Read this stunning account by Capt. Jeff Leonard, an Army counselor deployed in Iraq (it continues after the jump):
“No, sir, I don’t really sleep. Well, maybe an hour or two, then I get up. I don’t want to dream,” the soldier said to us. His name was Staff Sgt. Johnson. He was a good soldier, and you could tell when you spoke to him. He was a man of honor. He was ashamed to be speaking with us, but his leaders had insisted. He had served three combat tours as a squad leader in a line unit. His body and his hands shook during pauses in his speaking and he stared at us, and sometimes past us, with a wide-eyed look of hyper alertness. He had just returned from leave and two guys in his squad were killed days before his return.
“You know, I think I thought, or…you would think, that each time you lose someone in combat it would be easier, but it’s not. It’s not.” He shook his head and looked away from Maj. Johns and down at the floor. “It’s not,” he repeated as he stared at the floor. He looked back up at me nervously, still shaking his head. When he finally stopped shaking his head, his body erupted into a tiny tremor as he tried to keep still. He pressed and rubbed his palms against his knees as he sat, presumably to try and stop his hands from shaking. “Every time someone dies, I relive all of the other deaths. Over and over.” He shook his head and looked back down at the floor and the tremor began again.
“That’s a very normal response,” Maj. Johns said. I nodded and Staff Sgt. Johnson nodded back at us sadly, and then looked away.
“You know, I think going home on leave really told me how bad I was.”
“What happened on your leave?” Maj. Johns asked.
“Well, not too much really. Well, the first few days were good.”
“What did you do the first few days?”
“I checked into a nice hotel and got a bottle of scotch and I didn’t come out for about four or five days. It was great. I didn’t get drunk. I just sipped, you know?”
“What were you doing in there all that time?” Maj. Johns asked.
“Just staring at the wall really,” he answered, and then drifted his gaze past us as if remembering. “I didn’t turn on the TV or anything. I just stared at the wall. Well, for the first three days anyway. I know it sounds weird but it was really great.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, then my girlfriend came. And don’t get me wrong. I love her and she’s a great girl and all but it just wasn’t the same after she came. She’s great though. She’s so understanding.”
“How did things go with your girlfriend? Did you get along okay?”
“Oh yah, we didn’t fight at all. No, we got along. But…” he looked from Maj. Johns toward me and hesitated.
“But what, man?” I asked.
“Well, I couldn’t do it, you know? I mean sex. We didn’t have sex at all. Her skin just felt really weird. You know what I mean?” He sort of squinted and cocked his head to the side slightly when he asked if we knew what he meant.
“No, not exactly. What did her skin feel like to you? Describe it to us,” Maj. Johns replied.
“Like rubber, like an animal,” he crinkled his cheeks as he remembered, as if it were repulsive to him. “Like she wasn’t real.”
We talked with Staff Sgt. Johnson for a while longer. He was one of the worst we had ever seen. When we mentioned the thought of him taking his squad out again he simply said, “I can’t. I won’t. I won’t load another body onto that chopper. I can’t. I won’t.”