Casualties of War, Part II: Warning signs

July 24, 2009
photo - Fort Carson soldiers participate in a CORE, or Combat Operational Recovery Exercises,  training on the base in early June.  Soldiers lie on their back as they participate in a trauma release exercise.  The Gazette, Bryan Oller Photo by BRYAN OLLER, THE GAZETTE
Fort Carson soldiers participate in a CORE, or Combat Operational Recovery Exercises, training on the base in early June. Soldiers lie on their back as they participate in a trauma release exercise. The Gazette, Bryan Oller Photo by BRYAN OLLER, THE GAZETTE 

After coming home from Iraq, 21-year-old medic Bruce Bastien was driving with his Army buddy Louis Bressler, 24, when they spotted a woman walking to work on a Colorado Springs street.

Bressler swerved and hit the woman with the car, according to police, then Bastien jumped out and stabbed her over and over.

(A word of caution about the language and content of this story: Please see Editor's Note)

It was October 2007. A fellow soldier, Kenneth Eastridge, 24, watched it all from the passenger seat.

At that moment, he said, it was clear that however messed up some of the soldiers in the unit had been after their first Iraq deployment, it was about to get much worse.

“I have no problem with killing,” said Eastridge, a two-tour infantryman with almost 80 confirmed kills. “But I won’t just murder someone for no reason. He had gone crazy.”

Hear the prison interviews with Kenneth Eastridge.

All three soldiers belonged to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, part of Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. The 500-soldier infantry battalion nicknamed itself the “Lethal Warriors.”

They fought in the deadliest places in the war twice — first in the Sunni Triangle, then in downtown Baghdad. Since their return late in 2007, eight infantry soldiers have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter. Another two soldiers from the brigade were arrested and accused of murder and attempted murder after the first tour. Others have committed other violent crimes. Others have committed suicide.

Many of the soldiers behind bars and their family members say the violence at home is a consequence of the violence in Iraq. They came home angry, confused, paranoid and depressed. They had trouble getting effective mental heath care. Most buried their symptoms in drugs and alcohol until they exploded.

The Army is seeking new ways to care for returning soldiers and keep the violence from returning — crucial now, because the unit shipped out in May to Afghanistan, where the monthly coalition casualty rate has doubled since the beginning of the year. Soldiers are scheduled to return to Colorado Springs in spring 2010.

The first step toward solving the problem, the post’s most recent commander said, is to understand it.

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham took command of Fort Carson in September 2007, just before the worst of the violence. He said that after studying the murders, he saw that soldiers rarely snap without warning. Guys who get in big trouble often get in little trouble first, and the problem grows until it explodes.

Graham calls this pattern “the crescendo.”

It may start with a soldier showing up to work reeking of booze, getting arrested for domestic violence, or mouthing off to an officer.

“When a guy who had it together starts showing little problems, it could be a sign of something much bigger,” he said.

Most of the soldiers now behind bars back up Graham’s theory of the crescendo.

Before Bastien stabbed a woman in 2007, he was arrested three times on suspicion of beating his wife and burning her with cigarettes.

Before Bressler shot two soldiers in Colorado Springs in 2007, Eastridge said, he assaulted his commanding officer and tried to kill himself.

Before Jomar Falu-Vives, 23, allegedly gunned down three people in Colorado Springs in two drive-by shootings in 2008, his wife said she called his sergeants to warn he was liable to “take someone’s life.”

Before John Needham, 25, allegedly beat a woman to death in 2008, his father said, he tried repeatedly to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The pattern of trouble is clear in hindsight, Graham said, but hard to spot when it is developing.

“Our challenge is to catch it early, so we can help these soldiers,” he said. “We are educating young commanders on taking care of their soldiers. But it’s a very tough problem.”

Graham, who had one son killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq a year after his other son committed suicide while training to be an officer, made mental health a focus after taking command of Fort Carson.

He said suicide and homicide are “different reactions to the same or similar problem. You treat both in the same way.”

Under his watch, Fort Carson more than doubled the number of mental health counselors. A new Army program will soon give each brigade a “master resiliency trainer” to strengthen troops’ psychological fitness the way drill sergeants strengthen their muscles. A special unit has been created to track soldiers who are too physically or psychologically wounded to stay with their battalions. Soldiers visiting a doctor at Fort Carson for even a sprained ankle are now screened for symptoms of PTSD and depression. And perhaps most important, Graham said, in the Army, where mental illness has long been taboo, commanders at Fort Carson are being trained to tell soldiers it is OK to seek treatment.

“There is a culture and a stigma that need to change,” Graham said.

It is unclear if the new measures can counter the entrenched Army culture or the effects of repeated deployments. Though some of the new programs have been in place for two years, the violence has not stopped.

Colorado Springs police arrested a Fort Carson soldier from the Lethal Warriors in May in the killing of a 19-year-old woman. Another soldier shot himself in the head this year. Another was arrested on suspicion of breaking a civilian’s jaw in March. Another is awaiting trial in the shooting of a pregnant woman.

Graham, who handed over command of the post last week, said Fort Carson is doing everything it can to help its soldiers. “I wish I could predict how all this is going to go,” he said. “I can’t say it is not going to happen again.”

“All I know how to do is kill people”

For Bastien, the Army medic, the crescendo started to peak just after midnight on Aug. 4, 2007, when he was driving his silver Audi to get cigarettes after a night of drinking at Bressler’s apartment.

The rest of their battalion was still fighting in Iraq.

Bastien was in Colorado Springs because he had been arrested and accused of beating his wife while on leave in May 2007.

Bressler was in town because the Army had sent him back from Iraq early, in July, with PTSD, according to his wife. He was awaiting a medical discharge because, Eastridge said, he attacked an officer in Iraq.

Bastien and Bressler declined requests for interviews.

According to court documents, that night the pair spotted a drunk 23-year-old Fort Carson private they didn’t know named Robert James, who was walking home from a bar, and pulled the Audi over to give him a ride.

Bastien later told police that he and Bressler decided to rob James. They drove to a dark parking lot.

Bressler pointed a .38 revolver at James and demanded his money. James pulled a few rumpled bills from his pockets — about $25. Bressler shot him twice and gathered the scattered bills.

The random crime left cops with no leads.

A little over a month later, in late September, Eastridge landed under Army escort at the Colorado Springs Airport.

The once-decorated soldier had been court-martialed in August 2007 on suspicion of possession of drugs, disobeying orders and threatening an officer. Medical records show that, after two bloody deployments, the Army diagnosed him with paranoia, depression, insomnia, antisocial personality disorder, PTSD, homicidal thoughts and hearing loss caused by constant shooting and explosions.

His Army escorts were taking him to Fort Carson — not for treatment, he said, but to get kicked out of the Army.

From there, he was going to jail. In Colorado Springs, there was a warrant waiting from a year before, when he skipped a court date on charges of putting a gun to his girlfriend’s head.

At the baggage claim, Eastridge said, while his escorts waded into the crowd to grab their bags, he ran. He said he hopped in a cab, took it to a cheap hotel and called the only people in town he knew: Bastien and Bressler.

“When I met up with those guys, they were weird,” he said. They were paranoid and aggressive, he said.

“They kept saying, ‘Do you want to go rob someone? Do you want to go kill someone? I just thought they were kidding, but they had gone a little crazy.”

Eastridge did have plans to rob someone. Compared with Iraq, it would be easy.

He wanted to do it alone, but he had no car and no gun. Bressler and Bastien had both, Eastridge said, and they insisted on coming along.

On Oct. 29, 2007, wearing all black, they attempted to rob a nightclub manager as she emerged from a club. When they botched that, they drove off and spotted a young woman named Erica Ham walking down the street. Bressler hit her with the car and she crashed onto the hood. Then Bastien jumped out to grab her bag and started stabbing her. When she tried to fight back, Eastridge pulled out a pistol and yelled for her to get on the ground.

Ham was unable to identify her attackers, and police had no leads.

The stabbing sobered Eastridge up, he said. He turned himself in for his year-old domestic violence charge and spent most of November in the El Paso County jail. He bonded out on Nov. 27. A few days later, he returned to Fort Carson, where he received an “other than honorable” discharge for possession of drugs in Iraq.

After two tours in Iraq, Eastridge was depressed, paranoid, violent, abusing drugs and haunted by nightmares. But because he was other-than-honorably discharged, he said, he was ineligible for benefits or health care. He was no longer Uncle Sam’s problem. He was on his own.

“I had no job training,” he said. “All I know how to do is kill people.”

A few days later, on Nov. 30, 2007, Eastridge went drinking with Bastien and Bressler. According to court documents the three ran into a fellow soldier, Kevin Shields, who was celebrating his 24th birthday.

They downed shots at the downtown bars until closing, then drove around, smoking a joint, until they were lost on the west side.

In the first, dark hours of Dec. 1, 2007, Bressler and Shields got in a fight when Shields teased the tough gunner for throwing up in the car. Bressler told Bastien to pull over because he needed to puke again. Bressler leaned against a pole like he was sick, then turned around and shot Shields in the head. The soldier fell to the ground, and Bressler shot him four more times.

Bressler fished a few things out of Shields’ pockets to make the shooting look like a robbery, and they sped away.

Soldiers who saw the trio drinking with Shields at Rum Bay helped police tie them to the crime, court documents said.

Bressler was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 60 years.

Bastien pleaded guilty to the same charge and also got 60 years.

Eastridge pleaded guilty to accessory to murder and got 10 years.

None used their experiences in Iraq as a defense.

“When I was sentenced, the judge told me ‘Look at how many people go to Iraq, and how few come back and commit crimes,” Eastridge said, “But that’s not fair. A lot of the soldiers who go to Iraq just drive trucks or check IDs or sit in the Green Zone. Look at combat troops. And look at what kind of combat they did. My unit was in the worst neighborhood in the bloodiest part of the war. Even in my platoon, there were guys that stayed in the truck and guys that did most of the fighting. Look at that tiny number. It’s not the hundreds of thousands that go, it’s the few hundred that see heavy, heavy combat. It changes lives.”

“Give me the gun”

The rest of the Lethal Warriors returned home from Iraq in December 2007.

Some went wild in the bars, overflowing with the same pent-up jubilation troops experienced after the first tour. Then the crescendo started.

Jose Barco, who was burned so badly in the first tour that, soldiers said, he had to beg commanders to allow him back for the second tour, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. Then drunken driving. Then burglary with a deadly weapon. Then he got divorced. Finally, he was arrested and accused of taking a pistol to a house party.

On April 25, 2008, he was with a crowd in the basement of a friend of a friend’s house, police say, when he got in an argument, pulled out the gun and shot a round through the ceiling. There was a fight. He was thrown out. A few minutes later, when the party crowd was still standing on the front lawn, he drove by, spraying bullets. Police say one hit 19-year-old Ginny Stefanic, who was six months pregnant, in the thigh. Stefanic suffered minor injuries.

Barco, who declined to be interviewed, was arrested Jan. 7. He posted $25,000 bail and is awaiting trial for attempted murder.

It was a classic case of the pattern that Graham said most soldiers follow when they spiral out of control. Before the big stuff, there is little stuff. Catching it in time can save lives.

Fort Carson has trained key leaders to spot the warning signs.

When a soldier is drinking too much or acting out, instead of punishment, they are supposed to get help.

“But it’s a very tough problem,” said Graham, who ordered the new programs. “If a soldier is showing all the risk factors, what can you do? You can’t lock them up. They haven’t done anything. But what we can do is provide them every opportunity to get the care they need and try to break down the stigma against seeking help.”

Like Barco, Jomar Falu-Vives started hitting his wife.

Soldiers say the lifelong Army brat seemed to handle Baghdad OK. Back home, Falu-Vives would go out to sing karaoke with other soldiers and go shooting at the firing range off Rampart Range Road, according to fellow soldiers.

But his ex-wife, Jolhea Vives, said he had turned mean.

He always liked to party and had a short temper, she said. But when he got back from Iraq, it was worse. Soon after, they filed for divorce.

Falu-Vives’ lawyer did not respond to a request for an interview.

His ex-wife said he had episodes where he “went into combat mode.” At one point, she said, he stuck a loaded .45 in her mouth.

She said she called his sergeant, saying that he was violent and was going to kill somebody, but the Army did nothing.

An Army spokesman said, “There is no specific Army policy that provides guidance on these types of situations. It is up to the soldier’s chain of command.”

The soldier’s commanders declined to be interviewed.

On May 26, 2007, Falu-Vives was riding in the back seat of his friend and fellow soldier Rodolfo Torres-Gandarilla’ Chrysler sedan on the way back from a bar, according to his arrest affidavit. Near South Circle Drive, he allegedly saw two men standing in front of a house on the corner of Flintshire Street and Monterey Road, lifted an AK-47 and started shooting. One of the men in front of the house, Army Capt. Zachary Szody, collapsed with a bullet in his knee and another in his hip.

Ten days later, Falu-Vives was cruising in his black Chevy Tahoe with Torres-Gandarilla and two other Army buddies, according to the affidavit.

Near midnight, he pulled up to an intersection five blocks from the first shooting. Amairany Cervantes, 18, and her boyfriend, Cesar Ramirez-Ibanez, 21, were setting up signs for a yard sale the next morning, the affidavit said.

“Give me the gun,” police said he told a friend sitting in the back seat. He shot the woman in the back five times, police said, her boyfriend, four times. Both died almost instantly. Falu-Vives sped back to his apartment, where he stood on the balcony watching the red and blue lights converge on the spot.

He listened to sirens wailing in the night and, according to what witnesses told police, held up his hands and said, “I love that sound.”

Falu-Vives’ mother, Lt. Col. Marta Vives, is an Army nurse in a Combat Stress Team. She helps soldiers in war zones who are starting to lose it. It is one of a number of programs the Army has created since the war began.

When her son was patrolling Baghdad, she was stationed just a few miles away.

Reached at Fort Hood, Texas, she said the Army has many programs to help troops, but soldiers often avoid the counseling and medication offered, and leaders sometimes don’t give GIs time or permission to visit.

“There is still a stigma behind getting help,” she said. “That is the hardest part. It is still seen as a sign of weakness.”

She said she has talked to the battalion commander of the Lethal Warriors and the commander of Fort Carson to tell them that many efforts to treat troops’ mental problems are not trickling down to privates like her son.

Falu-Vives was arrested July 30, 2008.

Torres-Gandarilla pleaded guilty to accessory to murder in April and is expected to testify against Falu-Vives in August.

Falu-Vives’ mother said she never saw evidence of her son having problems.

“He isn’t a criminal,” she said. “He never killed a fly — except when it was his job.”

Before Falu-Vives could be charged with first-degree murder, another Lethal Warrior was arrested for the same thing.

“Pushed them until they broke”

John Needham struggled to find normalcy after trying to kill himself in Iraq in September 2007.

The tall California surfer had been hit by six roadside bombs before getting drunk one night in Baghdad and putting a gun to his head, his father, Michael Needham, said.

The soldier was diagnosed with PTSD, flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and put on antipsychotics, an antidepressant, an antiseizure drug used to calm PTSD soldiers and a potent blood-pressure drug used to silence nightmares. Side effects of the cocktail can include hangover-like symptoms, short-term memory loss, irritability, aggression, hallucinations, sleepwalking, paranoia and panic attacks. So many of the side effects were like the symptoms of his PTSD that his father said it was hard to know if they were making him better or worse.

For a month, Needham stayed at the hospital. On Nov. 9, 2007, according to orders provided by his father, Needham’s battalion commander had him transferred to Fort Carson so he could be sent back to Iraq.

“It’s just bizarre, we couldn’t figure out why they were doing this to him,” his father said.

Needham’s father and Georges Andre Pogany, a former intelligence sergeant with the special forces, persuaded commanders to keep Needham from going back to Iraq so he could continue psychiatric treatment.

But, his father said, his son didn’t get it.

Laws prevent the Army from discussing medical treatment of soldiers. Needham’s father said his son was kept on the drugs but never received counseling.

Instead, he said, his son was berated by sergeants.

“They would write things on the chalkboard in his barracks like ‘John Needham is a shit bag cry baby PTSD boohoo,’” his father said.

It was so bad that when Needham went home for Thanksgiving in 2007, his father refused to let him return to the Army.

“We basically kidnapped him,” his father said. He took his son to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, and argued with Fort Carson until the soldier was reassigned to Balboa.

Needham was honorably discharged from the Army on July 18, 2008, with chronic PTSD and moved back to his father’s house in San Clemente, Calif. But, his father said, he was not better.

“He was severely different,” his father said.

John Needham was groggy and vacant from the pills. He had lost much of his hearing from bomb blasts. He often drank himself to oblivion. He was paranoid and afraid of crowds.

He begged his father to buy him an assault rifle like the one he carried in Iraq. Eventually, they compromised on a toy pistol that shot rubber BBs. Needham carried it almost everywhere, his father said.

The former soldier was going to regular counseling at a local Veterans Affairs hospital, but, his father said, it wasn’t enough.

His son had frightening flashbacks. Late one night, he rummaged through the bathroom naked, smearing his face and body with cosmetics as if they were camouflage paint. He sharpened one end of a broom handle to make a weapon. His father said he found him crouching silently behind the couch. His father said his son always took off his clothes when he had a flashback.

“He needed to be committed,” his father said. “He needed serious psychiatric help. I tried to put him in the hospital, but the VA said they could only treat him as an outpatient . . . I could see the train wreck coming.”

On the night of Sept. 1, 2008, Needham was at home hanging out with a girlfriend in his bedroom on the ground floor. His father was two floors above, taking a shower.

A 19-year-old woman named Jacqwelyn Villagomez, whom the soldier had recently broken up with, came in. The women fought,his father said. Needham’s girlfriend called the police. They arrived a few minutes later, and Needham answered the door naked and bleeding, his father said.

Villagomez’s body lay in his bedroom, he said.

His father said he heard a ruckus, went downstairs and watched the police tackle his son. The soldier fought back as they put him in cuffs. Michael Needham said he stared, weeping, as his naked son lay bleeding and struggling, incoherent on the driveway as the police tasered him again and again.

John Needham is awaiting trial on suspicion of murder. In May, family members mortgaged their houses to bail him out. He is now getting inpatient treatment at a VA hospital, Michael Needham said.

“I know the Army would like to say it is not responsible for this, that it didn’t train them to do this. But that is bullshit,” Michael Needham said. “They trained them to kill, then when they didn’t have enough men for the surge, they pushed these guys until they broke, then threw them away.”


This spring, Lethal Warriors sprawled on the floor of a Fort Carson conference room, learning to take deep breaths.

They lazed on their backs in full camouflage. In. Out. And relax.

“The media says war will (expletive) you up, but that stress can also make you stronger. You just have to learn to mentally metabolize the experience,” Dan Taslitz, a former Marine, told a group of sprawling soldiers.

Taslitz was there as part of a new “resiliency training” called “Warrior Optimization Systems,” or WAROPS, that the 4th Brigade was testing to try to counter mental illness, violence and suicide in the ranks.

If the Army likes the results, it may take the program Army-wide, commanders said.

In the four-hour class, soldiers learn how the brain and body react to combat stress, and talk about healthy ways to respond, such as relaxation breathing, exercise and visualizing a positive outcome to a mission.

Sometimes, instructors said, controlling emotions is as simple as stepping back, identifying the feeling and saying it out loud. They call the process “name it and tame it.”

The brigade plans to hold refresher courses in Afghanistan and again when soldiers return home.

Fort Carson also created a task force late in 2008 to hunt for “common threads” in the killings committed by Fort Carson soldiers.

The investigation, conducted by a team of 27 behavioral health and Army professionals, concluded with a report released July 15. The findings echo what guys in the ranks said: Their tour was bloodier than most; violence in Iraq messed them up; they started abusing drugs and alcohol; treatment for substance abuse and mental health at Fort Carson was inadequate; stigma kept soldiers from getting help; and when those so-called “risk factors” came together, guys got in serious trouble.

The report did not address other issues, such as soldiers carrying guns once they return from deployments, alleged war crimes by the unit, or the Army’s deployment of soldiers with pending civilian felonies.

The study recommended better mental health care and training, programs to “ensure there is no humiliation or belittling” of soldiers seeking mental health care, and more studies to “assess a possible link between deployment, combat intensity, and aggressive behavior.”

But Graham said the report does not offer a simple cure.

“We didn’t see any one thing that we could identify and say, yes, this is the reason these soldiers do this,” he said.

Instead, he said, Fort Carson and the Army have instituted a wide array of changes.

Evans Army Community Hospital has increased the number of behavioral health care workers from 37 to 71. Many are assigned to mobile teams within brigades, so soldiers don’t have to go to the hospital to seek help.

Fort Carson also has added 16 “military family life consultants,” whom soldiers and their families can visit anonymously for help with everything from relationship problems to financial concerns.

Fort Carson started referring soldiers to private counselors in Colorado Springs in 2006. The number seeking private counseling surged from 11 in 2006 to 2,171 in 2008, according to Evans Army Community Hospital.

“We see that as a sign of strength, not weakness,” said Roger Meyer, Evans spokesman. “It shows we are having success in our efforts to educate soldiers on the signs of stress.”

In Colorado Springs, lawyers and law enforcement agencies have created an experimental veteran’s court to catch returning soldiers who get in trouble with the law and steer them toward help instead of jail. Soldiers charged with felonies will be sentenced to counseling and substance abuse treatment. The court is expected to take its first cases in August.

The Army has created Warrior Transition Units to manage the care of soldiers, like Needham, who are too mentally or physically disabled to stay with their units.

Colorado’s senators urged the Army last week to include Fort Carson in a pilot alcohol abuse program.

Graham said the Army is also trying to change the culture.

All low-level leaders, he said, are now taught to treat mental illness like any battlefield injury.

“If a soldier is shot or injured, other soldiers know how to give him care,” Graham said. “We need to get soldiers to understand the signs of combat stress so they can do the same thing — get their buddy the care he needs.”

Staff Sgt. James Combs, with the Lethal Warriors, said in June that the combat stress education is more comprehensive than when he was a private in the late 1990s.

Now, he said, sergeants teach soldiers that “You may be able to pull the trigger on our M4 or M16, but you have to understand what it is doing to you mentally, and you need to be prepared for that.”

“We don’t just throw them to the wolves like we used to,” he said.

It is not clear how effective the changes will be.

The current commanders of the Lethal Warriors, who would implement many of the changes, declined repeated requests for interviews.

And Fort Carson’s new programs have not prevented more occurrences of destructive behavior.

On May 10, Thomas Woolly, the soldier Needham replaced in a blown-out Humvee turret in Baghdad in 2007, was drinking with friends after midnight at an apartment just a few blocks from Fort Carson.

Woolly had done two tours with the Lethal Warriors and was in the new Warrior Transition Unit, about to be medically discharged because, his grandmother, Gladys Woolly said, “He was blowed up so many times until it damaged his brain.”

Woolly, 24, had a drink in one hand and a loaded .45 Long Colt revolver in the other, according to his arrest affidavit, when a friend’s husband, who had been arguing with the group, banged on the door.

Police say Woolly cocked the gun’s hammer. After the husband left and Woolly went to uncock the gun, the hammer slipped. The bullet killed 19-year-old Lisa Baumann, who was standing on the other side of the room.

Woolly was charged with manslaughter. He is out on bail and is scheduled for arraignment in August. He did not respond to interview requests.

Two weeks later, Roy Mason, 28, another Lethal Warrior who had served two tours and landed in the Warrior Transition Unit, went AWOL, drove to California, parked at the beach, called 911 from his car, asked them to clean up the mess quickly “before kids see,” then shot himself in the head, media reports said.

Civilian mental health professionals caution that the Army programs treat the symptoms but do not address the underlying cause.

“There are some good things going on,” said Davida Hoffman, the director of First Choice Counseling, a private clinic that treats about 250 Carson soldiers.

But counseling can do only so much, she said. The quality of treatment is not the cause of the problem. Combat is.

The more combat soldiers see, she said, the more problems they will have. The more problems soldiers have, the more problems Colorado Springs has.

“Soldiers simply cannot handle repeated deployments,” she said. “If these guys keep seeing deployments like the stuff they saw in Iraq, we could have a very dangerous situation.”

Graham agreed that repeated deployments are tough on soldiers. But the Army has a job to do, he said, and the rate of deployment is not expected to slow for at least 12 to 18 months.

On the same day Mason put a gun to his head at the beach, his old brigade was deploying to Afghanistan.

Most of the guys from the first deployment had left the Army, transferred to a different unit, been kicked out, wounded or killed. But for every one gone there is a new recruit. And while some attitudes in the Army are changing, the day-to-day reality of the foot soldier is not. Since June, insurgent attacks have killed three in the brigade.

No one may have a better view of the Army’s challenges than Sgt. Michael Cardenaz. In many ways, he is the battle-worn face of today’s soldier.

The solid, bald-headed Lethal Warriors staff sergeant and father of two was the platoon commander for Eastridge, Barco and Bastien in Baghdad. He often played Texas Hold ’em with Bressler at the base. He went bowling with Falu-Vives just days before Falu-Vives was arrested in the yard sale sign shootings. He has done three tours in Iraq and two in Kosovo. He said he has had close scrapes with 35 IEDs, scores of rocket-propelled grenades and one 500-pound bomb. He has taken shrapnel twice. He describes himself as an “old-school career soldier.” He is 29.

With every arrest of a fellow soldier, he was shocked, he said, but he does not think it is just coincidence that so many guys in the unit are now in jail.

“These are all younger guys. They are just kids, straight out of high school, from mom’s house to basic training to Iraq. You throw them in a tour like this, and there is going to be an aftermath,” he said. “Time was, before I really understood it, my reaction would have been ‘fry ’em.’ But now I can empathize. . . If they did what they did, fine, they have to answer to the justice system, but these guys like Eastridge who tried so hard and loved the Army . . . they are a casualty of war. Their psyches are casualties of war.”

He agreed that the deployment to Afghanistan will be different from the ones that he said screwed up his friends.

“There is much more attention to the mental side,” he said. “I’ve been trained to do stress debriefings and suicide prevention. I remember a time in the Army when mental health was taboo. It was career over. That’s not the case anymore.”

But, he said, the stigma is alive and well, especially among infantrymen.

“There’s still a feeling that if you got to go see the doc, you’re a punk. There are a lot of people who still feel that way. I’m not going to lie to you, I do,” he said.

Real soldiers, he said, “just suck it up.”

“That’s what I do. I think I was given a God-given talent to suck it up. Horrible things happen, I suck it up. I don’t let it bother me.”

In March Cardenaz was arrested in a felony assault.

He was walking with his wife past The Thirsty Parrot on Tejon Street, in full dress uniform after the Lethal Warriors’ annual ball, when some civilians hanging out in front of the bar said something. Or maybe Cardenaz said something to them. Witnesses say the sergeant dropped one with a single punch. When another guy came after him to ask why he did it, police say, Cardenaz broke his jaw.

The soldier posted bail and did not show up for his court hearing July 15.

His lawyer told the judge that Cardenaz had deployed to Afghanistan.

Call the writer at 636-0223.


Some of the news coverage of Fort Carson soldiers involved in violent crimes

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