Tim’s last kill

As a child Tim Eysselinck was obsessed with toy soldiers, John Wayne and guns. As an adult he became a US soldier, a keen hunter and toured the world clearing mines. Then he shot himself dead after returning from Iraq. His mother Janet Burroway reflects on the life of ‘a fiercely honourable boy’

Friday July 2, 2004
The Guardian

I have today cancelled the subscription of my son Timothy Alan Eysselinck to American Rifleman, and removed his name from the National Rifle Association mailing lists, lobbying efforts, fund solicitations, and so forth. Tim has been a lifetime member of the NRA, a registered Republican, an avid hunter of both small and big game, a ranger and a captain in the US army, and a civilian contractor for humanitarian de-mining. Because he was deployed or employed all over the world, his NRA mail still comes to the house in Tallahassee where he spent part of his childhood and his adolescence, but as he shot and killed himself on April 23, the messages are no longer received.

I have been looking over the most recent issue of Rifleman, trying to grasp why a fiercely honourable boy fell in love with objects manufactured to destroy, and why such boys continue to believe that such objects foster integrity and peace. But my mind is not adequate to the task, and the magazine is not intended to explain to the unconverted.

We came to England when Tim was 15 months old, I to teach at the University of Sussex and his father to direct the Gardner Centre for the Arts in Brighton.

I have a black-and-white snapshot of Tim and his little brother Alex, both of them fair-haired and long-lashed, squatting in an orchard full of daffodils in the Sussex countryside where we lived until Tim was eight. I also own a colour photograph taken in the African savanna of Tim, now grown, kneeling over the carcass of a kudu, surrounded by his wiry Cameroonian guides. Now, looking at the toddler in the daffodils, I can see the clear lineaments of the hunter’s face. But squatting beside him I had no premonition of which planes, tilts, colours of that cherub head would survive.

Tim was a loving and obedient child, fascinated none the less with all things military, tactical, strategic, ballistic. He could spend hours repositioning the limbs of a plastic soldier or reproducing the patina of wear on a toy ammo belt. As a teenager he sought discipline and rigour, to the wonder of my friends.

He lit with enthusiasm for his most demanding teachers, praising their strictness. He was modest, intense, and had few but deep friendships. He was, like his brother, proud of his Scottish heritage and the grandmother who was “pure-bred McKenzie”, but of the two McKenzie mottos it was clear that Tim espoused the Celtic that translates, “All for the king,” whereas Alex and I wore the Latin badge “Luceo non uro”, meaning “light not heat”, or, “I shine not burn”.

Tim, who described himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal, held tolerant attitudes with regard to sex, race and religion. His politics, however, emanated from a spirit of gravity rather than irony. In puberty he developed no interest in sports but read voraciously, mostly adventure novels, admired John Wayne’s acting and his politics, and more than once to my despair quoted, “My country right or wrong.”

For a period he enjoyed goading my Democrat and Labour friends with army swagger. At 18 he came home at three one morning, in tears because he could not go to defend England’s honour in the Falklands. I had to be aware of my own contradictions in his presence: a feminist charmed by his machismo, a pacifist with a temper.

We came to acknowledge that, mother and child, we could not only not share, but could not respect each other’s world views. Our task was to love each other in the absence of that respect. It was a tall order. We agreed that we did pretty well at it. And Tim was broad-minded enough to observe once, “It’s a good thing it’s you who’s the liberal, mom. If I was the parent, I wouldn’t want to let you be you the way you’ve let me be me.”

Tim took a degree in history at the University of Florida, where he was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, then spent four years stationed with the army in Hawaii, where he described himself as a “warrior without a war”.

He left to work for a security corporation guarding the embassies and multinationals in Cameroon, and, as a US army reserve officer in Stuttgart, was sent to Bosnia, the Republic of Congo, and then to Namibia, where he learned the skill of de-mining. In Windhoek, the Namibian capital, he married on the eve of the millennium, became a stepfather and later a father to a daughter, who is now three and a half.

In August last year, having completed a two-year humanitarian de-mining project on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border (his family spent that time in Addis Ababa), Tim was offered his choice of a desk job in Washington or a mine-clearing contract in Iraq. His wife agreed to return to Windhoek and honour his desire for a limited tour at the front.

In Baghdad, Tim headed a $7m project with eight civilian colleagues, a sniffer dog team and a crew of 90 Iraqis who, he said, were the best he had ever worked with – the most dedicated, the most disciplined. They gave him hope for the governmental handover because, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, they worked side by side in mortal danger with mutual trust.

In the “green zone” where coalition officials live and work in Baghdad, and in the field, Tim carried two pistols and a machine gun; I paid no attention to what kind or calibre. He spent his days blowing things up – some mines, but more often unexploded ordnance from US cluster bombs – to clear building sites for housing and schools and, in one instance, a soccer field.

In January my son came to Tallahassee for a day, en route from Namibia back to Baghdad by way of a de-mining conference in Tampa. He was gorgeous in Iraqi guise – tanned, bearded, and with a full head of hair in place of his usual crewcut; my husband Peter said that I fell in love with him all over again. The three of us shared the irony that Tim’s brother Alex – that erstwhile punk and eternal pacifist – was now on the front line as supervisor of the Piccadilly Circus station of the London Underground, not only chasing buskers from the tunnels where he used to busk, but uniformed, drilling his crew in emergency evacuation.

Tim was missing his family in Namibia and thought his Iraqi team was on the verge of self-sufficiency. But he also worried that they would become targets of the insurgents in Iraq, and he was both despondent and enraged by the Bush administration and its regime (then under Paul Bremer) in Baghdad: “The corruption, the incompetence, the greed, the lies, the brute stupidity.”

I confess I was elated to hear this. I did not then know that one of his men had lost a leg in a de-mining accident, nor that their compound was fired on daily, nor that he had been treated for depression in Ethiopia the year before. Nor did I suspect that his plane, while taking off from Baghdad, had had to weave to dodge a missile.

I had, like a good liberal mom, let him choose his views and his life, and now first-hand experience was bringing him round to mine. With better hindsight, my brother pointed out, “Tim was someone who thought that with ideals and a gun you could fix things.” He had put his life at the service of a government that stood on just such a belief, and his disillusionment cut deep.

Back in Iraq, a note in his appointment calendar for January 10 reads: “All mistakes anyway everything crazy now I hope I can make it home safe.” In late February, Tim completed his tour and rejoined his family in Windhoek, and he spent a couple of weeks in the jubilation of freedom.

But his re-entry to the low-level chaos of family life was hard. He was obsessively irritable in small ways. He became a news junkie. Madrid was attacked, the Spanish pulled out of Iraq, Falluja fell apart, hostages were taken. If all the contractors left, how could there be reconstruction? Tim’s work would have come to nothing but danger for the troops who trusted him. He obsessively emailed his men, but they were busy staying alive and answered at a lag if at all. He consoled himself with hunting on a gamefarm in Namibia, sending proud pictures of himself with a downed warthog, a springbok, a magnificent kudu.

Then, on Thursday April 22, hunting with an unfamiliar rifle in the wrong light, he wounded a gemsbok that he could not track. On his return, inconsolable, he told his stepson that he had found a tooth, which meant that he had hit the animal in the face. He had had to leave it, like his men in Iraq, to its fate.

Tim shot himself on the Friday evening in the dining room of his house in the Windhoek hills called Eros. It was a clean kill. The trajectory took the bullet through Tim’s cranium, a black and beige Herrera-patterned curtain, and out through a rectangular window pane, so that the best friend of his widow was able to pick up the pieces of his brain and her sister to mop the blood from the carpet.

A week later Alex would stand in front of that window in full McKenzie kilt regalia, on his way to his brother’s funeral – bringing together Tim’s Scottish heritage and his choice of Africa as homeland.

No one will ever know what exploded in Tim’s mind. And no one will know how many children for decades to come in Namibia, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iraq will retain all four limbs because my kid, who loved weapons, accidentally stumbled into the profession of getting rid of them.

We do know, however, from the Namibian police, that the last gun he held was a 45-calibre Norinco model 1911 (nicknamed “Government”), serial number 901233.

They prised it from his cold, dead hand.

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