The goals are handwritten on a sheet of paper and taped to the bathroom mirror at the Casey residence, just a few blocks from Maria Carrillo High School. They begin modestly (“No playing video games in Oct thru wrestling season” and “Cut weight smartly”) and proceed to loftier ambitions:
“Second day state.”
These are tall orders, but not unreasonable for Cameron Casey, a Maria Carrillo senior. Imagine what he might accomplish this year, having put a little distance between himself and the most trying period in his young life.
As a junior last year, Casey suited up to wrestle hours after learning that his older brother, Raymond Burnside — an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered from PTSD — had committed suicide. One week later, Casey competed in the Puma Classic, his school’s signature wrestling event. He wrestled the day his brother was cremated, too. And exactly one month after Burnside’s death, Casey placed third at the North Coast Section finals, qualifying for the state championships in Bakersfield.
Tragedy has framed the Caseys’ life for a year now. But wrestling added some dabs of color within that outline.
“It gave me something to do every day after school, instead of just being depressed by the fact that my brother killed himself,” said Casey, who just turned 18. “Also, when you’re just that tired from doing sprints or whatever, it’s hard to be upset sometimes.”
Burnside’s death was a cruel blow to Casey because, in truth, he hadn’t known his half-sibling all that long. Thirteen years separated them, and Burnside spent eight years overseas as an Army medic. It wasn’t until he was honorably discharged in 2012 that the two got closer.
“He was really smart,” Casey said. “He just had a lot of foreign experience, and he was a whiz at Jeopardy. That was his favorite show. He’d always call out those answers, and it’s like, ‘How do you know that name?’ There’s definitely good memories.”
Burnside was admired for his compassion and creativity. But dealing firsthand with the mayhem of the modern battlefield tore a hole in him that never healed. He struggled with anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse as he tried to reintegrate, and his mental state got worse over the last months of his life.
On Jan. 27, 2016, the boys’ mother, Lynnette Casey, responded to Burnside’s call of distress at a Santa Rosa motel. These messages had become commonplace. Lynnette was worried as she drove over, of course, but she expected to soothe her son and bring him back from the edge of despair, as she had many times before. Instead, police officers at the scene informed her that Burnside had hanged himself.
Lynnette’s first call was to Culley Casey, her husband and Cameron’s father. The second was to her brother, Bob Vyenielo. The third was to Tim Bruce, the Maria Carrillo wrestling coach. It was 5 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“To say Cameron’s going to be dealing with this,” Lynnette explained recently, sitting next to Culley and speaking through tears in their family room. “He was like, ‘We got this.’ ”
The Caseys circled the wagons at home that day.