AHOSKIE — Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens was yelling again. Shouting at his wife, at his school-age son, hollering that he wanted something done and done now.
His wife, Rosalie, yelled back: "I'm not one of your soldiers!"
Stephens felt like he was someone else -- a father given to out-of-nowhere rages, a husband who couldn't talk to his wife, a lost soul sitting on his couch and staring into space, seeing again the blood rushing from his gunner's gut, recalling his own dust-clotted voice shout, "You're going to be OK!"
So he yelled, and as he did, another voice echoed in the back of his mind: The shouts of his father from long ago.
Stephens and his N.C. National Guard platoon returned from Iraq in early 2005, seven months after the battle in Baqubah. The Army thanked the soldiers for their service, gave them some papers and sent them home.
Like other returning troops, Stephens filled out a questionnaire. It asked whether he had seen dead bodies, whether anyone close to him had died. It asked about nightmares and skittishness.
He answered every question truthfully. And he never heard another thing.
Hardship at home
But, like others, he had come home a changed man, one who would find himself separated from his Army brothers and confused about what had happened to him, unsure how to find help. Active-duty soldiers return home to military bases, but National Guard soldiers return to their scattered hometowns, often hours away from the men they bunked with in the war zone.
Stephens feared stores and busy streets. He avoided tiny downtown Ahoskie and its half-dozen stoplights for fear of car bombs. He scanned restaurant dining rooms for snipers. He couldn't remember things. At the National Guard armory, he walked into the supply room and forgot why he was there.
His cell phone rang. It started at dawn and didn't stop until late at night.
His soldiers called in tears. They were fighting with their wives. They lost their jobs.
They drank. They lay awake at night. A car backfired, and they flinched.
A guy tried to kill himself. A guy went busting into a house, shooting up the place.
He found one guy a job. He gave another money. He pushed paper for their health benefits and found extra work around the armory for a fellow who needed to pay his bills.
His cell phone rang, and it was Patty Desens on the other line, calling about her dead son.
Hey, Sergeant Stephens, she said. How are you?
When he was in Iraq, Stephens could sometimes push aside the battle that killed her son in Baqubah.
There was too much else to worry about in Iraq. There was the time they helped the Marines carry their dead. And the time two bus loads of Iraqi soldiers training at the base were pulled over by armed men at a fake checkpoint on their route home. Every man was yanked off the bus and executed.
A wife worries
In Ahoskie, near the Virginia border and hours from any soldier in his platoon, Stephens downed beers after dark. The men at war on his television screen felt like brothers.
Nothing mattered but Iraq. He talked about his soldiers, told his wife about his young gunner. He told her about his visit with Desen's mother in the garage, how she would look at him and cry.
"He talked about Desens a lot," Rosalie said. "He said, 'Desens, he was so crazy, he would do this and that...'
"Sometimes, he'd stare at the floor and not say anything."
At night, he couldn't sleep more than an hour or two. He talked in his dreams, alarming Rosalie. He woke up shouting, drenched in sweat.
Rosalie reached out to the man she fell in love with across a bar years ago in her native Germany. For so long, she hadn't felt his arms or looked into his eyes or traced her fingers across the "God's Son" tattooed on a sculpted abdomen.
Now he turned away from her. He didn't want to be close to anyone.
He wanted to go back to Iraq.
Then one day in spring 2005, he walked to an armory classroom to drop off a message.
A civilian was there, talking about soldiers. He talked about drinking problems, drug problems, anger problems.
Stephens leaned in the doorway. In his head he heard the voice of his wife. "You take care of your soldiers," she had told him. "When are you going to take care of yourself?"
The civilian passed out a phone number. Back in his office, Stephens dialed it.
His first psychological assessment, mostly typed, said this:
"Stephens has intrusive thoughts. He has distressing dreams and intense psychological distress. He is irritable, easily angered, easily startled and hypervigilant. He avoids thoughts, feelings and conversation about the battle. He can't recall parts of the battle. He avoids people that would make him remember the battle."
In the margins, a clinical social worker scribbled a single note, a reference to Patty Desens and her questions: "Family members call (of children killed) wanting to talk."
Stephens had driven across three county lines for this, arriving at the Vet Center in Greenville, a small office where six people offer mental health services to veterans in 28 counties, no questions asked.
Stephens didn't tell his superiors he was here. He didn't tell his soldiers, either.
A father's son
Stephens transferred from the Jacksonville armory to the one in Williamston to be closer to home.
Nearly two dozen guys transferred with him. One told him: Sarge, if you get out of the Army, I'm getting out too.
At home, the rages kept coming. Stephens thought of his own father, who had fought on Pork Chop Hill in the Korean War and lost a lot of men there.
"He'd tell me about fighting the enemy and how good they were, how they'd surround his men, how sometimes he'd lay there and hope he didn't get shot," Stephens recalled.
Now Stephens understood his dad. Father and son drank as equals.
Until his dad's heart grew weak. The old man grew sicker and sicker.
When he needed a ride to the doctor or a job done at the house, he called on practically anyone before dialing his son.
Why didn't you call me? Stephens asked.
But his father shook his head. You have to take care of your men, he said.
And then word came from the Pentagon in fall 2006 that Stephens had an award coming: The Silver Star, the Army's third-highest honor for valor, presented for gallantry in action against the enemy.
And from his hospital bed, the old man bragged to anyone who walked in the door. My son's getting a Silver Star.
His father was too sick to attend the ceremony on Oct. 22, 2006. But Patty and Dan Desens watched as the National Guard's adjutant general pinned on the medal.
Stephens stood at attention, arms stiff, his blank face masking a mind caught on the tumultuous image of a young soldier's dying blue eyes.
The next day, his picture ran in the papers. He was a hero.
That same day, his father died.
Trying to forget
Before the war, Stephens had never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He didn't know PTSD was a disease, that tens of thousands of soldiers were returning with symptoms of hypervigilance or sleep problems, that some studies predicted that up to half of National Guard soldiers would return with troubling psychological symptoms. But he thought of his father, and these things made sense.
And he thought of his soldiers. A lot of them, he said, could benefit from some mental health counseling.
"I tell them to go to the Vet Center," Stephens said. He rolled his eyes. "But they don't."
He did not tell them about his own experiences.
The social worker at the Vet Center in Greenville didn't make any recommendations, but he gave Stephens a list of psychiatrists. Stephens found a civilian doctor in Goldsboro, 110 miles from his house.
Stephens went for a half-hour once a month. He clutched prescriptions for anti-psychotic drugs he didn't take and accepted recommendations for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings he didn't attend.
The doctor told Stephens that he moves too fast.
He goes through life at 100 mph, and the world moves at 50 mph. Stephens, the perfect soldier, gets impatient with everyone else.
But he found he could talk about what was troubling him, about trying to sleep, about his anger, about Patty Desens and the way he felt forced to constantly relive the hours of his life he wanted to forget forever.
This past June, the Pentagon named Stephens its hero of the month. A press officer lined up 10 radio interviews, bang-bang-bang, in a single morning. He spent hours on the phone, describing over and over the ambushes, the exploding grenades and the dashes through gunfire.
"I try to forget, and I keep having to remember it," Stephens told his doctor. "People keep making me tell it."
Going back to Iraq?
Stephens took his men to Fort Bragg in February for training. He sat on the back ramp of one of the hulking Bradley fighting vehicles, clutching a stopwatch while a young kid struggled to load and unload ammo inside of 10 minutes. He shook his head, sighed, when the kid dropped a long metal cylinder with an echoing clatter and busted his time limit.
"You got to relax, man!" Stephens said in an even voice. "And don't give up."
His cell phone rang and rang. Marching through a hallway, long legs taking long gaits, he heard some trucks were stranded on the highway, out of gas.
He stopped short, slammed his phone shut, ordered a soldier to get out there. "God," he muttered. "If it ain't one thing, it's 10."
Some of the men training here were new to Stephens' platoon. Some were with Stephens in Iraq. Some were with Desens' wrecked body as it rolled back to base in Baqubah.
Among them was Sgt. Antonio Fraser, who had watched as a medic breathed life back into Desens. He has lost track since of the times he's called Stephens about his anguish. He has his platoon sergeant on speed dial.
If the men suspected Stephens had his own problems, they tried not to think about it.
"He hides it pretty well," Fraser said. "I know he probably has problems, but it doesn't affect his job."
When President Bush announced the troop build-up last winter, Stephens' phone rang and rang. His men didn't want to go back; they wanted out.
Stephens calmed them down. Stay, he said. He was a smart leader; he needed well-trained men. After all, he had just re-enlisted for six years.
But Stephens didn't tell them everything.
"I don't want to go back to Iraq," he said one day, sitting in the armory. "I don't tell my soldiers that, but I don't want to go back."
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