On November 19, a Colorado jury found 25-year-old Iraq war veteran Louis Bressler guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Bressler and two other former members of the Fort Carson-based 4th Brigade, 4th Division, Bruce Bastien and Kenneth Eastridge, were charged over the brutal killing of fellow veteran Kevin Shields in Colorado Springs on December 1, 2007.
The revelations since Shields’s murder and the arrest of Bressler, Bastien and Eastridge are terrible. They point to the devastating impact that serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has had on the mental and physical well-being of young soldiers and which will plague American society for years to come.
The 4th Brigade was formed in December 2004 and its ranks included men who had already completed tours of Iraq or took part in the invasion. It was deployed at the beginning of 2006 and operated in the Baghdad area during some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Its tour was extended from 12 to 15 months as part of the “surge”.
Bressler, Bastien and Eastridge all returned from Iraq with serious problems. Like tens of thousands of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, Bressler was diagnosed while on duty with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He had been sent back to the US, where he received an honourable medical discharge and was being treated with anti-depressants.
Bastien, 21, while not diagnosed with PTSD and still in the military, exhibited violent behaviour and psychologically unstable tendencies. He was arrested twice during 2007 for assaulting his wife, including burning her with cigarettes.
Like so many veterans, he was not receiving treatment. His court-appointed lawyer told National Public Radio: “I think the military is sending kids over to fight a war, and then coming back and not giving them the right treatment in order to get them to relate back to real life, rather than life back in Iraq.”
Eastridge, 24, had a life marked by violence and instability before being sent into war. As a child, he had shot and killed his 12-year-old friend, a tragedy that was deemed accidental. As his unit awaited deployment, he was charged with threatening his girlfriend with a handgun. He had tattooed himself with the Nazi SS emblem. How he was deemed fit for service is an unanswered question.
Once in Iraq, Eastridge’s troubles magnified considerably. He was injured by an explosion, suffering ear damage and mental trauma, but was not medically evacuated. He was eventually court-marshalled on nine charges, including threatening violence against an officer and non-commissioned officers and possession of large quantities of illegally obtained Valium pills. His MySpace page was headlined: “Killin is just what I do.”
Upon returning to Colorado in 2007, Bressler and Bastien, joined later by Eastridge, lapsed into a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse and anti-social behaviour, which culminated in the killing of Kevin Shields.
Shields had come back from Iraq with head injuries and possible brain trauma, which he sustained in a road side bomb attack. His family told the New York Times earlier this year that he had nightmares over the killing of Iraqi children in crossfire during an engagement with insurgents.
A Rand Corporation survey earlier this year estimated that over 300,000 veterans from the two wars had symptoms of PTSD or depression. The same study estimated that 320,000 veterans had suffered some degree of brain injury while on active service.
On his 24th birthday and shortly after receiving news his second child was on the way, Shields met at a bar with Bressler, Bastien and Eastridge, who he knew from serving in the 4th Brigade. By the end of the night, he was dead from multiple gun shots to his head, neck and groin.
Police investigations led quickly to the arrest of Bastien and Eastridge, who confessed to not only being present during the murder of Shields, but to several other crimes committed over the previous six months.
Eastridge alleged that in August 2007, Bressler and Bastien mugged and shot dead a young soldier, Robert James. A total of $45 was stolen from his wallet. The two men will stand trial for James’s death next month. Bressler is accused of pulling the trigger.
Eastridge was still in Iraq at the time and will not stand trial for the murder of James. He confessed, however, to involvement in the October 2007 assault on Colorado woman, Erica Ham. The three men ran her down with a car and, as she lay unconscious on the ground, one of them stabbed her and took her purse.
Bressler is also accused of firing shots into a house and ambushing and wounding Ford Carson soldier, Matthew Orrenmaa, over a perceived slight to his wife.
To avoid the charge of first-degree murder, Bastien pleaded guilty to accessory to murder in the case of Shields and was sentenced to 60 years’ jail in September. He broke his plea bargain agreement, though, by refusing to testify against Bressler. In his initial police statements, Bastien had named Bressler as the man who shot Shields.
Eastridge also pleaded guilty to accessory to murder in the case of Shields, as well as to felony robbery in the case of Erica Ham. He was given a 10-year sentence on November 3 and did testify in court that Bressler was Shields’s murderer.
According to the testimony presented at Bressler’s trial, the men had spent a number of hours drinking heavily and smoking marijuana on the night of Shields’s death. Eastridge claimed that they had discussed committing more robberies. Upon leaving a bar, Bressler and Shields had an altercation but all four got into a vehicle and drove off together.
The vehicle stopped at one point and the men got out. Eastridge testified that he saw Bressler fire multiple shots into Shields. The three men then attempted to hide the body.
Bressler’s defense argued that Bastien was the actual killer. The jury clearly considered there was sufficient reasonable doubt over who pulled the trigger to find Bressler not guilty of first-degree murder.
The most significant aspect of the case is that the brutality and disregard for life shown by the three Iraq veterans cannot be dismissed as an aberration. The Denver Post reported on November 16 that nine men who served in the 4th Brigade have been charged with murder or attempted murder in the Colorado area over past three years.
Four of the arrests have taken place this year. Two serving soldiers and veterans of Iraq were charged over two drive-by murders and one attempted murder that took place between May and June. A 25-year-old veteran was charged in September over the Labor Day beating to death of a 19-year-old woman. In October, a serving soldier was charged over the brutal killing of a young woman he had befriended on the internet.
The problem is by no means confined to Fort Carson. In January, an investigation by the New York Times uncovered at least 121 cases in which veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq had been convicted of or charged with homicide. Since then, four female soldiers and marines have been brutally murdered at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. In three cases, their military husbands have been charged. Serving soldiers or marines have also been charge for recent murders at military bases in California and Texas.
While only a small minority of veterans commits homicide upon their return, there is evidence of a rise in general violence as soldiers come back from the stress and traumas of service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The Denver Post reported that the number of assault charges laid against service personnel in El Paso County, which covers Fort Carson, has increased from less than 10 in 2004 to 80 in 2007. The overall number of arrests—for generally minor offences—has increased from 162 in 2004 to 451 in 2007.
These figures only cover those incidents that led to actual police charges in one area, and do not include incidents involving veterans who have left active service. However, Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, told the Denver Post: “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.”
As well as veterans inflicting harm on others, the other terrible consequence is the alarming rate of self-harm. The suicide rate among veterans aged 29 and younger is more than double the national average.
Last week, US Veterans Affairs Secretary Doctor James Peake said that veterans’ suicide was a “chronic problem”. Some 18 veterans of US wars take their own lives each day, some 6,500 per year, with Afghanistan and Iraq vets making up an ever-growing proportion of the number.