ENDING THE SILENCE
By ANDREW MCGINN
One hundred thirty-seven times.
Each time, a referee took Kyler Kiner’s arm and hoisted it in victory, a hammer who made nails of almost everyone he wrestled.
By the time he graduated from Ogden High School in 2014, the Grand Junction native had amassed a career wrestling record of 137-6, qualifying for the state wrestling tournament all four years.
Wrestling was, in a word, everything.
Kiner never wanted to rely on someone to pass him a ball. If he was meant to live as a champion, his strength or weakness alone would determine his destiny.
“He wanted to do it on his own,” his dad, Scott Kiner, said.
That brand of individualism runs deep in rural Iowa, a place known not only for wrestling, but whose people are still only several generations removed from the men and women who crawled overland like a glacier, putting plow to prairie and making something from nothing.
But, just once, Kyler Kiner’s family wishes he would have asked for help.
Kyler Kiner died by suicide on Nov. 4 at the age of 24.
“Twenty-four and there’s so much more,” as Neil Young once sang.
Those Kyler Kiner left behind have questions that will never be answered. But because the people of rural Iowa are nothing if not good neighbors, a desire within them to help others avoid their pain is coming to a boil.
“I feel there’s some reason this happened,” Kyler Kiner’s mom, Tammy, explained, fresh from the first holiday season without the redheaded, blue-eyed baby of the family. “If it means we help people, then that’s what we need to do.”
“Five years ago,” she continued, “I never thought this was going to be what my life was like.”
The culture of rural Iowa, they say, needs to change.
“We live in a kind of rough and gruff area,” said Heidi Bills, Kyler Kiner’s sister. “It’s OK. You can talk about this. The Kyler who did this was not the Kyler we knew. It’s OK to say the words ‘mental illness.’
“Let’s talk about it. And let’s help each other.”
The hope is that rural Iowans begin banding together like they do in other times of turmoil — to make people feel as free to gripe and groan about their mental health as they do the weather.
Just get them to talk.
“Let his loss be meaningful,” Tammy Kiner said.
On the outside, Kyler Kiner carried himself with a confident swagger. An ornery grin suggested he was up for just about anything, and the size of his arms said he could back it up.
“He was always the life of the party,” Bills, 28, said. “Always.”
Scott Kiner, who works as a welding foreman for Chicago Bridge & Iron, said his youngest son was like a hunk of coal with a fine diamond lurking underneath.
The rough exterior was only a shell.
Inside was a man who made room in his bed for the two hunting dogs he babied. Inside was a boy who once took a stand in school for a classmate with special needs being bullied, even though it meant being hauled into the principal’s office.
A tender spot for those with special needs was ever-present, having had a brother, the late Myles Kiner, who was nonverbal.
Inside Kyler Kiner was a little brother who only wanted the best for those he loved.
“I didn’t date anybody,” Bills said, “unless he liked them.”
But inside Kyler Kiner, those closest to him have learned, was a complicated human being who wouldn’t or couldn’t tell family and friends that he hurt.
“Why didn’t he just reach out?” Bills asks.
The stigma of mental illness persists. In fact, more than half — 54 percent — of all people who die by suicide don’t have a known mental health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which can be taken to mean that scores of people suffer in silence.
And suicide is on the rise.
Nationally, the CDC tracked a 31 percent increase in deaths by suicide between 2001 and 2017.
For young men and women Kiner’s age — those between the ages of 10 and 34 — suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
“Everybody who came up to us said he was always happy,” Tammy Kiner explained. “You don’t know what people are going through. We didn’t see signs.”
Tammy Kiner’s life was turned upside down — and not just personally, but professionally.
Kiner is a registered nurse at the Greene County Medical Center.
“Even though I’m in the nursing profession, I’ve learned so much (the past two months),” she said.
On the surface, everything in life was going right for Kyler Kiner.
By day, he worked as fabrication supervisor at Power Lift and by night was actively growing his own soil sampling business.
A three-time AAU state wrestling champion growing up, he pushed the youth wrestlers he coached in the Ogden Elite Wrestling Club to strive for greatness.
“He wanted all of his kids to be on the podium at state,” Scott Kiner said.
Because East Greene didn’t have a wrestling program, Kiner open-enrolled at Ogden High School in order to wrestle under Brian Reimers, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame coach.
Despite being from Greene County, Kyler Kiner bled bulldog blue.
Ogden High School on Jan. 25 will host the Kyler Kiner Memorial Wrestling Tournament, a youth wrestling tournament.
In December, Ogden also started bestowing what it calls the “Kyler Kiner Hammer of the Week” on its noteworthy varsity, JV and junior-high wrestlers.
The hammer in question is a replica of the hammer wielded by the Marvel Comics superhero Thor. In comics lore, only he who is worthy can so much as lift Mjolnir, the mystical hammer forged by dwarven blacksmiths.
It’s a fitting tribute, but one that goes deeper than anyone might guess.
As fans of comics and the Marvel movies know, Thor may possess the strength of a god, but he, too, can be susceptible to moments of pain and doubt.
“Kyler was a rough and tough kid,” Bills said, “with a heart of gold.”
Help end the silence
Due to the weather on Jan. 22, the NAMI program, “Ending the Silence,” will be moved to 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 801 W. Lincoln Way, in Jefferson.
The free program presented by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Central Iowa will help teens and adults learn the warning signs of mental illness and suicide, what to do, and who you can talk to.
For more information about the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 515-292-9400.