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Crime Linked To combat stress

Most of it is small-time stuff. But some of the allegations against Soldiers in the past three years have been serious. This month, police said a crime ring of Fort Carson Iraq war veterans was responsible for the deaths of two GIs.

The volume of military-related crime off-post is beginning to tax civilian law enforcement authorities. Felony El Paso County jail bookings for service members have jumped from 295 in 2005 to 471 so far this year. During that time, the number of Soldiers assigned to the post stayed about the same, around 17,500.

"It doesn't take a study to know the potential for problems is going to be there," said Colorado Springs police Sgt. Jeff Jensen, whose agency is girding for issues with nearly 4,000 Soldiers due back in the next three weeks. "It's huge. It affects us from all standpoints. The workload alone is increasing as the population increases."

Commanders at Fort Carson acknowledge that Soldiers coming home from a year in combat often have difficulty fitting into the society they went to Iraq or Afghanistan to defend.

It's hard to turn off some of the reactions that will save your life in combat, but which will lead to grief in a bar, said Nate Nugin, who oversees Fort Carson training programs for returning Soldiers.

"It's just about understanding they are back and what was necessary for them to do in the theater of operations doesn't translate well back here," Nugin said as he oversaw five days of mandatory classes for Soldiers who returned last week from Iraq with Fort Carson's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

The Army has experienced increases in some types of crime on post that aren't included in El Paso County statistics.

Last year, for instance, reports of thefts and domestic violence climbed over past years. This year, commanders point to some promising statistics, including a decline in drunken driving arrests on post to 200 this year -- the lowest level since 2004.

The prison of Iraq

Experts say the war can fundamentally change the Soldiers sent to fight it. The El Paso County Public Defender's Office this year began tracking the number of Soldiers it serves and found a disturbing trend among those accused of serious crimes.

"They did not have drug addictions before" the war, said Deputy Public Defender Sheilagh McAteer, who has been seeing more uniforms in her office in recent years. "They had no criminal histories before the war."

Fort Carson commanders say they consistently remind returning Soldiers that bad decisions are easy to make.

"There's 14 months of testosterone built up," said Capt. Tom Hanlon, a company commander in the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, recently back from Ramadi, Iraq.

Troops in Iraq live in the most controlled of environments outside the prison system. Except during combat -- when Soldiers must make splitsecond, life-or-death decisions -- they have few choices to make. Everything from how they dress to what they eat to how they can spend their free time is decided by the Army, for a year or more.

"You might be able to draw a correlation between someone coming out of prison," said Colorado Springs police Cmdr. Brian Grady. "We need to help them with re-entry and give them access to the services available in this community."

Coming home hurt

The problems are more complex than a few GIs tearing up the bar district on Tejon Street in drunken exuberance.

The Army knows an increasing number of Fort Carson combat veterans are coming home with war-related mental illnesses and brain injuries that can change their behavior.

Fort Carson doctors diagnosed 615 Soldiers in 2007 with post-traumatic stress disorder, up from 102 cases in 2003, when Soldiers started returning from their first tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the fifth straight year with an increase in the number of Soldiers being diagnosed with PTSD.

"You talk to some of these guys and you sense a lot of stress from the PTSD they bring home with them," said Magistrate Robert Erler, who presides over the El Paso County Domestic Violence Fast Track court. He said there has clearly been an increase in cases of violence involving Soldiers.

The Army is still trying to determine how many Soldiers suffer brain-damaging concussions caused by insurgent bombs and what the behavioral symptoms might be.

"The war has forced us to realize and understand the parts of the brain that are impacted deals with emotions and impulse control," McAteer said.

The public defender, who said she frequently sees Soldiers with bomb-caused brain injuries, thinks there's a link between the injuries and the crime.

"This is why we're seeing more and more domestic violence, child abuse, homicides and drug cases," she said.

Watching for signs

Every Soldier at Fort Carson and hundreds of family members have been trained this year to spot signs of PTSD and brain injury. Every returning Soldier is repeatedly screened for problems, and those who need help get it quickly, commanders say.

"The earlier you can find something, the easier it is to treat," said Maj. Sean Ryan, the 2nd Brigade's spokesman.

But the Army struggles with undiagnosed PTSD and brain-injury cases, some say, because it's tough for Soldiers to admit something is wrong.

"A lot of times they're taught as officers and Soldiers to be strong and stand firm," said Colorado Springs police Lt. Fletcher Howard. "We as a society need to say to ourselves, 'These people have been through a heck of a lot and need help processing what they've gone through.'"

Howard oversees a training program where officers learn how to deal with people who have PTSD issues, as well as other mental illnesses. A professional actor comes to the classes and plays an Iraq veteran suffering PTSD.

"We teach our officers to use verbal judo to talk a person down, without them, or anyone else, getting hurt," Howard said.

Most Soldiers who are mentally ill or have brain damage remain law-abiding, Fort Carson and police officials said. And even for mentally ill troops who break the law, there are no free passes.

"We can also see where that becomes a crutch, an excuse for them to act any way without being held responsible," said Jensen, who heads the CSPD homicide unit that has investigated the recent killings in which Soldiers are accused.

Hanlon said his focus is teaching his troops to transition from the day-to-day mentality of war to the long-term thoughts they can allow themselves only back home.

Too much of the trouble, from frivolous spending to drunkenness, comes from Soldiers living only for the moment, he said. "I'm trying to convince them to be patient," he said.

CRIMES LINKED TO CARSON VETERANS

Here are some notable criminal cases involving Iraq war veterans stationed at Fort Carson.

- Colorado Springs police allege two veterans from the same platoon are tied to a crime ring that could be responsible for the homicides of two Soldiers. Spc. Kevin Shields was shot to death and his body was found Dec. 1. Pfc. Robert James was also shot to death. His body was found in a car parked in a Lake Avenue bank parking lot in August. The suspects are: Louis Bressler, 24, who was discharged and complained of suffering from PTSD; Pfc. Bruce Bastien Jr., 21; and Soldier Kenneth Eastridge, who was an infantry rifleman. Authorities have charged or plan to charge all three with homicide, court records show.

- Former Soldier Anthony Marquez, 23, admitted Thursday he shot and killed a 19-year-old Widefield resident and suspected drug dealer Oct. 22, 2006, during a robbery attempt. Marquez's public defenders attempted to introduce PTSD as a possible defense, but dropped the effort when a judge ruled against them, court records show. According to the plea agreement, Marquez will spend 30 years in prison when he is sentenced in February.

- Pueblo police last month arrested Spc. Olin "Famous" Ferrier, 22, on suspicion of shooting taxi driver David Chance, 52, on Oct. 30. No charges have been filed.

- Former Pfc. Johnathon Klinker, 22, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in July for killing his 7-week-old daughter, Nicolette. Klinker blamed the baby's October 2006 death, in part, on "war-related stress."

- Former Pvt. Timothy Parker of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, was convicted by court martial of manslaughter for beating Spc. Piotr Szczypka to death in a November 2005 fight at an apartment complex near the base. Both men had been drinking before Parker hit Szczypka with a fireplace poker, trial testimony showed. Parker was sentenced to seven years in a military prison.

- Nine days after 2nd Brigade Combat Team Pfc. Stephen S. Sherwood, 35, came home from Iraq in August 2005, he drove to Fort Collins and shot and killed his wife of seven years, Sara E. Sherwood, 30. The Soldier, described by his commanders as a hero who fought bravely in Iraq, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.



Down Range - To Iraq and Back
by Bridget Cantrell, Ph.D. and Chuck Dean

An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping
by Ashley B., II Hart


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