things he did when he got back. When he first got back from Iraq in '05 I think I was six or seven. I wanted to stay up every night with him and I remember hearing some things about his time over there I probably shouldn't have heard at such an early age. He was drinking when he told me those things and he wasn't a drunk but the alcohol definitely helped him cope with some of those things. It's not a healthy way to deal with those things though. There needs to be other ways to do that.
How much has your mom done for you?
Chad: I work in the air conditioning service and make about twelve dollars an hour. I try to always show my mom how much I appreciate her on Mother's Day by treating her about as well as I can with the money I have. She deserves a mansion on one of the Fiji Islands, with a Rolls-Royce. She deserves the best. Without her, I wouldn't be the man I am today. I wouldn't be as respectful as I am towards women. Quite honestly, I'd probably be a douchebag (laughs). She's made me into the man I am today. If I ever won the lottery, she'd definitely get a brand new house and enough money to where she'd never have to work another day in her life. She did everything when my dad was gone on deployment and now she does the same since he's passed. She deserves the world.
If you could tell your dad anything right now what would you tell him?
Chad: If my dad was here I'd want to beat the shit out of him for what he's put my family through. Although, part of me definitely would want to say, "I miss you." That would be followed by a lot of "why?" I want to tell him how much I love him but I can't now. I'd ask him for advice in joining the Marines. The one thing I always wanted was to serve with my dad in a combat zone. I always wanted to deploy with him. I wanted to see him in his element. I could ask guys about him all day and have them tell me different things but I never got to see him over there. I always wanted that.
What would you say to civilians about having a dad in the military?
Chad: It's hard having a father in the military. Show a little respect to those who serve and the families that are back here because they're going through a lot more than you even think. If my dad hadn't gone over there, your dad would've had to go. Someone has to pay the tab.
What are your goals moving forward and how has your dad driven you?
Chad: My goals are to join the Marine Corps and make it through bootcamp without too many problems (laughs). I have a little bit of my dad in me so that might be a little bit of an issue. My dad's driven me to be a stronger man and I definitely look at life differently because of him. I want to get out of the Corps at least one rank higher than him (laughs). He makes me want to be the best possible Marine and leader I can be. I want to be a guy like him who could be depended upon when shit hits the fan. I want to be loved like he was by guys like you. I believe he's given me a lot of skill that will one day make me a good leader. I didn't know his military side all that well but I do know guys said he was a phenomenal leader. A lot of people looked up to him.
How important is it for you to be a positive influence in your little brother's life now that your dad is gone?
Chad: My brother is only ten so he wasn't around dad as much and didn't get taught as many of the lessons that I did. Every time I come home I try to toughen him up a little bit for the real world like dad did for me. No matter how strong you are, the world will beat you down and I think it's important for Colt to realize that. It's my time to teach my little brother what it means to be a man. I want to see him be strong and not feeling sorry for himself. I know that feeling sorry for yourself holds you back from a lot of good things in life. He's smart as hell. He's much smarter than me and my dad. He already wants to go to Baylor. If you'd asked me what school I wanted to go to at his age, it would've been the United States Marine Corps. I do things differently now that I know he's looking up to me. There are certain bad decisions I might've made before, where I knew my dad could tell him I wasn't doing the right thing. Now, there's no more of that excuse. I have to be the man that he looks up to.
COLT CHICK (CARTER'S SON)
What's been the hardest thing since your dad died?
Colt: It's hard knowing my dad can't support me anymore or help me with things. I miss him being here.
What did you learn most from your dad?
Colt: The biggest lesson from my dad was to not be a wuss.
How did your dad impact you in your life?
Colt: I always try to work harder because of my dad. I repeat things in school if I think I should to. He makes me work harder on my schoolwork because I know it's the right thing to do.
Who's helped you out the most since he's been gone?
Colt: My mom has helped the most since dad's been gone. My mom's always been there to support me. She always cheers me on and helps me with anything I need. She never looks down on me.
What were your favorite things about your dad?
Colt: Dad was always funny and spending time with him was always awesome. We watched movies and played "zombies" on X Box.
What would you tell someone about losing your dad if they were your age?
Colt: I would tell any kid my age that you shouldn't take your dad for granted. One day he might not be there and you'll miss him like I miss mine.
When I see the Chick family at present, I see the strength and perseverance of Carter's wife, Nikki. I see a woman that's long been the proverbial glue, holding the family together through the extreme rigors of a military life and now the even more difficult circumstance of losing Carter. I see two sons that are now without the mentorship of their father as they enter some of the most important years of their life. I often wonder what things would be like if Carter was still around. I wonder what it would be like if the boys still had their dad and Nikki still had her husband. I can't imagine those hard lonely nights, and the question of "why?" always resonating. The fact is that question of "why?" will most likely never be answered this side of eternity. That lack of clarity is one of the most painful parts of a lingering loss.