Asked to Serve Again, a Soldier Goes Down Fighting
May 27, 2007, HOLLYWOOD, MARYLAND – The sniper fired. It was a clean shot, if there is such a thing. And down for good fell another American soldier.
His name was Sergeant James Dean, but everyone called him Jamie. He was the farm boy who fished, hunted and tossed a horseshoe like nobody else. He was the guy at the end of Toots Bar, nursing a Bud and talking Nascar. He was the driver of that blue Silverado at the red light, his hands on the wheel, his mind on combat horrors that made him moody, angry, withdrawn.
Now here he was, another American soldier, dead. Only Sergeant Dean was killed at the front door of his childhood home, the day after Christmas and three weeks before his redeployment, shot by a sniper representing the government for whom he had already risked his life in Afghanistan. His wife and parents received the news not by a knock on the door, but by gunfire in the neighborhood.
“If they had just left him alone,” says his wife, Muriel.
In the summer of 2001, weeks before Sept. 11, Jamie stunned his family by enlisting in the Army; he was 23. A woman had just broken his heart, yes, but he explained that he wanted to experience life beyond installing air conditioners in confining St. Mary’s County. And his younger sister, an Air Force medic, had been talking up the military.
From April 2004 to April 2005, Jamie served in Afghanistan, far from the Chesapeake Bay. Now and then he’d talk to family members by telephone. “Just, ‘Hi, I’m fine,’ ” his mother, Elaine, says. “Or, ‘It sucks here.’ ”
Jamie came back quieter in the summer of 2005, with “DEAN” tattooed on his upper back and a cobra tattooed on his muscle-defined arm. But he kept private any changes beneath the skin, his mother says. “ ‘You don’t want to know, Mom,’ he would always say.”
One night at Toots, while drinking a beer, he met a woman named Muriel whose bluish-green eyes entranced him. The couple became inseparable, cobbling together a family that included her two children, three dogs and a cat. Muriel’s good for Jamie, people said, even without knowing how she was nudging him to get counseling for nightmares so bad they would both wake up soaked in sweat.
“The patient states he feels very nervous, has a hard time sleeping, feels nauseous in the a.m., and loses his temper a lot, ‘real bad,’ ” reported a Veterans Affairs evaluation from December 2005. “Was nearby an explosion that destroyed an Humvee with four G.I.’s killed in front of his eyes.”
“The patient is tired of feeling bad,” it said.
Jamie was prescribed some medication that did not seem to work at first. (“Cries for no reason,” said a report in February 2006.) His doctor adjusted the prescription.
Things got better, it seemed. Jamie returned to air-conditioning work. He donned a white tuxedo and married Muriel in a summer ceremony at the Elks Lodge. He sang some country-western karaoke and talked about getting his wife to go deer hunting.
A few days after Thanksgiving, a FedEx truck delivered an envelope to the Dean farm just as Jamie was about to go hunting. It was a form letter of redeployment, as impersonal as a bank statement.
“It was downhill after that,” Muriel says.
He withdrew from the present, it seemed. He drank more, and took his medication less. Finally, on Christmas Day, he and Muriel returned from a family gathering with plans to watch his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys, on television. He went out to buy some beer — but went to Toots Bar instead.
She called him, and he came home, livid. He smashed some glasses, said something about winding up in a body bag, and sped away in his Silverado. He wound up at the family home, alone, talking on a cellphone with his sister, Kelly, saying things like: “I just can’t do it anymore.”
When his sister heard a gunshot, she called 911. The deputy sheriffs arrived at the isolated farmhouse around 10 p.m. and quickly determined that Jamie was drunk, agitated and carrying a shotgun. He told the deputies to back off.
Based on something a family member had said, the police knew that Jamie had other shotguns in the house, but they mistakenly believed he was an Army Ranger. “Rambo,” his mother says ruefully.
At 4:19 in the morning, the police shot dozens of tear-gas canisters, smashing the windows in front of Jamie’s horseshoe trophies, piercing walls decorated with garland. Several minutes later, Jamie fired shotgun pellets in the general direction of a police car parked at least 50 yards away. Then he sat down on the back porch.
A situation in which an armed man was in his own house, alone and a threat to no one but himself, had now escalated into a military action. On the ground, men with guns; in the sky, the whop-whop of helicopters. Now and then, Jamie would respond to some movement or sound with a shot into the ground or into the air.
Around noon, two negotiators pulled up to a family friend’s garage, where Jamie’s loved ones were cloistered a half-mile away. His wife was pacing. His mother was bracing herself. His father, Joey, was staring into the woods.
The negotiators asked them to say gentle things to Jamie into a tape-recorder. Muriel remembers calling him baby, saying she loved him and asking him to come on out.
At 12:25, a negotiator talked briefly by telephone to Jamie, who indicated he might come out; “I’m going home,” he said. Then the police cellphone’s battery died.
At 12:34, Jamie was reached again by telephone, but the volume was low and the negotiator could not make out what was being said.
At 12:45, the police cut power to the house and began shooting more tear gas through the front and the back of the house.
At 12:47, an armored vehicle called a Peace Keeper pulled up to the house. Jamie opened the front door and, according to the police, pointed his 20-gauge shotgun at the vehicle. A state police sniper, positioned in a garage 70 yards away, took aim.
Later, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police would say the department was reviewing its actions, but would refer to a statement by its superintendent, Col. Thomas E. Hutchins, in which he said that Sergeant Dean bore “sole responsibility.” The police could not walk away, the colonel had said, because the soldier had the potential to do harm to himself or to others.
Later, Richard D. Fritz, the state’s attorney for St. Mary’s County, would criticize the state police as using tactics that were “progressively assaultive” and “most unfortunate.” In the end, he would say, this paramilitary operation was “directed at an individual down at the end of a dark road, holed up in his father’s house, with no hostages.”
And later, the Dean family would be left with the mess of absence. Jamie’s blood on the cream-colored carpet. The dozens of holes in the walls. The family photo albums that still carry the whiff of tear gas, burning the eyes.
But at that moment, in the early afternoon of the day after Christmas, they heard the gunfire in the distance, and they knew another American soldier had fallen.