Walkers fled Tumamoc Hill Tuesday night, some of them in an armored SWAT vehicle, while Tucson police evacuated other people from “A” Mountain.
There was a man in crisis somewhere in the area, a man police feared was armed and potentially dangerous. But at the same time police were scouring the west-side hills for a potentially dangerous man, others were rushing to the scene, seeking to help him.
The man had posted pictures of himself on Facebook, sitting on a hillside overlooking Tucson just before sunset, saying goodbye. The fact that he was a trained sniper and Iraq War veteran with a gun, nestled atop a hill, heightened the concern.
The fear was unjustified.
He was Kevin Howard, known also as Kane Harley and Hawro Christian. His story could make a movie, but it would have a tragic ending, as it turned out Tuesday. Despite efforts to reach him, Howard, 30, killed himself on a hillside near those familiar Tucson peaks, as police and veterans narrowed in looking for him in the dark.
It’s widely known that suicide is a major problem among American veterans, with studies showing there are an average of 20 cases per day. Cara Gaukler, a suicide-prevention clinician at the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Healthcare System, said the system has many different ways of helping veterans, but shame still keeps some from seeking help.
“The reason a lot of people don’t talk about suicide is because it’s very stigmatizing,” she said. “There’s a lot of shame involved in it. That prevents people from coming forward and telling people how they’re feeling.”
What made Howard’s story so astonishing was how he spent his recent years. After four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, part of the time deployed to fight in Iraq, he joined the French Foreign Legion.
Not finding much action there, he went to Syria and fought the Islamic State group with Kurdish and Syrian Christian militia groups for more than a year. He spent months in close combat in places like Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, before finding his way back to the states in 2017.
What probably made him more vulnerable than most combat veterans was his upbringing. A ward of the state, Howard grew up in boys’ homes in California, his friends told me. He only got to know his mother in recent years.
“He was a very kind, loving and compassionate person who lived his entire life in pain because he didn’t have a family,” said Donnie Farmer, who was a superior to Howard in the Marine Corps and in 2017 hosted and helped Howard at Farmer’s family home in Oregon.
“There’s no closer bond between people than when you go to war with them,” Farmer said. “That sense of family was what he was chasing.”
Family is an easy thing to take for granted if you have it. But it’s a yawning void if you don’t.
“He had a really (crappy) childhood,” said friend Michael LeRose, from West Virginia, who helped Howard make connections in Syria. “His goal in life was just like me — to be kind. To give a voice to people who didn’t have a voice.”
The Iraq War experience wasn’t easy, but it gave him a new purpose.
“I fought in Iraq, in 2006-2008,” Howard told reporters visiting the Syrian front line in 2017. “I lost friends there. To me, this is a continuation of that fight.”
A British man who met Howard in Raqqa, Michael Enright, told me Friday that in the Syrian War, “You’re doing something that is totally and completely all-encompassing. You have no energy for anything but what you’re doing. You’ve already made your decision you’re willing to give up your life.
“Some people when they’re deployed to war don’t do a lot of fighting. We did. Kane did.”
An in-depth ABC News report from 2017 portrayed Howard as motivated by defeating the terrorists who had attacked civilians around the world. He had engraved on some of his bullets the names of places where Islamic State-inspired attacks occurred: Manchester, Orlando, Paris.
“This isn’t really a mission of vengeance,” Howard told foreign correspondent Ian Pannell. “That’s a dirty word. This is more like justice.”
But the militia experience spiraled downward for Howard and his fellow American volunteer, Taylor Hudson. They tried to leave and were detained by their own militia, the Los Angeles Times reported. Eventually, Howard went to Iraq, where he was detained again before making his way home with the help of the State Department.
The transition to life in the states was rough. He lived in Farmer’s place for a time and bumped around the West before settling in Tucson with a fellow former volunteer in the Syrian militias. Miranda Neubert also lived in the house at the time, she told me via Facebook.
Howard was able to get regular treatment from the VA, and the Wounded Warrior Project helped him find a home near the hospital, she said. But depression afflicted him.
“He had severe PTSD, which he managed as much as possible,” Neubert said.
When he posted the alarming images on Facebook Tuesday, saying goodbye and mourning a lost romance, friends like Farmer kicked into action.
At his computer in Oregon, Farmer was able to pin down where Howard had taken his photo on the hillside and tried to help police and volunteers in Tucson get there. “If anyone is in Tucson Arizona and can access this area immediately please call me ASAP,” he posted at 7:50 p.m., along with a picture of a map, his finger pointing to a hillside near “A” Mountain, just above Panorama Circle.
The alarm also went out on a Facebook page for Marines called Mendleton.
Stefan Rivenbark, 24, of Marana was one of the Marines who answered the call. As police searched closer to “A” Mountain, Rivenbark, who returned home from four years of service last year, walked in the darkness up the hillside just north of the road.
“I grabbed my light and started climbing up the mountain. I was running up, calling out to Kevin,” Rivenbark said. “‘Kevin, this is Sgt. Rivenbark, U.S. Marine Corps.’ I made it about halfway up when I heard two shots fired.”
In the echoey spaces, the shots sounded like they were further away, but as it turned out, when Rivenbark went back the next day, he realized he was only about 30 yards away. Howard had undoubtedly heard him calling.
Afterward, in videos posted for Howard’s friends, Farmer assured them there was nothing more they could have done.
Now he and others are helping pick up the pieces, making arrangements to come to Tucson this week and return to Oregon with his ashes. A GoFundMe site has been established to raise money for an escort from Tucson and for a memorial service in June in Oregon.
Those supporting the campaign are flung far from Tucson, which was just the last stop in an interesting, ultimately tragic life. The list includes not just fellow Marines and other friends but members of an international detachment of Peshmerga — a Kurdish unit in Syria.
In their comments, some called him “brother,” but others used the word “heval,” the Kurdish phrase for friend and comrade.