Nov 16, VCS in the News: Deadly Iraq War Duty for Soldiers from Fort Carson

Denver Post

Fort Carson has sent thousands of troops into action overseas. But nine may have brought too much of the war home with them and have been linked to violent crimes.

November 16, 2008, Colorado Springs, Colorado — Erica Ham was walking to a bus stop, heading for work as a nursing-home housekeeper, when a car struck her from behind.

Three men jumped out. “Get on the ground!” one with a gun ordered. Another stabbed her repeatedly, puncturing a lung and slitting her left eyelid. Police found her unconscious but alive, her cellphone at her ear.

Matthew Orrenmaa was shot as he walked to get gas for his truck, Zachary Szody as he talked with a friend in front of a Colorado Springs house. Cesar Ramirez-Ibanez and Amairany Cervantes were gunned down as they posted a garage-sale sign. Kevin Shields was shot to death on his 24th birthday, Robert James for the cash in his wallet, Jonathan Smith in an attempted robbery, Sara

Sherwood by a husband who then killed himself. Judilianna Lawrence was murdered by a rapist who slit her throat. Jacqwelyn Villagomez was beaten to death.

The victims had just one thing in common: The men accused of attacking them all went to war in Iraq with the same Fort Carson unit, the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.

In three years, nine men from that single 3,700-soldier Army brigade have been charged in 10 murders and attempted homicides, all but two in or around Colorado Springs. Some of the attacks appear frighteningly random; victims were shot and stabbed by men they had never seen before. Four of the victims — Orrenmaa, Szody, Shields and James — also served at Fort Carson.

Of the accused, one had been sent home early from Iraq with mental-health problems. Another had been hospitalized with post-traumatic stress disorder. Another had become addicted to painkillers prescribed for his wounds.

Another had been allowed to enlist despite a juvenile record of killing a 12-year-old boy with a shotgun. He was sent to a second tour in Iraq despite a head injury and a felony charge of threatening his girlfriend with a gun. Even after he was court-martialed for threatening officers, the Army let him go with a “serious misconduct” discharge and no mental-health care.

The string of killings has drawn the attention of the Pentagon, and an investigation has been ordered by Maj. Gen. Mark Graham at Fort Carson to determine what, if anything, the Army could have done to prevent the off-post killings and attacks.

While that is underway, soldier advocates and families of the victims are asking questions of their own.

“They’re your problem”

Debra Shields, Kevin Shields’ mother, wonders why the Army didn’t take stronger action when one of the soldiers accused in her son’s murder was discharged after making threats against officers in Iraq.

Instead, they were “thrown out on the street — now they’re your problem,” she said. “Well, your problem became my problem. They killed my son.”

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, contends that inadequate mental-health treatment for returning war veterans is partly to blame. He contrasts the policies of big-city police departments, which place officers involved in shootings on paid leave and refer them to counselors, with the brief mental-health questionnaires handed to soldiers returning from a war that demands split-second decisions about shooting people in raided houses and moving cars.

“This is a pattern we’re starting to see around the country. This is a national problem. We consider it the tip of the iceberg of a social catastrophe caused by President Bush’s failure to plan for hundreds of thousands of physical and psychological casualties,” Sullivan said.

Other Army posts have seen returning soldiers accused of murder, but “the largest cluster that we’re aware of is at Fort Carson,” he said. “Fort Carson is clearly the peak of the problem.”

Graham has formed a task force of experts, including some from the Army surgeon general’s office, to investigate whether there is any “commonality” among the homicides that could help identify warning signs and prevent future cases.

“Our hearts and condolences go out to the families of those who were lost to the soldiers. We don’t train soldiers to do things like this,” he said.

Graham said the Army trains soldiers to quickly discern right from wrong — when to shoot and when to hold fire. And it is striving to encourage those who have been wounded psychologically “that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to come forward for help.”

In the past three years, 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers have served in the 4th Brigade during two tours in Iraq. The vast majority have caused no trouble for police or MPs during their time at home, which will end again soon as they prepare for a spring deployment to Afghanistan, Graham said.

“We are very proud of our soldiers and our officers,” he said. “They’re doing wonderful things for the nation. We don’t want to see the great work these soldiers have done marred by the acts of a few.”

Bookings of soldiers on rise

El Paso County jail records show that bookings of service members, largely from Fort Carson, nearly tripled in three years, from 162 in 2004 to to 451 in 2007. With 516 and counting, the 2008 bookings of service members already have surpassed those from last year. Most of the cases were minor — traffic violations, disorderly conduct, DUIs — but a growing number of service members have also been arrested on assault, harassment and robbery charges, restraining-order violations and property crimes, mainly theft.

In Colorado Springs, public defenders concerned about the growing arrest numbers have been talking to legislators and a judge about setting up a “veterans court” that could intervene at the first sign of criminal trouble.

At war in Iraq, soldiers aren’t allowed to drink alcohol. “We just see them coming back and getting blackout drunk, and that’s where all their criminal activity’s coming out,” said Deana Feist, a deputy state public defender in Colorado Springs. Many returning soldiers don’t feel comfortable without a gun and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. “You add alcohol, and it’s a pretty dangerous combination,” she said.

“We’ve been seeing it for about 1 1/2 to 2 years now — soldiers sometimes picking up violent offenses,” she said. “In a really short period of time they can pick up three or four felonies and end up in prison when they’ve never been in trouble before.”

PTSD diagnoses increasing

The 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division — formerly the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division — has had a series of long and sometimes bloody deployments. Its soldiers had already been deployed to South Korea when they were transferred to war-ravaged Ramadi, Iraq. In 2006 they went back to Iraq for a second, 15-month deployment. During the two deployments, 113 soldiers were killed in action.

Pfc. Stephen Sherwood was the first soldier in the brigade who killed after coming home. On Aug. 3, 2005, a week after he returned from Iraq, neighbors watched him take down the American flag at his Larimer County home and remove the “Support our troops” sticker from his vehicle. Hours later, he shot his wife, Sara, five times in the face and neck, then killed himself with a single shotgun blast.

In one pocket of his jeans, a sheriff’s deputy found a typewritten note from Sara explaining that she loved another man. “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” she had written. In another pocket, the deputy found an Associated Press report that 30 percent of troops returning from Iraq developed mental-health problems three to four months later.

From 2003 to 2007, nearly 40,000 U.S. troops were diagnosed by the military with post-traumatic stress disorder. The number diagnosed has been growing each year, along with multiple deployments.

Anthony Marquez was the second soldier to kill out of uniform. On Oct. 22, 2006, a botched attempt to rob a marijuana dealer, Jonathan Smith, led to gunfire. Smith was shot in the chest and died.

Marquez, a wounded soldier who had met President Bush at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, was charged with murder. In a plea agreement, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

“I knew I needed help. I knew I was out of control,” he said in a recent interview at the Bent County Correctional Facility. But he also feared his sergeant would say, “You’re lying; you’re just trying to get out of work.”

Marquez had been wounded in Ramadi on June 21, 2005, after an improvised explosive device detonated under a Bradley fighting vehicle. He and other soldiers scrambled out, only to be hit by machine-gun fire. Four bullets shredded his leg. Two of his friends died. He later learned that in the smoke and confusion, he may have been shot by soldiers in the convoy behind him.

After three months and 17 surgeries at Walter Reed, Marquez came to Fort Carson, where he grew addicted to morphine and Percocet. He said he was getting 90 pills at a time of each drug.

At first he took them for pain, but “it could also make you feel really good. Take it on an empty stomach. Drink some alcohol with it,” he said. “I was hooked on those pills pretty good.”

When he couldn’t get enough, he said he persuaded a doctor at Fort Carson to write a prescription off-base at a Walgreens pharmacy by claiming his drugs had been lost or stolen. Sometimes he and his friends shared pills.

“I started going downhill, coming to work late, not showing up, not in uniform,” he said. Of the shooting, “my mind was clouded up. I put myself in a bad situation,” he said, and “I always carried a weapon.”

Concerns were raised

Deana Feist was one of Marquez’s defense lawyers. She described him as “your all-American kid” before he went to war — likable and polite, a high school prom king whose mother worked as a police officer.

Before Marquez was arrested, Feist said, his mother had called Fort Carson to voice concern about her son’s deteriorating mental condition.

“There was enough information to raise the flags,” she said, “that somebody needs to take a look at this kid and oversee, evaluate, treat.”

Marquez said after he was arrested, the Army called his mother, seeking to test him for traumatic brain injuries. “She told them he’s already in jail,” he said. “They told her I slipped through the cracks. Well, I guess I did.”

He is not the only one. Last December, Colorado Springs police arrested three men who had served together in the 4th Brigade. The men were charged with a six-month crime spree, including the assault of Erica Ham and the murder of fellow soldier Spec. Kevin Shields.

Police accused Louis Bressler and Pfc. Bruce Bastien of murdering another soldier, Pfc. Robert James, then robbing him of $45, and attempting to murder Matthew Orrenmaa. Bastien had told police that Bressler shot Orrenmaa because Bressler’s wife had complained that “some guys” were following her earlier that night.

Orrenmaa said he had run out of gas on his way home from a party. He hopped out of his truck and was walking toward a Diamond Shamrock station when he heard someone firing a gun from a car.

Then the car pulled up beside him. One of the men inside said, “Come here” — and then “something about a girl and me saying something to some girl,” Orrenmaa recalled. “He pulled out a gun, shot at me once, hit me in the shoulder. I ran. He shot at me three or four more times.”

Orrenmaa wracked his brain afterward, trying to figure out why the man shot him. “Maybe I talked to somebody’s wife? It might have happened that week, that month, that year. I couldn’t figure out why somebody would do something like that. I was married, kept to myself.”

Bressler also was accused of shooting up a house. Kenneth Eastridge, a third soldier from the same brigade, admitted participating in the assault of Erica Ham and helping to cover up the murder of Kevin Shields.

Histories of violence

It wasn’t the first time Eastridge had been arrested for misusing a gun. As a child in Kentucky, he killed a 12-year-old friend, Billy Bowman, with a shotgun. The shooting was treated as accidental, a conclusion Billy’s father doubted. Kenneth had previously shot Billy “many times” with a BB gun, Bill Bowman said. “I told the judge, there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll see this boy again.”

In 2006, Eastridge was accused of menacing his girlfriend by grabbing her neck and pointing a .45-caliber handgun at her head, a charge that was pending when Fort Carson sent him to a second round of war in Iraq.

Last week, Eastridge testified that his best friend, Bressler, shot and killed Kevin Shields after a night of marijuana smoking and heavy drinking at two bars — and after Bressler lost a fistfight with Shields.

Under cross-examination, Eastridge acknowledged that he had been court-martialed on nine counts during his second tour, including threatening an officer and two noncommissioned officers in Iraq and getting caught with 463 Valiums. “They sent me to Kuwait to a hard-labor camp,” he said, then brought him to Colorado to discharge him.

He said he was falsely accused — by Bastien — of killing innocent people in Iraq.

He talked about the MySpace Web page he created in Iraq, where he wrote, “Killin is just what I do!!!” and that he liked violence, death, destruction, mayhem, carnage, chaos — and flowers. He had posted photos of himself standing over a dead body, holding a dead cat by the tail and brandishing a stolen AK-47.

In response to a jury question, Eastridge said he was thrown from a vehicle by an explosion during his first tour in Iraq, an injury that knocked him unconscious, afflicted his memory and injected “cerebral fluid” in his right ear. “I never left Iraq after I was wounded,” he added.

Bastien, who has been sentenced to 60 years in prison, violated his plea agreement last week by refusing to testify about the murder of Kevin Shields. He too had faced domestic-violence charges after returning from Iraq. Twice in 2007, police arrested him for allegedly assaulting his wife. The second time, an officer noticed “four marks to her upper chest” from cigarette burns.

Bressler, who has pleaded not guilty, was medically retired from the Army last year, according to Fort Carson. His wife, Tira, told The Gazette in Colorado Springs that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was taking medicine for depression.

This year, four more soldiers from the same brigade were arrested on homicide charges.

On May 5, Zachary Szody was shot twice on a residential street by someone in a passing car. On June 6, Amairany Cervantes and Cesar Ramirez- Ibanez were shot to death as they tried to post a garage-sale sign at a Colorado Springs intersection.

Police traced both shootings to the same AK-47. In August, another Iraq war veteran at Fort Carson, Pfc. Jomar Falu-Vives, was charged with two murders and an attempted murder, and Spec. Rodolfo Torres-Gandarilla as an accomplice.

Szody, a captain at Fort Carson, said he does not know the man accused of shooting him. “I was just visiting my old platoon sergeant, standing outside in front of his house,” he said. “The people in the car said nothing. They just drove by, I heard shots, hit the ground — and that’s when I realized I was shot.” He had been shot twice, in his left hip and right knee.

Marta Vives, Falu-Vives’ mother, cannot picture her son doing such things. He told her he was innocent, “and I believe him.”

They were deployed in Iraq together, mother and son. She went to Baghdad as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and he enlisted to follow her. “He didn’t want his mother to go to war and not be there. He wanted to be with me, protect me.”

She said he had no drug or drinking problems, no criminal record, not even a tattoo. “He was a good guy. He actually did his job. He came back alive,” she said.

At worst, “I truly believe Jomar got caught up in something way above his head.”

Personality shift

On Labor Day this year, sheriff’s deputies responding to a complaint of an argument in a San Clemente, Calif., condo found a naked 25-year-old veteran at the door and subdued him with a Taser. In the bedroom, they found a severely beaten 19-year-old woman, Jacqwelyn Villagomez. She died the next day.

John Needham became the eighth veteran of the 4th Brigade to face homicide charges.

Family members have described Needham as an easygoing young man whose personality changed dramatically in Iraq. His commanding officer there “would not allow him to seek medical help for his emotional and mental situation,” said his father, Michael Needham.

In a November 2007 letter to Maj. Gen. Graham at Fort Carson, Needham complained that his son had been flown to Walter Reed for treatment of physical and mental injuries after becoming so despondent that he tried to kill himself in Iraq — and that Fort Carson officers had removed him against a psychiatrist’s advice, intent on returning him to active duty.

Needham commended Graham and his staff, saying they enabled his son to continue medical treatment in his home state of California. He now believes that help came too late.

On Oct. 13, 2008, a ninth member of the 4th Brigade was arrested on murder charges.

Judilianna Lawrence, a 19-year-old woman with a learning disability, had disappeared two days earlier after communicating with a stranger on the Internet. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office concluded that stranger was Spec. Robert Marko, a soldier who declared on his MySpace page that he was becoming “a cold hearted killer and can kill without mercy or reason.”

Detectives said Marko had led them to a remote wooded area, off a chained dirt access road, where Lawrence’s naked body was found. Her throat had been cut.

Devastated lives

Families of the victims and alleged victims of the nine Fort Carson soldiers have no answers for whether war turned the soldiers into community dangers. But they are asking many of the same questions being addressed by Graham’s task force.

In Colorado Springs, Debra Shields has been living in a hotel room during the trial of the soldier accused of shooting her son.

She mourns that Kevin’s 4-year-old son “will never have a dad to throw a ball around,” that the baby daughter born six months after his death “will never have a dad to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. It’s really hard. Sometimes Andrew will ask when Daddy’s coming home. His mom tells him, ‘Daddy’s not coming home, he’s in heaven.’

“He thinks Daddy’s still off fighting the war.”

She wishes “it was mandatory that those men go through a period of psychological evaluation and counseling” after returning from war, because “if it’s made mandatory, then that stigma of being weak is removed.”

These men “devastated our lives. They’ve also devastated their own families’ lives. They’re putting their families through hell,” she said.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a child charged with murder, what it must feel like for them. At least they can go visit their child. I have to visit mine in a crypt.”

Post researcher Barbara Hudson contributed to this report.

Soldiers and the accusations: 1.Bruce Bastien, murder and attempted murder. 2.Louis Bressler, murder and attempted murder. 3. Kenneth Eastridge, conspiracy and attempted murder. 4. Jomar Falu-Vives, two murder counts, attempted murder. 5. Robert Hull Marko, murder and sexual assault. 6. Anthony Marquez, murder. 7. John Needham, murder. 8. Stephen S. Sherwood, murder. 9. Rodolfo Torres-Gandarilla, accomplice to murder, attempted murder.

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