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By JIM PENNA
For The Tribune-Democrat
May 3, 2009
He does not want to die, but he cannot live like this anymore.
He cannot remember the actions that have him wearing a prison uniform, but he cannot forget the actions he took while wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army.
John Fletcher is tired, but John Fletcher does not want to sleep. Life is a contradiction for the one-time defender of freedom who is currently not free – a nightmare-laced, drug-induced haze of a contradiction soaked in cheap booze and night sweats.
Fletcher is charged with robbing a bank at knifepoint after phoning in a bomb threat to a local school as a diversion. The threat prompted the evacuation of two schools.
He does not deny the charge or admit to it for that matter.
Fletcher said he just does not remember.
“Between the drugs and the alcohol and the nightmares, I just don’t know,” Fletcher said.
“I don’t remember doing any of the things they say I did. If I am in here (jail), I must be getting what I deserve, but I don’t remember.”
Forgetting what he allegedly has done would come in handy for Fletcher – who said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – if the loss of memory could only be applied to the visions of Iraq that haunt his dreams.
He is thin, red-haired, a bit pale and looks much younger than his 28 years.
He speaks in short, nervous bursts.
His head and eyes dart from side to side as he describes one of the events he revisits in his sleep.
“Civilians were lining up outside the castle gate when it went off outside. It was a 500-pounder (bomb), maybe 1,000,” he said. “I think there were 15 or more dead, lots injured including some of us. We had to go out and clean up what was left of people.
“Nothing prepares you for that. I never imagined picking up body parts as one of my duties.”
‘The burnt flesh …’
Broadcast reports indicate six dead in that June 2004 explosion outside Taji, Iraq.
One can forgive Fletcher’s fuzzy math, since six bodies blown apart could easily seem like 15 or more when you were one of the men picking up the pieces.
“You could smell the burning fuel, the burnt flesh,” he said. “There was always the smell of dumped trash ’cause it was always there, only now there were body parts scattered in the trash.
“I yacked when they said to go out there. I did not see the blast but I yacked before, during and after cleaning that up. We all did. Who wouldn’t? We are talking about arms, heads, legs, everything.”
Fletcher spent a lot of time disposing of explosives and munitions.
The volatile cargo made his convoy especially sensitive to improvised explosive devices that could have caused multiple deaths with the proper hit.
That meant no one came near or passed.
Anyone who did get too close got little in the way of a warning and nothing in the way of a second chance.
“You could not afford to,” he said. “They would even send kids. Some of the guys had to fire on kids – 10, 9, 8, maybe younger. I don’t think I can even talk to you about the kids. You do what you are ordered, what you have to do, but it stays with you. It stayed with me.
“Another that stays with me now isn’t even a kid. It was this gray Caprice. The car just kept coming. A warning shot didn’t stop him, so they let loose with the 50-caliber. When we got back there he was dead, a 10-inch hole in his chest. No bomb or guns or nothing, just a big hole in his chest. He did not have to die, but he was trying to pass and we could not take the chance.
“He just must not have understood.”
Fletcher said the nightmares did not come to him until he returned home.
Then, like horrific postcards from some twisted vacation, the images started being delivered in his sleep.
“You knew this was ugly stuff, but you focused on the job and staying alive,” he said.
“Then you come back and you have time to think, and it’s messed up. I’m messed up.
“Body parts, the hole in that guy’s chest, kids. There’s more, but what does it matter? I was angry and sad and, I don’t know, just didn’t care and the nightmares were rough. I was so tired, but did not want to sleep. I went to the (Veterans Administration) and they said I had PTSD and gave me drugs.”
‘I pulled the trigger’
Celexa, Petrofane and Trazodone became Fletcher’s new best friends. At least that was how it was supposed to work.
The antidepressants were supposed to make him feel less – if not necessarily feel better.
Fletcher added some of his own drugs, bought from a friend, and washed it all down with alcohol.
It was no way to live, so this war fighter decided to die.
“I pulled the trigger. I put a Glock under my chin and I did, I pulled the trigger,” Fletcher said. “I was not scared. I was not shaking. I was not crying. I just pulled the trigger. Then … nothing.
“I don’t know what happen, but the weapon did not fire. That’s when I started to shake.”
There is a disconnect that happens to those who suffer from PTSD, a sort of self-imposed isolation that leaves sufferers hopelessly alone even in a crowded room. Despite this sensation, Fletcher does not suffer by himself. He has a mother who shares his pain, watching helplessly as dreams of blood, bombs and body parts destroy what is left of her son.
“He is not the son I sent to Iraq,” his mother, Cynthia, said. “And watching what he is going through and not being able to help or even get the military to get him the help he needs is torture.
“They (the military) know what he has is real and still no one helps. He did his duty. He served his country. He deserves to get the help he needs.”
Fletcher thinks the bank robbery he is accused of may have been another suicide attempt. Only this time, he would not have to be the one who took the shot.
“I don’t remember any robbery, but I do know I often thought about doing something that would force the cops to shoot me,” Fletcher said.
“I thought about that a lot. Maybe that’s where I was. I mean, it’s not like I needed the money. I don’t spend much, and I was working as an electrician until this. I had money for drugs or anything else I wanted.
“Maybe I just wanted to die and needed someone else to kill me.”
‘I’m not me’
Ironically, getting arrested may have saved Fletcher’s life.
He is back on his prescription drugs and off the ones not prescribed.
There is no booze at the Cambria County Prison in which he sits, and already he is getting some help and starting to talk about those nocturnal postcards from Iraq.
“They tell me they are going to get me some help,” he said.
“I’d like that. I’d like to feel better.
“Maybe I am where I deserve to be, you know, everyone better off without me around. It’s not so bad in here really, compared to the sandbox (Iraq), and no one has me do the things I had to over there.
“I hope it works. I hope. I’m not me, I know that. There are a couple of Vietnam guys in here. They know. It (war) changes you. I don’t know if I’ll ever be me.”
The man of contradiction looks startled when confronted with the idea that his suicide attempt almost left a body blown to pieces for someone to clean up, because someone made him clean up bodies that had been blown to pieces.
“Never thought of that,” he said.
‘“Wow. Never looked at it that way. That would be a rough spot to leave someone in, wouldn’t it?
“I wouldn’t want to do that to someone.”
Then, he exhales and adds: “I wish no one would have put me in that spot.”
Cynthia takes solace in her son having other vets who understand, but she wonders why this is the extent of the help the “military family” has to offer
“It’s good he has someone around who knows, but I want my son to have real help, from trained professionals,” she said. “It’s like the military has just washed their hands of my son, washed their hands of all these guys. We need someone to pay attention. I just tell him, ‘Hang in there, just pray and maybe something will change. Maybe someone will help.’ ”
The now former Army Reservist stops short of claiming to have hope.
But Fletcher does know he dodged a bullet, literally, when the gun beneath his tired, thin face did not fire.
He does not have the answer to the puzzle that is now his life, but he is willing to believe there is one.
“I told you I was more scared after than before (pulling the trigger). I cried then,” Fletcher said.
“I can’t tell you I felt better. But for a moment there I thought maybe I’m here for a reason. I must be. Right? Maybe I can find it.”