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War hero to prisoner: Would all that he valued slip away?

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

The war hero's reputation fell hard around parts of Georgia.

Disorderly conduct. Obstruction of an officer. DUI. Since his return from Iraq, the former sheriff's deputy had found himself time and again on the other side of the law.

He was accused of taking a 12-pack of beer out of a convenience store on a Sunday, when alcohol sales are prohibited in Georgia, and almost ran over the store clerk with his truck. Twice, he tried to kill himself.

A year ago, an unexpected message popped up on my Facebook page. It was Spc. Shane Parham's sister, Mandi. Her brother was in jail.

He was incarcerated in neighboring Newton County, so he would not have to deal with former colleagues in the Walton County Sheriff's Office and jail.

They were tired of dealing with him.

Some whispered that his Iraq knee injury occurred during a volleyball game at Camp Striker, not a vehicle rollover. They suggested Parham was an angry man even before Iraq and was using battle scars as a crutch to get away with belligerent behavior.

Some of his fellow soldiers in Alpha company said Parham was making up his Iraq stories in a cry for attention.

Capt. Ty Vance of the sheriff's office said Parham developed an image as a whiner who was leading life with an "I deserve better" attitude. I asked him if he felt sorry for his former colleague.

"Not anymore," Vance said. "Not after the way he's handled things."

Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman felt his former employee could be a danger to society. He did not question Parham's psychiatric assessment -- post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury -- but said he had been given breaks by his friends in law enforcement. If he had not been a sheriff's deputy, if he had not served in Iraq, Parham would have already been locked up in the state penitentiary. Of that, Chapman was certain.

"There is a point where enough is enough," he said.

I asked if he had reached that point.

"I don't know."

When the latest round of trouble began, prosecutors said they were no longer taking any chances. They believed he was a deadly threat to himself and others.

I had not seen Parham in three years when I visited him in jail last May. I hardly recognized him. He had the same sadness on his face as the day I met him in Baghdad. Only, now he appeared more helpless, like a lost child.

"All my life, I've served - my community, my nation, God. Now, look at me," he said, hanging his head low.

He found his legal troubles humiliating. He was used to arresting people, not being arrested. It was tough to be on the other side, to be handcuffed and shackled and brought to face a judge.

But every time he thought he could clean up his act and get back on track, something happened. He said he couldn't stop his anger from taking control.

He had grown thin, the muscles on his arms deflated. Deep scars marred his face, the kind you might expect a soldier to suffer on the battlefield. But these came from his fights at home.

All my life, I've served -- my community, my nation, God. Now, look at me.
--Shane Parham, in jail in Newton County, Georgia

I thought of what Parham had told me years ago: "Dying is easy. Living's the hard part." He seemed an embodiment of those words now.

If you could see inside his head, you'd know he had suffered physical injury to the brain. But you'd also see Iraq's ghosts clouding every thought.

He had lost eight friends and believed he had killed innocent people. He couldn't stop thinking about it.

The one thing that had kept him going was his family, but now his marriage was disintegrating as well.

Growing distant

He and Wendy had had a fourth child, another daughter who they named Jaz. But Wendy felt her husband was detached, shirking his responsibilities.

She spent hours under the sun helping him tend his livestock. But when they returned to the house, she said, he slunk into a recliner and watched television. Sometimes, he even disappeared for days in the woods while she drowned in homework, softball games, baths, dinner.

"He never even asked me how my day was," she said.

They stuck it out, thinking time would fade Parham's wounds. But Wendy ached for the man she had married, and grew weary of his battles. She felt lonely, abandoned.

"Shane made me feel like nothing," she said. "He was no longer a part of me or my kids."

Everything spiraled out of control on Easter of last year.

They had gathered at the home of Parham's parents for lunch. After the meal, Parham returned

The war at home

to his house and, according to a police report, discovered messages on his computer suggesting Wendy was seeing other men.

Enraged by his discovery, Parham drove his truck back to his parents' house. He had a gun in his hand.

Wendy's sister, Meredith Owens, who was at the Parhams' that day, called the police to report a family fight.

The police report stated that Parham said his father took his pistol away from him. Parham said he would never threaten his wife with a weapon.

Wendy said, however, that he pulled the gun on her.

"Wendy is dead," Parham said, according to the statement Owens gave to police.

Shane made me feel like nothing. He was no longer a part of me or my kids.
--Wendy Parham

Wendy told me it was true that she had been involved with a man she met many years ago. She was resigned to keeping her marriage together for the sake of her children but had looked for love elsewhere.

But on that day, she said, she realized the marriage was over. Her husband had always had guns in his possession, but he had never threatened her with one.

"He took something from me that day," she told me. "He took my heart from me."

Police did not arrest Parham, but Wendy left the house with their four girls.

Parham drank himself numb and mixed alcohol with his medications. A week after Easter, he went missing from home. Frantic, his mother called the sheriff's department. She said he was despondent about not being able to see his daughters except on weekends. She believed he had taken a lot of pills.

Parham eventually spoke with his mother and drove back home, according to the police report. He had slashed his chest with a knife. His father helped wrap him in towels, and he was rushed by ambulance to a hospital.

He made a scene there, demanding he be allowed to leave the room to smoke. He pulled out his intravenous needle and was bleeding all over the room.

He asked to speak with his friend Lt. Charlie Dalton -- the two men had grown up together. But there was "no reasoning with Parham," he wrote in his report.

Parham asked how many officers it would take to fight him.

"I guess the three of us," Dalton said of himself and two deputies who were there.

"Let's get it on, then," Parham said, according to Dalton's report.

Parham was walking toward the officers when a deputy subdued him with a taser gun.

After several days in the hospital, Parham was allowed to return home. Then, while at a livestock auction, he said, he got a phone call from someone who said Wendy was involved with a family friend.

"If I catch you with my wife, everybody dies. You understand?" That was the message Parham left on the man's phone.

When the man informed police, Parham was arrested for "terroristic threats and acts." It was his second felony charge - the other had been for lunging at an officer after a parking lot altercation two years before.

The man he'd threatened wrote a letter to the presiding judge denying he was involved with Wendy and saying he did not want to press charges. He said he did not think "a man who served as a public safety officer himself or risked his own life to serve our country should be sitting in jail for trying to find out if his wife was out with another man."

The district attorney argued that if freed, Parham was likely to commit serious crimes. The court agreed, and the judge denied him bond until a mental evaluation could be completed.

On day 31 of his incarceration, a day after his 35th birthday, Parham felt he could no longer bear his plight.

He waited until his midday meal had been served. He knew it would be hours before anyone came to check on him again.

He took a sheet from his bed and hung himself.

He doesn't remember what happened, only that he regained consciousness in an ambulance. Prison officials later told him they found him two minutes away from a coffin.

The man he was

Held alone in a cell under suicide watch, Parham waited for a court hearing to determine whether he would remain behind bars or be admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. A state medical examiner had found him incompetent to stand trial.

He was allowed only a Bible and a plastic pen in his cell. He slept on a thin mattress on the floor, without a pillow.

Parham's lawyers argued that their client had yet to be convicted of any crime. They said he was not mentally equipped to function in society; that he deserved another chance, starting with the intensive treatment at the veterans hospital that he should have sought earlier.

"The defendant is an Iraqi war veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and various other physical injuries as a result of his service to the country," they said in court documents. "He is completely disabled as a result of his injuries."

The defendant is an Iraqi war veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury and various other physical injuries as a result of his service to the country. He is completely disabled as a result of his injuries.
--Defense attorney Lori Duff, in court documents

Acknowledge his service to country by giving him the service he needs, lawyer Lori Duff urged the judge.

"In jail, he's isolated," she said. "I can't imagine anything more stressful than that."

Parham broke down in court that day. He later told me he wanted his story to be known to help other veterans who were struggling like him.

About 20 percent of service members who've returned from Iraq and Afghanistan test positive for PTSD, studies show. They display the same symptoms as Parham and get into the same kind of trouble involving alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence. Many are at risk for suicide; some have gone on to commit serious crimes, including murder.

The toll combat has taken on America's military has even led to the creation of "veterans' courts," where service to country and war-related illnesses can be taken into account, though those courts usually deal with nonviolent offenders.

"We are able to make connections that the judicial system has not," said Carrie Bailey, program manager of the Veteran Trauma Court in Colorado.

In Georgia, there are no such courts yet.

The Superior Court judge in Parham's case eventually agreed to release him to a lockdown residency program at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Augusta. I spoke to him by phone over the July 4 weekend after he had already started counseling sessions. He hated it at first and counted time.

"It's been 54 days since I saw my kids," he said.

He was then moved to a 91-day residential treatment program for PTSD in mid-August. Psychologist Miriam Hancock would later report to the court that she met with Parham for 43 sessions, including two attended by his two eldest daughters, Bailey and Cammi.

Hospital staff told me Parham learned to cope with his anger, his paranoia. He said he discovered it wasn't always best to suck it up and go on, as the Army had taught him. He could think in healthier ways and rebuild himself.

When I visited him in Augusta, it was the most hopeful I had ever seen him. He had gained weight; he could even smile again. He was determined to make a new go at life.

He made it into the program because of his troubles, but he considered it a blessing. It was something he should have done a long time ago, he said.

What he liked most was that he was able to talk to other veterans who had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam. They understood him. He had finally found an outlet for his secrets.

Parham became an inspiration to Dave Werden, another Iraq war veteran enrolled in the VA program. Werden found Parham's frankness about his combat experiences refreshing. He looked upon Parham as a barometer. "If he fails," Werden said. "That means I can fail, too."

In documents submitted to the court, Hancock described Parham as a model student who developed good insight into the nature of his condition and how best to cope with it. She said he consistently accepted responsibility for his past actions.

More incarceration would only mean he would regress, she said. What Parham needed now was family support and routine follow-up visits at the VA for management of his PTSD.

"It is my clinical opinion," Hancock wrote, "that Mr. Parham is not at risk for violence toward himself or others."

In December 2010, the court allowed him to return home with a GPS locator and alcohol-monitoring cuffs around his ankles. If he went near the man he had threatened or drank too many beers, he would go back to jail. He had to pay the monthly $532 for the monitors himself -- expensive for a guy making it on military disability pay. But he was glad, he said, to be able to buy his freedom.

Before Christmas, he persuaded Wendy to move back in with him; to give him another chance. He took her and their daughters out to eat at the Tokyo restaurant in Monroe - the girls enjoyed the tabletop hibachi grills.

He wanted to show Wendy that he could still be involved, as a father and a husband. Any day now, he thought, the monitors would come off his legs and he could settle all his legal problems.

But the optimism quickly faded.

Wendy told him she just didn't love him anymore, that he had changed too much. In her mind, she had moved back in an effort to be civil at Christmas - for the sake of their daughters.

She felt guilty about leaving a man who was so vulnerable -- she knew that family was all he had left.

On a crisp, sun-drenched afternoon two months ago, he sat in his living room with all the blinds drawn, the air saturated with the smoke of Marlboro Lights. Dolls, stuffed animals, dresses lay strewn about everywhere. I could tell that just a short while ago, he had found joy, however fleeting.

Six Christmas stockings still hung from the mantel.

In jail, he's isolated. I can't imagine anything more stressful than that.
--Attorney Lori Duff, urging that Parham receive intensive treatment at a VA hospital

"Listen," he said. There was nothing but the silence he had craved after coming home from Iraq. "I can't stand that."

A profound sadness hung heavy like the smoke in the room.

A few weeks after that visit, Parham was back in jail, again under suicide watch. Wendy had accused him of hitting her in the face. He was charged again, this time with battery.

I went back to the visitation booth, looking at a broken man behind the thick slab of glass.

He told me he was just trying to move Wendy's finger away from his face. He would never hurt her, he said.

But she, like others, no longer believes that. She told me she lived in fear of him. What she felt for him now was only the kind of fondness a woman feels for the father of her children.

She paused, almost incredulous at her words. She never thought she would ever say she didn't love him anymore.

"He just didn't come back the same Shane."

On one of my recent visits, Parham took out a small piece of paper on which he'd drawn a calendar so he could keep track of time in jail. He'd already been there more than a month.

"What day is it today?"

I told him it was May 4, that Osama bin Laden had been killed just days before in a special operation by Navy Seals in Pakistan. "Really?" he said. "That's awesome."

We talked about Iraq, as we always do when we see each other. I showed him a photo on my iPhone of the tent I lived in for four months at Camp Striker. Number 535.

He smiled and remembered the first time he had come to talk to me there. All of it seemed surreal sometimes, he said.

It was hard to look at him - to see the shadow of the soldier he once was. He would turn 36 in a few days, but he seemed much older.

In just two months, the war in Iraq is scheduled to officially end, with the beginning of withdrawal of the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in July. Parham may be out of jail by then, but I am fairly sure he will still be fighting his personal war.

He admits he's made many mistakes. And he understands that people think he changed after Iraq.

But he told me doesn't know how to be the old Shane anymore. He can't remember what that man was like.

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The ghosts of Iraq

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."