In two shootings by Iraq vets, war stress blamed
One was a skinny 20-year-old discharged from the Army who couldn’t shake the piercing rat-a-tat-tat reminders of combat. The other, a decorated Marine family man whose job preparing bodies of U.S. soldiers for burial had caused clammy, restless nights.
Both home from duty in Iraq, they were on opposite ends of the country, but their stories have much in common.
In Las Vegas, Matthew Sepi was on his way to get a beer, but he tucked an assault rifle inside his black trenchcoat just in case. In Lawrence, Mass., Daniel Cotnoir brought out his 12-gauge shotgun. Both pulled the trigger. Now Sepi faces murder and attempted murder charges while Cotnoir is charged with attempted murder.
In the otherwise unrelated cases, family, friends and even law officers are looking to the influence of wartime horrors on the two veterans.
Flashbacks, nightmares, a struggle to reconnect to an old life — these are all signs of post-traumatic stress disorder that many soldiers suffer from. The Army’s surgeon general has said 30 percent of U.S. troops surveyed have developed stress-related mental health problems just months after returning home. A New England Journal of Medicine study found almost 1 in 6 soldiers showing symptoms of mental stress.
Sepi and Cotnoir both reportedly sought help. Some question whether the military is doing enough to aid soldiers.
Just 5-feet-3 and 120 pounds, Matthew Sepi was small but tough and disciplined, a great soldier, his old Army roommate said.
After joining the Army in May 2002, Sepi, a Navajo Indian, left for Iraq in April the following year. Along with his company from Fort Carson, Colo., the specialist was on the front lines, going on missions and raids and doing traffic control.
“Every day you’re trying to dodge `winning the lottery,'” said former Army Spc. Shay Price, Sepi’s roommate at Fort Carson. “It wasn’t a constant battle every day, but you know, it’s like a terrorist war. It’s very tactical out there. There’s no army to fight.”
If the grinding war bothered Sepi, he didn’t let on. He seemed fine and never mentioned any problems to his colleagues. But that was Sepi’s way. He kept his feelings to himself.
“I was with him every day,” said former Army Pfc. Justin Nelson, Sepi’s “battle buddy.” “Being with someone that long you never notice a slow, progressive change. You never know if they’re changing or not.”
When he was honorably discharged in May, Sepi eventually moved to Las Vegas and struggled to find a job. He worked as a day laborer, but told police that when a pallet fell to the ground, he was so bothered by it he could not function for an hour.
“He was nervous,” his sister Juli Sepi said from her Winslow, Ariz., home. “If there were loud noises he would definitely look around and make sure every area was secure. When I was with him, I slammed a door and he kind of was freaking out.”
His mother reportedly said her son sought counseling, but was put on a waiting list, though that could not be confirmed.
Sepi talked to his sister about the rundown neighborhood he lived in, how people would eye him in the alley by his apartment complex.
“He just didn’t feel safe,” she said.
On July 31, just after 1 a.m., with the temperature near 90 degrees, Sepi picked up his trenchcoat and assault rifle and made his way down the alley to a convenience store. A man and a woman said something to him, but he doesn’t remember what, Sepi told police. After drinking a beer, he walked back through the alley and saw the same couple.
They yelled for him to get out of the alley, he told police. What happened next is unclear, but Sepi claims the man fired a gun at him, so he pulled out his rifle and started shooting. In an ambush, that’s what he was trained to do, he said.
The woman, 47-year-old Sharon Jackson, was shot dead; 26-year-old Kevin Ratcliff was injured.
“Who did I take fire from?” Sepi asked a detective.
Police found a 9 mm pistol and three bullet casings in the alley, which they believe belonged to Jackson or Ratcliff. They haven’t said who they think fired first; Ratcliff has also said he fired in self-defense.
When police caught up to him, Sepi had gone back to his apartment for more ammunition, and loaded it and his rifle into his car.
“You walk around with a weapon in your hand every day, you get kind of accustomed to it,” Price said.
Two weeks after the Las Vegas alley shooting, in another place far removed from Iraq, another veteran snapped.
Daniel Cotnoir was just a boy of 5 or 6 when he began working in his father’s funeral home, at first dusting chairs in the sitting rooms, then learning how to embalm and eventually mastering restorative techniques.
He joined the Marines later than most. He was 27 when he enlisted, after his wife asked if there was anything he wished he’d done in his life. But Cotnoir quickly excelled, and the younger Marines looked up to him.
“He was very proud to be associated with the other veterans, with the other servicemen and women,” said Ben Ivone, a friend who met Cotnoir at bootcamp. “He was just very proud to be called a Marine.”
When he shipped off to serve in Iraq, his commanders decided to put Cotnoir’s mortuary skills to use.
He helped recover the remains of soldiers blown up by roadside bombs. He picked up body parts from battlefields and trained other Marines to do the same. He even helped cut down the burned bodies of civilian contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah — a scene that horrified the world.
When Cotnoir returned home last October to Lawrence, he went back to working in the funeral home and back to his wife and two daughters. Friends said he seemed a little quieter, but still the same nice guy who helped them plow their driveways and handed out toys at Christmastime to needy children.
He was even named “Marine of the Year” by the Marine Corps Times, a national award.
That was the surface. Cotnoir told longtime friend Shaun Hamilton he suffered from nightmares, shakes and cold sweats.
Sometimes in traffic, he looked at other drivers suspiciously.
“I just get a little jittery, a little nervous,” Cotnoir told The Boston Globe in November. “I try to take deep breaths and let it go and remember this is Lawrence. Car bombs don’t go off here.”
Then, just before 3 a.m. on Aug. 13, Cotnoir pointed a 12-gauge shotgun out his second-floor window and fired a single shot into a crowd of noisy revelers leaving a nightclub and a nearby restaurant. Witnesses said someone had thrown a bottle through Cotnoir’s window, shattering the glass, before Cotnoir fired.
Cotnoir, 33, known as a hard-working, straight-laced family man, told police he was afraid for his wife and two daughters, who were asleep in the house. He had complained repeatedly for six years about the noise from the weekend crowds. Last year, a shooting left three bullet holes in the side of his house.
Cotnoir’s lawyer said he meant the shot to be a warning to the crowd, but fragments from the blast ricocheted off concrete and struck Lissette Cumba, 15, and Kelvin Castillo, 20. Both have been released from the hospital.
Now Cotnoir’s friends and fellow Marines are rallying around him, calling the shooting an obvious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He was the person who went out and picked up the soldiers who got blown up,” said Bruce Reynolds, a friend who runs an auto repair shop next to Cotnoir’s funeral home. “I have sympathy for him.”
Cotnoir sought psychological counseling at a nearby veterans hospital, according to his lawyer, Robert Kelley.
Citing cases like those of Sepi and Cotnoir, along with numerous suicides and a bank robbery by Iraq veterans, some believe they need more help.
U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., has filed legislation that would require every returning veteran to undergo a thorough psychological and physical examination. Meehan also seeks to increase funding for treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If you look at how much money we’re spending in Iraq and the increase in the defense budget, surely a small portion of that could be used to take care of these kids coming back from Iraq,” Meehan said.
Part of the reason for the mental stress when soldiers return could be the nature of this war, in which U.S. troops aren’t fighting an army. Soldiers never know whether a civilian is the enemy. Troops rotate in and out of Iraq and return home to a country less accepting of the war.
“It’s one thing to hunker down in one area, but it’s another to move around to a new unsecured area all the time,” said staff Sgt. Robert Davis, a mental health technician with the Army’s 883rd Combat Stress Control Company, a unit that offers psychological counseling to troops on the front lines in Iraq.
“There’s anxiety, battle fatigue, lack of sleep and they’re miles from home. Any of those is difficult, but all of them together is bad,” Davis said.
David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University and expert in PTSD, said soldiers are immersed in a brutal environment, then just dumped back home among people who don’t understand.
“You have a society not prepared to deal with what these people have been through and done. It isolates them when they come back.”
Many are reluctant to seek help. Veterans worry that getting counseling could hurt their careers or alter relationships, said a study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
“A lot of the younger guys won’t do that,” said National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Nelson of Bloomingdale, N.Y. “They think it makes them into wimps.”
Nelson, who served in Iraq from February 2004 until last December after he was injured, suffers from PTSD and sees a psychologist once a week even though he’s leery of what people think of him.
“People see me coming out of the shrink’s office and say, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ I think about it. What would they say? What’s going through their minds?”
Even Cotnoir had talked about the stigma attached to asking for help.
“A lot of guys don’t want to ‘fess up to needing help because they want to get back to civilian life,” he told The (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune newspaper in November, about a month after he returned home.
“Of course, you don’t want to be labeled. You don’t want to be that guy under a bridge talking to a rock … because you’ve seen it in the Vietnam era. And you don’t want to be that guy walking around in a flak jacket.”
Even one of the victims is supporting Cotnoir.
“We both think he needs help, not jail,” Cumba’s mother, Naida Cumba, told The Eagle-Tribune.
Sepi’s friend Price agreed: “Maybe the system, maybe they need to get on the ball a little faster.”
Cotnoir is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation at a state hospital awaiting a Sept. 2 Lawrence District Court appearance. Sepi is in the Clark County, Nev., jail, awaiting an Aug. 26 Justice Court appearance, though prosecutors say they are looking at getting him into counseling.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Angie Wagner, AP’s Western regional writer, reported from Las Vegas. AP writer Denise Lavoie, who specializes in legal affairs coverage, reported from Lawrence, Mass.
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