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2009-07-30

The Hell of War Comes Home: Newspaper Series Documents Murder, Suicide, Kidnappings by Iraq Vets

Guests

Dave Philipps, reporter with the Colorado Springs Gazette. He wrote the two-part series "Casualties of War."

Col. Jimmie Keenan, Commander of the Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs. She is the former chief of staff for the Army’s Warrior Care and Transition Office in Arlington, Va.

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A startling two-part series published in the Gazette newspaper of Colorado Springs titled "Casualties of War" examines a part of war seldom discussed by the media or government officials: the difficulty of returning to civilian life after being trained to be a killer. The story focuses on a single battalion based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. Soldiers from the brigade have have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, drunk driving, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping and suicides. The Army unit’s murder rate is 114 times the rate for Colorado Springs. We speak with the reporter who broke the story and get the Army’s response. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a startling two-part series that has just been published in the Gazette newspaper of Colorado Springs called “Casualties of War.” It examines a part of war seldom discussed by the media or government officials: the difficulty of returning to civilian life after being trained to be a killer.

The story focuses on a single battalion based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, the 2nd Batallion, 12th Infantry Regiment. The battalion’s nickname is the “Lethal Warriors.” In Iraq, the unit fought in some of the war’s bloodiest battles, in Ramadi on its first tour, downtown Baghdad on its second. In May, the unit deployed again, this time to Afghanistan.

For some of the unit’s soldiers, the killing didn’t end when they returned home. The Gazette reports that since 2006 ten infantry soldiers have been arrested and accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter. Others have committed other violent crimes. Some of the veterans have committed suicide. In a one-year period, from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, the murder rate for members of the Army unit was 114 times the rate for Colorado Springs.

In late 2006, twenty-one-year-old Anthony Marquez killed a small-time drug dealer by shooting him repeatedly with a stun gun and then shot him in the heart.

In August of 2007, twenty-four-year-old Louis Bressler robbed and shot a soldier he picked up on a street in Colorado Springs.

In December of 2007, three soldiers from the unit — Louis Bressler, Bruce Bastien and Kenneth Eastridge — left the bullet-riddled body of a soldier from their unit on a Colorado Springs street. Two months earlier, the same group intentionally drove into a woman walking to work. One of the soldiers then repeatedly stabbed her.

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

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

Josh Butler was sent to prison for beating his pregnant wife. Months later, his child was born with severe birth defects and died. Butler blames himself, in part, for the child’s death.

While Fort Carson has instituted a number of new policies and programs to help returning soldiers adjust to civilian life, the killing has continued. In May, Thomas Woolly was charged with manslaughter after shooting a nineteen-year-old woman. Two weeks later, another member of the unit committed suicide in California.

Well, right now we’re joined by David Philipps. He is the reporter at the Gazette in Colorado Springs who authored the two-part series, “Casualties of War.” We’ll also be speaking later in the show with Colonel Jimmie Keenan, commander of the Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs. Dave Philipps joins us now from KTSC, Rocky Mountain PBS in Pueblo, Colorado.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dave Philipps. Why don’t you lay out the scope of this remarkable exposé? Extremely frightening and painful.

DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, what we wanted to do is talk to some of the soldiers who are now in prison and really find out the whole story, starting in Iraq and following it all the way to where they are now in their prison cells.

We focused one brigade, the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. And what we found is the murders you mentioned, but they were just sort of the tip of an iceberg of violent crime. There’s been assaults. There have been rapes. There have been fights. There have been kidnapping. There’s just a — there’s a lot of things that happened back in town, and we wanted to follow up on what was causing this.

What we found is that this unit has been sent to what was the deadliest place in Iraq in 2004. They went to the Sunni Triangle around Ramadi. And then they came home after a year tour there, had a year off, and then they were sent to what became the next deadliest place, downtown Baghdad. Both times, they had an almost impossible task of putting down an insurgency with no clear enemy, and they took heavy, heavy casualties. This one brigade makes up almost half of the casualties at Fort Carson, even though it’s just a fraction of the population there. And then what we found is, when they came home, a lot of them, not surprisingly, had problems, emotional and mental problems, that came out of this combat.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, I’d like to go through some of these stories. It’s not only about what happened here in the streets of Colorado Springs in the United States, but it’s also the warning signs when these soldiers came home, family members who were pushing to get help for their loved ones. For example, talk about Anthony Marquez and his mother.

DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, Anthony Marquez joined the infantry when he was nineteen. He had always been a pretty good kid before that. He was captain of the football team and ran track. He joined the Army because he thought it looked cool. He did one tour in Ramadi, during which he saw several friends get killed. He was also wounded, himself, pretty severely. He was flown back to the United States, where he almost lost a leg from his wounds. He was personally decorated with a Purple Heart by President George Bush.

But then, when he came back to Colorado Springs to convalesce, he started having PTSD, and he wasn’t getting what he felt was effective treatment from Fort Carson. And so, he fell into a pattern of treating his PTSD by abusing the pain pills they were giving him for his leg.

His mother, who’s a police officer in Los Angeles, saw this odd behavior in him, that he was abusing pills, that he had terrible nightmares and rage, and also that he was always carrying a loaded weapon with him everywhere he went. She called his sergeant at Fort Carson, she told me, and she told them that he was a ticking time bomb and someone had to help him. And her sergeant basically told her, “Well, you know, there’s nothing I can do. If he doesn’t want to go get help, we can’t force him to get help.” But then, she told me, her sergeant started taunting her son, saying, “Hey, your mama called, and she says you’re going crazy.”

Well, eight months after this call is when he shot a Colorado Springs drug dealer over about an ounce of marijuana.

AMY GOODMAN: So, his mother called. She’s a cop. She sees the warning signs in her son. And not only don’t they do something about it, but his commanding officer starts to make fun of him that his mother had called.

DAVE PHILIPPS: And that’s something that’s fairly — I don’t know if I can say “typical” at Fort Carson, but it certainly wasn’t rare in these returning soldiers. There is a stigma, many people in the Army told me, against getting help for mental health, behavioral health issues. It’s seen as weak. It’s often seen as just an excuse to get out of the Army if you can’t hack it.

But even for soldiers who went against that stigma and did try to get help, there was not necessarily enough resources for them, especially early on in the war, when Marquez was injured in 2005. And not only that, but even if there were resources to help these soldiers, a lot of their lower-level commanders, sergeants primarily, wouldn’t give them the time to go and get help and often would make fun of them.

One of my soldiers that I talked to said he was — kept having thoughts about killing civilians in Colorado Springs, so he checked himself into a civilian mental hospital in Colorado Springs. When he got out a week later, he was ordered to come stand in front of his sergeant and be berated about what a liar he was.

AMY GOODMAN: And you also talked about Anthony Marquez getting honored by President Bush, and his sister, so disturbed at what had happened, refusing to meet the President.

DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, that’s true, but Anthony didn’t. He was sitting injured in his Army — in his bed in Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And he told me, “You know, I wasn’t mad at anybody. It was my job, and I had signed up for it.”

And that’s what I found with a lot of these soldiers that I talked to in prison. They actually, despite everything that has happened to them, they love the Army. Even though they’re — told me that combat really mentally messed them up, that they see it as absolutely what led them to their prison cells, what they told me is — a lot of them — is they’re mad that they screwed up and got caught for a crime, because if they could, they would go back and deploy again.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about, in the case of Marquez, how in Iraq he had used stun guns and that, ultimately, he used a stun gun repeatedly on this man before he killed him, back in Colorado Springs or back in the United States.

DAVE PHILIPPS: Right. When we started this story, which took about six months to report, we thought this would be a story of inadequate healthcare and civilian problems at home, or problems in the administration of the base at home that led to these guys falling through the cracks.

What we started to find when we talked to them in prison is that there were widespread — I guess you would call them violations of the rules of war. They start with some small things, like several soldiers I talked to used hollow-point bullets. These are bullets that people usually use for deer hunting that spread when they hit their target, and so they can damage more flesh. These are banned by international treaties, but a number of soldiers I talked to said that they were getting them sent from home through the mail and that while it wasn’t openly talked about, it was sort of something that they did without fear of retribution.

The other things that they were ordering from — getting through the mail include drugs, liquor, although people said that liquor was easy to get in Iraq, as well, but if you wanted good liquor, you’d get it mailed to you. They were also ordering stun guns, 500,000-volt stun guns, through the mail and getting them sent to them. And soldiers told me that a number of soldiers would carry them on raids. Now, this isn’t just one bad platoon. We talked to soldiers in multiple platoons in two battalions that reported the use of these stun guns.

It goes on from there. Soldiers talked to me about randomly shooting cars driven by civilians. They talked to me about interrogating suspected insurgents and dropping them off of bridges.

I want to stress here that we don’t know how widespread this is. This could be a severe minority, and certainly there are a lot of people in this brigade that probably, when they hear about this behavior, are disgusted with it. They’re honest, good people who are doing an almost impossible job.

But what these soldiers told me is they were stuck in an insurgency fight they were not trained for, where there was no clear enemy. The main killer of these soldiers in this brigade was, by far, the improvised explosive devices, essentially roadside bombs. They were getting blown up without ever getting to try and fight back at the people that were killing their friends. And so, what they told me is that this anger and distrust for the entire population just burgeoned, and they thought that anyone was a potential enemy. And so, that’s why you saw them lashing out at the civilian population.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Philipps is our guest, has written this remarkable two-part series for the Gazette

of Colorado Springs called "Casualties of War." Dave, tell us about Kenneth Eastridge.

DAVE PHILIPPS: When I first started this story, one of the things that the Army told me is, well, a lot of these guys had criminal records before. From my research, what I found was that Kenneth Eastridge was the only person who had a criminal background. When he was twelve years old, he and a friend were playing with his father’s antique shotgun, and he accidentally shot his friend in the chest and killed him. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to counseling. And since then, his mother said his record had been clean. He had to get a special waiver to get into the Army, which he found after calling twelve different recruiters. One finally let him in. And for the first two years of his Army career, he was a good soldier. He was decorated with good conduct and achievement medals. There’s no record that I found of any discipline problems.

When he came back from his first tour in Iraq, he started abusing drugs and alcohol. He told me he had had nightmares and paranoia. Like almost every soldier that I talked to, he always carried a loaded pistol with him everywhere he went. And he picked up a domestic violence felony charge for getting in a fight with his girlfriend and putting a gun in her face. Now, he was awaiting trial for that charge, when the Army sent him back to Iraq for a second time. He wanted to go. He voluntarily skipped out on his charge. But the Army has rules. They have to go through a checklist before they deploy all soldiers, and one of the things they must check off is whether they have any pending civilian felonies. If so, they can’t go. Someone, and I’m not sure who, checked that box and sent him anyway.

Now, all the things that he was doing — abusing drugs, anger issues, paranoia — were signs of PTSD. He probably should have gotten treatment. Instead, he got more combat exposure. They went to an absolutely terrible neighborhood of Baghdad called Al Dora, where his battalion at one point was losing a soldier a day to either the morgue or the hospital. And there he started to lose it, as he — that’s how he termed it.

I’ll tell you about three things that he told me he got officially disciplined for when he started to lose it.

First, he did a raid on a house, where he was searching for guns. And they did this all the time. They’re trying to take guns away from the insurgents. And when he started to find guns that the man there hadn’t told him about, he trashed the entire house, broke everything in it, stole the guns, kept them to sell. And he said he did this type of thing all the time, but that he got reported this time because the man whose house he raided was a well-connected man with friends in the United States government. And so, he was put on punitive guard duty back at the base. But he said that he would regularly go into civilians’ houses looking for guns, he would keep some of the guns that he found, sell them back to the Iraqi police, who would, he said, sell them back to the Shiite militia. He would also steal any prescription drugs that he found and cash. Now, that was the first time.

The second time he was disciplined, he was on another patrol, when they received fire from a nearby farmhouse. He fired about twenty grenades into the farmhouse, then went in and found a farmer there in a back room. He started asking the farmer who had fired on them, and the farmer said he didn’t know. So he shot one of the farmer’s dogs. When the farmer said he still didn’t know, he shot the farmer’s other dog. At that point, his lieutenant intervened and said, “Hey, you need to go sit in the truck and cool off.” When he walked out of the building, he killed the farmer’s entire herd of goats with his machine gun. Then he ordered a private to kill his two cows, and then he shot his horse. For that, he was put on guard duty again.

After that, he went on one more combat mission, where he was sitting in the large machine gun on top of a Humvee, guarding the street while his lieutenant and some other soldiers went to check out a building around the corner. Kenneth Eastridge told me that he just started shooting for no reason. It was a nice day on a civilian neighborhood street, and there were lots of people out and about, just barbecuing, playing soccer, things like that. When he started shooting, everybody rushed to their cars and tried to speed away, because they wanted to get away from the fire. He said there was a vehicle driving ban on, and so as soon as people got in their cars, he started panicking, because all he could think about is car bombs, and he started shooting cars left and right. He told me, over about thirty minutes, he shot something like 1,700 rounds from this large machine gun. I asked him how many people he thought he killed. He said, “Not that many. Maybe twelve.” He was court-martialed a short time later, but not for killing all those civilians. He was court-martialed for possession of drugs and disobeying orders.

Once he was court-martialed, the Army decided that he was no longer fit to be in Iraq, so they sent him back to Colorado Springs, where they kicked him out of the Army. So, essentially, they put this guy who they had trained to be a killer and who had obvious mental health problems back on the streets of Colorado Springs. And actually, right before they kicked him out, they had diagnosed him with PTSD, paranoia, severe depression and antisocial personality disorder. But they didn’t treat him. They just sent him free.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Kenneth Eastridge ends up — infantry specialist — now serving ten years in jail for accessory to murder, not for what happened in Iraq, but for the death of a man here in the United States. He said his kill rate in Iraq, is the number he killed, was eighty, and that was confirmed by his sergeant.

We only have a minute, because we’re then turning to the military. I’m sorry they couldn’t join you together on this broadcast. But, Dave Phillips, very quickly, the military says they’ve put in place a new regime at Fort Carson since that time, though yet another murder of a man in this unit — by a man in this unit. What are the concerns of the new regime? And we’ll put that to the military.

DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, I’ll let them answer that, but I would like to say, if you’d like to see this, read this, in more detail, and there are a lot of shocking details, you can read the “Casualties of War” series at gazette.com.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Philipps, I want to thank you for joining us. We’re going to go to break and come back, and we’ll be joined by a spokesperson from Fort Carson. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re working with Rocky Mountain PBS, as we go to Colorado Springs. We’re joined now by Colonel Jimmie Keenan. She’s the commander of the Evans Army Community Hospital in Colorado Springs, former chief of staff for the Army’s Warrior Care and Transition Office in Arlington, Virginia. Colonel Keenan entered the Army as a Nurse Corps Officer in July 1986, also joins us from Rocky Mountain in Pueblo, Colorado, the PBS station there.

We only have almost a minute to go, but your response to the — it’s really the list of atrocities that Dave Philipps has laid out, and how you’re dealing with this at Fort Carson?

COL. JIMMIE KEENAN: Thank you, Amy.

You know, these are tragedies, and what Dave Philipps was talking about are the wounds that we cannot see. And that is a very huge focus for us in the military, not only here at Fort Carson, but across the Department of Defense and the Army.

And what I will tell you that we are doing is that we are all working to reduce that stigma on seeking behavioral health. Behavioral health should be just like going to your doctor to get your blood pressure taken if you’re not feeling well. It is part of what we call our comprehensive total fitness. And so, what we are doing with our soldiers, as you know, we did stand up our Warrior Transition Units in June of 2007. They’ve been in place now a little over two years. We have increased at Fort Carson our behavioral health assets by over 40 percent just in the last year. And one of the things that we’re doing with soldiers before they deploy, like we did with 4-4, who just deployed to Afghanistan, is we’re providing them additional training on resiliency and how to cope with stress before they deploy, as well as during deployment and after they deploy.

Another key component here is the family. And when we go back and we talk with families, what we try to do with the families is encourage them to come in, because we want to train them to help us look —-

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Jimmie Keenan, we only have a few seconds.

COL. JIMMIE KEENAN: —- for those signs of when a soldier’s in trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: A few seconds, last comment?

COL. JIMMIE KEENAN: Yes?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Fort Carson.

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