Tragic story highlights dual epidemics haunting our communities
A story in today’s edition of the Star likely hit much too close to home for far too many readers. It surely did for us.
We found out Monday about the tragic death of Eagle River’s Michael Kocher, whose short life ended in unimaginable heartbreak last Friday in a Denver suburb. On Tuesday, we published a story about Kocher’s life based on what we could glean from accounts both in the Denver media and our pages, where Kocher was once profiled as a heroic figure for his work to bring joy to the children of Iraq, where he served a tour of duty with the Marine reserves.
The story appears on page 3 of this edition and on our website.
Online and over the phone, several readers questioned our decision to include certain details of Kocher’s life that painted him in a negative light. Specifically, the use of Kocher’s own words about what appears to have been a steep downward spiral into addiction and mental illness. Those who disagreed with our decision to discuss his failings called it callous and sensationalistic, a cheap attempt to sell newspapers.
It was not.
We published the details of Kocher’s life as we know them — the good, bad and ugly — to try and paint as full a picture as we could of this man’s struggle with his personal demons. In his writings and public speaking, Kocher talked openly about his battles with heroin use and PTSD. These are battles thousands of American families fight each day in ways many of us can never imagine.
The statistics are horrific: Heroin killed 13,000 people in 2015, an increase of more than 20 percent over the previous year; 22 veterans kill themselves each day, often due to symptoms related to their time spent in and around combat. Unfortunately, these issues have been almost as synonymous with Alaska as the Iditarod, and as an area with a large military presence and a ballooning opiate epidemic, Chugiak-Eagle River is at the epicenter of both issues.
Left untreated, these problems don’t just destroy the lives of individuals, they tear apart entire families and wreck whole communities.
To turn away from the painful circumstances surrounding Michael Kocher’s death would be to turn away from the problems staring us right in the face. We must not deny these terrors haunt our community, but acknowledge and attack them head on by removing stigmas around mental illness and finding ways to better treat addiction as the public health crisis it so clearly has become.
We do not write about people like Michael Kocher because we enjoy sensationalizing the heartache of others. Quite the contrary; as callous as we in the media may appear, tears are shed on this side of the keyboard as well, and many nights of sleep are lost in consideration of what we do and the decisions we must live with.
We strive to write the truth about people like Michael Kocher because we believe that he — like all human beings — was born with a pure heart and a kind soul and the potential for greatness. We believe he should be remembered not as a criminal who stole and terrorized and died in a hail of police gunfire, but as the sensitive soldier handing out candy and soccer balls to impovrished children in a war-torn land far from his home and family.
But we also do not wish to forget the evil forces that helped take him from this world before he could find peace — an elusive peace we sincerely hope he’s now found — and we do not wish to turn away from the reality of his troubles.
We wish to offer our condolences to Michael Kocher’s family and to those his actions affected in a negative way, and we hope his story can help someone else avoid a similar fate.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day by people whose only job is to listen and provide help to those who seek it.
For those battling addiction, the first and most difficult step is admitting you need help. But it’s one you won’t take alone. Please, speak to a family member, loved one or trusted friend and tell them you want out.
As any fan of Alaska’s Last Great Race knows well, a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single small step. If you’re struggling with a race that seems impossible, please take the courageous step of asking for help today.