MASTER SERGEANT JAMES COONS was alone in his trailer at Camp Doha, in Kuwait, standing in front of the bathroom sink, when he saw the face. It appeared in the mirror—a young soldier’s face, most of it ripped away, the bones exposed and the skin blistered with burns.
For several seconds, Coons stared at the mirror. He turned away, waited for a moment, and looked back. The face was still there, hovering like an apparition. The one remaining eye was open, unblinking, staring right back at him.
It was the spring of 2003. Coons, who was 35 years old, was about to receive a Bronze Star and a U.S. Army Meritorious Service Medal for his work installing combat communications systems during the invasion of Iraq. He was, by all accounts, a soldier’s soldier: six feet two, two hundred pounds, with a flattop, a perfectly chiseled jawline, and biceps the size of baseballs. “A real-life G. I. Joe,” one sergeant said about him. “Our Rock of Gibraltar,” added a lieutenant colonel. In just a couple of months, Coons was scheduled to return to Texas to attend an academy at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, so that he could become a sergeant major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier in the Army can achieve.
But Coons never made it to Fort Bliss. He never fulfilled his dream of leading a large battalion of soldiers and passing on to them what he described as “the joys of Army life.”
Instead, Master Sergeant Coons would soon find himself alone, stuck in a little room in a little building at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. No one came by to check on him. No one stopped to ask about the face of the soldier that he had seen in the mirror.
And what happened next became a tragedy that, to this day, no one has been able to explain.
IT WAS CALLED “SOLDIER’S HEART” during the Civil War, “shell shock” during World War I, and “battle fatigue” during World War II and Korea. Since the Vietnam War, it has had a sophisticated medical name—“post-traumatic stress disorder”—and as doctors now know, it can cause psychic wounds in soldiers that are just as devastating as the physical wounds that come from a bullet. In many cases, it slowly worms its way into soldiers’ lives months or even years after they have returned home. But it has also been known to afflict soldiers almost overnight, plunging them inexplicably into the depths of despair. According to psychologists and neurologists, the stress of war literally changes the brain chemistry of those soldiers, causing them to fall apart emotionally and plaguing them with nightmarish flashbacks, searing panic attacks, and constant, overwhelming anxiety.
Coons hardly seemed like a candidate for such a disorder. He was not a raw, young recruit. He was one of the Army’s more experienced soldiers, a seventeen-year veteran who told everyone that he wanted to remain a soldier for an additional twenty years. “He was willing to do anything for the Army,” says his mother, Carol Coons, a gentle-looking woman with highlighted hair. Sitting next to her husband, Richard, at the kitchen table in their home in Katy, outside Houston, she digs through a large cardboard box that is filled with letters, e-mails, photos, certificates, and government reports documenting James’s life. “Look, here is one of his commendations for marksmanship,” she says. “And here is his commendation he received when he completed Air Assault School.” She leafs through more papers. “And here’s something when he completed a military scuba diving course. Scuba diving! Good Lord, he would try anything.”
“Maybe this will help you understand how he thought,” says Richard, the owner of a small grass-seeding company. He flips through the file and finds a copy of an e-mail his son had sent from Kuwait just before the war began. “This is my life,” James wrote. “I would not change anything. … There is not another place on the face of the planet earth that I would want to be right now. What I do now is not about me. It’s about the American Flag.”
Richard stares at the e-mail. “You would not think that this would be a soldier that the Army would be able to forget,” he says.
As a young boy growing up in Katy, James was so in love with military life that he would go to the Army surplus store on Saturdays to buy MREs (meals ready to eat), which he would then take to school and devour during lunch period. On one trip to the store, he bought a parachute and a harness, which he wore while jumping out of a backyard tree. At school, he wore his hair short, and he stood at attention during the Pledge of Allegiance. His father, who had served with the Air Force during Vietnam, told him that if he went to college, he could become an officer. But James said he wanted to be one of the grunts, and in 1986, when he was a high school senior, he signed a letter of intent to enlist in the Army so that he could report to basic training almost immediately after graduation.
He was shipped to Fort Hood, where he became a field artillery expert. After receiving his parachuting wings, an Army Good Conduct Medal, and an Army Achievement Medal for his work in special weapons, he was moved into the Signal Corps, where he learned to install communications systems and computer networks for troops in the midst of battle. He then served for a few years at an Army base in Okinawa, Japan, where he was promoted to sergeant in 1993 and received another Army Good Conduct Medal. While there, he married an Okinawan woman, who gave birth to his first child, a daughter. “Every Saturday he’d drive thirty miles to a barbershop to get his hair cut from an older Okinawan woman who knew how to do flattops,” says Bryan Randall,