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The Good Soldier: Why a Suicidal Officer Had to Go AWOL to Save His Life

The Army prosecuted Lawrence Franks for desertion — but he refuses to be called a coward

United States Military AcademyUnited States Military Academy

United States Military Academy

That Sunday night, March 29th, 2009, after the dinner dishes were done and put away, Lawrence Franks took out a bottle of Jameson and turned to his roommate, Matt Carney: “Ya wanna shot?” He asked this every night. Carney, like Franks, an officer in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, lifted his glass and made the first toast. Here’s to the two of them and all that their lives now entailed: to surviving their first miserable winter at Fort Drum, to navigating the labyrinth of rules, regulations and duties that they, as newly minted second lieutenants, were still trying to make sense of. Here’s to figuring it out.

Franks downed his drink, feeling the slow, soothing burn of the whiskey. He poured another shot. Take care of yourself, buddy, he thought. I’m sorry you’re going to have to deal with my mess. “To you,” he said to Carney.

Franks was consumed by what he was about to do: He was going to fuck over his unit, abandon his post, unfulfill his duty, shame his family, his friends, West Point, the Army, the country, God. He was deserting. Franks was 22, with the square-jawed good looks and chiseled physique that reminded at least a few of his friends of a gladiator. A meteorically high-achiever all his life, he’d graduated near the top of his West Point class of 2008, and now, less than three months into his first official posting, Franks was considered to be one of the best young lieutenants in the 2-22 Infantry Battalion, known as “Triple Deuce.” All his life he’d been able to hold it together.

But it was a lie. Finishing his drink, Franks waited until he heard Carney turn on the shower, and then picked up the phone and ordered a taxi for 4 a.m. He set three alarms. He didn’t want to pull a “Bay of Pigs,” as he called it, by snoozing through his wake-up call.

In a matter of days, Lawrence Franks would be someone else — who, he didn’t know. But he was tired of being himself. He hated being an officer. More than that, he felt unworthy. Every day was a struggle to maintain the facade, to find reasons not to die. It had been that way nearly as long as he could remember, and it had gotten worse since he arrived at Fort Drum in upstate New York. “I just need to get away,” he’d written Carney that night. “I’m too weak inside.” He’d hidden his agony from everyone. Still, it was a miracle that no one had realized it — or maybe they had, he wasn’t sure. What he did know was that if he stayed one more minute on base he would shoot himself.

Awaking a few hours later, Franks dressed in a gray T-shirt, brown trousers and his father’s old maroon-striped gray Le Coq Sportif. He’d packed light, stuffing his small black JanSport backpack with one change of underwear and socks, a windbreaker, some toiletry items, a few vitamin C packets and four books he considered essential: a French dictionary and a phrase book, the gold-inscribed leather-bound Bible he’d had since birth, now held together with duct tape, and a copy of the novel that had been an inspiration for his life — Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, on ancient Sparta.

Quietly, he walked down the stairs and into the cold morning. Before getting into his cab, Franks popped two letters into the mailbox, one for Carney and the other for his parents. “I’m just going to try to start anew where I have no expectations to be the man I should be,” he told his roommate. To his parents, he said, “I need to find out who I really am.”

Exactly five years later, on March 31st, 2014, a man whose expired American passport identified him as “Lawrence Franks” showed up at a U.S. Army installation in Wiesbaden, Germany. He’d come to turn himself in, he told the MPs. This was the first anyone in the Army had seen of Franks since he’d vanished from Fort Drum that snowy morning in 2009. Investigating his disappearance, the New York State Police had managed to trace his movements to Switzerland. Then he’d disappeared. In the letters he left behind, he’d confessed to severe depression and constant thoughts of suicide. Carney assumed he was dead. Others thought suicide might be a cover: Knowing Franks, he was probably doing some kind of super-secret Bourne Identity mission.

The truth was even weirder. Franks had flown to Paris, via Zurich, and joined the French Foreign Legion. Famous for its Spartan lifestyle and physical rigor, the legion seemed to him the perfect venue to conquer his demons. “I needed to be cold, sweaty, muddy and wet . . . to find the will to live,” he later said.

Over the next five years, Franks, under the assumed name of Christopher Flaherty, served three tours in Africa as a legionnaire, including one five-month stint during the French war against Al Qaeda. Then, a day after he was released from his contract, he arrived at Wiesbaden to face the consequences of his actions. He was soon flown back to Fort Drum for court-martial proceedings and in December was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and desertion. He was sentenced to four years at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Desertion is ostensibly one of the most serious offenses one can commit in the military during wartime. Since 2001, tens of thousands of service members, facing the strain of repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, have fled their posts. Yet as of last December the Army had prosecuted just 1,900 soldiers for desertion in that time period. Franks was an officer who went AWOL rather than commit suicide, and his departure barely made a ripple within Triple Deuce, which quickly replaced him. If anything, “it was kind of amusing,” says Maj. Michael Flaherty, the physician’s assistant for the 2-22. “It’s not every day a platoon leader goes to Europe.”

Yet Franks has been punished in what many view as an unusually harsh way. At his Article 32 hearing (essentially the same as a civilian grand jury) in the summer of 2014, Maj. Kevin Kilbride, the chief investigating officer, recommended that the Army consider Franks’ mental state in 2009, and not subject him to a court-martial, but simply discharge him “in the most timely manner.” But the leadership at Fort Drum overruled that recommendation and ordered Franks to face a general court-martial, where he was prosecuted for desertion “with intent to shirk important service,” specifically deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Franks has insisted he is not a coward. He didn’t want to avoid deployment, he later said — he yearned for it as a way to die a “noble death,” and had been devastated to discover his unit might not deploy for a year. “I [wanted to] immediately deploy and get myself killed at the first opportunity,” he said. “Nobody would know that I wanted to die. My secret depression would be buried with me forever.”

Franks made these statements during his sentencing. At his trial, the judge looked at Franks’ depression and suicidal thoughts as elements of a “mental responsibility” defense, something Franks’ attorneys had never planned to raise. Two independent psychological evaluations, one of which was requested by the prosecution, had found Franks to be perfectly sane. But he’d suffered from a major depressive disorder that had so overwhelmed him, they concluded, suicide had seemed like his only option. “He was a second away from shooting himself,” said Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, an Army psychiatrist who examined Franks as a consultant for the defense. “At the time he left, his brain was on fire and he needed to put the fire out as quickly as he could.”

Lawrence Franks

It was curious that the court was disinterested in a nuanced discussion of Franks’ suicidal thoughts, given the Army’s ongoing battle against suicide in the ranks. Military suicides began rising in the 2000s, and in some years, notably 2012, claimed more soldiers’ lives than both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army has named suicide prevention one of its priorities and spends millions on workshops, studies and awareness programs. A recent study found that soldiers most at risk to attempt suicide tend to be young white males who, like Franks at the time, are in their first year of service. But Franks was an officer, making him an outlier. Suicides within the officer corps are rare, and desertion is almost unheard of. At his court-martial, the prosecution accused Franks of betraying his oath of leadership, as well as ignoring his “duty” to seek help within the Army’s mental-health system. That Franks did not want to seek help within an Army system that was even more broken in 2009 than it is today, that he feared admitting his problem would cast doubt about his fitness as an officer, that he was afraid of taking medications, and that given this dilemma, the only courses of action he saw feasible were desertion (a sin against the Army) or suicide (a sin against God), all of that was cast by the prosecution as an excuse for an officer who had used his West Point education to serve another army. “Every time they have an ethics class at West Point, they probably put Franks’ face on a PowerPoint as an example of what not to do,” says Flaherty, who retired from the Army in 2010.

Or perhaps Franks, whose story is told through court documents, interviews with friends, family and military colleagues, and some of his writing (Army regulations for inmates prevented Rolling Stone from interviewing Franks in person or on the phone, and he was also unable to speak freely in letters), isn’t even mentioned at all. One Army colleague believes West Point views Franks “as a plague they don’t want to spread.”

The U.S. military, like any great enterprise, is built largely on myth. But many young people educated at the military academies believe in the mystique of “perfect” honor and duty, says Nancy Sherman, author of Afterwar and a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in military ethics. Successful leadership arguably depends on one’s willingness to not only buy into, but also promulgate this idealized fantasy, which at some point most officers will realize is exactly that. How he or she handles this awakening will determine whether they move on to successful military careers or fall off the train, like Lawrence Franks.

“If you are someone who hasn’t worked out how messy the world really is, it only takes an upset of a certain sort to overturn that barrel, and then the whole world collapses,” says Sherman. “Imagine if you’re a person who has subordinated your entire self to an institution in almost a quasi-religious way, and it disappoints you.”

Lawrence Franks grew up on a farm 15 miles east of Portland, Oregon, in a rural community called Damascus. One longtime family friend, Pastor Howard Davis, calls the area “God’s country,” a reference to its spectacular evergreens and vistas of Mount Hood. But it also refers to the area’s spiritual geography. There are some 20 churches in and around Damascus.

The Frankses were one of the most respected families in Damascus. Lawrence’s father, Larry, was a prominent neurosurgeon in Portland before he retired in 2001. His German-born wife, Ulrike, had trained as a nurse, but only worked as one professionally for a couple of years, focusing instead on her family. Married in 1985, the couple had four children: Lawrence, Marin, Jordan and Nate, each one tall, athletic and academically gifted, with shelves full of medals and an unassuming, “humble” demeanor, as many acquaintances put it. “They were kind of freaks of nature,” says one close acquaintance.

These virtues didn’t always come easily. The Frankses were highly focused on achievement and put great emphasis on obedience, discipline and self-control. Whatever inner turmoil their kids may have felt as children, or even teenagers, “just wasn’t addressed,” says Marin, now 27. She and her brothers would joke about not having emotions. “We had this culture in my family of ‘pull yourself together,’ ” she says. “We were all kind of like, ‘We will not fail.’ ”

An avid sportsman, Larry insisted his children enroll in soccer and later play three high school sports, to encourage fitness and teamwork and to hone their competitive spirit. Idleness came as a reward for hard work. “My dad had this strange family rule that if we wanted to watch TV or play video games, we had to run up this very steep hill on our property,” Marin says. Lawrence would sometimes do it barefoot, to make it more challenging.

Lawrence Franks

Lawrence’s job as the eldest was to set an example for his sister and brothers. He was a natural leader, charging ahead of his siblings and friends on long expeditions through the woods, motivating them through their chores with a Spartan maxim: “With our shields or on them!” He also pushed himself to extremes: running an extra mile when he was jogging with friends, playing paintball without a shirt. A captain of his high school football team, “he would go until utter exhaustion,” recalls his coach Bruce Schmidt. “As coaches, we would say, ‘If you had to go to battle, who’d you want with you?’ Lawrence was always the top of the list.”

Schmidt remembers Lawrence as almost obsessed with the idea of leadership. He read countless books on the subject. He took a similar approach to faith, or at least the practice of religion, filling his large spiral notebooks with questions and thoughts about God’s teachings and how he thought God wanted him to apply them to his life. Like many of his high school friends, he attended Good Shepherd Community Church, the Damascus area’s 1,200-person evangelical church, whose fundamentalist value system banned dancing on church property and was stridently opposed to homosexuality and premarital sex. Men at Good Shepherd were encouraged to see themselves as leaders and “protectors,” something the church’s founding pastor, Stu Weber, embodied as a former Green Beret.

“The church was very intense,” says one of Lawrence’s friends, who requested his name be withheld. This friend also suffered from depression. “We were raised in this bubble where everyone knows everything, and they’re constantly telling us we’re going to be leaders as Christians and do great things,” he says. “And so you had to be on point all the time. You have to be ‘pure,’ you have to be ‘wearing the armor [of Christ].’ And you get to the point where you go, ‘This is impossible.’ ”

Sometimes Lawrence strangled himself. It started when he was about 13. He’d take a belt, tie it around his neck and pull until his muscles gave out. Then he’d let go. And breathe. It was glorious, that almost-choking-then-letting-go feeling.

Then he would stare at the ceiling. He could never sleep, a problem he’d had for as long as he could remember, and in bed, his mind would take over: Am I a good person? Why do I feel so terrible? What’s my purpose? Am I disappointing God? He would ruminate on these questions for hours. The emptiness he felt was overwhelming.

There was no way he could talk about this, and even if he could have articulated it, it was all too shameful to admit to anyway. Surely, his father would never have these doubts, and, as a surgeon, he was a man who looked death in the face every day. Why do I feel so weak? What’s wrong with me? Some nights he would be so frustrated, “you’d hear him,” says Marin, whose room was below Lawrence’s. “He sounded like he was growling.”

To cope, he’d not only run the hill barefoot, he’d run it with a backpack full of rocks, or he’d do it so many times he’d almost vomit, and then do it some more. During his senior year, Lawrence played the entire football season with an injured hand. “I don’t even remember him taping it,” recalls his friend and teammate Kip Johnson. Lawrence told his brother Jordan that he liked the pain: “It reminds me that I’m still alive.”

But in fact, Lawrence sought out intense pain and exercise to the point of exhaustion as a way to conquer his increasingly overwhelming desire to commit suicide. It had begun around the eighth grade, when, for no reason he could fathom, he began to fantasize about being killed by a stray bullet from a gang fight (even though there weren’t any gangs in Damascus). Later, in high school, he hoped to be a victim in a school shooting. He began to pray to God for death, and when that didn’t come, he started thinking of ways to end his life on his own terms: by jumping off a cliff, shooting himself. Just thinking about suicide made him feel better.

If only he could be Spartan king Leonidas, who died heroically in battle saving his people. The Spartans, as opposed to modern-day Damascans, as Lawrence saw it, lived lives of true purpose and self-sacrifice. Even as he lay in bed contemplating suicide, he would comfort himself with the Greek ideal of kleos, the glory that came from a warrior performing a heroic deed, often at the cost of his own life. To prepare himself for his own act of kleos, Lawrence decided to join the military. He would become a Green Beret combat medic — not a doctor like his father, but a hero nonetheless, saving lives on the battlefield under tremendously difficult conditions. It was a noble, selfless pursuit, tailor-made for adrenaline junkies, and it would be a harder life, which was what he wanted. He didn’t care about being happy. He wanted to feel he was doing something meaningful. Then, he could die.

The United States Military Academy, West Point, sits on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. A collection of stately granite buildings and gray stone walls 50 miles from New York City, West Point boasts alumni that include two U.S. presidents, dozens of Medal of Honor winners and a pantheon of generals: Lee, Grant, Eisenhower, Petraeus. Everything about the place echoes with history, as if it is the living, breathing embodiment of its creed: duty, honor, country.

Franks initially hadn’t wanted to go to West Point. He’d wanted to enlist in the Army at 17, a proposition his father nixed, insisting he go to college. Though Franks had been ambivalent — he arrived on campus in 2004, having applied only to West Point — the place, in many ways, seemed perfect for him. Every moment of his day was regimented with classes, sports, drills, military training, professional development and other endurance tests that, cadets understood, would turn them into perfect young officers. The concept of leadership informed everything they did, and Franks, steeped in these ideals since childhood, threw himself into the experience. Though he hated the elitism of the place (so much was the case, Franks never liked to wear his West Point uniform while home on leave), he was proud to be a part of it, and he enjoyed the camaraderie and shared misery among cadets.

Lawrence Franks

Still, his depression followed him relentlessly. Not fully ready to admit to it, Franks called his affliction “the Demon.” He’d hoped it might dissipate once he got to West Point, but if anything it only became more entrenched. On the outside, he appeared to be doing fine. Intelligent and motivated, he seemed like “a really exceptional cadet,” the personification of the Army ethos of hooah, recalls his classmate Mike Dewey. He rowed crew his freshman year and played rugby the next. During the grueling weed-out boot camp affectionately known as “Beast Barracks,” he was commended for his grit. Other cadets were struck by his self-discipline. When he failed to live up to his own expectations, his roommate later told his mother, Franks would sleep on the floor, without a pillow or a blanket, as punishment.

This sort of self-flagellation at an elite civilian university where mental-health counseling abounds would have likely raised concern, even prompted a dorm adviser to suggest Franks get help. At West Point, which describes its cadets as “America’s stress-hardiest young adults,” Franks’ behavior, had anyone noticed, might have been perceived as just another sign of his integrity. Franks didn’t feel particularly noble; he felt tortured. But there was nowhere to go with that sad reality. Doubting the person the Army wanted him to be was as off-limits a concept as doubting the existence of God. Mentors, professors, coaches, fellow cadets — all were of the same rigidly focused mind. So Franks wore the mask, just as he’d done in high school.

“I really have a problem,” he wrote one night. “I’m not even sure that I should become an officer. Who wants to follow a leader that not only does not fear death, but actually wishes it? . . . I know that I should pray, but I cannot pray without being distracted by how little I actually want to live . . . [so] I start to pray for death.”

But that was even worse, he realized, because by praying for death, surely he deserved it. “I wonder if God allows people who commit suicide into heaven . . . ,” he wrote. “Probably not.”

Before long, the Demon was Franks’ constant companion. It followed him around campus, sat with him in classes, accompanied him to the range. Sometimes it caused him to carry a bullet, just in case the overwhelming desire to shoot himself became too much and he put a pistol to his head. But he restrained himself. He wanted to die an honorable death, to have his name announced when the entire Corps of Cadets, some 4,300 people, gathered for meals, followed by a moment of silence.

On May 31st, 2008, Franks stood amid 1,000 other members of his class and promised to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Then, having tossed his hat in the air, thrown his arm around various shoulders and flashed the utterly fake yet completely convincing smile that would appear in his graduation photos, Franks walked in the rain, away from all of his classmates and their families, down the hill, past the reservoir and the chapel, and to his barracks, where he took off the mask he’d worn all day. He’d survived four long years without killing himself. But no one ever knew, which was both the beauty, and the pity, of Lawrence Franks’ situation. He was, as Mike Dewey recalls, the perfect cadet, “almost like a statue.”

In the fall of 2008, Franks arrived at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, to begin training as a Medical Services officer, or MEDO, as the Army refers to this position. It seemed like an odd choice: He’d graduated near the top of his class, which meant he could have done almost anything. Most people who knew Franks assumed he’d choose a combat specialty or perhaps work in military intelligence. But Franks could not in good conscience protect the lives of infantry soldiers as an officer, given his own desire to die, and he’d also never given up his dream of being a combat medic. This specialty seemed like the next best thing.

MEDOs, Franks quickly realized, weren’t medics. Medics learned how to administer IVs; their young lieutenants, like Franks, learned how to create efficient PowerPoint presentations. It was intensely dull, which only added to Franks’ general ambivalence about being an officer. He’d even reached out to a few fellow soldiers and West Point contacts to ask if he might be able to serve his five-year commitment in the enlisted ranks.

This, the equivalent of a junior vice president of a company asking to resign to take an entry-level job, should have set off immediate alarm bells, says retired Lt. Gen. Charles Otstott. The reaction among officers, Otstott says, “would probably be incredulity and a sensing that the requestor must be mentally ill or over the edge somehow.”

But rather than raising a red flag, Franks’ question went nowhere. The Demon, usually quieted by intense activity, didn’t buckle under administrative tasks. I wonder what else is bullshit besides this job, Franks thought.

Very tentatively, Franks began to venture out of his ideological safety zone and question the rules. Why did we actually go into Iraq and Afghanistan? He surfed the Web, researching the Bush administration’s impetus for war, a veritable stew of legitimate and conspiratorial theories, all wholly new and startling. This entire political situation pisses me off, he thought, which only increased his anxiety. What was an officer, if not part of the establishment? Though he still wanted to serve, “I didn’t want to be an advocate for the system,” he later reflected. “I never wanted to have to explain to my soldiers why, or for what, we are serving, or how sacred, just or legitimate the cause is.”

These thoughts were as sacrilegious as wanting to simply resign his commission. So after his training was done, in January 2009, Franks got in his Ford Yukon and began the 31-hour drive from Texas to Fort Drum, his first-duty station, where he would serve as the Medical Services officer to a combat infantry unit. Beside him in the truck was a pistol. As he drove, he would point it to his head.

Located just south of the Canadian border, in the flatlands of northern New York state, Fort Drum is one of the Army’s most isolated bases. A vast former Army training base spread across 168 square miles, Drum is home to almost 20,000 active-duty soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry, one of the Army’s workhorse divisions, serving in World War II and virtually every U.S. conflict since the Eighties. Franks had wanted to be assigned to the 10th Mountain in part because of its storied history, but also because he believed his brigade would deploy soon after his arrival. In his suicidal fantasies, which had become more frequent since leaving West Point, he imagined himself dying in battle. However, shortly before Franks arrived at Drum, his battalion, the 2-22, had returned from 15 months in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. That meant they would not deploy again for almost a year.

Franks served as the battalion’s one MEDO officer. He was responsible for the training and equipment of his medical platoon of 30 to 40 people, as well as the “medical readiness” of the more-than-500-person battalion, making sure the soldiers went to their doctors’ appointments and tracking their progress. He’d then report his findings, in a PowerPoint.

The 2-22 was in a “redeployment” phase, that period of flux between one deployment and another. Arriving into this chaotic environment can be stressful, and Franks had almost no time to adjust as his multiple responsibilities kept him busy from early morning until late at night. There was only superficial camaraderie between officers, and adding to this isolation, Franks didn’t even have the time to exercise as much as he wanted, which had always been one of his key coping mechanisms.

Franks’ superior officer, Maj. Michael Flaherty, wondered about his new lieutenant. Why would a bright young officer in such great physical shape choose to work in medical administration? Franks wanted to be with the troops and told Flaherty he couldn’t wait to deploy, assuming it would be better. But Flaherty quickly disabused him of that notion. What he was doing at Drum, he’d be doing in Iraq or Afghanistan — except there, he’d be carrying a gun, Flaherty told him. “He would have been doing administrative work and the medics would be deployed in the field. He wouldn’t have been happy.”

Franks felt doomed to a life of “personnel management,” as he later wrote to his parents. “I’d come into the office, and he’d have his head in his hands, staring at his keyboard,” Flaherty recalls. “He had that universal look of despair. But he was doing a really good job, so I didn’t think that much of it.”

Another one of Franks’ tasks was to make sure that soldiers who were hurt or psychologically damaged were discharged, so the unit could replace them with healthy, deployment-ready troops. It was a cynical task made even more so by the fact that, after continuous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2-22, like most of Fort Drum, teemed with trauma. Alarmed by skyrocketing PTSD and suicide rates, the Army held awareness seminars and workshops. But in combat infantry units like the 2-22, soldiers sucked it up and suffered silently, until they couldn’t any longer. Franks remembered being horrified when his own commanders would come to him, a raw second lieutenant, and ask him how to treat their soldiers with mental-health issues, as if he were an expert. He witnessed soldier after soldier being given a bag of pills and ushered out the door. All these fucked-up people, he thought, drugged into “depersonalized drones.”  

Guilt and helplessness overwhelmed him. These were real warriors, real soldiers who were suffering, while he was a functionary doing endless paperwork. Where was the honor and purpose in that? I couldn’t even save somebody if they were bleeding or dying, he thought. He’d wanted to be a soldier his whole life. And now, here at last, was the Army — a dysfunctional mess. “The darkness, the insincerity, the blasphemy of virtue . . . ,” he later wrote. “I am a farce and a hypocrite.” The realization crushed Franks, and the delicate scaffolding that had oppressed and also held him together his entire life suddenly crumbled.

At his court-martial, much would be made of the fact that Franks could have sought help and didn’t. Yet there is no conclusive evidence that seeking help would have made him less suicidal — Xenakis notes that many of the people who do seek help for suicidal ideation wind up killing themselves anyway. Flaherty, who feels that he let Franks down by missing the signs, acknowledges that even if Franks had told him, he likely wouldn’t have done much. “I would have told him to tighten your belt loops and do the best you can,” he says. “That was the climate.”

Franks considered seeking help. He sat through the mandatory briefings on suicide awareness, and his assumption was that the rise in military suicides was largely a product of deployment-related PTSD. “I erroneously surmised that my problems would be discredited and/or not taken seriously enough, all because I had not yet deployed, thus having no justification to have depression and cater to suicidal tendencies,” he later told the court.

And so the Demon took charge in a way it never had previously, leading Franks to not only dwell on suicide, but also to plan it. There was a bridge that looked like a promising place: Franks thought of “emptying out my wallet, throwing the leather at my feet, leaning over the railing and shooting myself, so that I’d fall, making it appear like I had been shot and robbed.” Suicide became his passion. “I’d line up a beer next to my computer, put a dip of tobacco in my mouth, and search the Internet for advice on how to commit suicide, which I found in abundance.” He fantasized about staging an accident on the gun range and even searched for a hit man. But “assassins usually don’t advertise themselves in the classifieds,” he noted. And killing himself on the range would dishonor his unit.

So Franks finally decided to just kill himself at home, shoot himself in the head. On his way back from work, he called his parents to hear their voices one last time. “Hi, Mom,” he said, sounding chipper as always. He asked what they’d heard from Marin, who was in Denmark on a semester abroad from Wheaton, and how Jordan was doing at Rice. Did Nate win last week? How are the cows?

And right then, hearing their voices, wholly unsuspecting, he decided he just couldn’t do it. As a boy, Franks recalled, his father told him what it meant to “go down swinging.” Franks was sickened by the thought that he might let him down.

I have to do something, he thought. I have to do something so completely drastic to change my life. . . . I have to change my life completely.

In his years of devouring military-themed books, Franks had read about the French Foreign Legion. Now, he began to think about it more seriously. It is easy to understand why the legion would have an appeal for Franks: It was, in a sense, a modern-day version of Sparta. An elite fighting unit, famous for carrying out one of the more successful counterinsurgency campaigns, in Algeria in the 1950s, it deployed constantly, in many parts of the globe where the U.S. doesn’t. Its soldiers, all of whom endure notoriously brutal training, are considered some of the toughest on Earth. Its code, like the Army’s, drew on the ideas of honor, discipline and duty — but also camaraderie and, most of all, sacrifice. You were expendable. The idea of the French Foreign Legion filled Franks with hope. As he put it, “I wanted life to be so miserable that I would scream for life.”

Over the next several days, he scoured the legion’s website and unofficial forums, and meticulously planned his exit, organizing his files so his colleagues wouldn’t be left with an even bigger mess than he already had. Anticipating his family flying to upstate New York to gather his things, he got his Yukon fixed so they wouldn’t be stuck with a lemon.

On Saturday, March 28th, 2009, he took out his wallet and, with his heart racing, purchased a ticket to France. He was going through with it. For the first time in forever, he didn’t want to commit suicide anymore. He wanted to live — albeit not as 2nd Lt. Lawrence Franks.

Traveling south to New York from Fort Drum, Franks considered and reconsidered his decision. It still wasn’t too late to change his mind, he thought, as he boarded a bus to JFK. He could simply go back, say he overslept, accept his minor punishment. Then the bus arrived at the airport, and Franks stepped off. A wave of euphoria washed over him: I’m free.

In joining the French Foreign Legion, Lawrence Franks was not, as he was later accused, becoming a “mercenary.” He was, in effect, joining the French military. In the unit, composed almost entirely of non-Frenchmen, legionnaires pledge allegiance to the legion alone for the first five years of their service. Assuming they do well, they are then allowed to apply for French citizenship.

Franks wasn’t interested in citizenship. He was looking to lose himself. Upon arriving at the legion, prospective candidates are given new names — protection for the legion in case a recruit’s home country (or police force) comes calling, and for the recruit, a chance at a fresh start. The only thing that doesn’t change is a recruit’s nationality. Hence, the American Lawrence Franks became, in the legion, an American named Christopher Flaherty. His nickname was “Fly.”

The rest of his history was washed away, part of the legion’s unofficial code. “We knew he was maybe a U.S. soldier,” one former colleague, who requested anonymity, would later recall. “But we never asked.”

Nor did Franks mention it. Many recruits, says retired Lt. Col. Steve Arata, who served as a U.S. Army liaison officer to the French Army, are literally looking to start their lives over, coming from war-torn regions of the world. Others may be outcasts from their own armies, petty criminals, drifters. “The legion takes them in, gives them direction and purpose, and generally sends a better citizen back out into the civilian world.”

The selection process is brutal: One in eight etranger voluntaire — foreign volunteers — are accepted and even fewer will make it through boot camp without being dismissed or, as frequently happens, asking permission to quit and return to civilian life, known as “going civil.” Those who are awarded a kepi blanc, the flat white cap that is the signature item in a legionnaire’s dress uniform, are then committed to the legion by contract.

Fort de Nogent, one of the legion’s preselection centers, is a huge, looming edifice on a hill, way out on the outskirts of Paris, and Franks had gone to the wrong place before finding his way there. Inside, a guard took Franks’ ID and instructed him to wait on a bench. As he sat there, the bench slowly began to fill up with men until the group was finally rounded up and taken to a different building. There, Franks was asked to hand over his personal items, including his credit cards, passport and the address and phone number of a cute French girl he’d met on the plane. When asked his background, he told the administration officer he was an out-of-work farmer from Oregon who wanted to learn French by serving in the military. At the end of the day, Franks was given his new name and a new birthday, adding one day and one month to his existing one.

On April 6th, 2009, Franks signed his contract and was soon sent to the official French Foreign Legion training center in Aubagne, in southern France. There, under pressure from the security screeners, Franks admitted he was a U.S. Army officer who’d gone AWOL, something he was advised to keep to himself — forever. For as long as he was a legionnaire, the legion would protect his true identity; if the U.S. government somehow found out his pseudonym, though, the legion would have no choice but to turn him in. In early May, he was chosen to move on to the next level: boot camp in the town of Castelnaudary. Before he left, he signed a document pledging that he would not, for the entire five years of his contract, make contact with anyone outside of the legion — no friends, no family, no one. 

Lawrence Franks

Franks loved basic training, a grueling few months of long hikes with heavy packs and slow marches. Entire days were spent engaged in corvée, or drudge work: ironing, shining boots, scrubbing toilets, cleaning pots. Other days were spent doing meaningless tasks like building rock pyramids in sweltering heat.

It was awesome, Franks thought. He was a plebe again — except even lower. He had blisters the size of rocks on his feet. Unlike at West Point, where cadets were celebrated for their efforts, legionnaires would march all day, reach a destination, drink water and then march all night.

There were men from South Africa to China, all with names that weren’t their own, and then nicknames on top of it: Rooibos, Tripod, El Diablo. He was Chris, or Fly. But his anonymity went deeper. When pictures were taken of his fellow recruits, he either opted out or had his face blurred.

I want to exist, but I can’t exist, he told himself, which didn’t do much for his homesickness. Consumed by guilt, he wavered constantly. An honorable man would go home to face his punishment. Yet, were he to leave the legion, he’d be a deserter of two armies — what could be more dishonorable than that? And so, after months of internal debate, he decided to commit to five years in the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, headquartered in the coastal city of Nîmes. I love this kind of fear, anxiety, apprehension, he said to himself on the day he boarded the bus to join his new regiment. The Demon, though not vanquished entirely, fell quiet.

In his rebirth as an American Legionnaire known as Fly, Franks finally became the soldier he’d always wanted to be. And he also got his wish: He became a combat medic. Arriving in Nîmes in August 2009, he immediately made a mark, climbing quickly through the ranks from light infantryman to legionnaire first class to, by 2011, corporal, the highest one could go without becoming a French citizen. He graduated first in his class in medic training and also attended the legion’s National Commando Training Center, where his dedication earned him a role as an assistant instructor. In missions in the Central African Republic, Djibouti and notably Mali, he exhibited “total selflessness” under trying conditions, Col. Eric Ozanne, commander of the legion’s 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, noted in a report. “Corporal Flaherty is brilliant in all subject matters and exemplary in his daily work.”

Chris Flaherty lived by different rules than Lawrence Franks. He smoked cigarettes, snuck beer into the barracks with his buddies when it wasn’t allowed, flirted with women he met at local bars. He rarely prayed. He’d become adept at scavenging for leftover food during his months as a trainee, when he and his comrades, who often felt they were fed as more of a reward than for human necessity, subsisted often on small bits of cheese and bread. The legion had an unofficial rule: “Take what you need to survive, but don’t be seen.” It was about as far from the West Point cadet’s code of “always do the right thing even when no one is looking” as possible.

Slowly, throughout this process, the dark thoughts that had haunted Franks began to fade. He was never fully free and felt shame for what he’d done, but he didn’t want to kill himself anymore. During his court-martial, Franks explained it to the panel. “I could not let my comrades down,” he said. “We legionnaires are extremely close-knit and always look out for one another. If somebody seemed to be having a bad day, we volunteered to take their guard shift, to help clean their weapon, to do their laundry, to do whatever it took to keep our comrades strong of body, mind and spirit.” Working all day, he never had time to brood, and even if he’d been so inclined, his comrades lifted his spirits. “There was always somebody who wanted to go for a run, work out at the gym, help me iron my uniform, or share a hot coffee or a cold brew,” he added. “However, we never spoke of emotions. That wasn’t our way, as we considered weakness — physical, mental and/or emotional — to be traits unbecoming a legionnaire.”

It was the same essential code he’d lived with all his life — inverted. Lawrence Franks had been so uniformly good that he was put on a pedestal. Chris Flaherty was bad — they all were, which is why they were legionnaires. I am filth, he thought, from time to time — and it kind of felt good. He was a fuck-up, a deserter, but . . . he was also living the dream.

In 2010, Franks deployed to the Central African Republic, as part of a peacekeeping mission. By now, fluent in French, he served as a medic assigned to provide free medical care in a variety of clinics in Bangui and also helped train the Central African Forces in emergency medical procedures, later doing much of the same in a deployment to Djibouti. In May 2013, he was deployed to Mali to take part in Operation Serval, France’s offensive against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The mission, writes Joshua Hammer in his upcoming book, The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu, which chronicles the rise of AQIM, its conquest of northern Mali and the French military operation that drove the insurgents out, was “a lopsided struggle between a modern army . . . and a ragged band of fanatics who possessed only two advantages, strong defensive positions and a willingness to die for a cause.” It was also a conflict the U.S. was loath to engage in, though they ultimately contributed a small number of troops as “liaison support” to the French military. “The USA definitely did not want to put boots on the ground there,” Hammer says. “Obama was overjoyed to have the French do it.”

Lawrence Franks was one of the only U.S. soldiers to serve in Mali, though as a legionnaire. His unit arrived after much of the fighting was concluded, and was based in Gao, on the Niger River. By then, considered one of the finest legionnaires in the regiment, he had been tapped as the bodyguard for French Brig. Gen. Laurent Kolodziej, who commanded the French 6th Light Armored Brigade. As a member of the general’s “close protection team,” Fly spent every minute of the day with Kolodziej over the next five months, moving around the city in full combat gear, where he helped control the angry crowds who’d try to swarm the general, notably during the Malian elections of 2013. Kolodziej later called Franks “among the finest soldiers I have ever met,” though like a number of Franks’ comrades and superiors, Kolodziej noticed that Franks was often sad and detached.

Kolodziej spoke about it to his regiment commander, Col. Ozanne, who had noticed Franks’ melancholy, as well as his immense talent. The two existing simultaneously perplexed many legion higher-ups, who’d tried to convince Chris Flaherty to go to noncommissioned-officer school and build a career. Among the rank and file, there were subtle mentions that a West Point graduate was a legionnaire. Ozanne told Kolodziej that there were “clues,” unspecified, that Flaherty was a former U.S. Army soldier, possibly even an officer who, “as a man of highest moral values,” felt guilty. “As soon as his contract is up, he intends to go home and pay his debt,” Ozanne said.

“He’s right,” said Kolodziej. “We should help him do that.”

By then, Franks, 27, had spent all five years yearning to go home. More than once, he’d considered turning himself in. In early 2010, a few months before his first deployment to Africa, he’d become so consumed with guilt that he’d phoned the U.S. desertion hotline, assuming that once he said who he was, the Americans would come and arrest him. “Go to the nearest U.S. Embassy,” he was advised. “No one is going to travel and come arrest you.”

Franks hung up. There was no way he was going to the U.S. Embassy, as that would entail, effectively, deserting the legion. “Right then and there, I told myself that I would cease and desist thinking about going back to the U.S. until I had redeemed myself.”

Franks left the legion on March 29th, 2014. The following day, he got on a train and traveled to Germany, where, at Wiesbaden, he gave the MPs his true name, told them where he’d been and asked to speak to a lawyer. He knew, almost certainly, that he was fucked. Yet it was, as he later recalled, “without a doubt the happiest moment of my life.”

Franks’ court-martial began on December 8th, 2014, at Fort Drum, and ran for six days. From the military’s perspective, it was a straightforward case of desertion; Franks’ supporters saw the case as lopsided from the beginning. “The JAG defense guy’s shoes weren’t even shined,” says Maj. Michael Flaherty, who attended the trial. “On the other side, the JAGs were big, good-looking studs with medals.” The panel of jurors, he recalls, were mostly lieutenants, with the commander of one of the infantry battalions thrown in, Flaherty suspects, to “make sure it went the way they wanted it to go.” He was appalled: “If I was going to cast a kangaroo court, these guys would have been the first on the list. More than one guy on the panel had that glazed look — like he wanted to pull out his phone. I think some of them were doodling.” 

Lawrence Franks

Day after day, Ulrike and Larry Franks, accompanied by their children, sat in the courtroom, dumbstruck. None of the psychiatrists who’d evaluated Lawrence were allowed to testify, nor were the full contents of Lawrence’s goodbye letters given adequate consideration. Instead, the prosecution relied on several cherry-picked phrases to portray Lawrence as selfish. “I am afraid to deploy as a leader,” Lawrence wrote to Carney in 2009, though, he added, he wasn’t afraid to deploy. “I felt that a leader . . . needs to take care of his men,” Lawrence explained during his trial. “I thought that any day I was going to self-destruct. And I was like, ‘I’m not taking American soldiers with me.’ ”

“You chose what you wanted over what you promised the Army,” said the prosecutor. Lawrence disagreed. “If I had done what I really wanted to do, I would’ve killed myself, sir.”

“We never expected they would attack his character,” says Ulrike. “They just wanted to destroy him.”

“Either you had to be insane, or any neurological complaint had no precedent . . . that’s bullshit,” says Larry. “This is a precedent: an officer who had severe depression and suicidal ideation but nonetheless functioned very well. . . . He did a very cognitively well-planned thing in joining the French Foreign Legion. He saved his own life, and he didn’t hurt anybody.”

Larry finds it hard to wrap his head around the logic. Just one day after Lawrence left Fort Drum, Gen. Peter Chiarelli arrived on the base to speak to soldiers about suicide awareness. Imagine the scandal had Lawrence killed himself. “They say one suicide death is too many,” says Larry, “and yet they have a survivor who didn’t go along with their treatment [because he believed] his career would be over, so he took the best way he could think of out.”

The court also disregarded Lawrence’s service in the legion, which by the assessment of his French commanders reflected the same core values of “duty” and “honor” that had been instilled in him both at West Point and in the Army itself. Yet none of it mattered. “[He] was supposed to deploy as a platoon leader in our Army, and he didn’t,” stated the prosecutor. “That is dishonorable.”

Lawrence is currently housed in a medium-security unit in Fort Leavenworth. Because he fears retribution from prison officials, Lawrence is careful not to describe, in writing or during phone calls with his family or friends, anything about what his mother calls his “ordeal,” which she hints has been significant. He has reportedly been a model prisoner. This summer, the Frankses fired Lawrence’s attorney and hired Jack Zimmermann, a former military JAG and judge. Zimmermann intends to appeal Lawrence’s conviction.

Ulrike is consumed with the unfairness of it all. She searches the Internet for stories and statistics to bolster her argument that Lawrence is not a deserter but a survivor — a symbol of hope. Lawrence is “suicide-delivered,” in the words of his mother: He’s beaten an enemy. “But instead of being celebrated, he’s vilified. All these people who wash up because there’s no one who [can serve as] an example,” she says. “Lawrence is the example.”

This is Larry and Ulrike’s narrative. And, like the Army’s, it is fixed. “Lawrence joined the legion not because he didn’t want to be an officer,” Ulrike says, though in truth, Lawrence never wanted to be an officer. And there is nothing to suggest that he would now enjoy being anyone’s role model — it was that characterization that had crushed him all along. But his parents cannot acknowledge these facts any more than Lawrence understood that his quest to find meaning in his life didn’t make him sinful. It made him human.

“My parents are desperate to get him out of prison, as if that will save his life,” says Marin, who worries about her brother. All these years he suffered, even while free, she notes. “To me, that says the heart is not OK.” When Marin first learned that Lawrence had been suicidal, “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, no one knew! What are we going to do about that as a family — are we going to talk about it?’ ” In the 18 months since Lawrence came back to the U.S., her family has yet to have that kind of meeting, she says.

According to Lawrence, he returned to Fort Drum in 2014 no longer obsessed with suicide. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t still think about it from time to time, and it doesn’t mean he isn’t depressed. But Ulrike and Larry find comfort in their interpretation of things. It seems preferable to the analysis offered, tactfully, by some of their friends: that once Lawrence’s long sojourn at Leavenworth is over, whenever that is, he can finally get the help he needs.

If you or someone you know is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, seek help as soon as possible by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


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