Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
HANKINSON, N.D. — When Korbin Steinwehr died last week, Karly Steinwehr lost her little brother. But in a way, it’s like she lost a son, too.
With a 17½ year age gap between the siblings, people often assumed Karly was Korbin’s mother.
She was a junior in high school when parents Kurt and Mary Jo “Mazy” Steinwehr had Korbin, who they’d refer to as their “oops baby.”
Before he came along, Karly had dreams of moving away for college and pursuing a career working with children who are seriously ill or hospitalized. Instead, she stayed put in Hankinson, a southeast North Dakota town of just under 1,000 in Richland County, so she could see her little brother grow up.
“I don't have children of my own,” Karly said, “so I literally followed him around to everything that he went to.”
The two developed a remarkable sibling bond, especially so given their age difference.
But Karly and family, friends and many community members had to bid him an untimely farewell.
Korbin Kurt Steinwehr, 23, died by suicide on Sept. 14, just days after acknowledging to family members that he needed treatment for depression and alcohol addiction.
He’d had his first appointment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo and received treatment referrals, but Karly said she didn’t grasp how quickly her brother’s mental state was deteriorating.
“We were working in the right direction,” she said. “It just didn’t happen fast enough.”
The United States Air Force veteran was laid to rest with full military honors on Monday, Sept. 20.
The family’s message now is, don’t wait a day to seek help.
“Making that phone call, starting your journey to a better life needs to happen,” Karly said.
Serving his country
Growing up in Hankinson, Korbin Steinwehr did a lot of the things boys his age did.
He played sports and enjoyed deer hunting with his brother Erik, who’s more than three years older than Karly, and his father, Kurt, who died in 2018. He also loved video games, often playing Xbox for hours on end with his friends.
After graduating from Hankinson High School in 2016, he thought about college but worried about burdening his parents with the cost. He figured he could get his education paid for by joining the military, so he enlisted in the Air Force in early 2017.
After basic training, he focused on a program that gave him expertise in fueling military aircraft. He performed that task while stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, and during a six-month deployment to Kuwait in the Middle East.
In 2018, he even earned the “Pumper of the Year” award for the more than 2 million gallons of fuel he pumped in Guam. “He got so much grief about this,” Karly said with a laugh, referring to the wooden plaque.
Friends and family described him as a jokester, who always seemed happy, at least outwardly.
They begged him to shave off the mustache he’d grown until they learned the reason why.
Kurt Steinwehr always had a mustache and Korbin had decided to grow one after his dad died.
Struggling with free time
Korbin was honorably discharged from the Air Force in June and had begun taking classes at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton before his death.
Karly Steinwehr said the military was a great fit for Korbin because he needed more structure in his life, but the lack of it once he was discharged likely contributed to his struggles.
He finished out his time at the Grand Forks base, then would go back and forth between his mom’s house and a friend’s house in Hankinson.
With months of idle time before his college classes began in August, he’d spend entire days drinking alcohol and playing video games, Karly said. Family members didn’t know how bad it had gotten until a few weeks before his death.
Korbin would say the only reason he was living was for Karly and their mother, and that he felt like a burden. Karly said she never took those comments lightly.
“I didn't think it would ever happen that quickly. Not once,” she said.
Overwhelmed by a sea of blue
A previously scheduled Out of the Darkness suicide awareness walk was happening in nearby Wahpeton on Sept. 18, just days after Korbin died.
Korbin's mom, Mazy Steinwehr, was adamant that she couldn’t handle being there.
Karly was considering it, figuring she would disappear into the crowd, but began having second thoughts.
Meanwhile, Karly’s best friends, Tara Steffens and Jaime Krump, were quietly hatching a plan for a huge show of support for the family at the walk.
“Karly has always been the person there for everybody else, very selfless,” Steffens said.
Family members convinced Karly and Mazy to show up, and they were overwhelmed by a sea of blue — nearly 100 people wearing navy T-shirts made in Korbin’s honor.
Korbin’s Krew raised nearly $2,700 for the cause, allowing Karly and family to carry a banner and lead the walk.
“It was beautiful. I mean, it was so heartwarming,” Karly said.
In Korbin Steinwehr’s obituary, his family asked that memorial donations be made in his name to the suicide prevention coordinator at the Fargo VA Medical Center, 2101 Elm St. N., Fargo, ND, 58102-2417.