Veteran's widow: 'Every single day for him was a battle'
CLYDE – We want him to be a bad man, a lunatic even, this unbalanced man who holed up in a church and died after a shootout with police.
But the truth, as it often does, lies much deeper. Finding it requires a journey through combat zones, a brain injury, lost memories and layers of self-loathing and inner turmoil brought on by post-traumatic stress.
Nothing is simple about the case of Wade Allen Baker, the 44-year-old Army veteran who drove to Maple Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County on Aug. 19 and then apparently called 911 to lure police there, claiming four people had been shot and killed. Police responded in force, and after a brief standoff, Baker lay dead.
His family and friends describe the event of that day as absolutely a suicide, the final act of a man who saw too much in war and could not shake the demons that plagued him decades later.
It's a story that has become much too common with military veterans, many of whom suffer for decades with PTSD, a chronic, debilitating disorder that can rob them of memories and causes them to live in an anxious, hyper-vigilant state in which they sometimes are not rational and often prone to terrible mood swings.
Nationally, 22 veterans a day commit suicide, a number the Veterans Affairs Administration is furiously trying to curb.
Michelle "Chelle" Baker, Wade Baker's wife of 11 years and the mother of their four sons, has no doubt Baker chose to end his life through "suicide by cop" after years of trying — and failing — to conquer his PTSD.
"Every single day for him was a battle. And I think that day when he woke up, he was tired and ready to go. And I think he just couldn't do it himself. I think he was afraid he wouldn't be able to. He didn't go to the church that day to be violent," Baker said, sitting behind her small Clyde home, her husband's service dog, Honor, running through the yard.
Her husband, who left the military as a sergeant, was religious, she said, and "firmly wanted to be with God."
"I think that was the reason he went to the church," she said. "I think he was there because of his military mindset. It was a mission, and his mission was that he wanted to go, and he was going to make that happen. No matter what, he was going to succeed."
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's press release tersely summarized the day's events: "Officers from multiple law enforcement agencies responded to a 911 call claiming four people were shot. After a brief standoff, Wade Allen Baker, 44, of Clyde, was pronounced dead at the scene."
Four law enforcement officers were involved in the shooting, the release noted. Like so much about her husband's life and last moments, this too haunts Chelle Baker, that those officers have to carry a traumatic memory with them now. She works in security herself and understands their jobs. The community has been wonderful, offering love and understanding, and Chelle wants people to know how much that means to them.
"The boys and I, we have been praying for the officers, the community, the church members, the neighborhood," Baker said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "We feel compassion and empathy for them. We don't need to wait for the SBI investigation, whatever their outcome is, because we know in our hearts that they wanted to help him. So many people were victims of that day."
Wade Allen Baker grew up in Iowa and joined the Army at 19, serving tours of duty in Macedonia, Bosnia and Iraq during the first Gulf War. During one deployment, a heavy tailgate from a truck slammed into his head, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury and a lengthy hospital stay.
He also had seen plenty of combat, lost a very close friend, and spent time on a "body detail" gathering and processing dead combatants and civilians, events that left deep scars.
When he returned to Iowa, he found work as a jailer for the Sheriff's Office in Marshall County, where he met Chelle, a fellow jailer.
"He's very genuine, funny, witty, and he's instantly likable," said Chelle Baker, still speaking of her husband in the present tense. "I mean everybody who meets him, instantly he's like a best friend. He's that type of guy. He would have your back. We worked together in that setting for a lot of years, and you knew he was going to be there for you."
They hit it off, marrying and having children of their own — two sets of twin boys, now ages 9 and 11. They also had a total of five other children from previous marriages, creating a brood of nine who now range in ages from 9 to 23.
Eventually, though, the PTSD and brain injury complications made it impossible to work, and about eight years ago the government granted Wade Baker a 100 percent disability.
"He had hit such a low point," said Chelle Baker, 40. "He struggled with false memories. He struggled with the loss of real memories."
Baker's brain tried to fill the gaps, grabbing memories from movies or television shows, sometimes from stories other veterans had told or items he'd read in newspapers or magazines.
Baker believed these memories were absolutely real, but he could not remember some actual events, such as family vacations. He remembered having a dog they never had, even down to details such as taking the dog on fishing trips, and the grief he felt when it died.
Cruelly, the real memories vanished.
"They were gone, and you could see the sadness in his face," Chelle Baker said. "It was hard for us to talk about sometimes because he would feel so sad — 'I don't remember half of my life. These are great things that have happened and I feel like I've missed them.'"
The tears come again as she relives her husband's pain.
"It hurt him really bad, and he didn't understand that," she said. "And he knew it was messed up. Anytime you told him, 'That didn't happen,' or 'Do you remember this?' you could see the pain when he was like, 'You can't tell me it didn't happen because in my head it did.'"
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD states that about 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in the early 2000s have PTSD in a given year. For the Gulf War (Desert Storm) in the 1990s, about 12 out of every 100 have PTSD in a given year.
Some 2.5 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many had multiple tours. In the first Gulf War in 1990-91, 694,550 soldiers were deployed.
The VA has multiple treatments for PTSD, and some of the techniques can be very effective. Cognitive Processing Therapy, like Baker had, is successful in reducing symptoms in 59 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, for example.
But the therapy never quite clicked for Baker. At times, he would be absolutely convinced he had committed horrible atrocities, at one point convincing himself he had killed their neighbor in Iowa. He was so relieved one day to see the neighbor alive that he burst into the house to tell Chelle the man was doing yard work.
In an April 2012 interview with Iowa Public Radio's "River to River" program, Baker told the interviewer his PTSD symptoms worsened after he left the military.
"I turned to drugs; I even turned to pornography, just any vice I could find that would keep the endorphins flowing in my brain, to shut me down when I wanted to shut down, to turn on when I wanted to turn on," Baker said.
He had suicidal thoughts, telling "River to River" he reached a point he described as "two moves from checkmate."
"I was gonna lose my family, was gonna lose my job, the family that I did have," Baker said. "My parents and my sister unfortunately didn't understand. They were worn out and tired of trying to care, really. I'd alienated everybody. And the easiest way out and the fastest way out was suicide."
Baker attempted suicide once but failed. He entered a treatment program at the VA Center in Iowa City.
Treatment programs tantalized him, though, Chelle Baker said. Wade would make some progress, but then regress. Sometimes he'd dropped out after a week or two of therapy.
In 2010, Wade Baker agreed to try a different tack, a program called Paws & Effect, a Des Moines, Iowa, nonprofit that raises, trains, and places service dogs with children and veterans with disabilities. Executive Director Nicole Shumate said she first met Baker in 2010 and then had a two-hour interview with him in 2011.
Like most people who met Baker, a beefy man with close-cropped hair and piercing blue eyes, she found him charming and likable. Shumate, like Chelle Baker, still speaks of Baker in the present tense.
"He's got this huge, larger than life, wonderful, vivacious personality," Shumate said. "He's a very easy man to like, and he's got a great sense of humor. And he's clever. So when you package that all together, he's that veteran everybody wants to deploy with — a fair amount of sass, a fair amount of respect. Maybe on the edge of being a little too silly, but he makes others comfortable and he knows it."
In the classes with the dogs, Baker always was the class clown, adding levity when it was needed. In a Paws & Effect promotional video, Baker puts it this way: "I have two speeds. I'm either really nice, or I have a tendency to go overboard."
In March 2012, he graduated from the training program with his dog, a lithe, energetic black Labrador named Honor.
The dogs are trained to help with practical tasks such as opening doors, but they're also able to sense anxiety in their owners and offer comfort, sitting in their laps, or licking their faces. With Baker, Honor would help calm the jitters he often got in crowds, and he was a great ice breaker to start conversations.
"I'm not big for new environments and new people; I don't socialize with a whole lot of people; I don't go out a whole lot," Baker said in the video. "When I walk down the street or I walk through the mall or I walk through a grocery store, everybody is either a threat or not a threat, and that's just how you see things. That's as deep as you go."
Baker told Iowa Public Radio that Honor was like one of his combat brothers, even having his back when he was sleeping.
"I was having a nightmare, a flashback," Baker said in the interview. "And I woke up with Honor standing on my chest licking my face. It's calming me down. I realize, I know what he did, I know what happened now. He was waking me up and he was stopping the nightmare for me."
Chelle Baker saw a significant change in her husband, who was prone to mood swings and a desire to be left alone, despite an outgoing personality.
"It was very good for him," she said. "Otherwise he would've kept being that hermit. I can honestly say, without Honor, he would not have lasted as long as he did. Honor helped him that much. They were inseparable for four years. Everywhere they were together; they even slept together. It was just fantastic, their relationship."
In the promotional video, Baker says he'd been battling his problems for more than 15 years and had tried 22 different medications and multiple therapies.
"And nothing has come close to the last two weeks and what I've gotten out of this dog," he said.
But it wasn't enough. Baker still struggled with the anxiety, unease in crowds and hyper-vigilance. He was receiving treatment from the VA in Iowa, and they were doing "a great job of maintaining him," Chelle Baker said, but he had become stagnant.
"He craved more," she said. "He wanted to get better. He didn't want to fight every day that fight."
Chelle also had become concerned about the toll his illness was taking on their four boys, the other children and her. When Baker mentioned that one of his "combat brothers" living in the Asheville area had success with a different program at the local VA, they decided as a couple it would be good for him to move to Western North Carolina, which he did in December 2013.
For a while, the program worked. When Chelle and the boys visited last year, Baker seemed better — fully engaged with the boys and excited about the beauty of the mountains and the chance to hike and do outdoor activities with his sons. He was a hands-on dad, offering lots of "hugs and snuggles," as Chelle said, and he like to share his love of reading, football, hunting and fishing.
They decided Chelle and the boys would move here, and they would live together again as a family.
But Wade Baker could not sustain the good feelings. He struggled with a sense of failure, that he was not providing for his family. He would often wear the same clothes several days in a row and maybe forget to shower, unless Chelle prompted him or laid out new clothes.
Like a haunting, the false memories, the sense that he had done evil things, would return. He would plead with Chelle to tell him he had not done such horrible things, that they didn't happen.
"He would cry a lot, and say, 'I know I'm good, and I know I would do good things for other people, so how can I have these memories that I'm a monster, and yet I know that I'm good?'" Chelle Baker said. "He couldn't find that balance."
For a fourth time, Wade Baker enrolled in a Cognitive Processing Therapy program through the VA, a program in which the veteran writes out a trauma statement, re-experiences the trauma and works on processing it differently. He finished it here, and it helped, but ultimately, it wasn't enough.
Generally speaking, Chelle Baker believes the VA here did good work with her husband, but she would like to see more counseling available for family members, and she doesn't think veterans like her husband should go through CPT one day a week, then return home to live with families that aren't trained to help them. The CPT treatment course typically lasts either eight or 12 weeks.
Her husband also claimed to be "medication free," most likely because he had taken himself off the medications, and Chelle Baker said that was not a positive development. His moods swung, and he could not stop the nightmares or turn off the false memories.
"That was something he struggled with to the very end," she said. "He said, 'Sometimes I feel crazy.' Nobody was able to help him make that go away, and he would say, 'I don't want to live like this forever.'"
In July, Chelle and Wade Baker agreed they should live apart again, and Wade found a house not far from them.
The last day of Wade Baker's life, Aug. 19, was his four boys' first day of a new school year. Chelle Baker got the boys ready and sent them off to school.
About 1 p.m., she got one set of twins off the bus, and as they had about an hour to wait, they all went by Wade Baker's house. Chelle knew immediately "he was not OK that day."
"You can almost feel it off of him, and you instantly know, and that fake front doesn't work, because you know," she said.
She asked him if he was OK. "And he said, 'No, I'm not.' He said, 'It's a really bad day,'" Chelle Baker said.
The boys also knew something was off, and they hustled to get what they needed out of his house and head back to the car. Chelle Baker talked to Wade for a while, and he said he hadn't slept for days and the nightmares were really bad.
He said he couldn't take it anymore.
"But he says this stuff all the time," Baker said. "He talks like that a lot. We just didn't realize what point we were at. I knew it was bad, but he's been bad before."
She knew Baker had skipped his therapy appointment the week before, and she encouraged him to see his therapist that day.
"He said, 'They can't help me. They haven't been able to help me; they can't help me anymore. They just want me to die; I know that's want they want,'" Baker said.
Chelle Baker told him that wasn't true. They argued. He accused her of seeing someone else, a false accusation.
She didn't want to argue, so she left. He thrust a note in her hand, and she put the small envelope in the glove box.
Soon after she left, though, Wade started texting her incessantly, his thinking irrational. He wanted to know that Chelle was fighting for him, and she said she was, but she was also fighting for her own sanity.
"So then he said, 'I will always love you forever,'" Chelle Baker said. "And he said, 'Tell the boys I'll be there for every test, every football game and every night.' He said, 'I love you all. Goodbye and good night.' That's when I knew he was going to kill himself, because 'good night' was some kind of military thing for him that has to do with death."
With her four boys in the car, she called the VA crisis hotline and told them her husband was in deep trouble. They assured her they would get him on the phone, and if she didn't hear back for a while, that meant they were talking to him.
Meanwhile, the wife of Wade Baker's combat brother in Waynesville began texting Chelle, telling her Wade had been texting her and was "100 percent suicidal."
An hour passed, and Chelle assumed the VA had him on the phone. But when she called back around 2:30 p.m., she found out the call had been handled by a backup center and the VA worker had to track down who handled the call.
"The operator said he made contact with him, he stayed on the phone with him and then he handed him over to the police department," Chelle Baker said. "He said they're out with him now, and the officers need you to give them a call."
At 3:11 p.m., Haywood County dispatch received a 911 call from the church. A police press release said a single man was in the church.
"I'm at Maple Grove Baptist Church," the caller, Wade Baker, said. "There's somebody here with a gun. They're shooting up everything."
Pressed by the operator about who was shooting, the caller said, "Some crazy son of a (expletive). I think he shot four people already."
That was false, of course.
"No other people were in the church at the time," the Sheriff's Office press release stated. "Gunfire was exchanged between the suspect and law enforcement. No law enforcement officer was injured. Emergency Medical Services was called in to render aid to the suspect."
Meanwhile, Chelle Baker had heard of the standoff at the church, and she knew immediately it was her husband. She frantically called the Sheriff's Office, but instead of putting her through to her husband or an officer, they told her officers needed to come to her house to talk to her.
Once there, they told her Wade Baker was dead. In his FJ Cruiser parked outside the church, police found Honor, unharmed. They told her little else, but they did say her husband had been drinking and had thrown a liquor bottle at police. As Wade Baker didn't drink, Chelle knows the alcohol must have fueled his unraveling.
The SBI needed her phone and Wade's journals — and the note he'd written her, the one she hastily put in the glove box. Chelle, badly shaken, read it quickly.
"He was angry, and he was wondering why this was happening like this," Chelle Baker said. "He talked about having nightmares. At the very end, he signed it off with, 'Goodbye and good night.'"
When Shumate heard about Baker's death, she immediately classified it as a suicide. Despite all the resources driven toward Baker and all the therapy he had gone through, and the training with Honor, Shumate said she still was not caught off guard by his death.
"I think if I was ever going to point to one individual who is at highest risk for suicide in our group, he would've been the person I would've pointed to," Shumate said. "He was always very honest and open — maybe not publicly — but he was always very honest and open with those who knew him or were better involved with him about how much he truly struggled."
They know that many troubled veterans struggle with suicidal thoughts, and they implore them to seek help.
"To say that I'm heartbroken doesn't even touch it, but I'm not surprised," Shumate said. "I think that's the hardest part. I know from the inside how many resources were driven toward him, and his wife couldn't have been more supportive."
Asked if she feels the VA failed Wade Baker, or if she somehow failed him, or if his death was just the inevitable culmination of his illness, Chelle Baker pauses, then says maybe it was a mixture of all the factors. She knows doctors and therapists are asking, 'What can we do?' And that's appropriate and healthy, because "something is broken in the system," but she also knows the VA tried mightily and could not simply put her husband in inpatient care for the rest of his life.
No one person is to blame for his demise, she says, yet everyone feels guilty. She strokes Honor, who still offers comfort to her and the four boys who live at home. He will stay with the family, a living reminder of her deceased husband and the boys' tormented father, a man who finally found release in that small country church.
She talks about that last time she saw Wade Baker alive.
"I thought it was like any other time, and we could turn it around," Baker said, the tears coming again. "And I think about all the things that I should've said or could've said or done different. I feel terrible that this happened, but I can also look at it and I can see that we did everything as a family to be there for him, to help him, to fight for him. We cried out for help, we asked for help, we notified people. I know that we took steps. I just wish I really would've screamed louder."