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The Colorado Springs Gazette
July 26, 2009 3:30 PM
DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE
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.
“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.
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 re
ally 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.”
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.
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 Fo
rt 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.
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…
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.
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…
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.”