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Back, but not at home

Battered returning vets struggle with transition

The parents of Eric Valdepenas, one of 'New England's Own' killed in Iraq, visited his grave in East Providence, R.I. The parents of Eric Valdepenas, one of "New England's Own" killed in Iraq, visited his grave in East Providence, R.I.
Email|Print| Text size + By Charles M. Sennott
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

FORT DEVENS - Every step mattered.

Corporal Patrick Murray focused hard on his balance and gait as he approached the commanding officers of his Marine battalion one hot Sunday in July. Murray was due for a medal honoring his exemplary courage and spirit in the months since he and his gathered comrades returned from war. And he was determined not to let on how he'd earned it.

As he snapped to attention, there wasn't a hint that Murray was missing his right leg, lost, above the knee, to a roadside bomb blast in Fallujah, Iraq. Or of the long, grueling months of surgeries and physical therapy. Or the ingenious computerized titanium leg on which he had learned again to walk.

Only after Lieutenant Colonel Brian Sulc pinned the Naval Achievement Medal on his uniform next to the Purple Heart did Murray stumble.

As he saluted and pivoted, the artificial limb inside his camouflage pant leg buckled, and he began to fall. His fellow Marines pressed forward to assist; Sulc and two other commanders helped Murray as he righted himself.

It was, they reflected afterward, a quietly symbolic moment. The pride, the fragility, the support, the grit - the values of the unit were all right there. These Marines have always been there for one another. And in this hard year home, especially, they have had to be.

The First Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment - the reserve infantry unit based in Central Massachusetts and known as "New England's Own" - has a proud history in modern America's many wars, including a record of exceptional valor, and devastating casualties, on Iwo Jima. When they returned home from Iraq last fall to Veterans Day speeches, parades, and accolades, there was more distinguished service to celebrate. And more devastation.

The 878 men who came home have struggled to come to terms with the fact that 11 did not; that 68 others, like Murray, suffered combat wounds; and that many more were hit with injuries less visible but with long-term effects, like bomb-blast concussions.

It is as if they all shared in those losses, and, in a real sense, most did. A Globe survey of more than 130 members of the battalion found that nearly 60 percent report one or more symptoms of war trauma - anger, depression, nightmares, hypervigilance - even if they have not been diagnosed with the disorder.

Many hasten to add that they are doing just fine, picking up life right where they left off. It is, in the main, a proud, resilient group, not much given to complaint. Service, most say, changed them irrevocably, and for the better.

But fully half say the transition back to civilian life has been hard. Money, for some, is tight, relationships with loved ones bruised, frustration with the government veterans bureaucracy real and growing. Reserve units like theirs have, in particular, reported problems with medical screenings for brain injuries.

There is also a powerful consensus that while most of their neighbors appreciate their service, civilians don't quite get it. A sense of isolation grows out of that, particularly in New England, where military bases are few and hostility to the war runs high.

More than a few of the Marines have doubts about this war, too. But their focus is on their duty - and on getting well, or helping others to do so. In that, members of the battalion report some ringing successes but also some shameful failures as the nation delivers, unevenly, on its pledge to care for those wounded in service.

"That's a pretty sacred promise," said Captain Brendan Fogerty, a company commander. "And I just don't think the system has done a good enough job living up to it."

After Murray regained his balance, he returned to formation, flashing his signature Irish smile to his fellow Marines. They were all looking for that grin.

The command may have been honoring him for his service, but his fellow Marines depend on his spirit. Murray, 23, of North Kingstown, R.I., has a gift for making others laugh, even at the hardest moments. He has no time at all for sympathy or self-pity. Neither does the man who was sitting next to him in the Humvee when the blast hit Sergeant Terrence "Shane" Burke, a Boston police officer.

Burke lost his left leg in the explosion when Murray lost his right. "We like to go shopping for shoes together," Murray quipped, getting a laugh from a circle of Marines.

Later, Murray explained: "These are guys whose actions saved my life. A lot of them have had a hard time in a lot of different ways. The least I can do is show them that I'm OK and keep them laughing. I owe them that much."

The Globe interviewed scores of Murray's fellow Marines over the last year, and many said that, in crucial and surprising ways, the 12 months home have been harder than the seven months in combat.

Indeed, it can be a particularly tough adjustment for reserve units like New England's Own, who train together only one weekend a month. There's not much time together to work things through. And so they've sought out one another through the Internet and late-night phone calls when memories of combat get in the way of life.

Often those are memories of one disastrous day - a day that, more than any other, decided for this battalion who would return home whole and who would not.

It was Sept. 4, 2006, another scorching summer day in Fallujah, Iraq, where the five companies of New England's Own were scattered across three bases.

They had been mobilized for almost a year, and had been in Iraq since March. The word had come down and they were due to head home in a matter of weeks. Everyone was on edge. The pace of insurgent attacks had been rising with the heat.

The first order of business that day was a memorial service for a Marine, Corporal Jordan C. Pierson, 21, of Milford, Conn., killed by a sniper on Aug. 24.

As a lone trumpeter played taps and the Marines of C Company lowered their heads in silent prayer, the Humvees from Weapons Company patrolled the perimeter, guarding against mortar attacks on the funeral gathering - a tempting target.

Then, one of the Humvees in "Whiskey 3," as the third platoon of Weapons Company was dubbed, rolled directly over a pressure plate planted by insurgents in the dirt track. The plate triggered the detonator on two buried 155mm artillery shells that had been wired together, a "Ramadi speed bump," as it's known in Iraq.

Murray was in the gunner's turret of a Humvee approximately 100 yards away when he heard the blast and saw the smoke. His squad responded instantly.

They pulled Corporal Cody Hill from the flaming Humvee. He was left with severe burns and internal injuries. Three others were killed instantly.

Murray and his squad were ordered to secure the area. As they searched for insurgents they encountered Captain Fogerty. "Who was it?" they asked.

Fogerty shook his head. It wasn't time to go over the casualty list. But when Murray and others insisted, Fogerty delivered the news: Lance Corporal Eric Valdepeñas, a 21-year-old from Seekonk, Mass.; Corporal Jared Shoemaker, 29, a police officer back in Tulsa; and Navy Corpsman Chris Walsh, an EMT from St. Louis, had all been killed. Hill was the only survivor.

Murray felt a wave of anger and grief tear through him. He and Fogerty had attended the same Catholic school as "Val," a brilliant student and star athlete who had been pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before he enlisted in the Marines. He had it all.

The other two, "Doc" Walsh and Shoemaker, were men Murray and the rest of the company knew less well but had come to admire deeply, even as they mocked their midwestern "John Wayne" drawl.

The Whiskey 3 squad was revered throughout the battalion. They'd helped free Iraqi civilians held hostage by insurgents in a medieval dungeon and saved the life of an infant girl who needed emergency medical care. They had built schools and taken on other "hearts and minds" projects that to them defined the purpose of the US presence in Iraq.

Murray recalls turning to Burke to say, "They really were the best we had."

Weapons Company regrouped back at the base, a cluster of buildings known as Camp Baharia, on the fringe of Fallujah.

In Burke's hooch, Murray and Fogerty talked, over coffee, about Valdepeñas and old days at Bishop Hendricken High School, in Warwick, R.I. Fogerty said the platoon needed to suit up again, straight away. There were no complaints.

As they headed out, Sergeant Mark Wills, 38, of Waltham, Mass., another close friend of Valdepeñas, stopped by. They had a cigarette and said little. Then Wills put his arm around Murray and said: "Keep your head down out there. Get back safe."

As the doors of the Humvee slammed shut, Murray could see that Lance Corporal Jonathan Goldman, the assigned driver, was exhausted. Murray offered to drive and told Goldman to take the turret. At 8:45 p.m., dusk in the desert, the convoy of seven Humvees, led by Fogerty, set out.

As Murray looked back on that moment, he recalled "a real bad feeling" in the air that night.

"For the first time, I really felt like I wanted to get the hell out of there," he said. "I was, like, OK, I want this to be over now."

Through a narrow slit of bullet-proof glass, Murray guided the Humvee down the main roadway, past mud-brick and stucco buildings occasionally lit by thin strips of neon. Every heap of trash or donkey cart or bump in the road seemed a potential IED. Every open window in a building was a possible sniper's nest. Wills dubbed the patrols on this road, "the roulette wheel of death."

As an evasive measure, the Humvees often jumped the center divider of the four-lane road to throw off insurgents planting road side bombs. Murray did just that about one mile from the base, and as the Humvee bumped over the median strip, it hit a pressure plate, another Ramadi speed bump.

For the second time that day, an explosion of shrapnel tore up through the belly of a Weapons Company Humvee. Murray was thrown more than 50 feet from the vehicle, "like a Kung Fu fighter flying around on fire," as he later put it. Goldman was popped from the turret like a champagne cork. Burke remained trapped in the passenger side of the crippled Humvee as it careened to a stop. He was pulled out just before it burst into flames.

Murray remembers trying to crawl to the curb for protection as insurgents opened fire. Sergeant Scott Parish of Andover, Mass., ran out and covered Murray, returning fire. Humvees circled like a wagon train to protect the wounded.

Back at Camp Baharia, Wills was lying on his bunk, writing in a journal about the devastating loss earlier in the day of his friend Valdepeñas.

"Moments ago," he wrote, "we learned Whiskey 3 was hit. My little buddy Val is gone. Hill is in critical. I can't believe this."

Then Wills heard an explosion outside the wire. A desperate voice came over the radio, calling in "mass casualties."

Realizing from the radio calls that it was Murray and Burke who were hit, Wills quickly suited up and formed a convoy that followed the glow of the burning Humvee through the darkness.

At the end of that day, Wills retreated to his bunk and his journal, a place where he had found solace through his worst days, like June 25 when his friend, Lance Corporal Paul Nicholas King of Tewksbury, Mass., died in his arms from a sniper round. Wills usually cast his writing as a conversation with his wife, Charlotte. He picked up his entry for Sept. 4 where he'd left off:

"Same (expletive) day. Hours later. Another platoon was hit by an IED. This time my buddy Murray lost his leg as well as Sergeant Burke lost his leg. Honey, I'm not feeling good about the rest of my time here."

Back at Fort Devens, the aftershock of that bloody day hit home almost immediately

Lance Corporal Michael Stubbs, of Medford, was one who felt it. Stubbs, 24, had been wounded in Fallujah and was back at the fort in the status known as "medical hold," still on active duty, but awaiting treatment.

A turret gunner, Stubbs had survived three IED blasts. But one, on May 25, left him with a concussion. He walked away from the blast and tried to shrug it off.

For weeks Stubbs toughed it out. His fellow Marines kept urging him to seek medical treatment. Finally, he went in to see a doctor, who recommended he be sent home for a medical evaluation. His command didn't agree.

"Don't be a pussy," he remembers being told. "You're fine."

But the dizzy spells made it impossible for Stubbs to keep up during patrols. The Marines in his platoon begged the medical staff to take another look, saying they feared for his health and their safety as a unit. Finally, on Aug., 6, he was declared unfit for duty and sent to the Bethesda, Md., Naval Medical Center.

Stubbs's medical records indicate he was diagnosed with a concussion and with injuries to his back and knees. Two days later he was shipped to Fort Devens and told there would be follow-up medical appointments.

That hasn't been the case, he said.

"No one was there to help me," he said. "There were no follow up appointments. I was told my records were lost."

And to this day, Stubbs says he has never been screened for Traumatic Brain Injury, or "TBI," a condition caused when the brain is shaken by a blast wave. But he suffers the symptoms - such as disorientation, depression, and anger - which can take months to surface.

Stubbs was having nightmares and suffering from sleeplessness - and drinking heavily as a way to self-medicate. But the command saw no physical injury and ordered him to perform work details, including painting the headquarters' hallway.

And that's what he was doing on Sept. 4 in the late morning. With the time difference in Iraq, it was approximately 12 hours after the explosion. Stubbs heard the squeaking sound of a pen on a white board in the command center. He watched an officer write out the news: "KIA - Shoemacher, Valdepeñas, Walsh. Gravely wounded: Burke, Murray, Hill."

"I read that and it was like getting punched in the gut," Stubbs said. "I went outside and coughed up my breakfast. I couldn't stand up. I was a mess. It's harder to be far away on a day like that and know there is nothing you can do."

The blast wave was also heard as a knock on the Seekonk, Mass., door of the home of Dr. Jesus Valdepeñas and his wife, Anne-Marie.

At 6 p.m. on Sept. 4, two Marines in dress blues pulled into the driveway.

Lance Corporal Valdepeñas, the youngest of the couple's eight children, had called just a week earlier, sounding excited about coming home. His mother was already in touch with Charlotte Wills, Mark's wife, about planning a homecoming ceremony.

Then Dr. Valdepeñas looked out the window, saw the Marines, and knew why they were there. He threw open the door, blurting out, "It's Eric, isn't it?"

The Marines stood straight, and one of them said, "We want to thank you for your son's service to our country."

"I couldn't breathe," Dr. Valdepeñas recalled, during a visit this fall to his son's grave. "I felt like my life ended right there. He was my youngest. . . . He was going to take care of us."

The power was off, the air conditioning down, and the hallways dimly lit by emergency lights. The elevators were out as well, so Patrick Murray walked down three flights of stairs on his one good leg to sign in a visitor.

After a whirlwind of treatment and surgeries in Iraq, Germany, and Texas, Murray was in Malogne House, a dreary residential facility attached to Walter Reed military hospital in Washington. It is a holding tank for veterans, like Murray, who are transitioning back home.

"It's not that bad," said Murray, not one to complain.

He'd been the beneficiary of military trauma care, the best in the world by some accounts. But now he felt the victim of the frayed system of ongoing care for the wounded veterans.

A Veterans Affairs Administration official came by to brief Murray on his benefits and the paperwork required at a time when he was in great pain and heavily sedated. In graphic terms, Murray told him off. The counselor never returned.

Murray also remembers being tested for TBI and told that his memory loss and the trembling nerves in his hands could be traced to the day he fell out of a tree as a child.

"The doctor who did that test had the credibility of Dr. Seuss," he said.

Captain Fogerty, 32, of North Kingstown, R.I., is slow to anger, but now he was irate.

He had been making a round of visits to Murray, Burke, Hill, and other Marines from his company who suffered wounds, and what he'd found didn't sit well at all.

A particular concern was the treatment of Cody Hill, who suffered burns over 60 percent of his body as the sole survivor of the IED attack on the morning of Sept. 4. Hill and Burke, who had lost his leg on Sept. 4, were both sent to the Brooke Army Medical Center, in Texas, reputedly one of the best in the armed forces. Treatment records show that the young corporal saw a burn surgeon on Oct. 5, 2006, and that no one had prescribed a long-term rehabilitation plan for him until May 4, a delay that jeopardized his recovery.

Fogerty began to ask tough questions and says he and the Hill family were told by a nurse in the East Burn Ward that Cody "seemed to have slipped through the cracks."

The nurse's words infuriated Fogerty, and, in May, he banged out a memo outlining his findings. He addressed it up his chain of command, ultimately to a congressional committee investigating problems with the care of veterans.

He wrote of Hill's falling "through the cracks," of paperwork routinely lost, of military families unaware of what benefits they are entitled to, and of the maddening inability of the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs Administration to work smoothly together.

Cody Hill's father, Carlyle, had quit his job on an Oklahoma ranch to help his son heal. He dressed his son's burns and slept by his bedside. He never thought about it, he just did it.

The family was struggling financially, but no one showed them they were entitled to benefits - $29,000 in compensation and $100,000 in insurance. Paperwork went missing and the claim was delayed for months.

Fogerty tracked the lost paperwork back to a civilian-contracted physician who had been brought in to help an overwhelmed medical staff at Brooke. The folder lay on the doctor's desk for months before disappearing altogether. Burke, who lost his leg, has suffered similar bureaucractic delays at Brooke, which have left him lingering in "medical hold."

A spokesman for Brooke would not comment on Hill's situation, but conceded that failures to coordinate care occur. The center, he said, plans to address the problem with a new staff position.

Sitting in his office one recent day, Fogerty said, "Not that much gets me steamed. But to tell you the truth, this is outrageous. . . . If I ran Weapons company to the standard that this bureaucracy is doing, I'd be fired, and deservedly so."

It was Sept. 30, 2006, just five days before the battalion was to depart Iraq, and Sergeant Terry Rathbun was out on patrol. It was a tense time, but he was starting to feel pretty confident he'd get home to Norwich, Conn., in one piece.

Then a shot rang out. Captain Harry Thompson, his platoon commander, was hit and struggling to stand up. Rathbun lunged forward to keep him down and, at that instant, the sniper shot that might have killed Thompson struck Rathbun in the face.

On a hot, dusty day at Fort Devens this August, Rathbun, 36, received the Bronze Star for his heroism.

Rathbun had nothing but praise for the care he says he received at Bethesda Naval Hospital. But once he was released into the custody of the VA, he said, it was "one nightmare after another."

His records never followed him from Bethesda. He wasn't checked for TBI for nearly seven months. And when the tests confirmed he did have TBI, he was told the local VA did not have a rehabilitation program. Finally, after months of delays - delays that can do long-term harm to TBI patients - he was placed with a private therapy center in Groton, Conn.

Adding insult to injury, Rathbun kept getting medical bills and collection notices from the VA, even though all of his care was supposed to be fully covered. After six months of haggling, the situation was corrected, but not before Rathbun suffered a drop in his credit rating.

"You don't want to complain about it because you figure, hey, there are a lot of guys who didn't make it back at all," says Rathbun, who suffers from dizziness, confusion, and depression. He has been unable to find work, and his marriage has broken up since he returned from war.

"I have to figure out how I am going to put my whole life back together," he said. "I guess you think there is going to be a support system for you when you get back. But there really isn't. You have to do it all for yourself."

Mark Wills came home from war a changed person, and not necessarily for the better.

He couldn't sleep. He couldn't control his anger, and he couldn't clear his mind of the image of Nick King dying in his arms.

Even the roads around Boston were a problem. As he drove from one job to the next, tending lawns in suburbs around Route 128, the divided highway sometimes triggered memories of the IED-pocked thoroughfares of Fallujah.

But then he sought help at the VA in Jamaica Plain for counseling and found it to be helpful. Group therapy sessions gave him "the tools" he needed to recognize what was going on inside him.

PTSD has swept the battalion. Several Marines confided they have contemplated suicide. Wills never allowed himself to slip that far. He owes it to his wife and two children, he said.

But there are still bad days, like the week before, when he threw a rum-and-coke at his computer screen after hearing a heavy metal song on the radio that he'd often listened to with King.

He confided this one night in the small office in his home in Waltham, a sanctum dedicated to the war. There are photographs of the fallen and a flag signed by the members of his platoon. His desert boots, still splattered with King's blood, are neatly placed in a corner cabinet.

There are a lot of things, he says, that he can't let go of.

"I wasn't ready for that, having a buddy die in your arms," he said.

Wills is open about his struggles. And he has been encouraging his fellow Marines to get therapy. It is his role, he figures, to show them there is nothing wrong with a man, even a Marine, seeking help.

For Murray, Burke, and Hill, Sept. 4, 2006, is what wounded Iraq veterans call their "alive day." The day they cheated death.

And so on Sept. 4 of this year, Wills invited a close circle of Weapons Company to his house to celebrate the living and remember the fallen.

Murray and Burke were there along with Hill. Stubbs also showed up. He was drinking heavily and was off the medication for PTSD that the VA had prescribed. To him the math was easy. The VA charged $40 for a copayment on a prescription for Celexa, the antianxiety drug they dole out to combat veterans.

"A 30-rack of Budweiser at $22 seemed like a better deal," Stubbs explained.

Fogerty came as well. He still seemed haunted by the decisions he made in the field, saying later: "I don't think that there's a day goes by I'm not thinking about those guys. . . . What could I have done differently? I'm responsible for it. . . . In the end, God will judge me for that."

In all, about two dozen Marines and their wives and girlfriends gathered in small clusters on Wills's porch. They lit one cigarette after another and pulled hard on the tap of a keg.

For the family, the pain has never gone away. Dr. Valdepeñas quit his practice. He is consumed with depression. He and his wife rarely leave their home, they said, except to say the Rosary at Eric's grave every day. The gardens he once tended to with Eric's help have been taken over by weeds. There are pictures and shrines to their son at every turn in the house.

The parents were given a brochure from the VA about benefits, which provided a toll-free number for grief counseling. But their daughter, Nora Lough, 32, said they had never opened the brochure. They have relied on their faith to find comfort. She said that many of the Marines, including Fogerty and Wills, have stayed in touch and helped her parents in any way they could.

The military system, she feels, did what was required for the funeral but not much beyond that.

"I am surprised that no one follows up with the parents," she said. "My parents really need help. To lose a child is very difficult."

Three weeks after this Sept. 4 anniversary, Murray was packing up his room at Walter Reed.

He had finally been "med boarded" out of the military and was on his way home. He had landed a job as a foreman with Turner Construction and was excited about the future.

As he stuffed his belongings into large duffel bags, he held up a 4-inch-thick pile of paperwork he said he'd have to present to the VA. Within a week, that paperwork would go astray, and he found himself registered at the wrong VA center.

It's a disgrace, he said. He hopes the private insurance that comes with his job will save him from having to rely on the government for help.

Murray slung his backup prosthesis over his shoulder as if it was a rifle and wheeled a cart loaded with his belongings out of his room. He loaded it all into his Jeep and began the journey back home to Rhode Island.

"It's been a long, hard year," Murray said. "I think I'm ready to let all that go. I want to move on."

But there was one last mission. Murray went to the battalion's weekend training session the third weekend of October. He wanted to say goodbye to his comrades. Wills was also there, turning in his gear and signing out of the military so that he could return to his lawn business.

Murray arrived in jeans and a sweatshirt, sporting a goatee and holding a can of root beer. After the battalion formation, the men in fatigues looked tired and dirty from a wet, cold weekend of training. There was sober talk among them of when the unit might redeploy to Iraq. But their faces lit up when they saw Murray, and they huddled around him.

Soon enough, he was telling them a story. And as he did, he was waving his arms and flashing that smile, and once again he had them all laughing.

Charles M. Sennott can be reached at sennott@globe.com

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