North Carolinian seeks a kind of peace in return to war

Sergeant First Class Chad Stephens' North Carolina Army National Guard company came under attack in Baqubah, Iraq in 2004.
Sergeant First Class Chad Stephens' North Carolina Army National Guard company came under attack in Baqubah, Iraq in 2004.

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens is returning to his comfort zone.

After a farewell ceremony in Williamston, N.C., Stephens and his platoon left Monday for intensive training. Then they'll join thousands of soldiers from the North Carolina National Guard's 30th Heavy Combat Brigade for a second deployment to Iraq.

Next spring, four years after leaving the Middle East, Stephens will return to war.

"I got a long road back to Iraq, a long road," Stephens said. "I'm a soldier. I can take anything they throw at me. I just got to get in the mindset, and I'm good."

Stephens says the National Guard has worked hard to address the mental health problems that trouble him and thousands of other returning soldiers.

But in the civilian world, life isn't so easy. Nightmares still plague him. He jolts awake in his bedroom in rural Ahoskie and can't fall back to sleep. He retreats to a converted barn behind his home.

Seems like he never gets enough rest.

"I still don't go in stores," he said recently. "I still don't go in crowds. I avoid people. I still bypass Ahoskie; I take the back roads. I sit in that barn, drink cold beer and watch TV."

McClatchy profiled Stephens, 41, a year ago in a series called "The Promise." The series followed Stephens, a platoon sergeant who risked his life to save a soldier and later suffered from a mental anguish he couldn't understand, seeking help from an Army ill-equipped to give it.

Stephens had been awarded the Silver Star, the Army's third-highest medal for heroism, after pulling his gunner out of the hulking Bradley vehicle in the midst of a firefight in Baqubah on June 24, 2004.

The gunner, Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr., died. He was 20.

Months earlier, back in North Carolina, Stephens had promised his soldiers' families that he would bring everyone home. That was nearly five years ago.

Stephens, with more than two decades of military service, could have retired this past year. His wife wanted him to. But Stephens felt responsible for his men.

If I don't lead them, he asked, who will?

After returning from Iraq, Stephens suffered nightmares, spent nights drinking in the barn and listened to the fears of younger soldiers who, like Stephens, couldn't shake the imagery of that battle in Baqubah.

His cell phone rang constantly. Sometimes the caller was Patricia Desens, the mother of the young gunner, who wanted to hear stories about her son's work in Iraq and the last moments of his life.

Stephens finally reached out to a civilian psychiatrist and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health has said that more than 40 percent of returning National Guard troops require mental health treatment but that less than 10 percent receive care.

Last year's series ended with Stephens uncertain about his future: Should he stay in the military, protecting his men? Or should he retire and stay home with his wife and son?

"Well, I thought about it," Stephens said recently in an interview.

He sat down at his computer one night last spring and looked up motorcycle repair schools in Pennsylvania and Florida. He sent for details, and the schools returned packets of information.

He dreamed of opening his own motorcycle shop in Ahoskie.

Meanwhile, some of Stephens' men from the first tour in Iraq got out of the military.

One moved to Pennsylvania. Another became a cop. Another got a medical leave. Some are getting help.

Others stayed. New soldiers enlisted — young men carrying the same bluster of youth that Desens had before going into war.

"I think the command wants me there because they figure I've been there and know the deal," Stephens said.

Stephens' platoon won't leave the United States for the Middle East until April, after months of training. He thinks Iraq is safer than it was in 2004. He worries his men will become complacent.

What if there is another firefight, another battle like the ambush in Baqubah?

"It's my job," he said. "I won't make any promises this time. But no matter how bad it gets, I'll be there."

Stephens could have retired before orders came down for this deployment. But he never did. He is under stop-loss now, meaning that once orders come down about a deployment, soldiers can't leave the military.

"So nobody's going nowhere," Stephens said.

Stephens talked to his psychiatrists, and they detailed his problems: jumpiness, nightmares, avoidance issues.

He told them: I'm only like that in the civilian world. In the military world, I'm good.

He talked to his wife, Rosalie, and said, "Look, let me go one more time, and I'll come back and I'll retire."

She doesn't want to hear it.

"He's got so many medical reasons wrong with him," Rosalie Stephens said in an interview. "He does not need to go over there again. To me, he's like a ticking time bomb."

He talks about death so much, she said. She imitated his voice: "'If I go over there, I'm not afraid of death. I look death in the eye.'

"It's like he's bragging or something," she said.

But Stephens passed his medical review.

Doctors talked to doctors, and they concluded Stephens is good to go. Rosalie suspects they lost some paperwork somewhere.

She called his civilian psychiatrist and his Veterans Affairs psychiatrist and asked: Is there anything they can do?

Soldiers will be asked again about their mental health before they leave for Iraq, said Maj. Tina Scott, the deputy state surgeon for the N.C. National Guard. Any hint that they are experiencing nightmares or anxiety brings a more intensive review.

Still, Scott said, many soldiers can deploy with post-traumatic stress syndrome, although their medications need to be watched carefully.

"Some soldiers might have leftover anxiety [from an earlier deployment]," she said. "Those guys are perfectly fine to redeploy. Where guys have depressive issues, that might limit their deployment."

The North Carolina National Guard has begun two new programs to boost the mental health of its soldiers.

One program, "Battlemind," tries to get soldiers thinking about how to deal with wartime experiences. The Army required it after studies showed that up to a quarter of returning troops were having mental health problems.

Already, Stephens said, he has noticed that at monthly briefings, leaders remind troops of the military suicide hotline and the importance of mental health.

"They're doing a lot more now even than they were doing a year ago," he said.

Another program, "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," is borrowed from Minnesota and tries to help families and troops cope together with the stresses of war. It, too, is being developed in National Guards across the country.

When the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team returns from Iraq in 2010, soldiers will be sent home for just 30 days rather than 90 days, said Maj. Matt Handley, spokesman for the N.C. National Guard.

Then, Handley said, the troops and their families will return to armories for informal debriefings to talk about their transition to the civilian world.

"There wasn't any of that before," Handley said. "It was, 'Do your post-deployment health assessment, turn it in. Let us know how you feel.' "

Talking about feelings doesn't always mesh with the macho culture of the military. But Stephens tells his men the same thing he began saying out loud about a year ago, as he was telling his story to McClatchy.

I'm getting help, he says. You can, too.

But after so much work, does he think he'll ever feel comfortable in the civilian world?

"Yeah ..." he said. "I don't know. ... I hope so."

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