Summer 2008

Personal Tragedies Illuminate the Consequences of War

In investigating why some Iraq War veterans become homicidal, The New York Times highlighted a circumstance that no one else was tracking.

By Matthew Purdy
Blinded and disabled on the 54th day of the war in Iraq, Sam Ross returned home to a rousing parade that outdid anything his small, depressed hometown in Appalachia had ever seen. "Sam's parade put Dunbar on the map," his grandfather said.

But three years later, Ross had deteriorated into an angry and addicted Army veteran. One night, in a rage after an argument with relatives, Ross set fire to the family trailer. No one in the trailer was hurt but, when an assistant fire chief showed up, Ross fought with him and then threatened a state trooper with his prosthetic leg. He tried to hang himself in jail and was transferred to a state psychiatric hospital with severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I came home a hero, and now I'm a bum," he told New York Times reporter Deborah Sontag, who interviewed Ross at the state hospital last year. When the toll of the war was added up in Washington or in the national media, Sam Ross's shattered life was nowhere to be found. By the time the trauma of Ross's military service had mutated into a criminal case, he had long since vanished from the Pentagon's radar screen. The unraveling of Sam Ross's life was a local story and a matter for local law enforcement. When the toll of the war was added up in Washington or in the national media, Sam Ross's shattered life was nowhere to be found.

The heart-wrenching tale of Sam Ross prompted us to start looking into how many other war veterans had ended up in trouble with the law, reporting that led to a series of stories in the Times entitled "War Torn." Initially, we imagined that Ross's situation was extreme. We expected to find mostly cases involving veterans charged with driving under the influence or other garden-variety offenses. But one after the other, we kept discovering cases in which an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran had taken a life in this country on their return from war.

We found 121 cases of veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan charged with homicides by the time we began publishing our stories in January, and we have learned of more cases since then. We tried to get records of these offenses from the Pentagon but, since the military only handles criminal acts committed on its bases, it was aware of few of these cases. The Justice Department did not keep track of these cases; neither did the FBI nor the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The more Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez delved into the subject and into the individual cases, the more it was apparent that these homicides were yet another cost of war that neither Pentagon officials nor anyone else had counted.

Worse yet, we knew that the killings were the tip of a much larger phenomenon that has not been fully appreciated. In the first story of our series we told readers that "clearly, committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways, with crumbling marriages, mounting debt, deepening alcohol dependence, or more-minor tangles with the law."

It was also clear from our reporting about psychological injuries, and from a review of the long history of veterans returning from war, that we were wandering into territory that much of the military world considers taboo.

Shattered Lives

In examining the homicides, we found that often the psychological damage had not been detected during the cursory examination that is given to service men and women upon their return from combat. Or if their injuries had been diagnosed, the treatment had been woefully inadequate. The result was that those injuries were often dealt with only after it was too late.

Matthew Sepi, who at age 20 was already an Iraq combat veteran, shot two suspected gang members who threatened him late one summer night in 2005 as he left a 7-Eleven in a tough Las Vegas neighborhood. He had gone there to buy beer, his drug of choice to chase away the memories of combat, and for safety he had tucked an assault weapon beneath his trench coat.

"Matthew knew he shouldn't be taking his AK-47 to the 7-Eleven," a Las Vegas detective said in an interview, "but he was scared to death in that neighborhood, he was military trained and, in his mind, he needed the weapon to protect himself." He had developed an alcohol problem after being discharged from the Army, and his alcohol abuse counselor, apparently recognizing signs of PTSD, had referred him to a VA hospital. But Sepi never went for treatment.

A battle-weary grenadier at a young age, Sepi said in an interview that as he walked home from the 7-Eleven, the two gang members stepped out of the darkness and that when he saw the butt of a gun, heard a boom and saw a flash, he "just snapped."

Like many of the veterans Sontag and Alvarez interviewed, it turned out that Sepi was apparently haunted by one killing in Iraq. He recounted later that as part of an operation in Balad, his unit was given a list of targets each night and that they would go house to house setting off explosives to try to flush out insurgent fighters.

"At this one house," he said, "we blow the gate and find out that there's this guy sitting in his car just inside that gate. We move in, and he, like, stumbles out of his car, and he's on fire, and he's, like, stumbling around in circles in his front yard. So we all kind of don't know what to do, and he collapses, and we go inside the house and search it and find out it's the wrong house."

After the shooting in Las Vegas, when his public defender interviewed him in jail, she asked him about posttraumatic stress. "And he starts telling me about Iraq and all of a sudden, his eyes well up with tears, and he cries out: 'We had the wrong house! We had the wrong house!' And he's practically hysterical,'" she said.

Sepi's case had an unusual conclusion. The local district attorney, in exchange for Sepi completing treatment for substance abuse and PTSD, agreed to drop the charges against him. Out of jail and having undergone treatment, Sepi got a job as a welder in a commercial bakery.

Almost 18 percent of returning soldiers showed signs of acute stress, anxiety or depression in an Army survey released last year. Veterans groups and the military have not always been as willing to attend to psychological injuries as they are to physical injuries. But the problems are clear to those in the civilian world who wind up dealing with them.

"You are unleashing certain things in a human being we don't allow in civic society, and getting it all back in the box can be difficult for some people," said William C. Gentry, an Army reservist and Iraq veteran who works as a prosecutor in San Diego County.

Consider the experience of Archie O'Neil, a gunnery sergeant in the Marines, who returned from a job handling the dead in Iraq and became increasingly paranoid and fearful. He moved into his garage, ate MRE's, wore camouflage, drank heavily, and carried a gun at all times. His wife, Monique O'Neil, voiced a common complaint: "It was like I put one person on a ship and sent him over there, and they sent me a totally different person back." A decorated officer who did not want to endanger his chances for advancement, Sergeant O'Neil did not seek help for the PTSD that would later be diagnosed by government psychologists. "The Marine way," his lawyer said at a preliminary hearing, "was to suck it up."

On the eve of his second deployment in 2004, Sergeant O'Neil shot and killed his mistress after she threatened to kill his family while he was in Iraq.



Matthew Purdy is investigations editor at The New York Times.

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