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A soldier's search for serenity marred by the ghosts of Iraq

The war at home
Second of three chapters:
By Moni Basu, CNN
The war at home

On a winter's day, Wendy Parham drove her husband from a Georgia military hospital back home to Social Circle, Georgia. He stared out the window at the tall pines that line Interstate 20 -- and cried.

Wendy thought he was overwhelmed by the greenery after so many months in the Iraqi dust. He kept searching the road, watching for other cars. He cringed when they hit a bump or saw dead animals, which were used as booby traps in Iraq.

At home, he couldn't sleep through the night. Sleeping meant his guard was down. And that meant nightmares.

Sometimes, he encountered dead insurgents in his dreams. But when he pulled the scarves off their heads, he peered into the faces of his fallen friends.

Thousands of other veterans were struggling with post-combat stress issues. Spc. Shane Parham was not alone, but he felt that way.

He had left behind the battlegrounds of Iraq, but the war at home was just beginning.

The Army sent him back to Georgia in December 2005 for medical treatment, halfway through the yearlong Iraq tour of his Army National Guard brigade. He had suffered a severe knee injury when his Humvee hit a bomb crater in the road and rolled over. Parham, a gunner, was sticking out of the hatch; it was all he could do to keep from being ejected.

He arrived at Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon wracked with guilt. He was safe in Georgia, he thought, while his buddies were still risking death on the roads of Iraq. Eight had died in just six days in July 2005.

Parham underwent the first of two surgeries. But his kneecap, like the rest of him, would never be the same.

Before he could even settle back into life's routine, the governor summoned him to the state Capitol in Atlanta to represent his brigade. In his 2006 State of the State address, Sonny Perdue saluted Georgia's men and women still serving in Iraq. He asked Parham to stand in the legislative gallery as everyone applauded his heroism.

Parham didn't really want to be there. He had hoped to come home and slink into the shadows. The governor should have recognized his buddies killed by insurgents' bombs, he thought.

Wendy stood by his side, proud of the man he had become. Like him, she was focused on getting back to the life they had made together.

They had met more than a decade ago at a restaurant called Cowboys, where he taught line dancing. Only 18, Parham was smitten from the very first sight of the tall, dark-haired beauty, four years older than him.

"Mama," he said, when he arrived home that night. "I just met your future daughter-in-law." And he made a pledge: "God, if you let me be with her, I will never let her go."

They married six months later, in 1995, and built a house on the family farm, atop a hill just down the road from his parents.

Parham cherished being back among the lush fields and woods of Georgia. He'd always said he was a simple country boy; didn't need much to keep him happy.

From his spot on the hill, he couldn't even see another house, let alone people. He liked the solitude and the quiet of the night when the only sound was the chirping of crickets.

Sometimes, he propped up his head with his hands on his pillow and watched his wife and baby sleep.

Wendy was grateful her husband had made it home safely. But in the months after the governor's ceremony, she began to notice the ways he'd changed.

He'd always had a short temper, she thought. But now his anger was amplified. He used to love

cutting up with people. But he began keeping to himself. He didn't even go to the girls' softball games or to church anymore.

She missed the man who laughed at the dinner table and was the center of attention at family gatherings. Crowds, he said, made him nervous.

In June 2006, after his brigade came home, Parham was honored again with eight other Walton County soldiers, most of them law enforcement officers. The ceremony took place in Monroe, the hometown for his Guard unit.

He told me that he dreamed of climbing back into a sheriff's patrol car like his buddies. But his knee was a problem. Besides, he no longer trusted himself with a gun.

He was done playing God.

"I didn't want to be responsible for whether someone lives or dies," he said. "Iraq was too much of that."

He also knew he could not be fair to everyone. He left Iraq with an admitted prejudice against Muslims. In them, he saw his friends' killers.

"You had to hate them all to do your job effectively," he said. "You became bitter to what you thought was your enemy."

Parham self-medicated with alcohol. He went on drinking binges and picked fights in bars. His mother, Vikki, didn't know how to help her only son.

"His body came back but his mind was still over there," she told me one afternoon. She picked up a baby picture of Shane and gazed at it.

"You look at his eyes now, and it's like he is looking right through you."

Iraq played like reruns of a horror movie in his head. He told his father: "Daddy, God is going to punish me one day."

His body came back but his mind was still over there. You look at his eyes now, and it's like he is looking right through you.
--Vikki Parham, Shane's mother

Mike worried for his son. "Don't turn into an alcoholic. Don't be like your daddy," he said about his own return from the war in Vietnam.

Parham knew his father had taken a bullet, but Mike had never talked much about what he saw there. Mike's mother, Bonnie Faye, had comforted him, as well as her husband, who served in World War II, when nightmares followed them home. The Army had told her husband, her son -- and now her grandson -- to kill. And she believed the consequences were evident.

When Parham was a little boy, he had asked his grandpa: "How many Germans did you kill?"

"I hope I didn't kill any," he replied.

Parham wrestled with the thought that he would not be able to give the same answer to his daughters. A battle in Al Salam, a village on the outskirts of Baghdad, haunted him. He believed Iraqi civilians were among the casualties.

Some days, he escaped to the north Georgia mountains, where he liked to drive along the banks of the Tallulah River. But part of him always remained along the Euphrates, hiding in papyrus and palm groves, waiting for a kill.

Diagnoses, and denial

Shortly after Parham returned from Iraq, doctors at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs hospital diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. About 20 percent of all the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The symptoms commonly include sleep disturbance, nightmares, anxiety, irritability, anger and depression.

Parham could check all of the above. Several doctors confirmed that Parham's PTSD was severe.

He also suffered a traumatic brain injury in a rocket explosion near his tent at Camp Striker. He remembered bleeding from his ears and going deaf for three days. Doctors later told Vikki about her son's frontal lobe injury. Think of his brain as a coffee cup that's been shaken vigorously. Some of the coffee spilled out; the rest settled back not quite the way it was before.

Blasts are the leading cause of death and injury among U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The intense pressure in a blast zone can rattle the brain, as delicate and mushy as Jell-O, and result in concussions that range from severe to so mild that they are frequently undiagnosed in initial examinations.

In documents submitted to a Georgia court, the VA's Dr. Stephen Byrd said Parham suffered from "severe PTSD and depression coupled with neurologic impairment due to brain injury that renders him, if not treated, at high risk of both suicide and loss of control of anger."

The VA considered him 100 percent disabled, according to his medical records. He needed antidepressants, mood relaxers and sleeping pills to get through the day.

He didn't talk much about his war experiences. Who would want to hear about how it felt to smell the charred flesh of your friends, or to pull the trigger with impunity?

I can't find beauty anywhere. The power of this place has a profound effect on my emotions.
--In a letter Parham wrote from Camp Striker, Baghdad

He did tell Wendy and his parents that he believed he had killed a woman and her children in a firefight outside Baghdad.

"He said he took somebody's wife and children from them," Wendy said. "It took over him."

Parham felt like an infectious disease; he kept to himself so as not to taint others. Too ashamed of his problems to keep up regular counseling sessions at the VA, he did what a lot of soldiers do. He withdrew even more.

At first, Wendy told herself time would heal her husband. Eventually, she tried to tell him that he needed to help himself. He said she was nagging.

So many military marriages disintegrate after a soldier returns. Parham was determined not to become one of those statistics. He knew that sometimes he scared his wife, but he thought he could keep it together enough to hold on to what mattered most -- his family. They were his sanctuary.

Anger and ghosts

Despite his demons, he began a new life on his farm.

In Iraq, he'd learned about Islamic customs and practices and, though he despised Muslims, he decided he could make a lucrative business by raising goats and sheep and selling them to halal meat suppliers.

Almost a year after his return home, Parham took me to a halal meat operation off Interstate 20, where livestock were slaughtered in ways prescribed by Islam. He seemed proud of his business strategy. At least one good thing could come out of his time in Iraq, he thought.

He had also met Mobin Shah, a Muslim man from Fiji who helped him understand that Islam was not what he had seen in insurgents.

Parham allowed Shah, whom he affectionately called Mo, and 60 of his Muslim friends to slaughter goats on his farm for the holy month of Ramadan.

But when the Muslim owner of the halal meat supply company failed to pay Parham a $2,000 bill, the old rage took over. It drove him to get in his truck, hurtle down the highway and shoot seven of the man's sheep.

When he told me what he had done, I thought for the first time that he needed help. His troubles began to surface more and more.

One night, he was eating dinner at Ryan's Steakhouse in Athens when a stranger came up to his table and introduced himself. Jeff Brunson, the man said.

Brunson's son Gus was one of the eight Alpha Company men who died in Iraq. The elder Brunson recognized Parham from a photograph. He asked if he'd known his son.

"Yes, sir," Parham answered. "He was a good man."

Jeff Brunson wanted Parham to tell him what the U.S. military had not.

"Did Gus suffer?"

"No," Parham assured him.

The father's face, his mannerisms, the way he talked -- everything reminded Parham of his friend. It all started coming back. His mind jumped from here to there, and back again.

He smelled that unmistakable odor of burning flesh. He saw all the images he had tried so hard to forget. He felt guilty. Why had Gus died while he survived? Gus had children, too. Why do they have to go through life without their daddy?

Later that night, Parham got into a fight at a bar over something as mundane as what seat he could occupy. He had always been one to pick fights over the smallest things. Now, that came even easier.

At home at 3 a.m., Parham called his friend Russ Mayfield, a police officer in a nearby town. Mayfield rushed over to find Parham sitting in his truck in the dirt driveway that leads up to his house, according to a police report from that night.

He was writing something on a piece of paper. He had a Smith & Wesson 5906 handgun.

By the time Parham stepped out of the truck, other officers had arrived on the scene.

"Shoot me," he said to his friend, Sgt. Kirk McLeroy. "Please, someone, shoot me."

The police report said Parham walked toward McLeroy.

"I'm tired of living with it," he said.

Mayfield managed to grab Parham's gun. But Parham told him he would try it again. Next time, he said, maybe he would do it in Atlanta and make the SWAT team kill him.

Parham saw and did things in Iraq that troubled him. At home, he could not forget.
I know there's an 18-year-old in Iraq right now who is ... going to come home like me.
-- Shane Parham

A few days later, Parham called me from Peachford Hospital in Atlanta, a mental health facility that treats a range of addictions and psychiatric disorders. I drove up to see him, but the hospital only allowed family members to visit.

That day, I reread a letter he had sent me from Camp Striker the year before. It was on lined writing paper, every letter penned with the precision of a computer font.

"I can't find beauty anywhere," he wrote. "The power of this place has a profound effect on my emotions."

There was talk then of President George W. Bush asking for a surge in troops in Iraq. Parham's words made me ponder how many more men and women would go to war. How would it affect them?

"Remember the State of the State address where I was the guest of honor?" he said when he called me from the hospital. "Well, they didn't do very much for me.

"I know there's an 18-year-old in Iraq right now who is seeing things and is going to come home like me."

In the midst of his own personal hell, Parham was sounding an alarm for others -- for soldiers yet to come home.

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A war on two fronts

War by the numbers

Iraq war

Ramona & Robert Nichols Began in March 2003. Official combat operations ended last August but 47,000 U.S. troops remain as transitional forces. They are scheduled to begin coming home this summer.

Afghanistan war

Rebecca Nichols Began in October 2001. About 90,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed.

2.2 million

Number of troops that have served in the nation's longest running wars, according to the Pentagon.

Invisible wounds

Combat stress

Rebecca Nichols About 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from a psychological condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Symptoms include sleep disturbance, nightmares, anxiety, irritability, anger and depression.

Brain injury

Rebecca Nichols About 68 percent of the combat wounded also suffer from traumatic brain injury or TBI. This is a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers are subjected to blasts and concussions. A 2008 Rand study said: "Closed head wounds from blasts, which can damage the brain without leaving an external mark, are especially prevalent in Iraq." If detected, both PTSD and TBI are treatable.

Alcohol abuse

12 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans report alcohol problems on post-deployment health assessment forms. (Source: 2009 Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans of America (IAVA) study)

Only 0.2 percent were referred to treatment. One reason for the low treatment rate could be because it is not confidential. (Source: IAVA study)


1,100 members of the armed forces took their own lives between 2005 and 2009 -- an average of one suicide every 36 hours. (Source: Department of Defense task force study)

6,500 veterans commit suicide each year. (Source: The Veterans Administration) Vets make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for about 20 percent of suicides.

Fallen friends

Eight of Spc. Shane Parham's buddies were killed in bombings in July 2005. After that, Parham was driven by anger. Click each soldier's photo to view his profile on CNN's Home and Away.
Top row, from left: Spc. Jacques Brunson, Staff Sgt. Carl Fuller, Sgt. James Kinlow, Sgt. John Thomas. Bottom row, from left: Sgt. 1st Class Victor Anderson, Sgt. David Jones, Sgt. Jonathon Haggin, Sgt. Ronnie Shelley

How this story was reported

Moni Basu met the subject of this story, Spc. Shane Parham, in Iraq in July 2005 while she was embedded with his unit as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She witnessed many of the scenes contained in this story and interviewed Parham numerous times over the next six years to chronicle his combat experience and his re-entry into life back home in America.

Among the others she interviewed were his fellow National Guard soldiers, his former boss and colleagues in the sheriff's department where he worked before going to war, his parents and sister, and his wife, Wendy.

Basu also examined numerous documents, including Parham's personnel and medical records, and police reports detailing incidents that occurred during the past six years. Basu attended some of Parham's court hearings, and visited him in a psychiatric hospital and in jail.

Rich Addicks, a freelance photographer and videographer, first met Shane Parham in 2006 when he photographed and interviewed him for a special section in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Almost five years later, Addicks began chronicling Parham's experience at home after the war.

Between October 2010 and February 2011, Addicks spent time with Parham on his small farm outside Social Circle, Georgia; he also accompanied him to court and to a local bar on karaoke night. The interview that forms the backbone of the video took place in Parham's home and lasted almost two hours.

Addicks says that in his 30-plus years as a journalist, it was one of the most moving interviews he was ever part of. "By allowing me to share his story, Shane hoped it would help others suffering from the same scars of war."