I guess the most frequent question that has been asked about the death of Capt. Paul John McKay, of the Australian Army, that I have heard is, "Why here?"
The speculation about this being a random location, halfway around the world from his home in Australia, I just do not believe. Capt. McKay served in Afghanistan with fellow warriors assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, the legendary force headquartered here in the North Country. Here in the communities of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, we see many of these young men and women who serve with the 10th as they pass through and stay in our communities. They will tell you they have either just returned from, or are preparing to deploy to, Iraq or Afghanistan. They come to enjoy the immense beauty of our region, its peace and tranquility; they come and are welcomed by the many wonderful people who reside here in the North Country.
I believe that the captain came here to find peace. I am not an overly religious person but do believe that there is a higher power that guides us through our lives. I believe that things happen for a reason - not that we can't influence or change them through our actions, but for a reason nonetheless. Capt. McKay arrived in Saranac Lake and hiked to the top of the mountain known as Scarface. If you have ever driven from Saranac Lake toward Lake Placid on state Route 86, you have seen the mountain. Its face appears to have been violently ripped away by some unknown force, leaving the telltale scar for all to see. I, like many others, have hiked that mountain and from its peak overlooking Saranac Lake have stood in awe, admiring the view. This is the location where Capt. McKay took his final breaths having fought his last battle.
Capt. Paul John McKay poses in his Australian Army dress uniform. This is one of several photos he uploaded to a new Facebook account on Dec. 27, just two days before he flew from Australia to New York.
A sunset is seen from the top of Scarface Mountain in Ray Brook on March 1, 2009.
(Enterprise photo — Dan Meehan)
I just cannot ignore the fact that Capt. McKay chose Scarface Mountain, a mountain that appears to be wounded and hurt, to end his life. The difference between the mountain and the captain is clear; you can see and touch and understand the wounds that the mountain has endured. With Capt. McKay, nobody could identify the fact that he, too, was suffering and wounded.
Capt. McKay is not alone. Our military forces, both active-duty and veterans, carry that same burden. Suicides among the two groups occur once every 65 minutes in the United States. 22,000 suicides per year in total. Active duty members, as Capt. McKay was, endure almost 1 suicide per day. The deaths are split between those who have been deployed and those who have not. It makes no sense, but the result is the same - death.
Captain McKay was a special person. He was in our midst for an extremely brief period of time but has touched our lives in ways that are hard to describe. The police officers who investigated his disappearance, those who searched for the captain in and around the mountain, those who investigated the captain's death and recovered his remains so that they could be repatriated to his countrymen, his brothers in arms, and most of all his family were, to a person, hurting. Our communities in general were hurting. We grieved for the captain and his country. We can only imagine the pain that those close to him are experiencing. You are in our thoughts and prayers.
Capt. McKay was a gift. I believe that his passing in our midst was for a reason. While I never gave much thought to the Homeward Bound project, it now seems more relevant than ever. We need to reach out and help our warriors when they are wounded and hurting - both wounded in body an in mind. I would like to think that Capt. McKay's passing was not in vain. I would like to think that as Capt. McKay's body was slowly growing cold, his spirit created a spark in those who carry on. I would like to think that as Capt. McKay drew his final breath, the breath touched the spark and kindled a fire in those he touched. It certainly has in me. Scarface Mountain will forever be considered sacred ground.
May we never forget the sacrifice made by Capt. Paul John McKay. I hope that one day the community of Saranac Lake, through Homeward Bound, is able to help other returning warriors in similar circumstances to those of Capt. McKay to prevent a similar tragedy. I hope that one day Capt. McKay will be remembered as the warrior who gave his own life, saving the lives of untold numbers of other warriors.
May God bless Capt. Paul John McKay and his family in this hour of darkness.
Michael Ryan lives in Saranac Lake