ABOUT A YEAR and a half ago, a 40-year-old former Marine sergeant named Jeffrey Lehner, recently returned from Afghanistan, phoned and asked to meet with me. Since his return he had been living with his father, a retired pharmacist, in the Santa Barbara home where he was raised. I first heard about Jeff from an acquaintance of mine who was dating him and who told me that he was deeply distressed about what he had seen on his tours in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.
We met for lunch at a restaurant on Canon Perdido in downtown Santa Barbara. Jeff was focused, articulate and as handsome as a movie star. He was quite wound-up, but utterly lucid.
There was no way I could have known that day the depths of Jeff's unhappiness, no way I could have predicted the tragedy that would follow. I listened closely to his story and, while I was surprised by what I heard, I had no particular reason to disbelieve him.
He had joined the Marines enthusiastically, he told me, and served as a flight mechanic for eight years. Not long after 9/11, he began helping to fly materials into Afghanistan with the first wave of U.S. troops.
In the beginning, Jeff supported the administration's policies in the region. But over time, that began to change. As we talked, Jeff brought out an album of photos from Afghanistan. He pointed to a series of photographs of a trailer and several huts behind a barbed-wire fence; these were taken, he said, outside a U.S. military camp not far from the Kandahar airport. He told me that young Afghans -- some visible in blue jumpsuits in his photos -- had been rounded up and brought to the site by a CIA special operations team. The CIA officers made no great secret of what they were doing, he said, but were dismissive of the Marines and pulled rank when challenged.
Jeff said he had been told by soldiers who had been present that the detainees were being interrogated and tortured, and that they were sometimes given psychotropic drugs. Some, he believed, had died in custody. What disturbed him most, he said, was that the detainees were not Taliban fighters or associates of Osama bin Laden. "By the time we got there," Jeff said, "the serious fighters were long gone."
Jeff had other stories to tell as well. He said the CIA team had put detainees in cargo containers aboard planes and interrogated them while circling in the air. He'd been on board some of these flights, he said, and was deeply disturbed by what he'd seen.
Was Jeff telling me the truth? As a reporter who writes investigative articles, I get calls frequently from people with unusual stories -- sometimes spot-on accurate ones, sometimes personal vendettas and sometimes paranoid, crazy stories. Jeff seemed truthful, and he had told the same stories almost verbatim to several friends and family members. But I was worried because at the time, I hadn't heard about such abuses in Afghanistan, and Jeff's stories were hard to verify.
More worrisome, Jeff was seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and I wondered whether he could withstand the scrutiny his allegations would generate.
PTSD's symptoms can include anxiety, deeply frightening thoughts, a sense of helplessness or flashbacks. Jeff's case apparently stemmed, according to Jim Nolan, a fellow veteran and a friend from Jeff's PTSD support group, from witnessing the "unspeakable," and from his inability to stop what he knew to be morally wrong.
His case was compounded, his friends said, by strong feelings of "survivor's guilt" involving the crash of a KC-130 transport plane into a mountain in January 2002 -- killing eight men in his unit. He'd been scheduled to be on the flight and had been reassigned at the last minute. As part of the ground crew that attended to the plane's maintenance, he blamed himself. Afterward, he went to the debris site to recover remains. He found his fellow soldiers' bodies unrecognizable. He also told me he was deeply shaken by the collateral damage he saw to civilians from U.S. air attacks -- especially the shrapnel wounding of so many Afghan children.
Jeff told me that he often couldn't sleep at night, thinking about what he had seen and heard. He had gone to Afghanistan a social drinker but came home, like so many veterans, a problem drinker. And he admitted self-medicating with drugs. He was seeking help -- and just days after we met, he drove 100 miles to enter a treatment program in Los Angeles. But the Veterans Affairs hospital's PTSD ward was full, he told me, so he was placed in a lockdown ward for schizophrenics, which only aggravated his isolation and despair.