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, a retired command sergeant major who served with him. “He was such a perfect soldier that if he got dirty while working, he’d race back to his home and put on another uniform.”
To round out his résumé in hopes of becoming a sergeant major, Coons returned to the United States and spent a few years working as a recruiter in Conroe, north of Houston. By then, he was divorced but had custody of his daughter. He met and married Robin Martin in 1999, a beautiful, young blonde who worked at a preschool. Robin adopted James’s child, and she soon gave birth to another girl. “He was always joking with the girls, ordering them to stand at parade rest and then at ease,” Robin says, sitting at her dining room table in her home north of Conroe. “He’d tell them to scrub their grills, which is ‘Army’ for brushing your teeth, and if they were talking too much, he’d say, ‘Okay, girls, shut your pie holes.’ Then, while they were giggling, he’d give them a big formal salute that looked like a karate chop gesture. We called it ‘the hand.’”
He was soon transferred to the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, where he served as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the base’s computer network systems. In the words of Patrick Kasse, another sergeant stationed at Carlisle, Coons was “determined to make his way to the top.” Around Carlisle, he became known as Big Daddy, not only because of his height but also because of his love of mentoring recruits.
“He did not hesitate to walk right up to a young soldier he’d see on base and say, ‘Soldier, you need to address your uniform. You need to address your hair,’” says Robin. “And the young soldiers loved it. He was so respected that other soldiers sometimes would meet with him to ask for help with their careers or even with personal things, like how to improve their marriages.”
His next assignment was supposed to be at a base in Korea, after which he would be sent to the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss. But in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he volunteered to go to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. He brought Robin and the girls back to Conroe, where they leased a townhome, and handed Robin a gray folder that contained everything she would need in case something happened to him: copies of their life insurance policy, the family’s financial information, and even some notes about what he wanted to take place at his funeral. Then, in July 2002, he said good-bye.
THIS PROBABLY WAS NOT HIS FIRST trip to the Persian Gulf; Coons reportedly made a couple of classified visits during Operation Desert Storm, in the early nineties. But this time around, he was responsible for all the enlisted soldiers and civilian contractors who were setting up the computer networks for the Army’s Central Command. And once the war began, he was part of the team responsible for implementing the communications systems between officers and field commanders.
“I’m truly amazed to see my life’s work in action,” he exultantly wrote to his father just after the war began. “These young kids are kicking some serious ass. I trained them and now I’m proud to lead them.” He regularly called Robin via satellite phone to tell her that he was doing just fine. Meticulous as always, he once called to remind her that their daughters had an appointment that afternoon with the dentist. He also sent his daughters postcards. “Girls,” he wrote on the back of one that showed a camel standing in the desert, “this is my pet. He lives outside my tent. Haha. Love, Daddy.”
According to one written commendation of Coons’s work, his “actions ensured complete dominance and victory on the battlefield.” His company commander, Captain Michael Singleton, not only described Coons’s job performance as “stellar” but also noted that Coons “took it upon himself” to set up a computer system for the morgue at Camp Doha so that the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers could be quickly identified and returned home for burial. While he was at the morgue, Coons would stand at attention in front of the bodies, paying his respects.
Then, one afternoon in April 2003, when he was talking to Robin, he seemed subdued. She asked him if anything had happened. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he quickly said. “I haven’t been sleeping all that well.”
During another phone call a couple of days later, he said, “I just want to get home and have a good night’s sleep.”
Robin realized her husband was speaking more slowly than usual. “Honey, are you sure you are okay?” she asked.
“I’ll explain everything when I see you,” he replied. “Some things happened that I didn’t expect.”
COONS’S FELLOW SOLDIERS noticed that he showed some signs of exhaustion that spring, but none of them sensed that he was in any way troubled. He continued to work eighteen-hour days, and in his spare time, he played basketball and went on long-distance runs around the base. Dressed in his uniform, his back ramrod straight and his flattop perfectly trimmed, he also continued to visit the morgue to honor the latest fallen soldiers. Captain Singleton would later say that he believed Coons was handling the stress of war better than he was. Another soldier at the camp would say that Coons maintained a remarkable ability to make sure “there was a smile on everyone’s face when they were feeling down.” One afternoon, Coons and some of the members of his company made a videotape for students at an elementary school back in the United States that had been sending letters to Camp Doha. Coons grinned at the camera and barked, “Little people, I want to deliver this message to you. Understand: Take your vitamins, say your prayers, and mind your teachers. If you don’t mind your teachers, then we’re going to give you some rawhide! Take care, and have a good day!”
But that May he called his mother and told her that he missed her. Carol heard the strain in his voice and asked him if he was sleeping.
A long silence followed. “One or two hours a night,” he said.
“Jimmy,” said Carol, “if there’s something bothering you, why don’t you tell me?”
There was another silence. “Mama, these soldiers who are dying over here are just babies,” he said. “Just babies. I’ve seen them in the morgue.”
He told her that on one of his visits, he had seen the body of a soldier whose face had been mutilated by a bomb blast. It was hard to stop thinking about that face, he said. It was especially hard to stop thinking about the face at night, when he was lying alone in his bed.
“Now, Jimmy,” Carol told him, “you’re going to be home in about thirty days. Thirty days! When you get here, you’ll have your girls and Robin. You’ll have us. We’ll give you different things to think about. We’ll give you different memories.”
“I’m so tired,” Coons said. “I’m so tired.”
Carol hung up the phone and looked at her husband. Because of his experience in Vietnam, Richard did not have to be told what war could do to a soldier’s mind. But at that moment, it was a subject he didn’t want to discuss.
“When he gets home, we’ll love him back to health” was all he said to Carol. “I promise you he’ll be okay.”
COONS WENT TO THE HOSPITAL at Camp Doha to ask for medication to help him sleep. But he said nothing to the doctor—or anyone else in his unit, for that matter—about the visions of the soldier’s face. He was a proud man: He had never once shown any sign of weakness. What’s more, he had to have known the potential damage that could be done to his career if word leaked out that he was having problems. He could lose his place at the Sergeants Major Academy. He could even be discharged from the military altogether. “If he had been asked to leave the Army,” Patrick Kasse would later say, “it would have been, for him, like a slap in the face.”
And so, as May dragged on, Coons suffered alone, each night telling himself, over and over, that all he had to do was just fall asleep. The soldier’s face is nothing more than an illusion, he would say. It’s not real. It’s just a trick of the mind. Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Please, God, go to sleep.
He went back to the hospital at least twice to get stronger medication. Apparently, the doctors barely asked what was troubling him. They wrote nothing on his charts about any potential mental problems. They simply gave him new medications—including a pain management drug called Neurontin, which has also been used to treat anxiety—and they sent him on his way. He tried a couple of tablets one night. For a moment, he felt his eyes closing. Then the face came at him, moving so fast that Coons jerked straight up, nearly falling out of bed.
“It’s like there are demons inside me,” he said to Robin during one of their phone calls.
“What?” she said. She could barely hear him because he was talking in a whisper.
“I feel like I’ve been looking evil in the eye,” he said.
Robin was so distraught she nearly dropped the phone. She begged him to talk to someone—anyone. “There’s got to be a doctor at the base who will help you,” she said.
“Honey, it’s starting to appear in the mirror in the mornings, when I’m trying to shave,” he said.
“What is?” she asked.
“The face. The soldier’s face.”
ON THE MORNING OF JUNE 17, Coons didn’t show up at the camp’s communications center. It was the first time since arriving in Kuwait that he hadn’t made it to work. Later that morning, he called his company commander. His voice was slurred. “Please come get me,” he said.
He was found on the floor in his trailer, a bottle of Neurontin beside him. He was semiconscious, mumbling half sentences about “seeing this guy.” At the base hospital, it was determined that he had swallowed six or seven pills. “Were you trying to commit suicide?” asked an Army doctor who had been brought in to talk to him.
Finally, Coons decided to talk to someone outside his family about the face of the young soldier. But according to the doctor’s report, Coons denied trying to commit suicide. “I never intended to kill myself,” he told the doctor. “That was never, ever a thought. I just wanted to go to sleep and get the visions of that kid out of my mind.”
When Singleton and the camp’s sergeant major came to visit Coons, he told them that he had overdosed on Neurontin only because he was desperately trying to fall asleep. He said he felt that he had let down his fellow soldiers and that he had ruined his career. Singleton said that the incident would probably not have any impact on his enrollment at the Sergeants Major Academy, which Singleton later admitted he said only to comfort Coons. There was no question in Coons’s mind that his career had been seriously damaged. Regardless of how nobly he had served in the past—his Bronze Star had been approved by the Pentagon less than a month earlier—his fear was that he would forever be known as just one more soldier who had “gone mental.”
In fact, his commanding officers had already decided that the time had come to move on without him. They did not let him return to his post, not even to say good-bye to his friends. Coons spent a few more days at the base hospital, where he paced the floors and read the Bible. He called Robin and his parents to tell them that he had had “a breakdown.” He then said, strangely, that he didn’t want to go into detail about what had happened because people were watching him.
It was obvious that his mind was continuing to misfire. He admitted to the hospital’s staff that he was still seeing the young soldier’s face. He also admitted that on those occasions when he was able to see his own face in the mirror, he would find himself studying it, focusing on what he said were blemishes on his skin.
On June 21, he was shipped to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Germany, the Army hospital where all wounded soldiers from Iraq are sent. A soldier there who met Coons said that he was acting “very strange . . . [He] would begin a conversation [and] then would jump to another subject and then back again to the original. He also would keep conversations going once you ended it and walked away.” According to the soldier, Coons did not mention his mental breakdown. Instead, he’d made up a story that he was being sent home because he had used too much force while interrogating a suspected insurgent.
But a Landstuhl psychiatrist who evaluated Coons noted in his report that the master sergeant maintained a “professional demeanor.” He added that Coons’s “risk for suicide is assessed as low”—a startling conclusion considering the Neurontin overdose just four days earlier.
Perhaps the doctor believed that Coons would find some semblance of normality once he returned home to his family. Perhaps he believed that all soldiers suffer some sort of emotional trauma during wartime and that little could be done about it. Or perhaps the doctor, overwhelmed by the number of soldiers coming in each day to Landstuhl, simply had little time to evaluate Coons.
By then, about three months after the invasion of Baghdad, it was becoming clear to military experts that this war—with its close-up urban warfare, the elusiveness of the insurgents, the constant threat of roadside bombs, the mutilated bodies, and the high number of civilian killings—had become the perfect breeding ground for mental health problems in soldiers. Surveys taken of the first wave of troops leaving Iraq were already indicating that a fifth of the soldiers qualified as having “moderate or severe” mental health problems—a totally unexpected number.
It is quite possible that for all the questions surrounding Coons’s condition, the psychiatrist felt obligated to focus his attention on his most severe cases. So he arranged for Coons to receive outpatient care upon his return to the United States, and papers were signed for Coons to be put on a military airplane and flown with other wounded soldiers to the 260-bed Walter Reed hospital. Before leaving Germany, Coons called Robin and told her he would be at Walter Reed for only a few days of “follow-up” counseling and that he would be back in Texas by early July. There was no need for her to come see him, he said.
Wearing his uniform, he arrived at Walter Reed in the early morning hours of June 29 and met with a third-year resident in one of the hospital’s locked psychiatric wards. In his report, the resident made note of Coons’s excellent grooming and “appropriate military bearing.” He noted that Coons acted “surprised” to be in a psych ward and that he adamantly insisted that he had had no suicidal thoughts. But the resident may have been overwhelmed by the influx of patients. Press accounts from 2003 reported that the members of Walter Reed’s medical staff were working seventy- to eighty-hour weeks. The resident quickly released Coons to a room at the Mologne House, a hotel on the Walter Reed campus for visiting families and soldiers undergoing outpatient treatment, and told him to report the next morning to the outpatient mental health clinic.
A CLERK AT THE MOLOGNE HOUSE gave him a key to room 179, and for the first time since his overdose on June 17, Coons found himself alone. He put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door and locked it. He only partially unpacked his belongings. He made no telephone calls. Apparently, he picked up a Bible and turned to the Book of Psalms, placing a bookmark at a psalm in which the writer asked God to release the demons inside him.
He did not appear the next morning for his appointment at the mental health clinic. No one from the clinic or the Mologne House came by to check on him. Seeing the Do Not Disturb sign, the hotel’s maids moved on to the next room.
Later that day, Robin called the hospital, but when she was connected to his room, he did not answer. Both Robin and Carol called the next day. Again, no answer. And again, no one went looking for him.
One can only guess what was happening to him. Maybe Coons was feeling good about himself after convincing the young resident that he did not belong in the psych ward. Maybe he was still telling himself that all great soldiers should be able to overcome any adversity. Maybe he still believed that he could get through his suffering alone, soothed only by a passage or two from the Bible.
Or maybe he walked into the hotel room, looked into the bathroom mirror, and again saw the soldier’s face, the skin blistered with burns. Maybe he stood there for a few moments, realizing that the face would never leave him. Maybe, after another sleepless night, he decided that it would be unfair to bring the face back to Texas, back to his beautiful wife and children.
ON JULY 2, ROBIN CALLED THE MOLOGNE HOUSE several times, leaving messages on the voice mail for room 179. She spoke to a clerk at the front desk, asking if anyone had seen her husband. She called the chaplain’s office and asked a chaplain to check on Coons. Robin said to the woman, “I just want you to knock on his door and say, ‘Master Sergeant Coons, are you okay?’” But, according to Robin, the chaplain replied that because of Coons’s rank, she didn’t have the authority to, as she put it, “get into his business.”
“You mean you’d go check on a young soldier, but you won’t check on an older soldier who’s given seventeen years of his life to his country?” Robin asked.
“I’ll see what I can do,” the chaplain said. But Robin says she never heard from her again.
On July 3, Carol called the hospital’s security desk and asked one of the police officers to look for her son. He too said he would be in touch.
But more hours passed. On July 4, at two-fifteen in the morning, a tearful Robin called the desk clerk at the Mologne House. “All I want to know is if anyone has seen him,” she said. “Maybe he’s left the hospital and is headed home. Can’t you just open the door to his room and see if his suitcase is still there?”
According to his original orders, Coons was supposed to be home by July 4, Independence Day. Robin, Carol, and Richard had planned a welcome-home party, and although they had not heard from him, they decided to go ahead and decorate the house, hoping he might suddenly appear. They planted American flags in the front yard. They spent a couple hundred dollars on beer and barbecue. Robin put together red-white-and-blue outfits for her and the girls to wear.
But he did not arrive, and he did not call.
“My God, he’s been missing for four days,” Robin said to another clerk at the Mologne House. “Please look for him! Please!”
At 5:59 on the morning of July 5, she heard her doorbell ring. She slipped out of bed—her two girls were still asleep beside her—walked to the front door, and looked through the peephole. She saw a red U.S. Army beret. Her heart began pounding. “He’s home!” she screamed and opened the door. “It’s James!”
But it wasn’t her husband. Wearing the beret was an officer from Fort Hood. Beside him was an Army chaplain. “Mrs. Coons, may we come in?” the officer said.
She sagged against the door.
“Mrs. Coons, may we come in?” the officer said again.
“No, not until you tell me everything is okay with my husband.”
There was silence. “We can’t tell you that, Mrs. Coons. I’m sorry. We can’t tell you that.”
THEY DID NOT TELL HER HOW HE HAD DIED. They did not tell her that an employee on the night shift had finally gotten a key, opened the door to her husband’s room at four o’clock in the morning on July 4, and found the master sergeant hanging from a white bedsheet that was wrapped around his neck and then tied to an exposed water pipe in the ceiling.
They simply told Robin that Coons had passed away at Walter Reed. When she asked if he had suffered a heart attack or a stroke, they said they did not know. A casualty officer later arrived from Fort Hood to help Robin plan the funeral, but she told him that Coons had already taken care of that. Friends were also stopping by. Many of them had not heard the news and were expecting to see Coons himself, thinking he was home.
His body arrived in Houston on July 11 and was taken to a funeral home in Conroe. Only then did the casualty officer take the family aside and provide details about the hanging. Robin became hysterical. “And no one once went to check on him!” she screamed, the sound of her voice echoing through the funeral home. “Not once!”
For the funeral, Coons was attired in his dress uniform, which he had requested in his note in the gray folder. A few soldiers who had known him for years offered short eulogies—Coons had said he wanted no long speeches—and then outside the funeral home, an honor guard from Fort Hood gave him a 21-gun salute. The Army allowed a couple of officers from his company in Kuwait to fly in for the funeral, and afterward, at the reception, they kept telling Robin that they’d had no idea that Coons was that sick.
“He overdosed on sleeping pills,” she said. “Didn’t anyone at the base realize what condition he was in?”
“We thought he would overcome it,” one of the officers said. “If anyone could overcome it, Coons could.”
A few days later, Robin and Coons’s parents drove to Fort Hood to get Robin and her daughters signed up for military and Social Security benefits. While they were there, an officer from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command unexpectedly showed up to ask them some questions about Coons. Was he troubled as a boy? Had he previously shown signs of mental illness? Furious, Carol told the officer to quit referring to her son as “he” and start referring to him as “Master Sergeant Coons.” “My son wasn’t crazy,” she said. “He wasn’t a coward. He was a soldier. You go look at his record. You can only hope you do in your career what he did in his.”
An officer involved in the investigation into Coons’s death concluded that no one at Walter Reed, from the third-year psychiatry resident to the staff members of the Mologne House, had been negligent in his responsibilities. But Robin called the officer and said, “Oh, no. We need more answers.” In August, she, Richard, and Carol flew to meet with officials at Walter Reed.
According to Robin, their requests for information were uniformly blocked. The chaplain she had called in early July denied having ever had a conversation with her. (The hospital’s police officer who had spoken with Carol also denied talking with her.) Because Coons had left no suicide note, the family asked to see his Day-Timer. When it was produced, Robin noticed that all the pages between June 3 and August 3 were missing. “That makes no sense at all,” she said. “James wrote in his Day-Timer every single day.” Then, during a lunch break, Robin, Richard, and Carol slipped into one of the psychiatric wards to see if they could find that third-year resident, but they were told that they were not allowed to be in there. Robin says the criminal investigator informed her that if she and Coons’s parents caused any more trouble, he would have them arrested.
They went home with more questions than answers. They still had not been told why no one from the hospital had ever gone by to check on Coons when he missed his initial appointment at the outpatient clinic. And they were especially tormented by the fact that the death certificate declared his date of death as being July 4, a holiday that for Coons was as important as Christmas. When the hospital employee had found him at four o’clock in the morning, he’d noticed a terrible smell, which led him to believe that Coons had been dead for some time. But the medical examiner had put down July 4, because that was the day he had been found.
Carol called Theola Labbe, a respected Washington Post reporter who covers military issues, to see if she could find out any answers about why Coons had been left alone for so long. All Labbe received was a statement from a Walter Reed official that read, in part, “Regrettably, even with the highest level of care, suicide is not always predictable or preventable.” Another reporter also noted that the staff at the Mologne House was now being required to conduct mandatory daily inspections of every room as a suicide-prevention measure.
But after another soldier was found dead at Walter Reed, in January 2004—he had hanged himself in Ward 54, one of the psych wards, where he was supposed to have been watched night and day—Mark Benjamin, a correspondent for Salon, wrote that “inadequate suicide watch” continued to be a problem. Furthermore, he wrote, “Psychiatric techniques employed at Walter Reed appear outmoded and ineffective compared with state-of-the-art care as described by civilian doctors.” He added that the hospital tended to ignore one-on-one counseling in favor of group therapy administered by medical students and residents. He also quoted an Army colonel who had been sent to Walter Reed to get psychiatric help. “The Army does not want to get into the mental-health game in a real way to really help people,” the colonel had said. “They want to Band-Aid it. They want you out of there as fast as possible, and they don’t want to pay for it.”
Such a statement is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the most recent statistics indicate that more and more emotionally shattered soldiers are coming home from the Persian Gulf. In May 2005 a Department of Veterans Affairs analysis of 50,000 troops returning home found that 26 percent were afflicted by mental disorders caused by wartime service and that more than half of those soldiers were suffering from major depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. And many psychiatrists believe that the numbers will only climb higher, because so many mental health problems do not emerge until months after the soldiers have come home.
It is also no secret that the military’s mental health system is not ready for such a scenario. Adjusted for inflation, the VA’s annual spending for services for the seriously mentally ill decreased by $630 million between 1996 and 2003. Its number of mental health staffers during that same period declined by 31 percent. Though Congress has increased funding by 18 percent over the past two years, no one is claiming victory. A recent study in the medical journal General Hospital Psychiatry found that the staffers and doctors at the VA’s primary clinics are recognizing fewer than half of the PTSD cases that are brought before them.
IN OTHER WORDS, there are likely to be many more James Coonses. Between the beginning of the war and July 2005, 58 U.S. soldiers committed suicide in Iraq; 29 more committed suicide after returning home. “They are the forgotten soldiers,” Robin says. “On Veterans Day, when the newspapers list the names of all those who died for their country, they are the ones who usually get left off the page, or if they are mentioned, an asterisk is put beside their names so that readers will know that they supposedly weren’t as good as the others who died.”
In December 2004 Robin requested a form from the Department of Defense called “Application for Correction of Military Record Under the Provisions of Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 1552,” and she wrote in wobbly handwriting: “I feel it is unjust that my husband served 17 years in the Army defending his country, and that when he got sick (due to the war) he was just forgotten. We have two small daughters, and I think they should see his name on a ‘Hero’ list one day.”
She assumed the letter would be lost somewhere within the maze of offices at the Pentagon. To her astonishment, she received a reply from the Army one month later, in January 2005, indicating that Coons’s name had been placed on the casualty-of-war list for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The one thing she was unable to do, however, was get Coons’s official date of death changed.
When she read in the Army’s investigative report of Coons’s death that an Army pathologist had concluded that he had been dead at least two days before his body was found, she contacted the District of Columbia’s medical examiner’s office, only to be told that its policy was to declare the date a body had been found as the date of death. U.S. representative Michael McCaul, who represents the area where Coons’s parents live, also got involved, even asking the Secretary of Defense and his staff to help get Coons’s date of death changed. But the medical examiner’s office refused to alter its policy. “A bureaucratic nightmare,” says McCaul. “It seems altogether wrong and defies belief that the government, for whatever reason, cannot see fit to make this simple change.”
But Robin wasn’t about to let someone in Washington, D.C., decide her husband’s legacy. She ordered a headstone for him that read simply: “Master Sergeant James C. Coons. April 3, 1968—July 1, 2003. Operation Iraqi Freedom.” She had the headstone placed over his grave at the cemetery in Conroe where he is buried. Next to the grave, she installed a granite bench with a photo of Coons, herself, and their daughters. She also planted an oak tree near the grave, from which she hung wind chimes. And next to the headstone itself, she placed small U.S. flags, each about a foot high.
“On July 1, we come out here to honor James,” she says. “And on July 4, we still gather to honor our country. No matter what happened to my James, we still will honor our country. That’s what James would have wanted.”
For the story behind this story, read our interview with executive editor Skip Hollandsworth.