As 4,000 N.C. National Guard soldiers bid farewell today for their second tour in Iraq, they head out without one of the brigade's most honored platoon sergeants.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens, who earned a Silver Star for valor during a Baqubah firefight in 2004, isn't going back this time.
Instead, he will remain in North Carolina, living with his wife and son in the small town of Ahoskie and continuing his work at the Guard's armory in Williamston.
Stephens was sent home in January from training at Camp Shelby, Miss., after coming forward with civilian medical records that showed Stephens, 41, continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder related to his first tour in Iraq.
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During a daylong battle in Baqubah in June 2004, Stephens ran through heavy gunfire to pull a young gunner from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The gunner, Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr., died from his wounds. Stephens remains close to Desens' parents.
His story was told in The News & Observer in November 2007 in a series called "The Promise." In it, Stephens described the difficulties he faced getting help for combat-related stress.
Stephens also wasn't sure then whether he should return to Iraq.
Last fall, he was cleared by an Army medical doctor for the brigade's second tour.
But he also carried paperwork from two psychiatrists -- a civilian doctor and a Veterans Affairs doctor -- who recommended he not return to a war zone.
Stephens said he brought up the paperwork during a meeting in January with a counselor at Camp Shelby, where the Guard was training for its deployment, because he didn't want to withhold information.
"It screwed me," Stephens said. "They sent me home the next day."
Pentagon studies show Stephens is far from alone; an estimated 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or another mental illness.
"He's a good guy, he's a hero, and I'm sorry to see he's not going with us, but I have to believe that what has happened is in his best interest," said Maj. Al Hunt, the spokesman for the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team. "If a medical professional determines it's not in a soldier's best interest [to go to Iraq], we're not going to send him."
Hunt said a handful of soldiers returned home during training because of PTSD-related injuries.
"What we do is very dangerous. It's inherently stressful," Hunt said. "We don't want bad things to happen to good people, so we'd rather identify people during training."
Stephens, who still suffers nightmares and other symptoms, hasn't decided how he feels about staying home. The past few weeks have been especially tough, he said, as he worries about the soldiers under his command.
"I don't know," he said. "My family's happy. They're happy I'm home, so we go with that, I guess. I think I'd rather be with my guys."