Searching for the Wounded Platoon
The story behind the film ... by producer/reporter Christopher Buchanan
This piece contains graphic language.
I'd been in a prison cell with Kenneth Eastridge for close to two hours, when the seed of an idea that would eventually become The Wounded Platoon was planted.
Eastridge, a somewhat scrawny looking ex-soldier who'd been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was serving a 10-year sentence for his part in the murder of another soldier in his infantry company. I was talking with him about what led up to that event, two days after he left the Army, and about his two tours of duty in Iraq. Had he talked with any reporters over there about his combat experience?
"Yeah," Eastridge said, as he fingered his tattoos, a bit sheepish behind his dorky prison-issue glasses. "There was some dude who did an embed with us for a few weeks in Iraq … then wrote up something in some random magazine." That dude was Bartle B. Bull, a freelance journalist, and his article, "With The Band of Brothers in Ramadi" appeared in the May 2005 issue of the now-defunct Radar magazine. Stunningly illustrated with portraits and candid stills by Johan Spanner, the article depicted Eastridge's platoon -- a unit descended from the original World War II "band of brothers" of Normandy and Bastogne fame -- as a motley crew of uneducated misfits, slackers, drunks, and Xbox addicts.
When stacks of that May issue landed with a thud in the barracks of the 1-506th Infantry in Habbaniyah, Iraq, the handful of soldiers who were mentioned in the article -- including Eastridge -- laughed about it. The others, who'd chosen to avoid the reporter or deal with him in that circumspect way soldiers are taught in basic training, found themselves saying, "What about us?"
A platoon is a cohesive unit of about 40 soldiers -- a useful ground-level building block for putting together missions, led by an officer -- usually a young captain who calls the shots -- and a platoon sergeant, who acts as the den mother, among other things. Focusing on a single platoon made sense -- they work together; they live together; they all know each other. But Bull's article dealt with less than a quarter of the platoon. What about the rest of them, indeed?
Starting in March 2009, it was my mission to find all 42 men in the Third Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Were they all like the unsavory but colorful characters in the article? Or were some from a different stereotype -- clean-cut patriots on a mission? Five years after their first deployment, what were they doing now with their lives -- and more importantly, how were they doing? What are their stories? How did fighting a counterinsurgency war affect them, their view of the world and their relationships with the world outside of the Army?
A call to the Army's public affairs office made it clear I was not going to be handed a roster with phone numbers listing all the members of the 2004-05 class of the Third Platoon. Finding them -- in and out of the Army -- turned into a six-month-long exercise of connecting dots, making cold calls to the dozens of Marco Garibays that popped up in a PeopleFinder's database and racking up more than 40,000 frequent flyer miles. (We realized after a couple of telephone calls to laconic and highly suspicious ex-soldiers, the only way to really get to know these guys was sitting across from them at their kitchen tables, in restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and -- in two instances -- prison cells.)
The starting points were Bartle Bull and a piece of notebook paper on which Kenneth Eastridge had scribbled a half-dozen names of his remaining friends from the platoon. Bull had kept in touch with the medic, Ryan "Doc" Krebbs, who happened to be stationed at the time at Fort Belvoir, Va., not far from my home. He agreed to meet me one night at a nearby restaurant -- but never showed up. I waited several hours -- texting, e-mailing, leaving phone messages. No response. It was my first, but not last, introduction to the world of PTSD.
Ryan "Doc" Krebbs
The next day Krebbs eventually made it to a neighborhood bakery where we sat for most of the afternoon. He'd come from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after what he thought would be his last examination to qualify for a medical discharge from the Army. Once a gung-ho soldier, Krebbs had a full-blown case of PTSD, was fed up with the Army and embarrassed by the large tattoo on his right forearm: S-O-L-D-I-E-R. As soon as he got out of the Army, which he thought would be in another month or two, he planned to go straight to a tattoo parlor to have vines etched in and around the old tattoo as a way to cover it over, and forget about his life as a medic in the infantry. But putting that behind him would be difficult. Too much had happened; he'd seen too many awful things -- starting with the suicide of a fellow medic in Charlie Company, Omead Razani.
It happened the day after the four platoons of Charlie Company had arrived in Iraq in August 2004. The young Iranian-American's body was found in a Porta John, with a 9mm bullet through his head. Krebbs was filled with guilt and anger. Guilt because he was told Razani had come by his bunk the night before he took his life, wanting to talk, but had found Krebbs sound asleep; anger because he'd heard that prior to that, Razani's platoon sergeant, James Naughton, had criticized Razani as being a "worthless" medic who, if he didn't have what it took to be a soldier on the battlefield, should just go kill himself. This was the first unflattering, and unsubstantiated, mention I'd heard of Naughton, a career soldier who would go on to become the First Sergeant of Charlie Company by the time the platoon returned to Iraq two years later.
About an hour into our conversation, Krebbs surprised me by suddenly talking about his own suicide attempt, just five months earlier. "You kind of feel worthless when you get back here," he explained, somberly looking down at the table. "I was a medic over there. I had an important job. And then when I got here, life just seemed pointless, and it seemed like I was just a burden to anybody that I was important to, so I just said, 'fuck it.'" He swallowed a bottle of Seroquel. His wife's efforts to get him quickly to the hospital saved his life.
Is he still suicidal? "Oh, I think about it sometimes, but I don't think I'll try it again. In fact, I know I won't, because after I did it, I realized I had a son, a daughter, a wife … a family, and I know what it did to Razani's family."
I'd been told Jim Naughton was retired from the Army, but still living in Colorado Springs -- near Fort Carson, where the 506th Infantry was based upon their return from Iraq. The comments he'd allegedly made to Razani were disturbing; I wanted to find out if they were true. Also, as the highest enlisted officer in Charlie Company, I thought he might know the whereabouts of some of the soldiers of his Third Platoon. So I decided, in the parlance of journalists, to "doorstep" him.
It was getting dark as I walked up the long hill of his driveway in a section of the city nestled into the side of the Rocky Mountain foothills. A tall, burly man with a military haircut came to the door, sweeping back his curious sons. "Not gonna talk to you," he said bluntly, once I explained the reason for intruding on his life. It turned out he was still in the Army; he'd come close to retiring but was persuaded to stay on. I was told I needed to go through the Army's proper public affairs channels. But even then, he wouldn't say anything.
"A lot of fine soldiers are on that list," he said of the dozen or so members of the platoon, whose names I'd unearthed by then. "Two of them gave their lives for this country, but you're probably only interested in those who I don't have anything good to say about," referring primarily to Eastridge. Efforts to persuade him otherwise were in vain. When his wife arrived home and sized up the situation, she rolled her eyes, confirmed the Naughton family en masse did not welcome reporters, and made it clear it was time for me to walk back down the driveway.
"Nice hat," a deep voice said on the other end of the cell phone as I stood in a Plantation, Fla., parking lot looking around for Marcus Mifflin. He seemed to like having the upper hand in what he was turning into a quasi-clandestine rendezvous. He could see me from his perch somewhere near the Publix supermarket; he could tell me what I was wearing; he was sizing me up … but he was still invisible to me.
For the first 30 or 40 minutes after Marcus finally emerged from behind a forest of SUVs and palm trees, he remained in effect, invisible. I could clearly see him as we ambled over to a Japanese restaurant in the shopping plaza. He was tall, sturdily built, maybe 6 feet 5 inches, 250 pounds, wearing a black T-shirt and blue denim shorts. But he wasn't giving up much else. His answers to my questions were vague and accompanied with a little sneer that conveyed the obvious: He knew he wasn't being the least bit forthcoming and was testing to see if I would let him get away with it.
"Before the Army, I was down here and doing whatever I was doing and all that good stuff," he said casually. I was to discover over the next three-and-a-half hours, the phrase "all that good stuff" was the wallpaper he used to cover over anything he didn't want to tell me about.
"I have a habit of dealing with things with an air of indifference," he said, while poking with his chopsticks at the steak teriyaki in front of him. It was said with such a studied sense of casual boredom that it clearly seemed to be part of his fortification -- because, as I was to find out, much of the time he is anything but indifferent to his life, the way he's lived it and how he has reacted to things around him.
Echoing a phrase I would later hear from a handful of others in the platoon, Mifflin told me he joined the Army at age 19 to escape a gang-involved lifestyle in which "I'd either end up in jail or dead." He was looking forward to killing people, and from the way he tells it -- though others have questioned his accounts -- he had plenty of opportunities.
"For the most part, we did whatever we wanted when we were over there. There was this sense of freedom. There were no laws, there was no fuckin' society. There was no one you answered to when you were doing whatever you were doing," he said.
But after 11 months, in July 2005, when the platoon arrived in Fort Carson, suddenly, "you've got to deal with the laws of man again, and it's such bullshit. And you're just like, 'Why?'" It wasn't long after they returned that, he says, men in the platoon "were starting to notice that there's something wrong with them. Everyone starts to notice that they're not really all that happy and that they miss Iraq and all that good stuff. Pretty much everyone -- everyone I was hanging out with -- started to get stressed out, going downhill … slowly, very slowly. Getting fucked up was no longer a desire, but an actual need. Get high, get drunk, whatever it was -- self-medicate, I guess you could call it."
Mifflin said it was just a matter of luck that he didn't get caught using drugs. But when he started having violent flashbacks, he was shipped off to a private mental health facility, and eventually was diagnosed with PTSD and received a medical discharge from the Army.
Without receiving any counseling -- his choice -- he's bounced around the country in the three years since leaving the Army. When I saw him, he was living at his mother's house talking about using the new GI bill to take some college courses -- and trying to resist the temptation to get back into the gang life he'd left. But it's a challenge.
"Now sometimes I wake up thinking I want to get a gun and go around shooting people at random. I seriously considered doing it, but don't because I still have some hope that I can make my life great. But if I ever give up hope and decide to blow my brains out, I would take as many others with me as I could."
The first research trip that began in Florida with Mifflin ended at a Denny's Restaurant in Colorado Springs, waiting for Joe Baggett to show up for an agreed-upon 9 a.m. cup of coffee. An hour later, with no Joe, rather than being annoyed, I was beginning to understand the frustration of wives and girlfriends, whose men come back from war and don't seem able to function in "the real world." Over the summer, several wives, who now feel they are married to PTSD, told me they would have to keep their husband's calendars and drive them to all their appointments if they had any hope of getting the help they obviously needed.
Joe Baggett arrived sheepishly, saying he'd been up all night, fighting with his wife. He was still an enlisted soldier, having reached the rank of sergeant in the five years since leaving his dead-end job at Wal-Mart in Ramer, Tenn. "I always thought I would stay in the Army forever. I wanted to be a lifer, but now I can't do my job anymore."
After being home from the war for about a year, in the fall of 2006, the platoon returned for a second tour in Iraq. "It was a lot different than the first tour," he said, leaving the question of "How?" conspicuously unanswered. "It probably didn't help me for the better. I'd rather not talk about it. It's just not such good memories."
By the end of that tour his symptoms of PTSD were blooming ferociously: "High irritability, severe paranoia, severe anxiety, flashbacks, bad dreams, just feeling really shitty and weird." The havoc of living with his wartime experience grew to a worrisome level, both he and the Army agreed. If he couldn't be around weapons, couldn't deal with combat, he no longer met the Army's "retention standards" and had to go. So he'd been farmed out to the Warrior Transition Unit -- a facility for soldiers who are on their way out of the Army for a variety of medical reasons, where occasional visits to doctors and job-training workshops interrupt what can sometimes be months of idle time, waiting for the Army's paperwork to move.
Unlike Kenneth Eastridge, who had also been diagnosed with PTSD but never received any mental health counseling after returning from Iraq, Baggett both received and appreciated the help he was getting. He saw a therapist about twice a month -- "She hasn't been through combat, but still, she listens, and it helps establish trust with someone." And he was taking Seroquel, a mood stabilizer, and Celexa, an antidepressant, which he thought helped to "balance things out."
But his relationship with his wife -- a woman he met and married in the year between deployments -- sounded quite out of balance. "I can't stand my wife and she can't stand me. I don't want to make a rash and permanent decision about my wife. Like they say about suicide, why make a permanent decision to a temporary problem?"
However, one temporary solution to this wife problem that sounded quite appealing to Baggett was riding the rails. Conjuring up an ideal post-Army railroad job was the only time I saw a spark of life and excitement come to his eyes. "Being a conductor for freight trains -- sounds pretty good. You check the cars, make sure everything is OK, and then you're gone."
The image of Joe Baggett, sitting by himself in the cab of a diesel locomotive in front of a mile of boxcars, gazing out across the vast high prairies of eastern Colorado, is one that I thought about often as I crossed those and other prairies during the summer. I tried to contact him a couple of times after our initial talk. I wanted to see if he was ready to tell me more about the platoon's second tour in Iraq. He never returned my calls. According to Army records, his medical discharge finally came through, six months after we spoke, in November 2009.
By late May, my platoon roster was still quite paltry. I'd talked with a few of Eastridge's friends who had sent me in the direction of a few others, but the big picture was still missing. I was heartened then to get an e-mail from Sgt. 1st Class William Sturgeon -- once the senior enlisted officer of the Third Platoon who was now stationed in Hawaii. His son from a previous marriage was graduating from high school a week later in Tracy, Calif. If I could get to California he would try to squeeze me around various family and graduation events.
We didn't have enough time, but time enough for me to get a fairly complete rundown of the entire platoon. (He was still in touch with about 10 of the guys, and had potential leads that might be useful in locating many others.) Along with a basket of individual anecdotes and stories about his platoon, Sturgeon, as their sergeant, had come to some conclusions about the men … and his role in their lives.
"These young guys," he said describing the bulk of his platoon who entered the Army directly out of high school, "they have no values coming in; their family structure is all jacked up from the time they were three years old. So you're trying to play mom and dad and everything else to these kids, and you don't know how they're going to turn out."
Sturgeon inherited the Third Platoon the day after it suffered its most devastating loss of the war -- Nov. 11, 2004. A car bomb detonated in the midst of a patrol, killing one of the favorite sergeants, Sean Huey, and wounding six others, including then-platoon Sgt. Tim Stricklin. Sturgeon was confronted by a group of young men he barely knew, whose morale was as low as their thirst for revenge was great.
In loco parentis was a challenging but not impossible role for Sturgeon to play while they were all bivouacked in one tight little compound between Ramadi and Fallujah. He talked with the men about their losses; he tried to buck them up; he tried to keep them sane and focused. But nine months later, when Sturgeon brought his men back home, keeping watch over the flock became nearly impossible, and he told me there was little he could do to keep them from going off the rails. "For a lot of them, this was the first time in their Army careers when they didn't have curfews, they didn't have to stay on the base, and they just didn't have enough self-control to handle so much freedom." Was it that, or was it, as Mifflin had told me, a question of "self-medicating" to avoid having to think about the things they saw and did in Iraq?
Personally, Will Sturgeon said, his readjustment to coming home wasn't that difficult. He was the first soldier I'd met who came home to the same woman he was with when he left for Iraq -- and that probably helped a lot, he thinks. He didn't need to drink to self-medicate. "I don't have any nightmares or signs of PTSD. I think I've handled it pretty good," he said, spitting out a string of tobacco juice from the dip he stuck in his lower lip as soon as we were out of the restaurant. "It's all how you balance it, I guess. It just never became an issue in our house."
Three days later I was at a Texas steakhouse in San Antonio with Kris Silva. He'd been out of the Army a little over a year. "If anyone tells you they don't have PTSD, they're lying," he told me emphatically.
A stocky Hispanic 26-year-old, Silva says his body and mind were so beat up by two tours in Iraq, "I feel like I'm at least 35." When he returned from the first tour in Iraq, he says, he lied on the post-deployment mental health evaluation. "They ask, 'Have you seen destruction? Seen any dead bodies?' Yes. 'Does it bother you?' No. 'Seen anyone die?' Yes. 'Does it bother you?' No. All you want to do is sign in and sign out. I wanted my break, my two-week vacation, so I lied to the doctors. Everybody does it."
Seeking help was not, Silva says, something that was really encouraged by the chain of command. Once again, Naughton's name floated over this part of the discussion like a dark cloud. He came from the old school where, as Silva said, "You were trained to be tough: Your arm's broken? Drink some water and drive on. He didn't like us going to see medical physicians. If you do, everybody thinks you're going to be labeled a pussy, or a nut job, or just weak."
But when Silva realized his drinking was getting out of hand, he summoned the courage to seek help at Evans Army Medical Center at Fort Carson. "I was feeling a numbness. I needed help to regain my emotions and learn how to talk normal to people again. But all they do in the Army is try to push medications on you. I declined all kinds of medication," he said, and like many of his fellow soldiers, including Eastridge, he went back for a second tour of duty in Iraq -- dealing with serious untreated PTSD issues.
Three years later, with Eastridge sitting in jail, Silva feels guilty that he and the other enlisted men did nothing to help Eastridge in Iraq when they saw him falling apart -- getting drunk, strung out on drugs, threatening officers, no longer being the fierce soldier he once was. "We let Kenny down. He should have been able to talk with us. I'm sure there was a lot we could have done."
But Silva was having his own problems. Dumped by his girlfriend, he quickly started up another relationship on MySpace. On a home leave in 2007 he met the woman and three days later, they were married. Matter-of-factly but with a bit of chagrin he said, "I had already planned my will; the only thing I was missing was a wife. So I got married. I had that overwhelming feeling I wasn't going to come back here, but it didn't bother me because I felt lifeless. I thought, 'Shit, I'm going to die over there.' Deep down inside, I kind of wanted to. I didn't want to commit suicide, I just felt like I was going to die, so I wanted to die. You think about it so much every time you go outside the wire that you just want it to happen -- get that lump in your throat over with."
He didn't die. Instead, in the summer of his second tour he was shipped back to Fort Carson after an accident that involved wrapping his leg around the wheel of a moving Humvee. The medical treatment he received at Evans was good -- much better than the mental health care he'd earlier sought. Less than a year later, he was honorably discharged and went to the Veterans Administration in San Antonio soon after. "When they first screened me, they said I didn't have PTSD. At that point I knew I did." Even without a formal diagnosis, six months later he was welcomed into a V.A.-run group for soldiers with PTSD and soon was seeing a therapist for weekly counseling.
Is it helpful, I ask? Yes, he says. He's gotten rid of a lot of anxiety as well as his MySpace bride and is in a new relationship. He says he's taking it a lot slower this time around.
Four hundred miles later, along Interstate 10 in Louisiana, I received the following text: "I got no problem talking to you, I just don't think I can give you what you want." It was from Josh Butler, one of three members of the platoon who were kicked out of the Army after failing a drug test.
His motel room was the one behind the beat-up welder's truck parked in the gravel lot of the Cardinal Motel on the outskirts of Opelousas, La. The truck belonged to one of his welding buddies; his car parked next to the truck -- a 1991 Lincoln Town Car with a lived-in look to it -- had a flat tire. Working as a welder's assistant on a natural gas pipeline crew, Butler was trying to piece together a chaotic life, which was quickly becoming a nomadic life, as he moved from cheap motels to trailer parks following the progress of the pipeline.
What he thought I wanted to hear about was what another reporter had repeatedly asked him about a few months earlier. "There's shit I just can't talk about. A war crime is a war crime. That shit don't ever go away," he said as we drove into Opelousas.
Butler's tribute tattoo to Sgt. Huey
If war crimes were off the table, just about everything else -- including plates of excellent shrimp étouffée ---was on the table for Josh Butler at the Crawfish Corner. With alarming candor, he covered everything from his dishonorable discharge, which made him angry mostly because several others in Charlie Company "pissed hot" for cocaine and were politely ushered out of the Army with general discharges; to slapping around his estranged wife ("Yeah, maybe that's one thing I wasn't doing before I went into the Army, but I ain't going to say the Army taught me to abuse women."); to how he thinks a lot of PTSD claims were faked -- including his. ("I told the [Army] shrink being in elevators made me nervous," he said with a smirk. "And the dude just handed me a bunch of pills, which is all I was trying to get in the first place. It was just an excuse to get something to get fucked up on.")
In his thick Alabama drawl, Butler told me he has no feelings and sheds no tears over what he saw and did in Iraq. He says he's just numb to all of that, and hasn't let it affect him. But when he tells the story of Sgt. Huey's death with more vivid detail and description than I've heard before, and recounts trying to breathe life into the mouth of the leader of his squad as he was being rushed to the hospital tent, it is hard to imagine those thoughts are ever too far away.
Indeed, every time he glances at his left forearm there is a long tattoo that's a painful reminder: An M-4 with boots and helmet in the traditional stance of a fallen soldier, topped with large bold letters, "UH-1H." That's the designation for the Army's workhorse helicopter -- the Huey, which was Sgt. Huey's trademark signature.
It seemed nearly all of the soldiers I was meeting either had UH-1H tattooed on some part of their body or would show up wearing a metal wrist band with Sean Huey's name and death date on it. The more men I talked with them, the more obvious it became that "Sergeanthuey," as his fellow soldiers seemed to call him -- and his death -- cast an unmistakably large shadow over the story of the Third Platoon.
Colleen Huey Garra
To learn more about him, I found myself in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Cabot, Ark., walking up to the front door of the home of Colleen Huey Garra, Sean's older sister. Someone in the platoon had told me upon meeting Colleen at a memorial service for her brother back in Fort Carson, "She's just like Sean, except she's a girl."
Colleen was so close to her brother that before he was killed, she'd decided to name her daughter after him -- pronouncing the name "Shawnee" but spelling it Seane. Naming her Joe Paterno, after the Penn State football coach, would have pleased Huey as much or even more, as Penn State football was his primary obsession and defining characteristic -- the result of growing up in Fredericktown, Penn., well within the geographic footprint of fanatic Penn State enthusiasm. And so when his own son was born, 11 months before he was killed, Sean persuaded his North Carolina-born wife they should name him Joe.
Becoming a father tempered Sean, his sister told me, sitting at her kitchen table surrounded by scrapbooks and picture albums of her brother's life. He was pretty rough-edged prior to that; at one point he was ordered to take an anger management class at Fort Bragg after picking up a soldier by the throat when he was late. Huey, she says, became more compassionate, more humane to the men under his command. As they were going into Iraq, he wrote her that he would rather die than lose one of his men.
The war affected him in other ways. In a letter to his brother and hunting companion, Mike, he said he could never put the cross-hairs on a deer again and pull the trigger. He'd had to kill people -- because he had no choice -- but now wanted no part of taking life when his life, or the lives of his men, weren't on the line.
Colleen had many questions on what I'd found out about the day Sean was killed. Did he ever regain consciousness after the blast? Did he know he was dying? Did he have his last rites? They were questions she wasn't ready to ask when she attended the memorial service for him at Fort Carson. She was ready now, and welcomed getting information from a third party, as she knew it would still be too hard to ask the soldiers who were there when Sean died -- particularly Doc Krebbs, who'd tried to save his life, and Tim Stricklin, one of Sean's closest friends, who was injured at the same time.
The nine-hour drive across half of Arkansas and most of Oklahoma to the home of Tim and Terra Stricklin gave me a lot of time to think about the way families who lose their sons, brothers, and husbands in war struggle with such conflicting emotions for so long after that initial shock. It comes as a knock on the door for the next of kin, or usually a phone call for all the others, and is an explosion of grief that they always know to expect from the day their soldier enlists. For weeks, months and years the reverberations of that explosion continue to rock them, like aftershocks, as they try so hard to come to terms with the grief and the conflict in their minds and hearts. There is a sense of pride that these men died for their country, died doing something they believed in; yet the loss and the tragedy of a truncated life, the knowledge these men will never see their children grow up, cannot be extinguished by that pride. As the sun set over the Ouachita Mountains in eastern Oklahoma, I continued to think of Colleen's comments about how, nearly five years after Sean's death and a lot of very useful therapy, she's finally able to put her brother's death in a place in her life where she can move forward: "He's no longer the first thing I think about in the morning; nor the last thing I think about at night … but I do think about him every day. Maybe a hundred times."
The next night in Lawton, Okla., it took Tim Stricklin four hours, without any breaks, to walk me through his history with the Third Platoon and critique each of the soldiers who served under him. In 2004, after 10 years in the Army, he was finally given a platoon to run, and he quickly established a family-like closeness to these soldiers. In doing so, his wife, Terra, came to know them as well, and while we were talking, she willingly inserted her own observations as the two of them sat in overstuffed loungers in their family room. She also kept her 271 Facebook friends informed with live updates of how the interview was progressing.
Stricklin, a tall, thin man with penetrating eyes, achieved the crushing distinction of being the only member of the platoon to go on both tours to Iraq -- and be seriously injured each time. The first was standing next to Sgt. Huey when the car bomb exploded. Two years later, an IED blew up under his Humvee, breaking his back, his jaw and messing up his left leg. Although his injuries were worse the second time, he felt much worse about the first incident. "The second time, I was the only one injured. The first time, along with Sean, six of us got hurt. The platoon sergeant has to keep his people safe and I didn't do that."
Stricklin tells me when he got back, once he was medically discharged from the Army, he came down with a serious drinking problem. There were images and incidents he couldn't shake -- seeing the old man who'd just had his jaw shot off, looking at him bewildered; the moment just before the car bomb exploded. "I talk to Sean every day," he said, wincing back tears that were building on the rims of his eyes.
Sure, he acknowledges, no soldier goes to Iraq and isn't affected by the experience. He certainly was. But he's seen too many, particularly in his platoon, who come back, get in trouble, and then blame it on PTSD. Maybe some of his soldiers had a hard time dealing with things they did or saw in Iraq, "but that doesn't give them a free license to do the stuff they were doing when they got back."
Going through the platoon roster, one by one, there was a litany of misdeeds, mistakes, poor choices and generally out of control behavior among his men after they arrived at Fort Carson. Along with a lot of out-of-control drinking, one got into meth; another had a road rage incident where he pulled his weapon on another motorist; three were kicked out for cocaine use; Eastridge and two others in the company -- Louis Bressler and Bruce Bastien -- got into all kinds of trouble that ended with the shooting death of another soldier, Kevin Shields, a young man who, years before, had come into Stricklin's Illinois recruiting station shortly after 9/11.
But by no means were they all misfits and miscreants. Part of Stricklin's case for why soldiers should not blame the war for their later bad behavior is that, while still troubled by the experience, still dealing with dark memories, there were more soldiers who were upstanding fighting men in Iraq, and they came home and did not get into any significant trouble.
The Stricklins and the Naughtons, even though they live far apart, are close friends. Both wives take an active and very supportive role in their husbands' work, and supported each other -- along with many other spouses -- when their men were deployed. Explaining the difficulties I was having getting Jim Naughton to agree to talk with me, Stricklin said he would "put in a good word" after his wife had given me her seal of approval on Facebook. ("This guy rocks at interviewing!") But, Stricklin added, he'd be surprised if Naughton agreed to talk -- "He's just not that kind of guy."
Like so many of my dozen or so research trips, the one that included Garra and Stricklin ended in Colorado -- and in another prison.
I'd heard from other soldiers that Jeremy Eggert "got a DUI and had some problems with his wife," but it wasn't until I idly checked the Colorado Department of Correction's inmate locator that I found Eggert's wide-eyed mug shot pasted next to information saying he was three years into a six-year sentence.
He claimed I was the only visitor he'd had while in prison, and was both eager for news from his fellow soldiers, and just as eager to tell me his story -- even though little of it had the heroism that he aspired to when he followed his grandfather's footsteps into the Army.
Just before shipping out to Iraq in 2004, he’d married a girl he’d been dating for a year, because, he told me, “I wanted to get married before I died.” He thought she’d moved beyond her drug addiction, but soon wondered if his paycheck wasn’t going into her veins in the form of heroin. Ignoring the advice of his sergeants – and even his company commander - to get a divorce, he stuck with her only to find upon returning to Fort Carson there was no one there to greet him. “I came back and reality beat the shit out of me. Everyone was hugging their wives, families, sisters.” His wife was in a hospital still fighting her addiction. .
Alcohol quickly became his escape. "I came back and I started drinking and drinking and drinking. The moment we got off work I was high-tailing it to the PX to buy beer." Who was he drinking with? "Anyone, no one, it didn't matter," he said, explaining that he thought he was drinking just to get drunk, and only later realized it was because he couldn't get images of the war out of his mind.
Eventually -- he doesn't remember when -- he decided he needed to get help and, while quite drunk, headed off on foot to the drug and alcohol unit at Fort Carson's Evans Medical Center. "I called my wife and told her I was walking there, and she called my chain of command and they advised that I didn't go."
Who did she call, I asked?
"First sergeant," he replied after a long pause.
Was that Jim Naughton?
He replied with a nod.
The message he said he received, secondhand from his wife, was that if he had aspirations -- as he did -- to join the Rangers or try for Special Forces, having on his record a trip to the mental health unit for a drinking problem would torpedo any chances of moving into the ranks that were the envy of just about every infantryman I spoke with.
Eggert says he turned around and went back to his barracks to sleep it off.
Of his chain of command, Eggert says, "They were my mentors and I didn't want to disappoint them. But after that, I felt I couldn't get help. I needed to figure out a way to do this on my own."
So he kept drinking and he got in fights. One night, after a fight with his uncle, and with well more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream, he smashed into the back of a pickup truck on I-25 just north of Colorado Springs. The pickup veered off the right side of the highway and rolled over three times, leaving one of the three occupants with a broken back. Eggert's Jeep Liberty veered off to the other side, but didn't roll. Instead of checking on the occupants of the other vehicle, he took off -- "fleeing the scene like a criminal," he told me, which is exactly what he became when the police found him 17 miles down the highway and arrested him.
He was initially sentenced to six years in a work-release program, where he could stay in the Army, but live in a half-way house, and agreed not to drive. Within six months, he'd violated the rules five times, including on at least one occasion driving. At a resentencing hearing, the judge had little patience with Eggerts' attempted explanations and turned the halfway house time into prison time. That month he was discharged from the Army.
When I saw him in mid-July 2009, he thought there might be a parole hearing coming up soon. If he was released, he said, he was toying with trying to get back into the Army. "I've been told they take people with certain kinds of felonies on their records. If this wouldn't have happened, I would have been career. I was good at my job and I loved it. But things happen," he said looking off in the distance, through a window to the prison yard where his fellow inmates were wandering around aimlessly in their prison-issue green jumpsuits.
When his platoon leader -- the only one who actually made it to Special Forces -- heard that Eggert hoped to re-enlist, he acknowledged he was, in fact, a good soldier, but added, "They'll never let him back in, unless World War III starts."
A month later, I was back in Colorado, at what had become my favorite coffee shop, The Coffee Exchange on Tejon Street in Colorado Springs. Run by Tom and Margaret Logan, immigrants from England and Northern Ireland, it was a perfect place to meet and talk with people for hours. Their son had served in the British Army in Iraq and was having a hard time back home, so they took a vicarious and quite sympathetic interest in the discussions I was having with other parents' sons.
For three months I'd been corresponding by e-mail with one of the more curious members of the platoon, Nathan Fealko, who at the time was living in Taiwan. "He was really smart," Tim Stricklin had told me. "But he never should have been in the infantry -- just not his kind of deal." But that's exactly why he joined up. After being home schooled and getting a degree from a small upstate New York Christian liberal arts college, the self-described "class-A nerd and over-the-top geek" wanted to challenge himself physically and mentally. Basic training almost killed him; the drinking and fraternizing between officers and enlisted men when he was stationed in Korea appalled him; and his first tour in Iraq, he said, was hellish. But he survived.
In one of his lengthy e-mails, he wrote about how anger was an essential ingredient for survival in Iraq. "It helps you get your job done as a soldier," he explained when we met. "If you're on patrol and a car cuts in front of you, if you're too chilled out about it, that car will kill you. You have to be angry at the car, at the driver, and you draw on that anger, and that's what fuels you to act -- to shoot the car to stop it from possibly killing you."
The problem, he explained, is when you come home after a year of living with that kind of adrenalin-pumped up anger. "It takes time to bleed that fuel out of your system." It took him months to calm down.
But now, not much more than a year out of the Army, there were few outward signs he was ever in uniform. After he was done with his Army "adventure," he told his wife, Amy, it was her turn to pick one. She chose Taiwan. They moved there and both quickly got jobs teaching English to Taiwanese kindergarteners. He's not sure how much longer that adventure will last, thinking it soon might be time to come back home. And, with that in mind, rather than drinking up his accumulated Army pay at the bars on Tejon Street, Fealko used his combat pay for a down payment on a small house in Colorado Springs -- a nice community to raise a family, he thinks.
"How's that lad doing," Margeret asked after Nathan left. "Quite well," I was happy to report … finally.
Three days and three stops later, I was at the Alamo Bar and Grill in suburban Newbury Park, Calif., with two guys -- Evan Harmon and J. R. Marcelo -- who seemed to be firmly planted in the middle of the bell curve of returned soldiers. In their mid-20s, both are hyphenated-Americans -- Harmon is part Mexican; Marcelo, half Filipino. They joined up because there was nothing better to do. They had some fun; they had some bad times; they tried to laugh through most of it. They served long enough to do two tours in Iraq (the second, they agree, was harder than the first). They came home, completely done with the Army, proud of the service they gave their country, yet ready to get on with their lives. They have some PTSD issues (and agree with Kris Silva that everyone who has been in Iraq does), but they feel they can deal with them without going to any doctors or taking medication. They were both honorably discharged on the same day in April 2008, expecting that finding jobs wouldn't be difficult for two reasonably bright and articulate veterans. They were wrong.
J.R. Marcelo and Evan Harmon
Sixteen months later, Marcelo still hasn't found anything. After five months, Harmon got a boring job driving a forklift in a warehouse -- and that happened only after he swallowed enough pride to ask a family member to talk to a friend.
"You think you'll get a job because you're a veteran," Harmon said. "But the job you had in the military doesn't transfer to civilian life. What kind of job here has you getting blown up and shot at all day?"
Both men had heard the Los Angeles Police Department was hiring soldiers. Neither one particularly wanted to continue to put his life on the line every day, but perhaps patrolling the streets of L.A. came closest to what they knew how to deal with in Iraq. Both men put in their paperwork and waited.
They waited for seven months before being told, "You don't meet our requirements." Marcelo wondered, as tested infantrymen, what sort of requirements they lacked, and he was plenty annoyed they'd wasted so much time waiting for an answer that could have come back within weeks. After that, it only got worse. "Security guards, fast food, you name it, they wouldn't hire me," Harmon says. "People don't care. It's not about what you achieved in the military."
To avoid getting angry about the job market, Harmon says he tried to look at things from the employer's point of view -- something that's not so easy. "Do I take a 19-year-old kid with some experience, or a veteran with no experience? I'll go with the kid. It's like, 'Ok, this guy can enclose the enemy and take him out with his squad, but can he cook a fucking hamburger?'"
Marcelo finally just gave up looking and was planning in the fall to go back to college on the GI bill. He's going to train to become an X-ray technician. Why? "It's an easy job. I just take pictures of your knee. I mean, there's more to it than that, but not much."
Marcelo and Harmon were buddies in Iraq. They became family members not long after they returned from the first tour, when Marcelo introduced his sister, Missy, to Evan Harmon. By the time the Third Platoon was ready to deploy again, Missy Harmon was saying goodbye to both her brother and her husband.
The longest trip of my reporting odyssey -- which covered more than 12,000 miles and included an evening at a brew pub north of Fairbanks, Alaska, with a soldier who later told me he didn't feel "sitting in front of the world and telling my story is the right thing for me to do at this point" -- ended back in Colorado in Jeremy Eggert's prison.
Unlike the Alaska soldier, Jeremy was happy to tell his story again -- this time to David Michaud, the chairman of the Colorado Parole Board. When I'd been notified of Eggert's hearing before the parole board, I imagined a courtroom-like setting, quite possibly with the victims present, maybe some family members to serve as character references, testifying in front of the seven-member parole board. I quickly found out it was to be a much more low-key affair, which began with Jeremy's case manager offering up slices of homemade rhubarb nut bread to all who came to watch. That turned out to be just me.
And David Michaud was the only member of the Colorado Parole Board present. He was an avuncular man in his 60s, with gray hair, glasses and a passel of ID tags hanging from a U.S. Marine Corp lanyard around his neck. Colorado's prisons are so crowded and the backlog of cases to be heard is so great that it would be impossible for the entire board to hear every case. So they spread themselves around the state to hear what the parole candidates have to say for themselves.
Jeremy entered the sparsely furnished multi-purpose room in the administration building of the prison and took a seat on one side of a folding table. The parole board sat on the other side. A 1970s-era audiotape cassette recorder attached to a Radio Shack mic stood ready to record the official proceedings.
Before clicking on the machine, the two men -- one in a business suit, the other a green prison jumpsuit -- bonded a bit over their shared military experience. It is probably the only thing they had in common.
Michaud formally began the hearing by getting Jeremy to state the facts of his case. One has to assume those facts -- as reported by the police and appearing in court records -- were contained in the thick folder that also sat on the desk. Had Michaud consulted them, he would have found a discrepancy in the answer to his first question about the number of people injured in the crash. Eggert told him two; the police reports stated three.
"How badly were they injured," Michaud asked.
"Not too bad," Jeremy replied, apparently not wishing to go into details of the broken back sustained by the 81-year-old man in the pickup truck he rammed at high speed. One court record stated the crash victim would never be able to walk again.
"What was the extent of their injuries," Michaud pressed.
"Oh, just whiplash, and that sort of thing."
"Nothing more serious?" Michaud asked.
"Not that I'm aware of," Eggert said.
Michaud moved on to Eggert's plans should he be granted parole. Eggert explained he had a carpentry job lined up in Moline, Ill., and would be living with his Aunt Dixie. It was a statement perhaps harder to check than the extent of the injuries he caused, but not that hard. Aunt Dixie turns out to be his estranged wife's aunt, and the carpentry job was far from certain. It was one of a number of possible jobs the aunt was exploring for her nephew-in-law.
Then came the quiz: "What's the one key word to your success?" Michaud asked.
Jeremy looked puzzled, thought for a moment and said, "Perseverance!"
Michaud responded, "It begins with an S."
There was another slight delay until Jeremy figured it out: "Sobriety!"
Michaud looked pleased and launched into his homily on success. Jeremy sat and listened attentively, even while being harassed by a pesky fly which kept landing on his head. There are three key factors that can be the recipe for Jeremy's success, Michaud explained: Being sober, having a job and having the support of family members. "It looks like you have all three, but if you can't keep sober, it just caves in on you."
Jeremy nodded in thanks for the advice, and promised he'd stay sober.
Fifteen minutes after it began, they all stood up and the parole hearing was over.
Weeks later, the entire board met to discuss Eggert's case. He was granted parole and by Christmas Jeremy Eggert was with his daughter and his wife's aunt's family in Moline, Ill., looking for a job.
As summer turned into fall, I realized I'd been ignoring a couple of soldiers from the platoon who, because of injuries, hadn't made it through more than just a few months of the first deployment to Iraq. How were they doing? What did they think of the medical care they received?
Marco Garibay appears to be the only member of the platoon who came from and returned to a gritty, inner-city neighborhood. Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has been a depressed community nearly all of Garibay's 27 years. He lives with his grandparents and brother in a small house surrounded by chain-link fencing. It is just two streets removed from Federal Street, where music thumps loudly from passing cars and people hang out on sidewalks next to neon-lit establishments selling fried food and payday loans.
Garibay was the Third Platoon's first casualty. In October 2004, a month before Sgt. Huey was killed, he was out on patrol and heard a gunshot that sounded close. "I've heard about people getting shot and not knowing, so I decided to look down and saw blood all over my chest," he told me. A bullet had ricocheted off the Humvee and pierced his neck. A few inches in either direction and the shot would have been fatal. The injury was serious enough to evacuate Garibay to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he spent the next several months regaining his voice ("So I didn't sound so much like Darth Vader") and having the numbness in his neck gradually diminish.
Instead of sending him back to Iraq, which he wanted, he was put into the Rear Detachment in Fort Carson, where he felt worthless and bored. He met a woman, got married, got divorced and eventually came home to Camden, where, for a while, the only job he could get was in his father's auto repair shop. He eventually found a better paying job 30 minutes outside of Camden -- but it's boring and not likely to lead anywhere. "I just sit there and twiddle my thumbs a lot of the time."
What would he like to do? Go back into the Army again, but this time not as an infantryman but a mechanic, repairing Humvees and the like. Growing up around car repair shops, he's been tinkering with engines for years but has little resume experience to show for it. If he could get three years in the Army, he figures a better-paying job at a car dealership might be available when he gets out. And if all his dreams were to come true, shortly after that, he could open his own shop.
But before any of that happens, he told me, he wanted to be checked out at the V.A. for PTSD. Things happened, even in just the two months he was in combat, that he can't shake. As he sat in his grandparents' sparsely furnished living room, he quickly returned in his mind to a time when he was walking through the aftermath of a suicide bombing. He came across a vest on the ground. He was going to walk by it until saw something inside: The remains of a U.S. soldier. "I think there's probably more but my memory isn't that good anymore." And, he feels numb emotionally. "I don't get excited about anything anymore. Before, if I knew you were coming, I'd be all nervous. Now, I don't feel anything -- not excited, not nervous. I just feel deadened."
When I saw him in September he'd made a preliminary visit to the V.A., which was looking for his paperwork. Five months later, he said, he'd filled out a questionnaire and gone to some meetings, but was too busy to attend most of them.
Another soldier who'd been injured and felt abandoned by his platoon afterward was Chris Nieves, who I found one evening recovering from Lasik eye surgery in his small home in Lake Jackson, Texas.
He was one of those seriously enough wounded in the car bombing that killed Sgt. Huey that he had to be evacuated to the U.S. Five surgeries later, his left arm is much better, but he says he'll never be able to carry anything heavier than a gallon of milk.
He impatiently waited eight months before the Third Platoon came home and he could rejoin his buddies. But then it was hard. Not only didn't he have the shared experiences of the remainder of the tour, he was looked upon as a "wounded warrior."
"Before, I was climbing up the ladder, was recognized for having leadership qualities. I was a go-to guy. Now I wasn't even near the ladder. They went to someone else, even if what had to be done was clearly something I could do."
When he was first arrived at Walter Reed, no one bothered to give him any psychological screening, even though he knew something was wrong with him psychologically. Later, going through the list of PTSD symptoms, he realized he had a full house. The psychiatrist at Walter Reed gave him Ambien, which helped with his sleeping problems, but little else. Once transferred to Fort Carson, he was put in a therapy group that annoyed him more than it helped him. They let him try one-on-one therapy, but that was even worse. The over-worked psychologist could never even remember who he was or what his story was from day to day. "How many times do I have to tell you my story," he asked? "I just told it to you on Monday, and here I am again on Wednesday? Did you lose your notes again?"
A year and a half after being injured, Nieves was given a medical discharge and moved to Texas. Now working at a chemical plant, he's taking college classes with the hope of becoming a physician's assistant -- a profession he grew to know and admire while the Army was repairing his arm.
The afternoon before I saw Nieves, I'd shared a Chester's Hamburger lunch in San Antonio with Col. David Clark (Ret.), who commanded the 1-506th for more than two years. Even now out of uniform, Clark was unmistakably Army -- in his demeanor, in his lean physique, and in his enthusiasm for the men under his command. One of them, of course, was Jim Naughton, who had spent the summer not responding to further efforts to let me talk with him.
Clark understood Naughton's skepticism and reluctance. Other journalists -- he mentioned Bartle Bull -- had written pieces about his men that were unflattering, even embarrassing to them and their families, articles Clark said he tried to get stopped.
"But Jim owes it to his men to talk with you, to give you the other side." Coming from a friend and former commander, that argument might carry a lot more weight than my efforts to get him to respond to the allegations others had made about him.
As we parted, Clark promised he would convey that message to First Sergeant Naughton.
A week later I was back in Colorado Springs. At 6:15 in the morning, the following e-mail pinged into my computer:
Mr. Buchanan, After speaking with a few friends and professionals, I feel we may have a need to sit and talk. VR, James J. Naughton
Thank you, Col. Clark.
The next night -- six months and 46 interviews after I'd first walked up Jim Naughton's driveway -- I was there again, this time with my fellow producer and director, Dan Edge. We had already begun filming but cleared the evening to spend as much time with Naughton as he wanted to spend with us.
It was an awkward greeting at the door, almost as if he was still under the command of Col. Clark and had been ordered to talk to the press. His wife, Terri Ann, re-introduced herself, their two sons were again ushered out of sight, and we sat down in the family room -- the Naughtons together on a couch; the reporters facing them.
Over the next three hours, Jim Naughton not only refuted every nasty allegation that I'd heard about him over the last half a year, but was transformed in my mind from being a two dimensional "crusty old first sergeant," which his wife said, jokingly, is how he came out of his mother's womb, to a three-dimensional soldier who had also been changed in some ways by what happened to him and the men he led in Iraq.
He flatly denied ever saying anything to Razani, the medic who committed suicide, about being a worthless soldier, and attributed his death to a "personal issue that he had with himself that he just could not handle."
He had no recollection of ever getting a call from Jeremy Eggert's wife or telling her Eggert would ruin his career if he sought help for his drinking problem.
And even though Kris Silva and others characterized their First Sergeant as one who had no patience for soldiers who sought mental health care, Naughton told us, "The stigma from some leadership is that you just shut your mouth and keep on going. But that is wrong and we preach that it's wrong. A lot of soldiers don't believe that if they say they need help, they will get it. I wish that a lot of soldiers would kind of get in touch with their inner self and just say, 'I do need help.'"
Jim Naughton talking about getting in touch with your inner self?
He hadn't gone completely soft, however, and quickly admitted that while in Iraq "being hard, being mean, being ugly and being the bad guy" was his job. He said he was raised in the Army by "hard seasoned veteran noncommissioned officers, and that's the only way that I know to be in the Army."
"I make them do things that they don't want to do. I make them do more. I make them do it faster. I make them do it longer. And that's the way it goes because the mission doesn't stop just because it's lunchtime. Those boys were successful because they were pushed to the limit."
But fighting a counterinsurgency war is different; it is more stressful. He felt the stress when he was there, and when he came home, his wife noticed a difference. Before, when his boys misbehaved, they would be told to hit the deck and start doing push-ups. "But there's none of that now," Terri Ann told us, appearing somewhat perplexed. Naughton looked down as she described what sounded like a "softer and gentler" First Sergeant Naughton.
Then he looked up. "I'm not easier," he said softly, "but I'm just smarter."
By the time filming began, we had found all but two members of the Third Platoon. They were scattered all over the country, from Miami to Fairbanks; Los Angeles to Massachusetts. They were white, black, Hispanic, Filipino; some were college educated, most were not, but have hopes to be. They joined the Army out of patriotism, boredom, economic necessity, sense of adventure, a desire to test their manhood. And while some were doing better than others, there was a pervasive realization that 11 months of war for some, 26 months for others, had left physical and emotional scars that would take years to heal. This was, without question, The Wounded Platoon.