After Iraq, the guilt of killing tears a life apart

War: `A very different man' returns from the battlefield, only to disappear from his base, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.

October 26, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - During the Iraq war, Pfc. Tyrone Roper became a combat star. By early April his Kevlar helmet bore three hand-drawn feathers, one for each of his confirmed kills. His buddies in the 101st Airborne Division praised his machine-gun prowess. He was the one they most wanted by their side in a firefight.

These days, Roper's battles are raging mostly inside his head. He was evacuated to the Army base here this summer after being found psychologically unfit. He says he is still racked by bad dreams, acute loneliness and punishing guilt over the killings he carried out for the U.S. Army.

Now Roper, 27 and a married father of two, is on the run. This month, days before he was to be released from the Army, he left his blue stucco rowhouse on the base, possibly headed to Texas, where his mother lives, or to Canada, where he was born. No one is sure where he went or why. But he has communicated by e-mail to The Sun in rambling, unpunctuated and uncapitalized messages about his pain.

"im feeling depressed i have nightmares a lot i get this feelings a lot and i never [had] them before the war," he wrote last week. "a lot has changed in my life [and] im a very different man."

"my nightmares," he wrote in a second e-mail, "are about what I did in the war." In yet another, referring to people he killed, he added: "yes i do feel guilty why i dont know."

Acknowledging the kill-or-be-killed mentality of soldiers in war, he wrote, "i know it [was] my friends or my self or them but i still feel guilty."

The Army has sent 478 soldiers home from the Iraq region for psychiatric reasons, said Medical Command spokesman Jaime Cavazos. And the Army is investigating the deaths of at least 11 soldiers as possible suicides, said Maj. Steve Stover, an Army spokesman.

To some experts, Roper's ordeal sounds like a haunting 30-year echo of the Vietnam War, which produced a group of Americans who struggled with what came to be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Though the military is smarter and more sensitive about the battered psyches of troops, no one has found a way to prevent the damage.

"My heart sinks when I hear this," said Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Boston, after learning about Roper's case. "He has severe psychological injuries. The details are not clear from the story, but you don't have to be Louis Pasteur to figure out that this guy has been injured."

Roper's mother, Margaret, figured it out as soon as she saw her son in July.

"They sent our boys over there for what - the sake of oil? - and these boys who came home can't function," she said in a telephone interview. "He was an emotional wreck; his life was ruined."

The first three kills

That hardly seemed possible April 1 on the outskirts of Najaf, Iraq, where Roper and others in Bravo Company got into a lengthy gun battle with snipers hiding in a warehouse on a balmy spring afternoon.

"E-mail my wife!" Roper, a soft-featured man, begged this reporter as soon as the shooting ended. Giddy, he wanted his wife, April, who was worrying about him back in Kentucky, to know that he had tasted combat.

The light infantry 101st Airborne did not play the most celebrated role in toppling Saddam Hussein's government. The Army's 3rd Infantry Division and units of the Marines saw heavier fighting as their tanks rolled toward Baghdad.

Most of the 101st was sent to shore up vital supply lines that had come under attack by pro-Hussein fedayeen fighters. The first stop for Roper's unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment, was Najaf, the holy Shiite city south of Baghdad.

Roper killed his first enemy hours after that initial contact with snipers. He was on a patrol that went to check the area again. The "squad automatic weapon," or SAW, that he carried can fire 800 bullets a minute, more than a dozen a second. Unlike the rifle most soldiers carry, it is fully automatic and can kill very quickly.

"Man with AK-47," Roper called to his superior upon spotting an enemy fighter.

"Then shoot him," his sergeant replied.

He did, and the man fell.

The next day, Roper was on a search-and-attack mission east of Najaf when the patrol spotted enemy fighters inside a building.

"There were men grabbing weapons," he said a few days later. "They had civilians trying to block us so we couldn't fire. All of a sudden, civilians were gone and there was this man by himself with an AK-47. I shot, and he dropped."

A similar scene played out later that day. When it was over, he had killed a third time.

Roper's tale dominated an April 11 Sun account exploring how soldiers mentally processed their killing of others. He said he ended up with eight kills before they sent him home.

When the total still stood at three, he said, he didn't immediately think much about the killings. That began to change as he pondered what he had done.

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