Not long after he returned to Fort Carson, Bressler ran into Bruce Bastien. The two knew each other from Dora, where they had engaged in epic Halo battles at FOB Falcon. A scrawny kid, Bastien claimed to be from the South Bronx and bragged about getting "jumped" into the notorious Latin Kings street gang. He threw hand signs, called his platoon mates "dawg" and liked to quote gangsta rap. But it was all an act. Bastien grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, a wealthy suburb north of New York. His father, a computer expert at a small liberal-arts college, shipped him elaborate care packages in Iraq, including a set of 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets that Bastien lovingly wrapped around the ratty foam chunks that soldiers picked up off the street and used as mattresses. "It was obvious he was a poseur," says Robert Forsythe, Bastien's roommate.
Trained as an Army medic, Bastien expected he would wind up "chilling in a hospital somewhere." Instead, he was assigned to Charlie Company and shipped to Dora, where he had a tough time adjusting to the rigors of combat. On patrol, he complained that his medic's bag was too heavy; sometimes he simply forgot to bring it along. Once, he patched up a sergeant while sitting on his wounded leg. Even though medics tend to command respect in the military, Bastien's fellow soldiers didn't think much of him. "I wouldn't trust Bastien to put a Band-Aid on someone," says Sgt. Michael Cardenaz, who served in Charlie Company.
That spring, Bastien hatched a plan to get shipped home early: He would get injured in a way that would make it impossible for him to work as a medic. On a late-night patrol, he snuck off into a field with Eastridge, who was known as the best shot in all of Charlie Company. Eastridge steadied a .380-caliber pistol he'd stolen from a dead Iraqi, fired at Bastien's arm — and missed. "The bullet went through his uniform just above his bicep," says Forsythe. "If he had gotten hit, he could have been killed, or lost the use of his arm completely. Bastien came back to the barracks laughing about it." In May 2007, Bastien flew home to Fort Carson for a scheduled two-week leave, and promptly got himself arrested for beating up his wife. Though the charge was later dropped, it kept him from returning to battle. "We knew he wasn't coming back to Iraq," Cardenaz says.
Other than a love for Halo, Bressler and Bastien had little in common. "They didn't even like each other in Iraq," says Eastridge, who recalls the two men getting into a fight in their barracks. But now, unable to rejoin his buddies, Bressler was desperate to hang out with anyone he could connect with over Iraq. "I'd get lonely while Tira was at work," he says. "I felt like I knew the guy. I was like, 'Hey, wanna get a drink?'"
Within a week, the soldiers would forge a bond that ran deeper than video games: getting wasted. Though Bressler had been only an occasional drinker and smoker before his second tour, he was now downing almost a fifth of Jack Daniel's a day, and burning through $20 bags of weed with Bastien at almost the same clip. "He would call me at work to say he was staying out all night with Bastien," says Tira. "Then he would come home so drunk, he just passed out."
Tira hated Bastien on sight. "He was really cold and secretive," she says. "He was always whispering something in Louis' ear." She told Bressler to stay away from him. "If ever there was a moment she was right, that was it," Bressler says now. "Everybody knew he was a bad guy, but somehow I didn't."
Bressler, twitchy and unable to sleep more than two hours a night, began carrying Tira's .38 revolver with him whenever he left the house. He stopped going to his weekly required appointments with his psychiatrist — but, according to Bressler, no one from the base bothered to follow up with him. "As soon as he stopped showing up at Evans, someone should have been knocking on that guy's door and escorting him to the hospital," says Cole, the former chief of social work. "That's what commanders get taught to do." (Officials at Fort Carson, citing patient confidentiality, declined to discuss Bressler's medical care.)
A month after Bressler returned from Iraq, he phoned his friend David Nash, who had left the Army before the unit's second tour and was living in Texas. Nash asked why Bressler was home early: "He told me he went crazy. I thought he was kidding." But the more Bressler talked, the more Nash recognized the change. Bressler, the guy who once played the mediator, calming his fellow soldiers, was now acting like some kind of badass. "He was hella volatile," says Nash. "He seemed like a blasting cap. He said to me, 'Hey, man, come up here. We'll go knock some motherfuckers out.'"
For the past several years, David Foy, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University, has been engaged in a study on the "spiritual consequence" of participating in war. Until now, surprisingly, very few researchers have examined how war affects a soldier's sense of morality or tried to quantify it. What Foy and his colleagues have found is that specific kinds of wartime experiences — notably the unintentional killing of civilians and the failure to save others from being killed — can cause "moral injury" to a soldier, as well as psychological trauma. The complex manifestations of PTSD — jumpiness, rage, sadness — are compounded by what Foy calls "changes in one's ability to perceive themselves as capable of acting in a morally appropriate way." Men who return from combat, he says, often see themselves as "damaged goods."
By the time Bressler returned home, he had lost the moral guideposts that defined his identity as a soldier. His rage became obsessive, only intensified by drugs, alcohol and little, if any, sleep. One of the defining elements of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wide-scale sleep deprivation, which can last for months after soldiers return home — particularly for those who suffer from PTSD. "Nightmares or intrusive memories get them all wound up, and this can be self-sustaining," says Dr. Jonathan Shay, one of the nation's foremost experts on post-traumatic stress. "As a result, you see these kids become moral morons. A lot of the bad behavior — the violence, the anger — is due to the shutting down of the frontal lobe. Add alcohol, and they become functionally sociopathic."
On the last Friday of July 2007, Bressler and Bastien spent the night as they often did, getting stoned and drunk at Bastien's apartment. Then, around 3 a.m., Bastien's wife came home, clearly shaken up. She told them a group of men had chased her home. "I wanted to beat them up," Bastien says. "I turned to Louis and said, 'Come on, let's go find them.'" He and Bressler set out in Bastien's Audi. Near the entrance to the apartment complex, they pulled up next to the first guy they saw, Matthew Orrenmaa, a fellow soldier who was on his way to get gas for his truck.
"Hey, man," Bressler shouted at him. Pulling a .45-caliber semiautomatic out of Bastien's glove compartment, he pointed at Orrenmaa and fired. As Bastien slammed his foot on the gas, Bressler, according to police, squeezed off two more rounds, wounding Orrenmaa in the shoulder.
The following Saturday, after another night of drinking and smoking weed, the two friends left Bastien's apartment at one in the morning to buy a pack of cigarettes. At a stoplight, they came across a drunken young soldier named Robert James, who explained that he had gotten lost trying to get back to Fort Carson. Bressler and Bastien offered to give him a ride.
Before long, they were driving through Broadmoor, an upscale neighborhood of Colorado Springs. As they rolled along the winding streets, Bastien blasted Disturbed and Slaves on Dope while Bressler lit up a joint. Then Bressler pulled out his wife's .38 and began waving it in James' face.
"How much money you got?" Bressler demanded.
"I don't want any problems. Here," James said, throwing $20 over the front seat. "Take my money."
Spotting a bank, Bastien pulled into the parking lot, where the friends apparently planned to make James withdraw more money from the ATM. "Just leave me here," James pleaded. "I won't say anything."
"Fuck that," Bressler said, forcing James out of the back seat. According to police, Bressler then shot James point-blank in the neck. After James fell, Bressler stood over the body and emptied three more bullets into his face and neck.
The next morning, not long after detectives arrived at the scene of the murder, police showed up at Bastien's apartment a few miles away, responding to a domestic-disturbance call. After the shooting, Bastien had come home in a rage and thrown his wife into a wall. When Bastien made bail that afternoon, he and Bressler bought pot with the money stolen from James, then spent the rest of the day at Bastien's place playing Call of Duty.
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