Hays native Steven Elliott says the journey told in his book "War Story" is important. Not because it is unique, but because it is ordinary.
Elliott served in Afghanistan, in the same Army Ranger platoon with former NFL star Pat Tillman and his brother, Kevin. On April 22, 2004, their platoon was ambushed. In the resulting firefight, two Rangers were wounded and two killed by friendly fire, including Pat Tillman. Later, Elliott learned his weapon wounded a radio operator and it was possible he fired the bullet that killed Tillman.
“It’s tragic beyond words he’s not here anymore, just like it’s tragic beyond words we have 6,000-plus who aren’t here anymore, and we have 22 (veteran suicides) a day who aren’t here anymore,” Elliott said. “He’s one of them ... Pat was a great guy, a great guy to serve with.”
Elliott, now 38 and a 1999 graduate of Hays High School, spoke about his military service and its aftermath before an audience of about 100 people Saturday night at Hays VFW Post 9076. He was brought in to tell his story by local chapter No. 939 of Vietnam Veterans of America. Elliott spoke for almost an hour, often pausing, his voice softening and filled with emotion.
Elliott, much like his grandfather did after Pearl Harbor, enlisted after 9/11. Hard work equaled success for Elliott in his mind. Faith in God filled in the gaps. But after the friendly fire incident, Elliott lost his faith; he became angry. His life spiraled, and as his book jacket says, he “plunged into the depths of guilt, shame and addiction — until unlikely hope emerged.”
In January 2018, Elliott’s book publisher informed him changes were needed before publication. Elliott, who lives in Olympia, Wash., returned home to Hays to work on the book. Seeking solitude during a dark period in his life, Elliott set up shop in the basement of Breathe Coffee House. One day, he was all alone — until an older man limped downstairs with a rag to wipe off tables. The man asked Elliott if he could tell him about Jesus. That opened the flood gates of everything that was bottled up inside. Words of eternal life spoke to him, Elliott said.
“'War Story' does not exist if not for a disabled Vietnam vet sitting down preaching the gospel to me,” Elliott said.
Now, Elliott uses his book to advocate for change, especially for active duty soldiers who might not have the programs that are available for veterans. Proceeds for his book go to elliottfund.org. The first thing one sees upon going to the site are the words “Sometimes the real fight starts after the battle.”
“I wish I was the only one who went to war, became broken and did not figure it out,” Elliott said. “Man, I wish that were true.”