ANCHORAGE — John Mayo had mayhem etched in his skin. I noticed it when I first saw him in the lobby of the Daily News. Sleeve tattoos. Black skulls, explosions and flames. Demon drill sergeants. A rifle made to look like a deadly cartoon.
He introduced himself and his wife, Ellie. He carried their baby, Cason, in a car seat. I showed them into a room where we could talk. Mayo limped when he walked and held his shoulders tight, his T-shirt flagging over muscle and bone.
I asked them to come by after speaking with his mother-in-law. She had called asking for help. She told me he had been kicked out of the Army for committing a crime he didn't remember.
It was late August. It had been about a month since he'd left the Army. He was discharged for shoplifting at the Base Exchange. Now they were broke. Neither he nor Ellie had a job. They were halfway homeless, camped out in a house under construction in Wasilla.
Mayo pushed a piece of paper across the table. It was written by the defense attorney at his military discharge proceeding. It summarized his record as a soldier. He deployed to Iraq from Fort Richardson in 2006 with about 3,500 others in the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. He was in Iraq for more than a year.
The document said Mayo had never been in serious trouble before. On the day in April he was accused of shoplifting, the document said, he was heavily medicated for post-traumatic stress disorder and a knee injury. He had Army-written prescriptions for painkillers, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-psychotic medications.
"Mayo has no recollection of committing the larceny," his lawyer wrote.
Mayo told me he had been having periods of amnesia since he started taking medications in Iraq. His attorney told him there wasn't enough evidence to convince a judge he didn't steal on purpose. So instead of going through with a court-martial trial and risking jail time, Mayo agreed to an "Other Than Honorable" discharge.
The decision cost him his job, his medical care, his home and, potentially, future benefits from the Veterans Administration. Now he regretted it. He said he wished he'd fought the Army.
Mayo's voice stayed steady until he started describing his family's eviction from their house on Fort Richardson. A housing supervisor surprised them just before dinner, he said. Spaghetti was in the crock pot. Cason was in his highchair. All three were ordered out into the yard.
I looked at him from across the table. His face was whittled sharp. I asked how old he was.
"Twenty-two, ma'am," he answered.
He said he quit taking all the medication. But he was still having nightmares. Ellie asked him to show me his arms. He turned his palms up. Pink slash marks sliced his tattoos. Once he knew he was leaving the Army, he said, he cut himself.
He said he thought he might be worth more to his family dead.
INVISIBLE SCARS OF WAR
I gave them phone numbers for people I knew at social service agencies. They promised they would call. I wasn't sure what to make of their story. I've heard a lot of shocking stories from people in the lobby at the Daily News. And I have dealt with plenty of people convicted of crimes. Most had a story about being wrongly accused, but when I started looking at the facts the stories unraveled.
I reached Mayo's military lawyer and the Army public affairs office, but neither would give me more information than I had. The prosecuting attorney sent an e-mail saying Mayo was "charged with committing larceny of items of a value of more than $500.00 on 16 April 2009. The charges alleged that he stole assorted items from the Elmendorf Base Exchange, including an iPod, an MP3 player, and a bucket of kitty litter, among other items." There were no details about how he was caught or whether he was medicated at the time.
I needed more facts. Was this a simple case of a soldier who got caught shoplifting who now was facing the consequences? Or was it more complicated than that? Is it possible that someone could do something like that and not remember it? I started doing some research on post-traumatic stress disorder.
I called Jenne Beathe, a clinical psychologist who specializes in PTSD and has worked with traumatized veterans in Anchorage. I told her Mayo's story. She said it sounded familiar.
"Certainly not every traumatized soldier comes back and commits crimes, but it's not uncommon after returning from a war environment that some can get into legal trouble," she said. "You see most commonly substance-abuse related crimes, mistakes while intoxicated. It can be violence at home, violence in the community, DUIs, other drug-related activity."
Being traumatized hurts soldiers' coping abilities, she said. And when they can't cope, they may turn to alcohol or other drugs. If they're taking additional prescribed medications at the same time, the picture gets very complex, she said. Poverty and isolation make everything worse.
I asked her if it was possible Mayo didn't remember. She said it was. Soldiers with PTSD and brain injuries can report periods of impaired memory even when they aren't on medication, she said. Medication and alcohol can potentially exacerbate those problems.
Traumatized soldiers come back with complex mental health issues that make it hard to go back to an ordered life after living in the chaos of a war zone, she said. They can't calm down. They can't concentrate. They are flooded with memories. They have nightmares and flashbacks, depression, anxiety and paranoia. Some "check out," disassociating from reality, doing things they don't remember later. It can be disabling, she said.
"I've had veterans say to me, 'I feel contaminated,' and I think that's a good description," she said. "It's like, don't get too close to me because my suffering will spill over onto you."
Some recover. For others, like those still dealing with PTSD 40 years after the Vietnam War, the condition can be chronic, causing an inability to work, to parent, to engage in relationships. It can ruin a life.
I looked for statistics on PTSD and came across a 2008 study from the Rand Corp. It said almost 20 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan still reported signs of PTSD or depression. Twenty percent of the Anchorage-based soldiers who deployed to Iraq with Mayo would be 700.
"These people are married and they have kids," Beathe told me. "The effects in the community are exponential."
BOMB BLASTS AND BODY BAGS
From the outside, the house where Mayo and Ellie now live in Wasilla seemed like all of the other large, well-kept homes on their street. It was three stories with a sloping roof and wide face of windows. But when I looked closer, I could see it was hollow. Plastic poked around the window frames.
Ellie's father is a carpenter, and he has been working on the house all summer, living with her mother in a small shed on the property.
Mayo and Ellie led me and photographer Erik Hill through the main room. It was round and full of light, with a grand staircase. Our footsteps echoed. I could see some shampoo bottles lined up in the tub of a partially finished bathroom on the second floor. It was about a week after they'd come to my office.
I followed them up the staircase, past a cat curled on the landing, and then up another narrow set of stairs to the top floor. They pushed aside a camouflage sleeping bag that hung across a doorway. There was a mat covered with blankets, a portable crib, a small plug-in heater, a microwave and a television.
Mayo had found a job with a contractor and had some calls back from a couple of big-box stores where he had applied. Ellie had signed up for classes to become a nursing assistant. They'd called some of the numbers I gave them. But they were still broke. Cason stared at me through the mesh of the crib with wide eyes the color of silt.
I asked Mayo to tell me about Iraq. It was the first of several conversations we had about his time there. Each time the dates and locations were vague, but his descriptions of what he said he did and saw came in detail. Much of it was backed up in a pile of documents he kept with him in a green backpack.
He told me he worked on convoys based mostly out of Fallujah. They carried supplies and prisoners in trucks over Iraqi streets and highways. Sometimes, he was a gunner with a 50-caliber machine gun in a turret on a Humvee. On the roads, they were automatic targets. People called them "rolling coffins," he said.
He would stay up for 48 hours, drinking energy drinks to keep alert, he said. He still won't drive over potholes. That's where insurgents used to hide explosives. Notes in his health records said blasts hit his convoy at least eight times. He told me he lost count.
He saw soldiers shot and blown up, he told me. Once, he said, he saw an Iraqi who had been beheaded inside a car. He said he got brain matter on his boots in an explosion that killed a soldier he knew. He loaded body bags into trucks. In his dreams, all of it mixes together, a long string of gory scenes, he said. It's been almost two years, but he still wakes up screaming. In the dark, Ellie repeats, "You're in Anchorage," until he starts saying it back.
WEDDING WHILE ON LEAVE
When I asked her to tell me about the last few years, Ellie's voice went raw with fatigue. She is 23. She's in charge of the paperwork. She organizes child care and stays on guard against his mood swings. Recently she started pulling night shifts at a bar to make extra money.
She has a tough love attitude about PTSD, she told me.
"I try to stay joking about it," she said. "Because if I start freaking out, he's going to freak out worse."
But sometimes if it's really bad, if he's panicked, she'll lie with him until he calms down.
When Ellie met Mayo, she said, she liked him right away. He told me it was on his 18th birthday. His friends took him to Fantasies on 5th, an under-21 strip club. She was dancing there. He was confident, she said. He had a Southern accent. He didn't give her too much attention like some of the customers at the club. The second time she saw him, she put her number in his phone. Eventually he called. They went on a few dates. A few months passed. He deployed.
"I told him not to expect me to wait for him," Ellie told me. "But I accidentally waited for him."
He gave her a ring before he left, she said. And over the months of worrying about him and waiting for him to call, what had been a casual relationship recalibrated. She told him she would marry him over the telephone. They had a simple wedding while he was on leave and ate dinner with her family at the Moose's Tooth Pub. He'd only been in Iraq six months, but he was already edgy and uncomfortable with crowds, she said.
"He was tore up," she told me. "I thought once he got back home and saw me, it was going to change."
But it never really changed, she said.
'I LOST MY SON'
I called his mother, Cathy Mayo, at her house in Byram, Miss., outside Jackson. She told me she raised him and his brother alone. She worked in the telecommunications business, she said. But now she's on disability. She took me through a list of illnesses that cause her chronic pain.
Mayo was a good boy, she told me. Smart. But when he became a teenager he got rebellious. He dropped out of high school. Totaled his car. She drove him to the recruiter. She said she signed papers for him to enter the Army when he was 17. He didn't want to go, but eventually he told her he liked it, she said.
I asked him about it later. He said the Army was good for him.
"Mississippi, there's nothing but trouble," he said. "There was no other options. I got no education other than a GED. I'm not working at McDonald's."
I asked Cathy if her son had changed while he was in Iraq. She said it made him quiet and too nervous to read. I asked if she regretted encouraging him to join. She said she did. She felt he'd been broken by it, then abandoned.
"What they did to him, you don't do it to a dog," she said. "I lost my son."
She told me he called her while he was cutting himself in his house on Fort Richardson after the discharge in July. She said he told her he loved her and that he was bleeding and wanted to die. I asked her if she called the authorities. She started to weep over the telephone.
"I didn't know who to call," she said in a tiny voice.
Mayo told later me he didn't remember talking to her.
'THINGS JUST WENT BERSERK-O'
Mayo's closest Army friend is Tom Schoettler, who goes by the nickname "Shooter." I met him one afternoon at the Starbucks in the Northway Mall Carrs-Safeway. He and Mayo became friends at Fort Richardson before they went to Iraq. They'd been through a lot together. He told me they were both in a convoy when another Fort Richardson soldier, Sgt. Shawn Adams, was killed.
Schoettler is 27. Unlike Mayo, he attended some college. He described himself as a "squared away" soldier. But when he got back from Iraq, "things just went berserk-o," he said.
Schoettler said he couldn't relax once he got home. He lay awake obsessing about situations where people were killed. He had seizures related to a head injury. Depression weighed on him. He started drinking, he said, which wasn't like him.
Schoettler's mother, who is a doctor in San Francisco, and a politically connected aunt worked with Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office to get him into an inpatient treatment program for PTSD in California, he said. He spent nine months there. Now he's on his way to getting a medical discharge from the Army in December.
"I see a lot of people literally going through the struggles I'm going through and not getting the help I got," he said.
In California, a doctor prescribed Schoettler marijuana to help with his anxiety and PTSD symptoms. It worked, he said. He quit taking the handful of pills he'd been prescribed. But when he got back to Anchorage, he was disciplined and demoted for failing a drug test, he said.
Schoettler was warm and frank, but the more we talked, something felt a little off. At one point I asked him when he thought he'd be out of the military. He pulled out a little notebook and flipped though it. Then he read a date out loud.
"But that's today," I said.
He apologized, a little embarrassed. He went back to the notebook for a minute and then gave up. About then I noticed his pupils were blown wide. I asked what he was taking. He listed his medications. An anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety pills, anti-seizure meds, drugs for attention deficit disorder. He couldn't smoke pot, but there he was, trying to function on what was prescribed by military doctors, sitting in Safeway with no idea what day it was.
Schoettler told me he showed up when the Army kicked Mayo and Ellie out of their house. He was there with Ellie the night Mayo tried to kill himself. Mayo was mentally ill, combat made him that way, and now there was nothing for him, Schoettler said. It wasn't fair, he told me. There should have been more help for Mayo, he said.
"The Army pretty much said, 'Thank you, goodbye, you're out of the club,' " he said.
HEADED FOR ANOTHER DEPLOYMENT
I wrote a lot of stories about Alaska-based soldiers who deployed to Iraq with Mayo and Schoettler but didn't make it back. I read their MySpace pages and talked to their mothers and sat in living rooms with their wives and children. But I never thought about how their deaths rolled through the rest of the Army, about the scars they left on the minds of the witnesses. The 4th Brigade lost 53 soldiers during that deployment. I wondered how many more came back like Schoettler and Mayo, alive but not the same. Now the brigade is in Afghanistan.
Mayo told me he felt himself change in Iraq. First, he couldn't sleep. Noises made him jumpy. It was involuntary, he said. Like a reflex. Ellie said she heard it in his voice. He was given a number of medications, including a sleeping pill, he said, that put him into such a stupor he once slept through it when a building nearby was blown up by a mortar.
His behavior toward Ellie became erratic.
"He would call me and he would cuss me out and be screaming at me," she said. "Then 10 minutes later he would call and be like, 'Hey, babe, what's up?' "
He told her he was leaving her, they got back together and then he broke it off again.
One night in Iraq, he had a strange incident, almost like sleepwalking except he was awake. He gathered the weapons from other soldiers' rooms. They found him in his bed in a daze, surrounded by the guns, he said.
He re-enlisted. That's the thing about the Army, he told me. It messed him up, "but I still loved it."
When he came back to Anchorage, he learned he'd been diagnosed with PTSD, he said. He started drinking to calm his mind before bed. He kept a gun with him at all times, he said. Ellie, who was pregnant, told me she was constantly watchful of things that might set him off. People coming up from behind him. Women with their heads covered. While he was driving, sometimes he went into another world, she said. He'd grip the wheel and sit up straight in the driver's seat, his body tense. A few times, she said, he woke up fighting.
Cason was born last September. Mayo started having panic attacks. Ellie made him go to counseling. He was given more sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants. He was ordered to get rid of his guns. Despite all that, he was headed for another yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with 3,500 other Fort Richardson soldiers. But then he quit showing up for work and was moved to the Warrior Transition Unit for soldiers recovering from injuries.
Mayo landed wrong on a training parachute jump and injured his knee. That's when he started filling prescriptions for narcotic pain medicines. He soon began taking more than he needed, he said. Swallowing pills didn't seem to have an effect. He told me he tried snorting OxyContin. He told me Cason cried whenever he came near.
Weeks before the shoplifting incident in April, he filled prescriptions for the painkiller Percocet, the antidepressant Effexor and the sleeping pill Ambien, according to medical records. He said he was also taking Valium for anxiety. He said lawyers played a video of him stealing things inside the BX. He said he didn't recognize his own face.
'FOR THE GOOD OF THE ARMY'
Mayo and Ellie keep half a dozen folders in the old green backpack. Health records. Pages of doodling. Articles about suicide. Pay stubs. Evaluations from his sergeants. Copies of certificates for military honors.
Going through it, I found a list of the things he had stolen: one iPod, two Zune mp3 players, a computer battery charger, a DVD player, a container of cat litter. Total: $1,031.18. It was stuff anyone would want.
Maybe he took it on purpose and was using his illness as an excuse. Maybe he was too depressed to care. Would he have done it had he not been to Iraq?
I couldn't answer that.
I talked to him and Ellie a dozen times over the past several weeks. The last time was Wednesday. Ellie was sleeping off a night shift into the afternoon, waiting for school to start in two weeks. John was still working his construction job even though he has trouble walking on his bad knee. He didn't have a solid plan for what he was going to do once the snow flies. They were still living in the half-built house.
I keep thinking about the end of my visit with them in late August, at the house in Wasilla, when Ellie showed me a picture of Mayo in Cason's baby book. He'd sent it from Iraq. He was tan and young and confident, smiling in his uniform. Then I looked at him sitting on a blanket that night, 30 pounds lighter, his thin tattooed arms across his knees. I could barely see the resemblance.
Mayo was wearing his Army jacket. I asked him why he still wore it now that he wasn't in the military. It was a good jacket, he said. He didn't have another one. He touched the olive fabric, ran his hand over the fuzzy spot on his chest where there used to be a patch that showed his rank. Specialist.
"They told me I was discharged for the good of the Army," he said.
I watched his face go blank, then fill with anger.
"I gave you good," he said, talking to someone who wasn't there.