This story doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a tragic tale about slipping through the cracks, lying to loved ones, excuses and hiding deep rooted personal problems until it’s too late. This is a story about the long, slow slide into heroin addiction coupled with mental illness and eventual suicide.
This is the story of Max Haslip, a 27-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan.
Max was a pretty typical kid growing up. He was bright, did well in school, but would get bored with it because it wasn’t challenging enough. He loved being outdoors, hunting and fishing. His family moved a few times because of work, but he never had a problem making friends. He was a likable, charismatic kid.
Trouble began for Max in eighth grade. His father died, and Max started skipping school. His mother, Tammy Koestler, said she didn’t know he was skipping. The school never said anything, because they felt sorry for him.
“I’d drop him off every day at the front door,” Tammy said. “Then he’d walk right out the back door.”
Tammy sought professional help. The doctors said Max was borderline bipolar, depressed and had ADHD.
“They put him on a cocktail of medications,” Tammy said. “This was kind of the beginning of Max’s problems with drugs.”
Tammy said that years down the road, she found out that Max wasn’t taking hardly any of the drugs he was prescribed. Friends and schoolmates quickly found out Max was on highly desirable drugs and began “trading” Max for his prescriptions.
“He was trading mainly for Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Percocet (oxycodone),” Tammy said. “The kids wanted the uppers the doctors put him on, and it turns out Max liked the opioid drugs the students were giving him.”
As time went by, Max started to get in trouble with the law. He was skipping school more and more, and by his junior year of high school he dropped out.
“It was a low point for me as a parent,” Tammy said. “No matter what I did, I just couldn’t get through to him.”
Eventually, Max appeared to make some improvements. He took his GED exam and passed with flying colors. He started talking about what he wanted to do.
“He said he wanted to go into the military,” Tammy said. “Looking back on it, I’m not sure that was the best decision, but at the time it seemed great. He’d get discipline and structure. He’d have money to go to college when he got out.”
What Tammy didn’t know about her son was that he was still using opioids on a regular basis. He was still trading and selling his prescription medications.
Max enlisted in the Army in 2008. After Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training, Max went to Germany.
“I’d go weeks, sometimes a month or better without hearing from him,” Tammy said. “I talked to a couple of his buddies, and they thought something was going on. But no one really knew for sure.”
Then around the end of 2012, Max was deployed to Afghanistan. He worked in logistics.
“I know now that the heroin thing didn’t start until he was in Afghanistan,” Tammy said. “He couldn’t get his pills anymore when he was over there, but all he had to do was walk out the gates of where he was stationed and he could get heroin.”
Tammy thought that Max had turned a new leaf, was getting his act together in the Army and was making improvements. Max returned safely from Afghanistan and was undergoing the discharge process from the Army in New York.
This is where Max started to fall apart; and where his deception and lies about his real problem, heroin, were taken to a new level.
“It was just one thing after another,” Tammy said. “He was always calling asking for money while he was in New York. Then I got a call from an on-base hospital in New York. Max’s roommate at the time had called the police, because Max was talking about killing himself. They took him to a hospital. The hospital wouldn’t tell me anything. And Max said his problems were related to the Army ‘messing’ with him.”
Before Max would make it back home to New Ulm, he’d get in a lot more trouble. He pawned his gear – Kevlar helmet and vest, uniforms and anything else he had that was worth money so he could buy more heroin.
Then Max was arrested in the company of two women who had copious amounts of cocaine and heroin. He was trying to make a buy when the cops busted him.
“He kept delaying coming back home,” Tammy said. “I had no idea what was going on with him. It wasn’t until he was home and I started getting legal paperwork in the mail that I found out he’d been busted.”
Max covered his tracks and lied. He fell back onto blaming the Army and how “they” messed him up. Then Tammy got more mail. This time it was from the Army.
“He (Max) set it up to look like someone broke into his apartment in New York and stole the stuff, but the Military Police weren’t buying his act,” Tammy said. “They dismissed any charges against him, and just gave him a bill for all the missing gear. Like a really big bill.”
Tammy paid the bill. Max’s odd behavior continued.
“He went to live with his stepfather just south of the Twin Cities,” Tammy said. “I thought it would be good for him. My ex is a Vietnam veteran, and I thought they’d have things in common and maybe could work through some issues.”
As it turns out they did have something in common – drug connections.
“Max’s behavior became more and more erratic,” Tammy said, “and there were always dramas and tragedies going on – broken down vehicles, no money, inability to get or keep a job. I kept asking people who knew him if something was wrong – if they knew what was going on with Max.”
Then Max met a girl. Things seemed to improve for a while. He was making real attempts at working, but he still couldn’t hold a job for more than a couple of weeks. Max called one night with “good news.” He and his girlfriend were going to have a baby.
“Max’s uncle brought him into his business,” Tammy said. “The plan was Max would take over some day. Things seemed to be going along fine, and then like every other time, it all fell apart.”
Max was fighting with his girlfriend more and more. By the time their son, Greyson, was born, the two were barely talking.
“I was there to see my grandson born,” Tammy said. “Max slept in the hospital room the entire time. He barely woke up. When he finally did wake up, he was angry and wanted to go home and shower. He was ‘nodding out’ from having done heroin.”
By the time Max finally came clean with his mother about his heroin use, shortly after the birth of his son, his behavior was increasingly strange – up one day, down the next.
“He had talked about not wanting to be alive,” Tammy said. “Finally, finally, after months and months of pleading with him to get help, he went to the VA and met with a counselor. He had a couple of visits in and it seemed to be helping.”
Tammy had a lot going on in her life, too, at the time. She’d met a wonderful man. They were engaged and about to be married. She was planning a move to the cities, a new home and new career. The night before her wedding, Max called at 2 a.m.
“He said he was stranded,” Tammy said. “He wanted me to come get him. His stepfather’s truck got towed, because Max got stopped and he was driving without a license. We didn’t know he didn’t have a license. He was driving all our vehicles.”
Tammy said Max didn’t really make much sense. She eventually got ahold of her ex, and he went and picked him up. Max was headed up to the cities to pick up his son so they could go to Tammy’s wedding in the morning.
“I’m glad he never did make it up there to pick up his son,” Tammy said. “I don’t know what that would have turned into. He was being very strange the whole week, up and down. That night, my ex got him back to his house. Max went into the basement to make a phone call to his girlfriend. Max never came back up. Someone in the house, I don’t know who, went downstairs to make sure Max was okay, and that’s when they found him, hanging from the ceiling.”
Max joined 21 other current military personnel and veterans who commit suicide every day in this country.
“Heroin is a horrible drug,” Tammy said. “The person who is on it no longer cares about you, or loved ones, or even themselves. Max had a month-old baby boy. I was getting married that day. He had family who loved him and cared for him. But heroin makes people lie and be secretive and manipulative. All the addict cares about is getting the next high. And the problem is, they’ll never get the high they are chasing. They’ll never recapture that first high they got the first time that needle goes into their arm. I look back and wonder if I should have fought harder at the end when I finally knew what the problem was. But he was an adult, and there is little anyone can do, legally. They have to want the help, and Max, I don’t know – I don’t know if he wanted the help, or if he just wanted the next high. All I know is it got to be too much for him, and he couldn’t go on. He couldn’t live with himself anymore. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about this. There’s not a day that I don’t miss him.
“It’ll impact me every day for the rest of my life.”