Then, on May 30th, Bressler's platoon was ordered to raid an insurgent hide-out in Iskan, a Sunni neighborhood that served as a transit hub for Al Qaeda. "The place was terrifying," says Sgt. Frank Stepleton. "As soon as you went in there they would hit you with RPGs, grenades, IEDs. There were snipers everywhere." Around 11 that night, Bressler's squad took up positions on a hill above the neighborhood while other soldiers began filing into a courtyard on the street below. Suddenly, two men toward the rear of the unit were hit with rounds from a high-powered SK machine gun. One of them was Bressler's close friend Matt Baylis, who lay on the ground, severely wounded in the neck and chest. In the chaos that followed, company medics fought their way to Baylis, and, with Bressler's help, loaded him into the back of a Humvee. Taking the wheel, Bressler raced to the Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone. "Hold on," Bressler kept telling his friend. "You're gonna make it."
Baylis died at the hospital the next morning. Bressler was devastated — and angry. Back at FOB Falcon, the brigade's sprawling base on the outskirts of Dora, he couldn't believe that his superiors had sent them right into an ambush. "I wish I had been in his place," Bressler thought. "He didn't deserve to die for something that stupid." As Baylis' death sunk in, Bressler was increasingly plagued by dark thoughts. He kept having the same nightmare, night after night: Baylis standing alone in an empty green tent in the middle of the desert. Each time, even though he knows what's coming next, Bressler walks into the tent and tells Baylis that he's dead. And each time, Baylis asks him why. "I don't know why," Bressler says. "I don't know what to tell him."
At the advice of one of his sergeants, Bressler saw a doctor with the unit's combat-stress team. Once there, he found himself talking for the first time about his father's death. He was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — and sent on his way with a pocketful of antidepressants and a sleeping medication called Remeron. "I took half of one of those sleeping pills," he recalls. "It knocked me out for a day and a half."
Over 20 months of combat, Bressler had always prided himself on keeping a strong mental attitude. "You hear a lot of people talking about how sometimes it sucks, being out in the field for two weeks at a time," he says. "But I loved the work — I never got bored with it." He tried to hide his symptoms — the mounting panic, the recurring nightmare — but other soldiers began to notice. "It looked like he had tears welling up in his eyes all the time," says Ryan Krebbs, a company medic. "He seemed really distant. Like he was just gone." One night, as Bressler was getting drunk with Krebbs and Eastridge on base, another soldier challenged him to a fight. "Louis got his face smashed in bad," Krebbs recalls. "He lost a fair fight, but afterward he was steaming. He wanted to find the guy and fuck him up."
One afternoon a few days later, as he was returning from patrol, Bressler felt even more disoriented than usual. He couldn't concentrate on basic tasks; he couldn't remember what he had just done. He approached his sergeant and told him that something was seriously wrong.
"Get your head out of your ass," the sergeant said.
"I went crazy," Bressler told a fellow soldier. Screaming and yelling, he threw a punch at the sergeant before several soldiers rushed in and tackled him. He was zip-cuffed, confined to the medical clinic on base for several days, then medevaced to an Army hospital in Germany. In June 2007, he was sent home to Fort Carson, where Tira picked him up at the airport. They went to a restaurant, but Bressler was so twitchy that he couldn't sit through dinner. For the next few weeks he holed up in their one-bedroom apartment, unable to do much more than sleep and eat. Tira would return from work and find him sitting on the couch, staring into space. In an attempt to get him out of the house one afternoon, she took Louis to Walmart, but the crowds sent him into a panic, and he rushed out of the store.
By the time Bressler was ordered to report to the hospital at Fort Carson in June, mental-health casualties had begun pouring into the base from the war. That year, the behavioral-health unit at Evans diagnosed 750 soldiers with PTSD, up from just 26 in 2002, and each month the department's fourth-floor reception area was packed with some 1,200 patients. Wounded veterans often waited three hours for a 20-minute visit with doctors, who invariably prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft. Soldiers called it "cookie-cutter treatment."
The unit was operating with just two-thirds of its required staff, leaving its handful of psychiatrists and social workers to deal with a full-blown crisis. "We were seeing guys who were so angry that they had cut their dog's throat out because he was barking at two in the morning," says Justin Cole, the hospital's former chief of social work. "But we didn't have enough staff to treat them." On more than one occasion, doctors sent a patient in need of serious treatment off with Zoloft on a Friday, only to receive a call from the morgue on Monday: The soldier had committed suicide.
Despite his condition, Bressler hoped to rejoin his unit in Iraq. But only three days after he arrived at Fort Carson, during his first psychiatric visit, the doctor informed him that he was being processed out of the Army. "There was no choice," Bressler recalls. "He said, 'You're going to be medically discharged whether you agree with me or not.'" The decision had little to do with Bressler's condition and more to do with a new base policy: In a memo written shortly before Bressler returned to Fort Carson, Dr. Stephen Knorr, the then-chief of mental health at Evans, had instructed the staff to discharge vets suffering from mental injuries as quickly as possible. Troubled soldiers bring down platoons, Knorr believed, and units should not be left short of manpower while waiting for seriously ill soldiers to receive treatment. As Knorr put it in the memo, "Get rid of dead wood."
Over the next few weeks, as Bressler was prescribed an assortment of medications that did little but knock him out, he remained racked with guilt over Baylis' death. But he refused to talk about the war with his psychiatrist, an Army officer who had never seen combat. "I tried to once, but it was like I was speaking in a foreign language," Bressler recalls. "He didn't understand what the hell I was saying."
During the five months it took for the paperwork to go through on his medical discharge, Bressler rarely visited the battalion he was assigned to at Fort Carson. One minute he had been in Iraq, surrounded by men he considered brothers; the next he was back at home, drugged up and with nothing to do. "The military shapes kids in ways they wouldn't otherwise have been shaped," says Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and clinical psychiatrist who serves as medical adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "All of a sudden that experience, that support group, that entire identity is ripped out of them. How are they going to handle that?" At the moment Bressler needed the order and stability of the military the most, he suddenly found himself an outcast. "I felt worthless," he says. "I wasn't allowed to do anything, and all those guys were in Dora without me."
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