A Sundial in the Shade

Sep 24, 2014

September 23, 2014
Jim McCausland

The dictionary defines a Sundial as a flat plate or device (with the face of a clock) that tells the time of day by the position of the Sun as it shines on it.   Now imagine this Sundial being placed in the shade of a giant oak whose foliage blocks all the sun’s rays, leaving the sundial without purpose.  I chose this example as it clearly defines my son and how he lost his purpose in life during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. It was George Bernard Shaw that said, “The greatest tragedy in life is not death; but life without purpose.”

I spent much of my life with him over the 5 years after he served in the military and before his death.  My son had found his great purpose in life, being driven by the idea that he would dedicate his life for his country and the values we all hold dear in our hearts.  He was so driven, so confident. I was actually jealous of the purpose he displayed in every day.  He wanted our freedom ─ his sunlight ─ to never be blocked out by the shade of terrorists, the Taliban, ISIS or other factions that threaten our freedom and the welfare of mankind.

Sadly, Captain, US Army, Thomas Casey McCausland was living as a “causality of war” after he was medically retired from the Army.  Yet the “demons of war” finally broke him and claimed another soul on November 1, 2013.  He was continually haunted by the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI), which he suffered during a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.

In early 2008, Casey volunteered to deploy as a member of a reconstruction team, helping to rebuild the country from earlier bombing in the war. He had just completed a year in Iraq and was now headed to Afghanistan. He was appointed as a Civil Affairs team leader, sent to a remote firebase to begin their mission.  Casey led a group of primarily public workers in two of the most volatile districts in the province.  His objective was to work with the local government and populace to determine what the United States could do to assist with restoring services, roads and buildings to sustain life.

He regarded this mission as a display of American compassion and an example of our democratic service to the world.  They attempted to restore basic needs of the Afghan villages, yet they faced continuous gunfire and Taliban retaliation. In just two short months, his Humvee ran across an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) buried in the road and on top of another IED. It killed his driver and tore the legs off his Afghan interpreter.

Casey remembers a loud explosion and then everything went black.  He suffered a blow to his head and lost most of his hearing in one ear.  The blast was deafening and the smoke was thick.  When he regained focus he called out to his men, but his driver did not respond.  He looked at his seat and could see the lifeless body slumped over the wheel. The smoke began to clear and he started to hear the screams of his interpreter who was bleeding severely and going into shock. The vehicle had been thrown into a wall, pinning Casey’s door shut.  The firefight continued for about 40 minutes, as Casey applied tourniquets to what was left of the interpreter’s legs.

This was only the beginning to his “demons of war.” Casey remained in Afghanistan for five more months. He watched soldiers die in combat, and days grew longer in the dust, sand and rocky terrain. Everyone looked over their shoulders for the next attack. They lacked sleep and were always on alert as if they could only rest with one eye shut.

His troops were on his mind 24/7. Casey felt some level of responsibility for the soldiers lost in each attack.  Pressing on with their mission, the mortar and rocket attacks destroyed any momentum Casey’s unit built. The cruel reality of war had begun to over-shadow this humanitarian mission.  By July, he had encountered two more IED’s and the toll of sleep deprivation, dehydration and his mounting “demons of war” left Casey looking like a pin-ball bouncing out of control from one side of the machine to the other.

He was then flown to a German hospital and back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Casey’s nightmares became so intense he began self-medicating. He doubled up on prescription drugs and used alcohol to intensify the prescription medications given to ease his mind.  His depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation magnified his nightmares. Casey suffered from survivor’s guilt and often said it should have been him and not the kid, referring to the young driver killed in the Humvee attack.  He felt as if he had failed his troops and himself. He felt as if his purpose in life was gone.

I was called by his Command to come to base and help him – to be his advocate.  Casey resented my presence. He was not a child that needed his parents there to hold his hand.  His day-to-day actions reminded me of dominos tumbling down, one after another. He was sent to several rehab centers, yet nothing seemed to help.  Then he received orders for medical retirement and was classified as disabled. This was the final blow ─ this sundial had seen its last ray of sunshine.

I tried to reason with him, but he often did not even remember what he had done. I found him abusing alcohol, prescription drugs and inhalants to self-medicate – trying desperately to stop the demons.

Only seven days after I returned with him to Missouri, he hit reality like a brick wall.  He was acting out as if in a living nightmare. He refused everyone’s help and forbid access to his apartment.  He was armed, which left me to call the police to assist before he or someone else was hurt.  The police took him to the VA and Casey cursed me for turning him in.  This was just a small example of the horror our family would face with him over the years ahead.  Each week brought new dark issues, each more dangerous than the next.  I remember looking behind the scenes of his actions and I could see family and his close friends separate themselves from him.

In April 2011, he was involved in several dangerous actions. These actions forced me to make an appeal in the Civil Courts, and request that he be taken to a veterans’ facility for secured in-house treatment.  After I compiled a detailed report of his actions, the judge came out of her chambers and walked over to hug me.  She had tears in her eyes and said that she understood his behavior and knew this was extremely difficult for any parent to do.  I felt painted into a corner, but knew that either he needed to be incarcerated or he would kill himself.

Additional prescriptions were given to “fix” him, yet his injuries were much deeper than what any drug or medication could penetrate.  Life continued in peaks and valleys. I began to think that the abuse of his body, with prescription drugs and alcohol would force him to make changes or he would die.

On November 1, 2013, my daughter found him dead, laying at the bottom of his stairs at the front door. The coroner ruled his death was accidental. The autopsy showed all blood work and organs were normal; only noting a small amount of compressed air gases present in his lungs.  The compressed air gases from inhalant abuse had not directly caused death, but I knew it was a major contributor. His mind was silent and the “demons of war” had stolen another soul.  He was but a shell of the man that I knew. Casey had lost his life’s purpose and was nothing more than a Sundial in the Shade.


Jim McCausland is the father of US Army Captain Casey McCausland and a devoted supporter of The Mission Continues. Casey served as a Mission Continues Fellow in 2010.

Many veterans come back from war and struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other invisible wounds that affect mental health. Below are a number of valuable resources available to veterans and their families.

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 then press “1” after you call

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Mental Health

Vet Center Directory