Photo Credit: Caverguy
A recent local story about a young Iraq war veteran (Kevin Eve) who committed suicide deep inside a treacherous cave in Southern Indiana really rocked my world. It hit me personally between the solar plexus–hard. The reason it hit me so hard was due to the fact of where Kevin’s body was discovered–a cave called “Breathing Hole” in the Harrison-Crawford State Forest (Wyandotte area) of Southern Indiana.
Back around the summer of 2000, I traversed Breathing Hole Cave in Southern Indiana with three other experienced cavers. To some experienced cavers, Breathing Hole is not considered the most challenging cave; but other hardcore cavers will say it is indeed “hardcore caving.” To me, it was “hardcore.” The cavers I was with each had more than twenty years of experience in the Southern Indiana caves in the Wyandotte area. They were also the ones the Fire Dept. and rescue workers would call for dangerous cave extractions, due to the fact that fireman and local rescue teams are not really trained and equipped to handle deep-cave extractions of lost, trapped, injured or dead cavers.
At that time, I had only pushed a few passages that might be considered “hardcore” by some experienced cavers. Although I was well-prepared for this particular trip, since I had worked a few caves with the other cavers on the trip, I was definitely the green guy on the crew.
Breathing Hole cave is not easy to find. You have to know exactly where it is. There are dozens of cave systems in this particular locale. The entrance to Breathing Hole is just a hole in the ground. One of the cavers on the trip to Breathing Hole was in the military and quite experienced at orienteering with a compass using topographical maps (topos). He had visited the area many times and knew the cave well. But we still had to had to use compass and map to arrive at the correct location. It’s real easy to become disoriented in the deep woods, as I learned on that very trip.
We parked our trucks on a lonely country road and packed our gear straight into the woods toward the location of Breathing Hole. We humped a few hills with our packs during a 98 degree summer evening, with 100% humidity, to get to our camping spot on the top of a ridge just above Breathing Hole cave. It was an absolute miserable weekend for camping. We baked in our tents during our whole five-day trip. We called it “Camp Swelter.” The constant cool temperature of the cave was a welcome relief, once we began our descent.
Safety and preparation are of paramount concern when entering a cave like Breathing Hole. We alerted others we would be exploring the cave, in case anything happened. We all wore quality caving helmets with powerful, rugged headlamps; and were all equipped with at least four sources of light, plenty of extra batteries, lightweight foodstuffs, water, survival kits, survey gear, etc. All of our gear was carefully double-wrapped in military-grade waterproof bags and placed into a small, quality-made caving pack.
A good caving pack needs to handle a lot of abrasion; because you’re dragging it, pushing it, or throwing it in tight passages–or during ascents and descents. But caving packs are not waterproof; thus, the need to waterproof the contents with extra layers of protection. Many times you’re dragging the pack through water. And you’re always dragging your pack through the infamous, fine, silty, slick, slippery Indiana cave mud. So one needs to pack their gear carefully.
We wore socks and boots that were designed to wick water away from the skin. We layered our clothing (absolutely no cotton); we wore full body suits with knee pads and elbows pads (important), and long waterproof rubber gloves–which help to prevent water and mud going up your sleeves when you’re on a long belly crawl … well, sorta, anyway.
As I we stood over the entrance to the cave, my Air Force Sgt. friend, the hardcore caver, asked me, “Are you ready to eat some dirt?” I replied, “As ready as I’ll ever be.” But I still had that initial lump in my throat as we began our descent and set off to explore the unknown.
Breathing Hole descends down about 154-feet through a serious of free-climb, stair-step-like descents–on average of around ten t0 fifteen-foot increments. That’s the best way for me to describe it–the way I remember it. There are number of tight squeezes and brief low-crawl conditions to get to each so-called “stair step.” It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is not a terribly long passage–around a 4-5 hour round trip, I would estimate.
Although Breathing Hole is fairly straightforward, in terms of navigation, one still needs to be aware of the direction to go to get to the bottom floor of the cave. One of the most important lessons I learned about navigating cave passages is to always look behind me and take a mental picture of what I’m going to see on the way out every few seconds. The cave looks totally different coming out than it does going in. I would burn significant features into my mind at key waypoints along the way. This proved important as we were coming out of Breathing Hole. One of the cavers on point was going to the right on our ascent out of the cave system. We needed to go left. I called this out. It saved us from turning a 4-hour trip into an 8-hour trip (or longer).
Breathing Hole levels out and starts to widen up quite a bit once you reach the bottom. It’s hard for me to accurately estimate, but I would say the cave continues for around 30-40 meters and ends in a large doom-like room with a height of around 30 feet or so. This is more than likely where the young veteran Kevin Eve ended his life. Reports have alleged Kevin Eve’s body was found at the back of the cave.
Large room at the end of Breathing Hole.
(Photo: (c) Copyright All rights reserved by Elliot Stahl)
The real reason for me writing this article is not to focus on my caving adventures, but to point out the challenges and difficulties of navigating Breathing Hole cave. It’s one of the few cave systems I’m intimately familiar with in the Wyandotte area.
Of all the caves, why Breathing Hole? Why did a young veteran feel the need to burrow himself deep under the earth to end his own life? What sort of torment in his own soul led him to such a determined and bitter end? I don’t know if we’ll ever discover the reason why, but it’s worth pursuing, in my mind. Regardless of my own feelings and beliefs toward suicide, it is truly a sad and terrible thing when one comes to the conclusion the only option they have is to murder themselves. It appears Kevin wanted to bury himself under the deepest rock he could find and end it all.
So this really brings me to the gist of this article: our veterans have been involved in over 10 years of continuous combat operations. Our Reserve and National Guard troops have had to deploy to both Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times on various missions. I don’t know how many times Kevin Eve was deployed, or what he saw and experienced in-theater. I don’t know what the reason was regarding his decision to end his life. But it really drove me to think about our vets and how much stress, trauma, sacrifice and pressure we’re putting them through.
If we are going to put our military into harm’s way, what’s the strategy? What’s the goal? What’s the objective? Consider Afghanistan … in 2003, we deposed the Taliban. Now, after 10 years of continuous combat operations in “The Stan,” we are set to withdraw, and the Taliban is poised to take back power. Think about it. After all the U.S. and Coalition deaths, and numerous wounded, we are simply going to hand back power to a ruthless and brutal enemy. I don’t get it. How is our involvement any different than the Soviet experience in Afghanistan now? It’s not a tactical failure by our military. Our military has performed brilliantly. It’s a failure of strategy and operations by our apparently corrupt civilian leadership at the executive and congressional levels.
The ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu taught that nations that engage in protracted struggles demoralize their people and troops, and bleed the treasuries dry. If we can no longer define our enemy and crush him, then we have no business sending our fine military into harm’s way. They have already given so much. And for what? What’s the end game? Do any of us know?
Once again, I don’t know why Kevin Eve ended his own life in such a manner. It just got me to thinking about how much stress we’re putting our military through as a nation. And when there appears to me no strategy or objective to the constant and never-ending military deployments, then we are, for all intents and purposes, saying we don’t care who we put in harm’s way, or for how long. This is not a failure of our military. Our military is the best in the world at the tactical level. This is a colossal failure of our civilian leadership. We are failing our military at the strategic and operational level by not clearly defining the enemy and allowing them to crush the enemy. If you’re not willing to crush the enemy, then you might as well stay home. One thing is for sure: our enemy is bound and determined to crush and slaughter us!
It’s terrible that such a young life was ended in such all-encompassing darkness. There is nothing like the total blackness of a cave–the complete absence of light. My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Kevin Eve, as well as Kevin Eve. Truly a tragic end–one I won’t forget.
A Facebook dedication page has been set up for Kevin Eve here.