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A soldier's injuries cripple body and mind

Capt. Peter Sinclair returned from Iraq with debilitating back pain and haunting memories of war and death -- dogged enemies in his fight to rebuild his life.

November 02, 2009|Jia-Rui Chong

Peter Sinclair rummaged through the closet and found what he was looking for.

His roommate, drawn to the commotion, saw Pete raise a gun to his head. Daniel Jennings managed to yank it away. He locked up all of Pete's guns.

"You can't stop me," Pete said.

Jennings and Pete had served together in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, but this was a year later and Pete was struggling.

Daniel encouraged him to lie down and left to get help once Pete seemed calmer.

"You're a good man," Pete said.

But he could not shake the images of war: dismembered children, mutilated bodies. Alone in his house, Pete called his parents. His sister Jennifer answered.

All he could do was scream, "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!"

He found a 7-inch knife and plunged it into his wrist.

As the blood spread across the floor, Daniel returned with an Army friend. They took the knife away and stopped the bleeding. Paramedics and police officers soon swarmed the house in Garden Grove.

As an officer in Iraq, Pete had won praise and promotions. His commander had called him "one of the finest, if not the finest young officer in the 298th Corps Support Battalion."

But Pete had come back from war with a broken body, suffering from back injuries and painful memories. Doctors, nurses, psychologists and physical therapists treated him, but few were able to help.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are challenging, if not taxing, veterans medical services. So far, nearly 36,000 troops have been wounded, many returning with injuries that in previous conflicts would have killed them. Some, like Pete, endure complications from physical and emotional trauma that neither surgery nor therapy nor medication can easily resolve.

Pete was 20 when he enlisted in the Army. He thought the military would give him focus.

He served in the Persian Gulf War, and after he returned home he joined the Los Angeles Police Department and the Army Reserves. In December 2003, he was called up for another tour in Iraq. A first lieutenant, he was assigned to an ordnance company at Ft. Buchanan in Puerto Rico.

Jen wondered whether her brother could physically handle the deployment. When they were growing up in South Pasadena, Pete, who was seven years older, had been her protector. That was changing now.

He had had two operations on his lower back to repair injuries stemming from a parachute jump during Army training and a bike accident while on police patrol. Jen thought combat would make matters worse. A lawyer, she started to research medical waivers. He asked her to stop.

"I'm an officer," he told her. "How could I have been in the reserves all these years and then they need me and not go?"

Pete's unit was quickly caught up in insurgent attacks. His base at Al Taqaddum, about 45 miles west of Baghdad, was shelled as often as 56 times an hour, according to a sergeant stationed there. In Balad, north of the capital, a rocket explosion threw Pete, who was asleep, from his cot onto the floor.

"I'm happy just to be alive today," he wrote home.

During a mortar attack that same month, he dove onto the ground, landing hard on his back and shoulder.

His injuries were exacerbated by the weight of his body armor and the constant jostling in Humvees. Sometimes he experienced spasms in his lower back so severe he could not walk. Sometimes it hurt so bad he had trouble speaking.

Painkillers, muscle relaxers, ibuprofen and Valium offered relief, but Pete struggled with the realities of war. He saw a Marine torn apart by a rocket. He came across mutilated bodies hanging from a bridge. Then there was a ride through Baghdad in the fall of 2004. Soldiers had been handing out candy to children to celebrate the opening of a sewage treatment plant when a bomb went off. More than 40 people, mostly children, died; dismembered bodies littered the street. Pete's convoy rolled through the aftermath.

Two weeks later, he e-mailed his sister about his nightmares: standing in city streets surrounded by body parts and blood.

"I am pretty numb and withdrawn upstairs," he wrote.

When Jen at one point encouraged him to explore the possibility of a medical leave, he felt compelled to stay. There were guys missing arms and legs, and he was whole. "If I can get up and go on, I should," he told Jen over the phone.

In February 2005, he was promoted to captain. A few weeks later, his deployment was over. He was sent back to his unit at Ft. Buchanan. On his health assessment form, he wrote in small, shaky handwriting: "I saw a lot of dead dismembered bodies and I have nightmares often. . . . My back is in pain EVERY day."

A psychiatric evaluation noted his risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

He called Jen in New York. She was alarmed by his weak voice, and when he didn't call the next day, she jumped on a flight to San Juan. When she got to his apartment, she barely recognized him. He was stooped and shuffled slowly.

"Oh, thank God you're here," he said.

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