Spurred by public outrage, the Army conducted a six-month study into the Fort Carson killings, examining the medical and combat histories of the 14 accused soldiers. Like Bressler, nine of the vets served in the 4th Brigade Combat Team, which suffered a casualty rate in Iraq eight times higher than other Fort Carson units. The Army's 126-page report, released in July, marked the first time the military has ever acknowledged the significance of combat in the behavior of returning veterans. There is, according to the report, a "possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes." But in classic bureaucratic language, the study fell short of calling for any real specific action beyond a need for more studies.
"We don't have enough data yet to determine any cause-and-effect relationships," Maj. Gen. Mark Graham told me before stepping down as commander of Fort Carson in August. "And even if you could identify high-risk soldiers, what are you going to do? Lock them up? What you have to do is watch their behavior."
In fact, that's exactly what Fort Carson failed to do. The story of how a once-promising infantryman like Louis Bressler wound up in prison for taking part in two murders reveals as much about the Army's negligence as it does about Bressler's mental decline. Despite the heavy fighting seen by their troops, the base's commanders were completely unprepared to treat and monitor soldiers suffering from severe combat trauma. A third of all staff positions in the behavioral-health unit at the post's medical center, Evans Army Community Hospital, were left unfilled in 2007, at a time when the base was experiencing an all-time high in PTSD cases. Soldiers suffering from serious delusions were often sent off with a handful of pills and never returned for additional treatment. In one case, a mentally disturbed vet who imagined himself to be an "alien dinosaur-like creature" allegedly raped and killed a teenager after reportedly being declared fit for duty by a Fort Carson psychiatrist.
"It's no surprise that these murders happened at Fort Carson, as opposed to another Army base," says Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The failures of leadership we've seen there border on dereliction of duty."
When Bressler enlisted in the Army in February 2003, right before the start of the Iraq War, he was looking for a way to make something of himself. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he had enjoyed a testosterone-fueled childhood, racing dirt bikes, snowboarding, surfing — "anything to get our adrenaline going," recalls his younger brother, Drew. Both boys idolized their father, a car salesman who had been a Marine in Vietnam. "Our dad was the biggest, baddest dude," says Drew. "We wanted to be just like him." Determined that his sons learn how to survive in the wilderness, Louis Sr. taught them to light fires, eat bugs and skin a snake. Believing that fighting builds character, he also encouraged them to settle their disputes with their fists. "They had some epic bouts," recalls Bressler's half brother, Ed. "They would be hitting each other in the face like perfect strangers."
Never a diligent student, Bressler was the laid-back goofball in the family, the kid who once put lizards on his ears as earrings — until the lizards bit him. He dropped out of high school and tried his hand selling cars — but quit after six months and eventually joined the Army. "All he really wanted was to please our father," says Ed. "He thought if he couldn't please him by working as a car dealer, he would please him by being in the military."
In August 2004, Bressler's unit was deployed to Iraq, where he ran missions along Route Michigan, a 4.5-mile stretch of highway west of Baghdad that soldiers called the "Corridor to Hell." Despite the ambushes and the constant threat of roadside bombs, Bressler loved being an infantryman. He thrived on the order and precision of the military, and proved himself to be a top marksman. "We had great hopes for Louis," Lt. Nate Stone, Bressler's platoon leader, later reported. "He had a future in the Army."
Like his father, Bressler didn't talk about the horrors of combat. "I did my job," he told his brother after one ambush, explaining how he was ordered by his sergeant to "take out anything that moves." Soldiers in Charlie Company saw it all: exploding trucks, severed limbs, men burned alive, their skin bubbling and sliding off their bones. One day, a 19-year-old company medic blew his brains out with his sidearm in the Porta-John; another day the unit's beloved staff sergeant was killed by a car bomb. For Bressler, though, the worst moment came in January 2005, when his father died of skin cancer. He had been granted an emergency leave to visit his dad in North Carolina a month earlier, but now, unable to return home for the funeral, Bressler was so distraught he considered going AWOL. Instead, he tattooed his father's name on his back, one soldier's memorial to another.
That August, when Bressler returned home from his first tour, he seemed changed for the better. "He was a lot calmer, a lot more disciplined," Drew recalls. "He knew every detail about every Army regulation, every position, every weapon. Being a soldier just clicked with him." While many of his fellow soldiers had difficulty adjusting to life back home, Bressler seemed to take things in stride. "Everybody was drinking, getting into fights in bars," says David Nash, a private who served with Bressler in Iraq. "People were at the boiling point." Bressler would step in and play the mediator. "Calm down," he told his friends as they started training for a second tour of duty after only a month back home. "We'll all go back to Iraq, and we'll shine again."
That winter, while partying at the Rum Bay club, Bressler met a 22-year-old nursing student named Tira Brown. "I was a bitch to him, but he kept hanging around," says Tira, who grew up in a hardscrabble town in West Texas. "He would cook me dinner and rub my feet." They both loved guns, and often went on dates at a local shooting range. Tira even liked his friends, guys like Matt Baylis, an affable young private from Long Island whom Bressler had taken under his wing. "Louis was the type of boyfriend I always wanted," Tira says. The pair eloped — but not before Bressler asked for her parents' permission.
Though Bressler tried to shrug off the combat he saw in Iraq, he began to exhibit disturbing behavior that only worsened as his second deployment drew near. "He didn't want to go back," says Tira. One night, she awoke to find Bressler on the floor, shaking; he told her he'd been "fighting off a demon." The day his unit left for Iraq — a year after returning from their first tour — he told Tira not to bother seeing him off. "He said he didn't want me to miss my class," she says.
If Bressler's first tour of duty in Iraq made him a soldier, the second turned him into a casualty. This time around his unit was deployed to Dora, a ghost town of mud and trash and weeds in southwest Baghdad. Once a prosperous neighborhood that had been home to Sunni, Shiite and Christian families, it had been destroyed by the civil war that erupted in the spring of 2006. That summer, insurgent activity in the area had become so intense — 425 Iraqis were killed in Dora during a single week in July — that soldiers say the Army brigade in charge of the neighborhood quit running patrols through most of it.
Bressler arrived in October 2006, a few months before the start of the surge. "By the end of that first week, everyone realized it was going to be a lot tougher than our first tour," he says. Instead of hiding makeshift bombs under mounds of dirt, where they could be easily detected, Iraqi insurgents were now burying them deep beneath the roads. A sergeant in Bressler's unit was killed and nearly decapitated by an IED fashioned out of a 155mm artillery shell and 100 pounds of explosives. In June 2007, a Charlie Company patrol was hit by an IED so powerful that it killed five soldiers and wounded seven. It was the single deadliest attack of the war for soldiers from Fort Carson.
By that point, with its yearlong tour extended by another three months, Charlie Company was starting to fall apart. Two platoons — about 60 men — were running through hundreds of Army-issued sleeping pills every week, according to company medics. Bressler would call his wife, freaking out. "He was jittery all the time," Tira recalls. "I tried to calm him down, but a few hours later, he would call back in a total panic." Even so, that spring Bressler signed up for another four years in the military. However fucked up it was, he considered the Army home.
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