WASHINGTON — As 4,000 North Carolina National Guard soldiers bid farewell Tuesday for their second tour in Iraq, they head out without one of the brigades most honored platoon sergeants.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens, who earned a Silver Star for valor during a Baqubah firefight in 2004, isnt going back this time.
Instead, he will remain in North Carolina, living with his wife and son in the small town of Ahoskie, continuing his work at the Guards armory in Williamston.
He 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.
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, he described the difficulties he faced getting help for combat-related stress.
Stephens also wasnt sure whether he should return to Iraq.
Last fall, he was cleared by an Army medical doctor for the brigades second tour.
But he also carried paperwork from two psychiatrists — a civilian doctor and a Veterans Affairs doctor — that 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 didnt 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 25 percent of National Guard soldiers returned from Iraq with symptoms of post-tramatic stress disorder during the wars first three years.
Hes a good guy, hes a hero and Im sorry to see hes 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 its not in a soldiers best interest (to go to Iraq), were 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. Its inherently stressful, Hunt said. We dont want bad things to happen to good people, so wed rather identify people during training.
Stephens, who still suffers nightmares and other symptoms, hasnt 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 dont know, he said. My familys happy. Theyre happy Im home, so we go with that, I guess. I think Id rather be with my guys.
Hell see them one last time Tuesday, at a farewell ceremony in Fayetteville. Then they leave for Iraq, and he returns to Ahoskie.
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