My stepfather, Bob Colclasure, was a Vietnam War veteran, beloved high school English teacher and talented musician. His students appreciated his sense of humor, and he often played guitar and banjo during class. Banjo music will forever remind me of him. Our John Denver sing-alongs are a favorite childhood memory. Bob joined the Marines in 1969 and served in Vietnam as a second lieutenant. His military service was a source of pride for him. Although I did not understand this as a child, I now appreciate the immense sacrifice he made for our country. Sadly, in part due to this military service, he spent much of his life trying to fit in to a world that he felt did not quite accept him.
Bob became part of our family when I was seven. A few months later, he lost his oldest brother to gun violence in a murder-for-hire made to look like a hunting accident. Shortly after, we realized he was developing a drinking problem. He became prone to fits of anger and PTSD attacks, often occurring in the middle of the night, waking us up from our sleep. After retirement, his alcoholism, coupled with both physical and mental health issues, escalated beyond what we were aware of. It is now abundantly clear that he was unstable and should not have had access to firearms.
In February 2007, Bob took his own life with a handgun. Our family felt blindsided. However, looking back, the “typical” warning signs were there and went unnoticed: the withdrawal, the lack of personal hygiene, self-loathing and increased drinking. Of course I feel we could have been more proactive in intervening and encouraging him to get help, and more importantly, restricting his access to firearms. Shortly after I got the news, I asked, “Why the hell did we have so many guns in the home?” That statement speaks to the importance of Red Flag laws that have been proven to save lives. One can’t help but wonder if my stepfather would still be alive today if not for his access to a handgun.
The pain lingers, showing up at unexpected moments, and questions will always remain. The “what ifs” are endless. A few years back, I read Tim O’Brien’s poignant account of the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. It offered me an understanding of the horrors that Bob may have experienced. Sadly, I feel like I came to this understanding a decade too late.
It is a wonderful and important thing to hold dear to memories of our loved ones who have passed. But it is not enough to only reflect on the lives lost to gun violence; we must also honor these lives and take it upon ourselves to keep going. I hope these stories help to propel you forward in this movement, as we commit to fighting gun violence together.