Cody Caton Memorial Poker Run Aug. 21 will help daughter and promote awareness

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Caton and Wheeler
Army Specialists Cody Caton and Sean Wheeler of Page County pose for a photo while serving together.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Aug. 11 — Sean Wheeler remembers his longtime friend and fellow Army veteran Cody Caton, who he served with in Iraq, as someone who had a “tough life.”

“He used to ask me…why do I have so many problems, and you don’t,” Wheeler recalls. “Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t have problems, or things to deal with…we just all deal with things differently.”

“War affects everyone differently.”

Both Caton and Wheeler served as specialists in the Army National Guard for six years, including a one-year stint in Iraq between 2007 and 2008. They spent their time in the Al Taqquaddum area of the country, mostly in a place called Al Anbar, serving with Alpha Company, 3/116 Battallion of the Army’s 29th Infantry.

“We went on about three missions a week, and there weren’t many times that we didn’t experience some…IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] and RPGs [Rocket-Propelled Grenades],” Wheeler said. “We looked out for each other, but more importantly…we prayed a lot. There’s an old saying in the military — there’s no atheists in a foxhole.”

When they returned to the states, both were diagnosed with hearing loss and traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to Wheeler, due to exposure to gunfire and explosions. Their time in combat also left emotional scars and sometimes reoccurring nightmares.

“He used to tell me he had this dream over and over,” Wheeler recalls. “Basically, I was stuck in this building and he couldn’t get to me.”

This came after Caton saw his buddy’s humvee hit by an IED.

“It rocked my truck,” Wheeler remembers. “When we got back to base, he ran up to me and asked, ‘Are you alright?'”

Cody and Sean had been close friends since the eighth grade, playing football together and attending Page County High School. Cody followed Sean into service with the National Guard and then into combat under gunfire in Iraq.

“We literally did everything together,” Wheeler says.

After returning from Iraq in 2008 and finishing his time with the Guard in 2012, Caton would find difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. He had various issues with jobs and relationships, while also battling alcoholism.

“Once we got back from Iraq, life changed dramatically,” Wheeler recalls. “He said he felt like a different person coming back. After we got out, he told me if he could go back in the military he would feel at home…he felt like that was where he needed to be.”

After their military service, Caton and Wheeler would work several jobs together, and there were “good periods” including two years of sobriety for Cody. Sean never lost contact with his buddy, even when he moved to Texas, where he was receiving help at Camp Hope, a Christian-based outreach program for veterans battling addiction.

Last summer after Cody had moved back to Virginia, Sean even started attending a new church to get his friend back to services on Sunday mornings. However, as troubles once again began to mount, things grew darker, his health declined, and Cody took his own life on Aug. 21, 2020. He was 34.

“Knowing where his faith was even though he didn’t have the easiest life…he asked God to save his soul…even through all that, he knew what eternity was, and that life doesn’t end here,” Wheeler says. “One day this life will pass by…He’s in a better place and hopefully I will be with him one day.”

The weeks spent at Bethlehem Independent Church in Kite Hollow before his death were not in vain, according to Wheeler. But it was a comment he heard at his friend’s funeral that drove him to do more.

“I heard his daughter say ‘I miss Coco'” Wheeler recalls, getting emotional as he reconnected with the memory.

The day after Cody’s funeral fellow Army veteran Chad Isabelle of Roanoke — Cody’s roommate in Iraq (which means they shared a 12×18 shipping container) — told Wheeler, “We need to do something to help his daughter.”

A Facebook fund drive raised the initial money placed in the Cody Caton Trust Fund established for his 12-year-old daughter. Isabelle held a motorcycle ride in June from Bristol, Va. to Roanoke, which raised a little more. Now, the Cody A. Caton Memorial Poker Run is scheduled in Page County for Saturday, Aug. 21.

Registration starts at 8 a.m. with kickstands going up at 9 a.m. Cost is $22 per bike and $10 for an extra rider. The starting point will be D.R.’s Quick Stop at 714 E. Main St., Stanley.

In addition to raising funds for Cody’s daughter, Wheeler also hopes to raise awareness about the high rate of suicides among veterans, especially those who have returned from combat overseas.

In 2012, an estimated 7,500 veterans committed suicide. That same year, 177 active duty service members died from suicide, while 176 were killed in action. The Army suffered 52 percent of military suicides.

In 2013, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs released a study that covered suicides from 1999 to 2010, which showed that roughly 22 veterans were dying by suicide per day, or one every 65 minutes. Some suggest that this rate may be undercounting suicides.

According to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, in 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex. Among U.S. adults, according to the report, the average number of suicides per day rose from 87 in 2005 to 124 in 2017.

“It’s hard…not having him here,” Wheeler says, fighting back his grief, “but knowing where he’s at, gives me peace.”

The Cody Caton Memorial Poker Run will be held on the one-year anniversary of Cody’s death. It’s being referred to as a “celebration of life.”

“He dealt with things far greater than I have had to deal with,” Wheeler said of his friend, “but his daughter doesn’t have him. Think of what she is having to deal with.”

Sean found out his friend had taken his own life after coming back from vacation. They had exchanged text messages during that time — mostly about the things going on in Cody’s life, and Sean encouraging him to continue attending church, even if he had to ask Pastor Andy [Seastrom] or someone else for a ride.

Despite the fact that it came way too soon, Sean’s last text to his longtime friend — their last communication — was fitting. He shared his true connection with his “brother” through a nickname they shared, “Buddick.”

Sean thumbs through his phone where the text messages are still stored. He suddenly stops, lowers his head and begins to weep. He turns the phone to reveal his last words to his friend:

“Love you Buddick!”

To see how you can help contribute to the Cody Caton Trust Fund, check out the Facebook page.



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