James Oliver Twist, husband of Emalyn, father to Charlie, Josie and Ben, and youngest child of John Twist and the late Caroline Robinson, died Wednesday, October 23, 2019. He will forever be 27. Born Tuesday, June 30, 1992, James attended Thornapple Elementary, Central Middle, and graduated from Forest Hills Central, class of 2010. James wrestled at FHC on the J.V. and Varsity teams. He was a Boy Scout achieving Eagle Scout. Upon graduation, he immediately joined the United States Army, completed basic training at Fort Knox, and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C. He made a dozen jumps. James served one tour in Afghanistan in 2012, where he was deployed in the Kandahar Valley. On his frequent emails and phone calls home, he shared his passion for helping others and talked often about the work he and his fellow soldiers did for nearby villages, including building schools. He truly believed his work offered the Afghan civilians even a little bit of freedom and hope. James returned from Afghanistan in October and met his wife, Emalyn, through mutual friends. After a whirlwind two weeks, they spent the next several months apart as James finished his Army service. One January evening in 2013, he surprised Emalyn underneath a brilliant light sculpture and asked for her hand. They married in December, 2013, and a year later their first son was born. Missing the camaraderie of the Army, James joined the Army Reserve and served with the 321st Psychological Operations Battalion in Grand Rapids. After four years with Costco, James entered the State Police Training Academy, graduating in July, 2018, Trooper #1615. He had nearly completed his B.A. at Cornerstone University. Despite James’ infectious energy and ability to light up a room, he secretly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He sought help, but faced “an invisible war in his head,” as he called it. He struggled to share his experiences yet actively encouraged fellow veterans to reach out to the Veterans Crisis line. On Tuesday, October 22, he took his own life. On Friday, October 25, he saved six lives and gave others life-changing gifts through organ and tissue donations. As a soldier, James saved lives. As a State Trooper, James saved lives. And in death, James continues to save lives. James will be remembered for his generosity, his charisma, and most especially, for his humor. He loved so many people and was loved by so many people. James leaves his wife, Emalyn Jade, and three children: Charles Gabriel, 4; Josephine Caroline, 3; and Benjamin Brooks, 1. James’ surviving family includes his father, John H Twist; sister Mary (Chris) van Opstal; brother J Brooks Twist, and sister Barbara Twist; parents-in-law Jodi and Gabriel Beversluis; sisters-in-law Madison, Grace, and Halle Beversluis; nephews Marius, Kai, and niece Lotte; grandmother Barbara Robinson, uncle John (Betsi) Robinson, aunt Mary (Tom) Robinson, and uncle Peter Robinson; grandmother Joan Robinson; cousins Emily (Rous) Robinson, Sam Simmons, Caroline Robinson, Peter Simmons, and John Michael Robinson; aunts Alison (Glenn) Yarger and Feef (Rick) Dillon; cousins Travis (Tammi) Glenn, Cabe (Katy) Churchill, Keegan Dillon, and Remy Dillon. The funeral will take place on Friday, November 1st 2019 at 2PM, preceded by a visitation at 12pm and followed by a reception, at Keystone Church, 655 Spaulding Avenue, Ada. In lieu of flowers, please contribute to the support of James’ three children and wife through their family discretionary fund care of Keystone Church.
James wrote a single blog post the day he died. In it he talks about his time in Afghanistan and his return. You may find it worth reading.
June 30th, 2010 I turned 18 and I had just been through the toughest year of my life thus far. During my senior year of high school my mother, Caroline, succumb to her Stage IV Cancer that she was diagnosed with just a year and a half prior. This is one of the toughest things a child my age could go through. I had a support system but I shut it out. I did not talk to my father, but in passing from January to June that year. I did not handle my Mothers death as cookie-cutter as some may expect, I was selfish. I spent many years wrestling with the fact that I only had one parent and never had a mother to meet my wife or my children. I did not appreciate what I still had in my life. I cannot sit here and say that I was not selfish because I would be lying. From outside looking through my Facebook or through my Instagram I may always seem fine, but that is far from the truth. I struggle every day trying to be an upstanding parent, husband, friend, leader, and citizen. I have been through many different things in my short adult life, especially the first three years out of high school.
Twenty-nine days after my 18th birthday, I began my journey in the United States Army as a Cavalry Scout. I learned how to shoot small arms to how to shoot a 25mm chain gun out of a Bradley Fighting vehicle, I learned how to move as a fireteam and a squad both mounted and dismounted. I learned how to communicate as a fireteam and a squad both with radios and other means. I was then blessed to receive a spot in the coveted United States Airborne School, which is basically a school where you learn how to fall for two weeks and then enact that fall when you get to jump out of an airplane in the last week. I then was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina with the 82nd Airborne Division. I walked into Fort Bragg thinking I was so cool. I realized shortly after that I was not that cool and I was the new guy. New guys find out very quickly that they are new and not that cool. I spent the next 12 months training for a Deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
I deployed to Afghanistan in February of 2012. Less than two years out of high school, I was part of the war effort fighting the Taliban. My deployment was riddled with experiences that were fun, but also there were many terrible experiences. Most of my deployment was spent patrolling on foot in areas where the Taliban operated freely and laid bombs in many different places. We began our deployment in Maiwand district. On March 29, 2012, was the first soldier from my unit that was killed, Specialist Johnathon F. Davis; he was twenty and killed by small arms fire. I went to Basic Training with John and Airborne School. Many might not know but Johnathon dying was the beginning of my Troop, a few Improvised Explosive Device strikes that resulted in minimal injuries. I was tasked while on deployment, a job to keep the Anti-radio-controlled IED devices from working. Sometimes I would store these devices in the Troop Tactical Operations Center or TOC. During this time I made an acquaintance with Staff Sergeant Israel Nuanes, in my eyes he was a legendary Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldier. On May 12, 2012, we had left our first Forward Operating Base(FOB) and we were back at our Squadron FOB preparing to leave for our next destination. We were packing our trucks as one of Sergeants informed us that SSG Nuanes had been killed in an IED strike that morning. Another Soldier gone too soon. We finished packing and pushed on to Zharay District, Kandahar, Afghanistan. This district is coined as the Birthplace of the Taliban.
How I explain the difference between Maiwand and Zharay is the engagements went from long distance to short distance. During our time in Maiwand, our engagements(firefights) were generally from 400m to 1000m and in Zharay district our engagements were from 25m to 100m. It was a big difference. Within thirty days of being in Zharay, we lost another soldier, this time he was in our Troop. Corporal Nicholas H. Olivas was killed in action on May 30th, 2012. This was a hard hit to our entire Troop. This incident kicked off an entire month of despair.
On June 6th, 2012, began the second-worst day of my life, I was on patrol with my platoon and my team was clearing a compound that was in a deserted Afghan Village. SSG Dan Williams, and Spc. Samuel Walley, and I were securing a courtyard in a building where some potential Taliban Member had fled after they had mounted a small ambush on the platoon. Sam heard a motorcycle start on the backside of the compound and attempted to make contact with the motorcycle. Not 10 feet away from me Sam disappeared into a cloud of dust. There was a violent shaking and a cloud of dust. All I heard after the ringing in my ears subsided was a call for help. I just started running through the cloud not knowing what awaited me on the other side. But I did not care, all I knew is my friend Sam was calling for help. The dust cleared and I found Sam in a small crater. He was missing his right foot and all the muscle and skin around his right tib/fib. His left leg was still in the pant leg and his left hand was basically the only part left below his elbow. Dan Williams was on the Radio, while I administered first aid to Sam, placing tourniquets on Sam’s extremities. We were soon teamed up with our medic and others in the platoon. There was a medivac to the location quickly and Sam was extracted to Kandahar and ultimately to Walter Reed Medical Center. We then left the objective back to base. I was checked out by a medic and ultimately back on patrol less than 48 hours later. My platoon’s next injured soldiers were 1st Lieutenant Dominic Latino, Specialist Mark Kerner, and Specialist Matthew Hanes.
June 30th, 2012 my birthday, two years after I had joined the Army. I met my next Lieutenant, Clint Lorance. 72 hours later he was no longer my Lieutenant but a soldier under investigation for 2nd-degree murder of Afghan Civilians. Our platoon was rocked and split up. I stayed where I was and patrolled in Zharay district and witnessed a few more injuries and deaths of Afghan Soldiers.
September 7th, 2012 I returned home from Afghanistan and this was a shellshock in itself. I spent a lot of time trying to understand my place in the world after I returned home. I know that I had spent most of my last year in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and knowing we were actually successful. I ask myself all the time did our fighting actually matter. I believe honestly that whatever time we provided the Afghan Civilians a little bit of freedom was hopefully enough for them to appreciate it and understand what it feels like.
It was not long after coming home from Afghanistan I started to have problems. I consistently had a headache and I also continued to replay my experience with Sam in my head over and over again. At 20 years old I never believed that I was able to see a doctor, because I would be marginalized and ostracized by my squadron leadership, not to be confused with my first line leader. I did not seek treatment for what I know now as Post Traumatic Stress(PTS). The first person I ever shared my experience with was my Girlfriend and now Wife, Emalyn.
I could not be more thankful for Emalyn. She did not leave when I mentally broke down and told her my story. She did not just stand by my side but lead me to seek the treatment I really needed. She helped me get through the Veterans Affairs process and is a great person that was on the outside of the military to speak with. I appreciate everything she has ever done for me and I would not be here in the place I am today without her. Emalyn and I have had three perfect children together have been through tons. I could not imagine a world without her. My wife has pulled me out of more self-deprecating and self-serving holes then I can count. The lady is a modern-day saint.
After deployment friends began dying either from training, suicide, or injuries sustained on deployment. The phone calls associated with friends dying are some of the hardest things I will ever have to deal with. I received a phone call from Sam when Matthew Hanes, Mark Kerner, and Jared Ruhl all passed away. I remember after each phone call I spent time remembering them and believing that it was not true. Jared Ruhl, I had seen not but a couple months prior at Matthew Hanes Funeral and then he was dead. Sergeant First Class Justin Goff was the latest military acquaintance that has passed away. SFC Goff gave me a Ranger Handbook to pass to my son, Charlie when he was old enough. He had inscribed a note in it to Charlie, note that Justin never met Charlie, but cared enough to send him a book and write a beautiful note to him.
My story is not a hero story it is a normal soldier’s story that is mixed with excitement and despair. I was not a Green Beret or a Ranger, I was a Paratrooper that fought the enemy day in and day out on their turf.
I have learned a lot in my life and I struggle every few months to right the ship of my internal struggle with my experiences. I spend a day not being able to communicate my feelings with anyone. I know this happens with other soldiers. This is usually brought on by my experiences resurfacing through conversation about those experiences or a friend passing away. In this case a discussion with a doctor during a check-up.
Today was one of those days. I spent the day detached, but right when I switched on Traveling Mercies by Emily Scott Robinson for my Daughter, Josie, I was brought back to reality. My daughter Josie asked what was wrong in her three-year-old speak and I told her someday I would tell her, but I love her. I apologized for my coldness and then she said: “I love you dada.”
These moments I have to remember are equally as important as my past experiences. I sometimes get caught in my own head and these days are laborious for others. I realize this after the day is done and the damage is done. These are still things I need to work on to become more vocal with my issues.
Please if you are struggling make the jump and meet with the V.A. or find a group to talk to. I have put myself through enough mini heartaches that I feel like I know what I am talking about.
Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255
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