Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Casualties of War, Part I: The hell of war comes home

DAVE PHILIPPS Updated: April 14, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Before the murders started, Anthony Marquez’s mom dialed his sergeant at Fort Carson to warn that her son was poised to kill.

It was February 2006, and the 21-year-old soldier had not been the same since being wounded and coming home from Iraq eight months before. He had violent outbursts and thrashing nightmares. He was devouring pain pills and drinking too much. He always packed a gun.

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

“It was a dangerous combination. I told them he was a walking time bomb,” said his mother, Teresa Hernandez.

His sergeant told her there was nothing he could do. Then, she said, he started taunting her son, saying things like, “Your mommy called. She says you are going crazy.”

Eight months later, the time bomb exploded when her son used a stun gun to repeatedly shock a small-time drug dealer in Widefield over an ounce of marijuana, then shot him through the heart.

Marquez was the first infantry soldier in his brigade to murder someone after returning from Iraq. But he wasn’t the last.

Hear the prison interviews with Kenneth Eastridge.

Marquez's 3,500-soldier unit — now called the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team — fought in some of the bloodiest places in Iraq, taking the most casualties of any Fort Carson unit by far.

Back home, 10 of its infantrymen have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter since 2006. Others have committed suicide, or tried to.

Almost all those soldiers were kids, too young to buy a beer, when they volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Almost none had serious criminal backgrounds. Many were awarded medals for good conduct.

But in the vicious confusion of battle in Iraq and with no clear enemy, many said training went out the window. Slaughter became a part of life. Soldiers in body armor went back for round after round of battle that would have killed warriors a generation ago. Discipline deteriorated. Soldiers say the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians lurked in the ranks. And when these soldiers came home to Colorado Springs suffering the emotional wounds of combat, soldiers say, some were ignored, some were neglected, some were thrown away and some were punished.

Some kept killing — this time in Colorado Springs.

Many of those soldiers are now behind bars, but their troubles still reach well beyond the walls of their cells — and even beyond the Army. Their unit deployed again in May, this time to one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions, near Khyber Pass.

This month, Fort Carson released a 126-page report by a task force of behavioral-health and Army professionals who looked for common threads in the soldiers’ crimes. They concluded that the intensity of battle, the long-standing stigma against seeking help, and shortcomings in substance-abuse and mental-health treatment may have converged with “negative outcomes,” but more study was needed.

Marquez, who was arrested before the latest programs were created, said he would never have pulled the trigger if he had not gone to Iraq.

“If I was just a guy off the street, I might have hesitated to shoot,” Marquez said this spring as he sat in the Bent County Correctional Facility, where he is serving 30 years. “But after Iraq, it was just natural.”

More killing by more soldiers followed.

In August 2007, Louis Bressler, 24, robbed and shot a soldier he picked up on a street in Colorado Springs.

In December 2007, Bressler and fellow soldiers Bruce Bastien Jr., 21, and Kenneth Eastridge, 24, left the bullet-riddled body of a soldier from their unit on a west-side street.

In May and June 2008, police say Rudolfo Torres-Gandarilla, 20, and Jomar Falu-Vives, 23, drove around with an assault rifle, randomly shooting people.

In September 2008, police say John Needham, 25, beat a former girlfriend to death.

Most of the killers were from a single 500-soldier unit within the brigade called the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, which nicknamed itself the “Lethal Warriors.”

Soldiers from other units at Fort Carson have committed crimes after deployments — military bookings at the El Paso County jail have tripled since the start of the Iraq war — but no other unit has a record as deadly as the soldiers of the 4th Brigade. The vast majority of the brigade’s soldiers have not committed crimes, but the number who have is far above the population at large. In a one-year period from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, the murder rate for the 500 Lethal Warriors was 114 times the rate for Colorado Springs.

The battalion is overwhelmingly made up of young men, who, demographically, have the highest murder rate in the United States, but the brigade still has a murder rate 20 times that of young males as a whole.

The killings are only the headline-grabbing tip of a much broader pyramid of crime. Since 2005, the brigade’s returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping and suicides.

Like Marquez, most of the jailed soldiers struggled to adjust to life back home after combat. Like Marquez, many showed signs of growing trouble before they ended up behind bars. Like Marquez, all raise difficult questions about the cause of the violence.

Did the infantry turn some men into killers, or did killers seek out the infantry? Did the Army let in criminals, or did combat-tattered soldiers fall into criminal habits? Did Fort Carson fail to take care of soldiers, or did soldiers fail to take advantage of care they were offered?

And, most importantly, since the brigade is now in Afghanistan, is there a way to keep the violence from happening again?

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who took command of Fort Carson in the thick of the murders and ordered marked changes in how returning soldiers are treated, said he hopes so.

“When we see a problem, we try to identify it and really learn what we can do about it. That is what we are trying to do here,” Graham said in a June interview. “There is a culture and a stigma that need to change.”

Under his command, nearly everyone — from colonels to platoon sergeants — is now trained to help troops showing the signs of emotional stress. Fort Carson has doubled its number of behavioral-health counselors and tightened hospital regulations to the point where a soldier visiting an Army doctor for any reason, even a sprained ankle, can’t leave without a mental health evaluation. Graham has also volunteered Fort Carson as a testing ground for new Army programs to ease soldiers’ transition from war to home.

Eastridge, an infantry specialist now serving 10 years for accessory to murder, said it will take a lot to wipe away the stain of Iraq.

“The Army trains you to be this way. In bayonet training, the sergeant would yell, ‘What makes the grass grow?’ and we would yell, ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ as we stabbed the dummy. The Army pounds it into your head until it is instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody. And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off. ... If they don’t figure out how to take care of the soldiers they trained to kill, this is just going to keep happening.”

Satan’s throne

The violence started to take root in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, where the brigade landed in September 2004.

“It was actually beautiful. There were lots of palm trees,” said Eastridge, who is a working-class kid from Kentucky who had never really been anywhere before he joined the Army.

But, he said, “the situation was ugly.”

It was a little more than a year after President George W. Bush had landed on an aircraft carrier in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner to announce the end of major combat operations. But the situation was growing worse. Rival militias of Sunnis and Shiites were gaining strength. Looting had crippled cities. And in a war with no clear front or enemy, the average monthly body count for U.S. soldiers was up 25 percent from a year earlier.

The brigade was in the worst of it.

None of it bothered Marquez.

In high school, he had been a co-captain on the football team and had run track. After graduation, he joined the infantry because the Army commercials full of guns and helicopters looked like the coolest job in the world.

Eastridge felt the same way. He was the closest thing to a criminal in the group of soldiers later arrested for murder. He was trying to get his life together after growing up with a mother addicted to cocaine. He had been arrested for reckless homicide when he was 12, after he accidentally shot his best friend in the chest while playing with his father’s antique shotgun. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to counseling. After that, his record had been clean.

Felons cannot join the Army unless they get a waiver from a recruiter. Eastridge said he called a dozen until one told him, “Son, it looks like you just need someone to give you a chance.”

Like Marquez, Eastridge wanted to join the infantry because, he said, “that’s where you get to do all the awesome stuff.”

After basic training, the Army sent both men to South Korea.

They were in different battalions of what became the 4th Brigade Combat Team. Marquez was in the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment; Eastridge, the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. Both were foot soldiers. Both were surrounded by other young, gung-ho GIs with no battle experience. And both learned in the spring of 2004 that they were going to Iraq.

“We thought it would be cool. It was what we signed up for,” Marquez said.

It turned out not to be cool at all.

Ramadi, where Marquez landed, had a population the size of Colorado Springs but had no dependable electricity, let alone law and order. Sewage ran in rubble-choked streets. The temperature sometimes rose to 120 degrees.

And when roadside bombs blew civilians to bits, soldiers said, packs of feral dogs fought over the scraps.

Pat Dollard, a documentary filmmaker embedded in the area at the time, wrote that it looked like “Satan had punched a hole in the Earth’s surface, plopped down his throne, and set up shop.”

Marquez was assigned to hunt terrorists in the city. Eastridge patrolled the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah. With him was Bressler, a quiet, friendly gunner later arrested with Eastridge for murder.

Going on a mission usually meant tramping house to house in dust-colored camouflage, loaded down with rifles, pistols, body armor, ammo, grenades and water to fight the incessant heat.

Soldiers went out day and night, knocking on doors — sometimes kicking them in. They set up checkpoints. They seized weapons. They clapped hoods over suspected insurgents. They rarely found terrorists, but the terrorists found them.

A few days into the deployment, a sniper’s bullet killed Marquez’s lieutenant. Then another friend died in a car bombing. Then another.

Combat brigades always take higher casualties than the rest of the Army because they fight on the front lines, but, even by those standards, the 3,500-soldier brigade got pummeled. Sixty-four were killed and more than 400 were injured in the yearlong tour, according to Fort Carson — double the average for all Army brigades that have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the insurgents learned their craft, attacks became more gruesome.

A truck loaded with explosives careened into Eastridge’s platoon, killing his squad leader, blowing fist-size holes in his platoon sergeant and pinning the burning engine against the baby of the unit, Jose Barco.

Bombs meant to kill soldiers shredded anyone in the area. Women had their arms ripped off. Old men along the road were reduced to meat.

“It just got sickening,” said David Nash, a then-19-year-old private and Eastridge’s best friend. “There was a massive amount of hate for us in the city.”

One of the jobs of the infantry was to bag Iraqi bodies tossed in the streets at night by sectarian murder squads.

“First thing in the morning, all we would do is bag bodies,” Eastridge said. “Guys with drill bits in their eyes. Guys with nails in their heads.”

Eastridge said he was targeted by snipers twice. Both bullets smashed against walls so close to his face that they peppered his eyes with grit. He laughed at his luck. He loved being a soldier.

In February 2005, Eastridge was in the gun turret of his Humvee when it drove over an anti-tank mine. A deafening flash tore off the front end. Eastridge woke up a few minutes later, several feet from the smoking crater.

He sucked it up. He was bandaged up and sent back on patrol. He said cerebral fluid was leaking out of his ear.

That was the job of the infantry. Eastridge’s battalion was created in World War II and became known as the “Band of Brothers.” It parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In Vietnam, it helped turn back the Tet Offensive and take Hamburger Hill.

Men who heard the stories of past glory almost never got a chance for their own in Iraq. The enemy was invisible. The leading cause of death was hidden roadside bombs.

Sometimes, Marquez felt his only purpose was to drive up and down roads in an armored personnel carrier called a Bradley to clear away hidden bombs.

To unwind, soldiers spent hours playing shoot-’em-up video games. They even played one based on their own unit in Vietnam. They said it offered a release. They could confront a clearly defined enemy. They could shoot, knowing they had the right guy. They could win.

In Ramadi, Marquez and other soldiers said, it felt like they were losing.

“It just seemed like the longer we were there, the worse it got,” said Marquez’s friend in the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, Daniel Freeman.

Freeman was knocked unconscious by a roadside bomb, but the most rattling thing, he said, was driving through the eerie calm, knowing an improvised explosive device, or IED, could kill every soldier in a Humvee without warning, or maybe just smoke one guy in the truck, leaving the others to wonder how, and why, they survived.

Hatred and mistrust simmered between soldiers and locals. Locals who waved to them one day would watch silently as they drove toward an IED the next.

“I’m all about spreading freedom and democracy and everything,” said Josh Butler, another soldier in the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. “But it seems like the Iraqis didn’t even want it.”

Soldiers said discipline started to break down.

“Toward the end, we were so mad and tired and frustrated,” Freeman said. “You came too close, we lit you up. You didn’t stop, we ran your car over with the Bradley.”

If soldiers were hit by an IED, they would aim machine guns and grenade launchers in every direction, Marquez said, and “just light the whole area up. If anyone was around, that was their fault. We smoked ’em.”

Other soldiers said they shot random cars, killing civilians.

“It was just a free-for-all,” said Marcus Mifflin, 21, a friend of Eastridge who was medically discharged with PTSD after the tour. “You didn’t get blamed unless someone could be absolutely sure you did something wrong. And that was hard. So things happened. Taxi drivers got shot for no reason. Guys got kidnapped and taken to the bridge and interrogated and dropped off.”

Soldiers later told El Paso County sheriff’s deputies investigating Marquez for murder that, in Iraq, he got his hands on a stun gun similar to the one he later used on the Widefield drug dealer. They said he used it to “rough up” Iraqis.

Stun guns are banned by the Geneva Conventions. Using one is a war crime, but four soldiers interviewed by The Gazette said a number of soldiers ordered the stun guns over the Internet and carried them on raids. The brigade refused to make other soldiers who served during the tour available for interviews. The Army said it destroys disciplinary records after two years, so it has no knowledge of whether soldiers in the unit were punished.

After 10 months, Marquez said, all he wanted to do was go home.

In June 2005, with a month to go, his platoon was walking across a field when a sniper’s bullet smashed through his best friend’s skull under the helmet.

The platoon circled its guns and grenade launchers, Marquez said, and “tore that neighborhood up.”

That night, Marquez got hit. His squad had just finished hosing his friend’s blood out of their Bradley when they were called out on another mission. They loaded into two Bradleys and rolled toward downtown Ramadi.

Marquez was riding in the dark, cramped rear of the lead Bradley. In a flash, a blast tore through the floor. The engine exploded. Diesel fuel spewed everywhere in a plume of fire. Marquez said he watched the driver scramble out screaming, flames leaping from his clothes.

Marquez and the others clambered into the dark street, rifles ready. Another bomb slammed them to the ground.

Then came a flurry of bullets spitting across the dirt. Marquez was hit four times in the leg.

As blood spurted from his femoral artery, Marquez said, he raised his grenade launcher to return fire and realized the storm of bullets had come from the heavy machine gun on the other Bradley, which had just come around the corner.

“They must have seen our Bradley on fire, figured it was an attack and thought we were all dead,” he said this spring, shaking his head, “then just started shooting.”

According to the Army, two soldiers died. Marquez said three others were wounded. Brigade commanders didn’t make anyone familiar with the incident available.

Marquez was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

He was still bleary on morphine on the Fourth of July weekend that he was told Bush was coming to award him a Purple Heart.

Marquez’s sister, who was visiting, didn’t want to see the president because she was so angry about the war and her brother’s wounds, but Marquez was honored.

“I had gotten hurt, but it is part of the job. I wasn’t mad at nobody,” Marquez said.

He was in the hospital for three months and had 17 surgeries so he could keep his leg. Marquez was being medically discharged from the Army and could have stayed at the hospital, but he transferred to Fort Carson on Sept. 13, 2005, to spend his remaining months with his war buddies, who had just returned from Iraq.

He eventually learned to walk without a cane, but other wounds proved harder to heal. He started having nightmares about the war. He felt worthless and crippled, depressed and angry. On a visit home to California, he made his mom put away all his high school sports trophies.

The only things that made him feel better were the pain pills the doctors prescribed for him — and only if he took too many.

‘Kumbaya period’

Post-traumatic stress disorder is like a roadside bomb.

The symptoms can remain hidden for months, then explode. They can cripple some soldiers and leave others untouched. And just like bombs disguised as trash or ruts in the road, PTSD can look like something else.

In many cases, it looks like a bad soldier. In addition to flashbacks and nightmares, Army studies say, symptoms can include heavy drinking, drug use, domestic violence, slacking off at work or disobeying orders.

You can often see it coming, said the most recent commanding general of Fort Carson, if you know what to look for.

Soldiers usually go through a jubilant high for a few months after they come home, Graham said. He calls this time “the Kumbaya period.”

“Soldiers have served their country, they’ve made it back, they’re home. It’s all great. It’s later that problems start to surface,” Graham said.

Usually, problems don’t show up for three to six months, he said.

When the brigade landed in Colorado Springs, most soldiers had spent a year in Iraq and a year in South Korea. Most had saved several thousand dollars. Many were old enough to legally drink in the United States for the first time. They had survived the worst of Iraq, and they were jonesing to blow off steam.

All they had to do was go through a few post-deployment debriefings that Fort Carson still uses.

Soldiers sit through classes that warn them that troops often have unrealistically rosy notions of home. They are told to be understanding with spouses and loved ones. They are cautioned to be careful with drinking and driving, and they are warned that the time for carrying a gun everywhere ended in Iraq.

All personal guns must be stored in the post’s armory — not in soldiers’ barracks, not in their cars and not tucked in their belts.

Then Fort Carson screens every soldier for PTSD and other combat-related problems.

If there are no red flags, the soldier can go on leave. If there are, they are referred for further diagnosis, officials at Fort Carson’s Evans Army Community Hospital said.

The screening asks soldiers a long list of questions about the deployment: Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you depressed? Did you clear houses or bunkers? Were you shot at? Did you witness brutality toward detainees? Did you have friends who were killed?

“Did you shoot people? Did you kill people? Did you see dead civilians? Did you see dead Americans? Did you see dead babies? No. No. No. No.” Eastridge said, mimicking how he answered the questionnaire.

“I had seen and done all that stuff, but you just lie to get it over with.”

Several soldiers said the same: They lied because they didn’t want the hassle of more screening.

When the young infantrymen were set free in Colorado Springs, many packed Tejon Street bars such as Rendezvous Lounge and Rum Bay. When the bars closed, soldiers said, they often picked fights in the street.

By 2006, the police were being called to break up bar brawls almost every night. Extra police were assigned to the area.

The Colorado Springs Police Department doesn’t track the crime statistics of individual units, but according to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, jail bookings of military personnel as a whole increased 66 percent in the 12 months after the brigade returned.

The “Kumbaya period” lasted about six months, soldiers said.

Eastridge said he blew through almost $27,000, mostly drinking at bars, but the first thing he did was buy guns: pistols, shotguns and an assault rifle similar to the one he carried in Iraq.

“After being in Iraq, it feels like everyone is the enemy,” he said. “You feel like you need a gun so they don’t come to get you.”

His friends all felt the same way.

Nash slept with a loaded .45 under his pillow.

Butler kept a Glock .40-caliber with him all the time, even when he rocked his newborn baby.

Marquez bought three pistols, a riot-style shotgun and an assault rifle like the one he carried in Iraq. He carried a pistol constantly, he said, even when he went to church.

His buddy, Freeman, said he bought himself a “big, scary” snub-nose .357 revolver.

“I couldn’t go anywhere without it,” he said. “I took it to the mall. I took it to the bank. I even had it right next to me when I took a shower. It makes you feel powerful, less scared. You have to have it with you every second of every day.”

Some returning soldiers, especially those with family members to notice their behavior, went into counseling.

More than 200 Fort Carson soldiers have been referred to First Choice Counseling Center, a private counseling service in Colorado Springs. Davida Hoffman, the director, said her counselors were unprepared for what they heard.

“We’re used to seeing people who are depressed and want to hurt themselves. We’re trained to deal with that,” she said. “But these soldiers were depressed and saying, ‘I’ve got this anger, I want to hurt somebody.’ We weren’t accustomed to that.”

In units that have seen the toughest combat in Iraq, one in four soldiers can screen positive for PTSD, the director of psychiatry at Walter Reed, Dr. Charles Hoge, said in an e-mail interview.

“Many soldiers continue to be able to perform their duties very well despite having significant symptoms,” Hoge wrote. But others show what he called “serious impairment,” and the worse the combat and the longer units are exposed, the worse the effects.

The affliction is as old as war itself.

Eric Dean, an author in Connecticut who specializes in war’s psychological toll, reviewed records from the Civil War for his 1997 book, “Shook Over Hell,” and found the same surge of crime and suicide that Fort Carson has seen.

“They have been in every war,” he said. “They never readjusted. They ended up living alone, drinking too much.”

They were “the lost generation” of World War I. They are the veterans of Vietnam who disproportionately populate homeless shelters and prisons today.

The psychological casualties may be particularly heavy in Iraq, he said.

“In the Civil War, if you experienced really traumatic fighting, chances are you didn’t make it,” he said. “Today, you can be blown up multiple times and go right back into the fight.”

In Vietnam, most draftees did one yearlong tour. Since the start of the Iraq war, some soldiers have been deployed three times for 12 to 15 months each.

When a soldier faces constant threat of attack, studies suggest, the brain is flooded with adrenaline, dopamine and other performance-enhancing chemicals that the body naturally produces in a fight-or-flight response. Over time, the brain can crave these stimulants, like a junkie for his fix.

When the stimulant of combat is taken away, soldiers often have trouble sleeping, said Sister Kateri Koverman, a social worker who has counseled people in war zones for almost 40 years. They can feel irritable, numb and paranoid, she said. They can sink into depression.

And they can search for another substance to replace the rush of war.

“Often they’ll use booze or drugs to mask their symptoms until they become explosive,” said Koverman, who moved to Colorado Springs from her convent in Ohio this year to help with the wave of PTSD. “We have a public disaster here, and no one really knows how to deal with it.”

Men from the unit mostly dealt with it on their own.

Mifflin got deep into smoking pot to ease his nerves.

Nash was mixing pills and booze.

Eastridge got blotto on whatever.

Butler said he and a lot of guys started doing Ecstasy and cocaine.

Marquez started destroying himself with the pills that were supposed to help him.

For his injuries, he said, doctors at Evans prescribed him 90 morphine pills, 90 Percocets, and five fentanyl patches every three weeks.

“They were for pain,” he said. “And I still had pain. But, mostly, I was using them to get high.”

He could not get Iraq out of his head. Doctors prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills, but he said they didn’t help. He was saving up Percocet, then downing a handful on an empty stomach.

He said he started trading his morphine with other soldiers for an antipsychotic called quetiapine and an anti-anxiety drug called clonazepam. Improper use of either can cause psychotic reactions, anxiety, panic attacks, aggressiveness and suicidal behavior, but, Marquez said, injured soldiers traded them like children in a lunchroom swapping desserts.

“It was real common among the guys who were hurt,” Marquez said.

At one point, Marquez said, he ate his three-week supply of meds in half the time, then went back to Evans claiming he had lost his pills.

He said a doctor told him security measures prevented him from giving Marquez more narcotics, but he could write the soldier a paper prescription he could fill in Colorado Springs.

Marquez agreed.

Fort Carson said privacy laws prohibit commenting on medical treatment.

Marquez’s mother is a police officer in Southern California. She said when her son came home to visit at Christmas 2005, six months after being shot, she knew something was seriously wrong. He would stay in his room all day in a daze and try to down old pain pills in the medicine cabinet. He would have dreams so violent that she was afraid to wake him.

In February 2006, she said, she called his sergeants and told them he was a danger to himself and others and needed help.

She said the sergeants told her that her son would have to seek treatment on his own.

An Army spokesman said there is no Army policy on how to handle such calls. It is up to individual commanders.

The response didn’t make sense, she said. As a law enforcement officer, if she shot someone, she was required to go through counseling, she said. Her son had weathered a long, gruesome combat tour, yet he had no such requirement.

Few of the young infantry soldiers felt like they needed counseling.

“We were just partying,” Butler said. “Some guys went in for PTSD, but we thought that was just a bullshit excuse to get out of the Army.”

Those who did seek treatment faced obstacles.

Six months after getting back from Ramadi, Marquez’s friend, Freeman, who had been injured by a roadside bomb, said he started to feel “shell-shocked” and depressed and decided to go to Evans.

“I did it on the down-low because I didn’t want my unit to know,” he said.

The psychiatric ward was overwhelmed by soldiers, he said. Cases of PTSD at Fort Carson had climbed from 26 in 2002 to more than 600 in 2006, according to the hospital. Getting an appointment could take weeks, soldiers said. Counseling in the ward, in most cases, was in group settings only.

Freeman said the hospital staff prescribed him antidepressants and told him they were so busy that he wouldn’t receive counseling for a month.

A few weeks later, on Feb. 22, 2006, Freeman got in a fight with a man he had never met, Kenneth Tatum, in the China Express restaurant on B Street. Freeman pulled out his .357 and, before he knew it, he said, Tatum was bleeding on the ground. He had shot him through the thigh.

Freeman was arrested for attempted murder and pleaded guilty to felony menacing. He served two years and got out in January. He is unemployed, living at his mother’s house in Alabama. He said he still has headaches and memory problems and is getting therapy for PTSD at a nearby Veterans Affairs hospital.

Because of his crime, he is not eligible for most Army benefits.

“I was a good soldier before this,” he said. “Now I’m a screwed-up Iraq vet with a felony conviction. I don’t have many prospects. I was good at what I did in the infantry. . . . Too bad it followed me home.”

The Army spends millions of dollars to help soldiers such as Marquez and Freeman. It has programs to mentally prepare soldiers for deployment, treat them overseas and rehabilitate them when they return. Top brass, including the highest-ranking officer in the Army, Gen. George Casey, have said taking care of returning soldiers’ mental health is a top priority.

But sentiments and programs at the top sometimes don’t reach the trenches, soldiers and experts said.

In infantry units such as the Lethal Warriors, soldiers said, toughness and bravery are prized above all else. Anyone who says he has PTSD is immediately thought of as not worthy of wearing the uniform, soldiers said. In Army slang, they said, he is deemed a “shit bag.”

When the brigade returned home from the Sunni Triangle, sergeants sometimes refused to let soldiers seek help for PTSD and taunted them for being weak or faking it, said Georges Andre Pogany, a former intelligence sergeant with the special forces, now an investigator with the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

“They just don’t want to deal with it,” Pogany said.

Some commanders punished soldiers for displaying PTSD symptoms, soldiers said.

Mifflin, who is now unemployed and lives in his mother’s house in Florida, went to a Fort Carson psychiatrist for counseling because he said he sometimes wanted to kill civilians in Colorado Springs. The psychiatrist checked him into Cedar Springs, an inpatient mental hospital in Colorado Springs. He stayed for about a week, he said.

“As soon as I got out, I had a scheduled bitching session with the sergeant so he could yell at me about what a liar I was,” he said. “After they found out a guy was getting evaluated for PTSD, they would try to find any little thing to kick him out.”

Dozens of soldiers who screened positive for PTSD received an “other than honorable” discharge from the Army — the equivalent of being kicked out — for infractions such as missing duty and drug use, Pogany said. If soldiers are kicked out, they often aren’t eligible for free health care, counseling or other benefits that soldiers who are medically discharged with PTSD receive. Often, Pogany said, that means veterans who need help the most don’t get it.

Some soldiers coming back to Colorado Springs seemed fine. Bressler, who later murdered two soldiers, seemed as nice and mellow as ever, soldiers said. He got married, always showed up for training and seemed to be doing well.

Others fell apart.

Eastridge, who had been awarded medals for achievement and good conduct, started having nightmares and mouthing off to his commanders. In March 2006, he got in a drunken fight with his girlfriend and was arrested for putting a gun to her face. After that, he said, he stopped showing up for work. He said he was AWOL on and off for six months.

“I started slapping my wife around, too,” Butler said. “She just never called the police.”

Butler said he was emotionally numb some days and ready to explode others. He couldn’t understand why he was so angry, but he still thought PTSD was just a lame excuse.

One night, he called Eastridge and told him to come over to his house. He wanted his buddies to shoot him in the leg so he wouldn’t have to go back to Iraq.

“We were all excited we were going to get to shoot him,” Eastridge said.

When he got to the apartment, Barco, the platoon baby who had been burned by the exploding Humvee in Iraq, was there.

They found a dark parking lot, Eastridge said, and Barco shot Butler through the calf with a .32. Butler screamed. Blood went everywhere.

“It was hilarious,” said Mifflin, who saw him shortly afterward. “He only ended up getting out of duty for a few days, but that’s only part of why he did it. He also wanted the Percocets they prescribed him at the hospital.”

After a number of 4th Brigade soldiers got in trouble for DUIs and drugs, the brigade increased the number of random drug tests soldiers have to take, troops said. The rate of Fort Carson soldiers testing positive in 2006 was 16 times what it had been in 2004, according to the post. Twenty percent of them were enrolled in substance-abuse programs. Most, soldiers said, were just given the boot. Nash and Butler were kicked out of the Army for snorting cocaine in the summer of 2006.

Eastridge was supposed to be kicked out too, soldiers said, but he wasn’t around to be discharged.

More than 400 soldiers have been kicked out of the brigade for misconduct since the start of the war, according to Fort Carson. Only 57 were discharged for mental health reasons.

Butler went to prison for beating his wife, who was pregnant at the time. He said their child was born with severe birth defects and died. He blames it, in part, on their fights.

There is no easy way to track how many Butlers are out there — soldiers who didn’t commit violent crimes until after they were kicked out of the Army and left Colorado Springs.

“That’s the shadiest thing about the Army. They just throw these guys away,” said Nash, now a pipeline welder in Louisiana. He said he still struggles with the effects of combat. He can’t go to bars because he gets into fights, and his car is loaded with what he called “enough guns for World War III.”

“The Army neglected their responsibility to take care of soldiers they trained to be this way,” he said. “Most of these guys were ordinary people put in really shitty situations — the side effect is you turn good people into ravenous beasts.”

So many soldiers were leaving or getting kicked out of Eastridge’s company in 2006, Eastridge said, that commanders created a new platoon for them.

Marquez’s battalion created a similar company, called Echo Company, soldiers said. Soldiers called it the “Shit-Bag Brigade.”

An Army spokesman said it “is unknown” whether these units existed.

Marquez was assigned to the Shit-Bag Brigade even though his only offense was being too physically disabled to train with the rest of his unit. He said he had to do the menial tasks designed to punish the others, such as pull weeds along the road.

He started not showing up for duty. He took more pills. He bought more guns and kept them his in his car, he and other soldiers said.

It was no secret. Sergeants later told police that Marquez had showed off his stash of weapons. His mother said they did nothing.

Sergeants also told sheriff’s deputies they thought he was abusing pills.

“Maybe if they had punished him like they were supposed to, he would not be in for murder,” his mother said.

On Oct. 22, 2006, three days before Marquez was scheduled to be honorably discharged, he limped down to the Widefield drug dealer’s basement, carrying a .45-caliber pistol in one hand and a 500,000-volt stun gun in the other. He shocked the dealer — 19-year-old Smith — with the stun gun and grabbed his stash of marijuana, according to witness statements to El Paso County sheriff’s investigators. When the dealer tried to fight back, investigators say, Marquez shot him through the heart, picked up the shell casings, grabbed the weed and walked out.

Prosecutors said he was planning a robbery. Marquez said he was just there to buy some weed and, when a fight started over the price, his infantry reflexes took over.

“When someone grabs you or something, you’re going to light ’em up,” he said. “It probably won’t even be that hard because it’s not like it’s your first time.”

Marquez didn’t respond to letters asking him why he used a stun gun and whether he used it in Iraq.

A week after the murder, sheriff’s deputies questioned his commanders at Fort Carson in search of a motive.

Capt. David Larimer, the soldier’s company commander, told detectives that Marquez had been diagnosed with PTSD, but Larimer didn’t believe it. According to the detectives’ written summary, Larimer said he thought Marquez was just a “whiny bitch.”

‘Heart of Darkness’

The day Marquez was arrested, his brigade was on its way back to Iraq.

They were sent to tame the one spot in the country that was more dangerous than their first assignment: downtown Baghdad.

“Violence is probably as bad as I’ve seen it, in Baghdad in particular,” Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said just weeks before the soldiers arrived. “If not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war.”

In the warren of city streets, terrorist bombs killed scores of civilians. Sunni and Shiite murder squads massacred one another by the thousands. The United Nations estimated that 3,000 Iraqis were being murdered a month.

The Lethal Warriors were assigned to one of the deadliest corners of the city, a bullet-riddled neighborhood called Al-Doura. The Warriors’ battalion commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Michael, called it the “Heart of Darkness.”

Eastridge showed up for duty shortly before the brigade shipped out. He was happy to be there. He never felt more alive than when he was in a war zone.

“It’s almost like a religious experience to see a battlefield,” he said. “To hear the explosions — to see a person bleeding out and die — see everything on fire and smell the smoke and burning flesh. It makes you truly realize what it is to be alive. Combat is the biggest rush you can have.”

Since the start of his first deployment, he had covered himself in tattoos.

On his arm was a memorial to his sergeant killed by a car bomb. On his wrists were red dotted “kill lines” marking where, if needed, he could slit them. On his arm were the twin lightning bolts of the Nazi SS. Wrapping his neck like a collar were the words “BORN TO KILL, READY TO DIE.”

If the Army had followed its own rules, he would not have returned to Iraq for another tour.

Army regulations bar anyone with a pending felony from deploying.

Eastridge was awaiting trial for putting a gun to his girlfriend’s head. He said his commanders knew it.

But when the young soldier showed up and begged his sergeant to let him go back to Iraq, they did. The Army was evasive about if, and why, commanders knowingly deployed Eastridge with a felony hanging over his head.

Eastridge said there was a reason the unit wanted him back. He was one of the best gunners in the battalion.

Soldiers said he was “surgical” with a machine gun and utterly fearless.

“He was really good. If I had 10 Eastridges, my job would be a lot easier,” said his platoon sergeant, Michael Cardenaz.

Eastridge had the most kills of anyone in his company, Cardenaz said.

He was exactly the type of soldier to have in the Heart of Darkness.

Only a few of Eastridge’s buddies from the last tour were still with him. Louis Bressler, a cool, unflappable gunner, was there. So was Jose Barco, who, soldiers said, had persuaded commanders to let him return to Iraq even though he was so burned from the explosion in his previous tour that he had trouble sweating.

Many of the unit’s other soldiers had been kicked out for drugs, or discharged with PTSD or other disabilities, soldiers said. The Army would not provide numbers. But for every missing soldier, there was a new kid.

Jomar Falu-Vives had signed up because his mother was a nurse stationed in Baghdad, and he wasn’t going to let her go without him.

John Needham was a surfing champion from California who signed up because, with the insurgency raging, it looked as if his country needed him.

Bruce Bastien was a skinny, red-cheeked guy from Connecticut who was assigned as the new medic for Eastridge’s platoon.

Not even the veterans were prepared for how bad Baghdad would be, Eastridge said.

At one point, the unit was losing a soldier a day to the hospital or the morgue.

At first, Eastridge said, he enjoyed the intensity of it. He had a competition going with Bressler to see who could kill more bad guys. His final count, he said — and his sergeant confirmed — was about 80.

But after a few months, the raids, gore and constant threat of roadside bombs started to get to him. He couldn’t sleep. He was on edge all the time. Doctors at the base diagnosed him with PTSD, depression, anxiety and a sleep disorder. They gave him antidepressants and sleeping pills and put him back on duty.

When he went back to the doctors a few weeks later saying the pills were not working, his medical records show, they doubled his dose.

In the spring of 2007, as part of the surge to take back Baghdad, the 500 Lethal Warriors were moved out of their central base into 100-soldier Combat Outposts, known as COPs, scattered in the neighborhoods.

“Once we got to the COPS, it was way worse,” Eastridge said. “We would have mortars and rocket fire and drive-bys every single day.”

With the wounded list mounting, noncombat soldiers were pulled in to fill combat positions when guys got hit, soldiers said, and even they couldn’t fill the holes. By summer 2007, the company was so depleted that Humvees designed to be manned by five soldiers were going on patrol with three, said Eastridge and his sergeant.

There was no time for mental health care in the COPs, Eastridge said. Often, his squad would come in from an all-night mission, pull off their body armor, get attacked and have to slap their armor right back on and go out. Sometimes, he said, they wouldn’t sleep for days.

Eastridge’s Iraqi translator introduced him to Valium as a way to relax. At first, he would just take a couple before missions. Then he was taking a couple all the time. Then he was taking a lot more.

Winning and losing it

The surge worked.

Lethal Warrior commanders designed a victory strategy based on intensive foot patrols and strong community ties, where soldiers were assigned to patrol small neighborhoods and ordered to get to know every neighbor. They built a Baghdad version of Neighborhood Watch, where locals could be the eyes and ears of the Army. Cardenaz, who started the tour carrying a cell phone so he could call his wife to say goodbye if he got shot, began handing out his number to locals as a hot line on where to find the bad guys.

During the first six months of the 15-month deployment, soldiers were attacked multiple times every day, according to an ARMY magazine article by a Lethal Warrior captain.

By the end, he wrote, they were not getting attacked at all.

In the first six months, soldiers had to collect mutilated Iraqi bodies left by murder squads every morning.

By the end, there were no bodies to retrieve.

Bomb attacks dropped to near zero.

But the victory came at a price.

Under the strain of daily violence, Eastridge, Bastien and Bressler started to lose it.

Needham did, too. A few weeks after arriving in Baghdad, he was on foot patrol when a sniper’s bullet shattered his friend’s head, splattering Needham with brains. In the months that followed, he was hit by six IEDs, Needham wrote in letter to his father. One blast made him hit the roof of his truck so hard that he cracked his spine.

On every occasion, his father, Michael Needham, said, his sergeant’s response was to “suck it up.”

For the most part, Needham did. When a rocket-propelled grenade blew a fellow soldier, Thomas Woolly, out of the gun turret of a Humvee in their convoy, Needham jumped behind the gun and started firing, Needham’s father said.

“He wasn’t giddy about being there,” his father said. “But he was secure in what he was doing, fighting as an infantryman in an honorable way.”

Then something began gnawing at him, his father said.

In the quest to win, John Needham said, some in his platoon turned ugly.

The soldier said some loaded their rifles with hollow-point bullets designed to expand on impact, making them more lethal. These bullets are banned by international treaties.

It wasn’t just one platoon, either. Eastridge said soldiers in his platoon, including himself, used hollow-point bullets, too. It was easy to get them sent from home, Eastridge said. Both soldiers said some guys in their units carried illegal stun guns, as soldiers had in the first deployment.

The Army said it investigated Needham’s claims and found no evidence.

But there was more to the platoon’s tactics.

In a December 2007 letter to the Inspector General’s Office of Fort Carson, which investigates crimes within the Army, Needham told of the atrocities he saw. His father provided a copy to The Gazette.

One sergeant shot a boy riding a bicycle down the street for no reason, John Needham said. When Needham and another soldier rushed to deliver first aid, the sergeant said, “No, let him bleed out.”

Another sergeant shot a man in the head without cause while questioning him, Needham said, then mutilated the body, lashed it to the hood of his Humvee and drove around the neighborhood blaring warnings to insurgents in Arabic that “they would be next.”

Other Iraqis were shot for invented reasons, then mutilated, Needham said.

The sergeants particularly liked removing victims’ brains, Needham said.

Needham offered a photograph of a soldier removing brains from an Iraqi on the hood of a Humvee and other photos as evidence. His father supplied copies to The Gazette.

The Army’s criminal investigation division interviewed several soldiers from the unit and said it was “unable to substantiate any of his allegations.”

“Those guys were seriously whacked,” Needham’s father said. “And it began to grate on him.”

In March 2007, Needham went to the battalion’s doctor, saying he was “losing it” and needed a break, according to a summary of his service that he wrote. He was prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft and sent back to work. In May, Needham said, he went back to the doctor and was again sent back to work. In June, according to medical records, he went again. And in September. Commanders always sent him back out on patrol, he said.

Around that time, he posted a note on his MySpace page: “I’m falling apart by the seams it seems the days here bleed into each other I have to find the will to live man I miss my brothers. These walls are caving in my despair wraps me in its web, I feel I’m sinking in, throw me a lifesaver throw me a life worth living. I’m a part of death I am death this is hard to admit but this shits getting old.”

A few nights later, on Sept. 18, Needham and a fellow soldier bought a contraband can of whiskey and tried to drink away their sorrows. Then Needham took out a gun and fired a shot at his head, his father said. The bullet missed. Needham was detained by his commanders for illegally discharging a firearm. After a few weeks of arguing by phone and e-mail, Needham’s father convinced the unit to let his son see a doctor. The soldier was diagnosed with severe PTSD and flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“What led him to the point of such deep despair that he would attempt suicide?” his father, a retired Army officer, asked. “I understand it. He was trained as a soldier. He was a good soldier, and his group was doing things he knew was wrong. And he was in this prolonged combat situation where they have all this armor and lifesaving technology to keep them alive, but mentally, they are in pieces.”

The breaking point

Eastridge started to crumble around the same time.

He had been a decorated soldier during his first tour. But in the second, his judgment melted away.

He started searching medicine cabinets for Valium while raiding houses.

Then he started stealing cash and weapons from civilians, which he said he would sell back to the Shiite militia.

He was disciplined by his battalion for stealing once, he said, after he ransacked a house, but only because it belonged to a well-connected man. Most of the time, he got away with it.

He was disciplined again when he flipped out on patrol. Someone shot at his squad from a nearby farmhouse. Eastridge fired about 20 grenades into the house, then stormed in and said he found a farmer and his two dogs in the back and spotted a shell casing from an AK-47 on the ground.

Eastridge demanded to know where the shooter was.

The man said he didn’t know.

Eastridge shot one of the man’s dogs, then asked where the shooter was.

The man said he didn’t know.

Eastridge shot the man’s other dog.

His lieutenant told him he needed to cool off and go sit in the truck.

On the way out, Eastridge passed the man’s herd of a dozen goats. He leveled them with a machine gun. Then he ordered a private to shoot the man’s two cows. Then he shot his horse.

“I was really (expletive deleted) losing it,” Eastridge said, shaking his head.

The Army hasn’t supplied disciplinary records for Eastridge or several other soldiers requested under the Freedom of Information Act, but Eastridge’s account was confirmed by his platoon sergeant.

Bressler and Bastien started losing it, too.

In May 2007, Bastien went home on leave. While there, the medic was thrown in jail for beating his wife, according to police records. Bastien, who is in prison, declined to be interviewed for this story. After his arrest, the Army kept him in Colorado Springs.

In June 2007, Bressler saw his best friend killed in a firefight, according to soldiers. After that, Bressler, who had always been a mellow, stable guy whom soldiers could find at the poker table in the COP, started to withdraw, soldiers say.

In July 2007, Eastridge said, Bressler went crazy and attacked his commanding officer, threatening to kill him.

Bressler, who is in prison, declined to be interviewed. He was diagnosed with PTSD, according to his wife. The Army decided he was too unstable and dangerous to be in Iraq, so they sent him back to Colorado Springs.

Eastridge went on one more mission.

He was the gunner manning the M240 machine gun on a Humvee — a big gun that shoots 600 rounds per minute. He said he was ordered to guard the street while the rest of his platoon searched a house.

Eastridge said he told his lieutenant he was going to kill people as soon as the officer was out of sight. Then he asked the driver to put some heavy-metal “killin’ music on.”

His lieutenant laughed and walked off, Eastridge said.

Families were out playing soccer and barbecuing. Eastridge said he just started shooting. He pumped a long burst of rounds into a big palm tree where a few old men had gathered in the shade.

People started running. They piled into their cars and sped away. There was a no-driving rule in effect in the neighborhood, so, Eastridge said, he put his cross hairs on every car that moved.

“All I could think of was car bombs, car bombs, car bombs, and I just kept shooting,” he said.

Orders came over the radio to cease fire, he said, but he kept yelling, “Negative! Negative!”

Eastridge said he shot more than 1,700 rounds. When asked how many people he killed, he said, “Not that many. Maybe a dozen.”

He was court-martialed a short time later on nine counts, including drug possession and disobeying orders. Killing civilians wasn’t one of them.

For that, he said, he was put on guard duty.

Then, in August 2007, sergeants found him with 463 Valium pills in his laundry and a naked female soldier in his bed, according to court testimony. His staff sergeant confronted him about the woman, and Eastridge lashed out, according to his mother, Leanne Eastridge, screaming that he would kill the sergeant, suck out his blood and spit it at his children. Eastridge was court-martialed for disobeying orders and drug possession and sent to a prison camp in Kuwait for a month.

This spring, Eastridge said it was funny that sex and drugs were what got him court-martialed, considering the things he did in Iraq, “Things that can never be told, but that everybody knew about and approved of — basically war crimes.”

He got a health screening as part of the court-martial. Doctors diagnosed him with chronic PTSD, antisocial personality disorder, depression, anxiety and hearing loss. In late September 2007, his commanders decided he was too unstable and dangerous to stay in Iraq, so the Army sent him back to Colorado Springs.

Casualties of War Part II: Warning signs

 

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

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