The life and death of an Iraq veteran who could take no more

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The Independent US

By his own admission Douglas Barber, a former army reservist, was struggling. For two years since returning from the chaos and violence of Iraq, the 35-year-old had battled with his memories and his demons, the things he had seen and the fear he had experienced. Recently, it seemed he had turned a corner, securing medical help and counselling.

But last week, at his home in south-eastern Alabama, the National Guardsman e-mailed some friends and then changed the message on his answering machine. His new message told callers: "If you're looking for Doug, I'm checking out of this world. I'll see you on the other side." Mr Barber dialled the police, stepped on to the porch with his shotgun and - after a brief stand-off with officers - shot himself in the head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The death of Mr Barber is one of numerous instances of Iraqi veterans who have taken their own lives since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in spring 2003. Concern is such that the Pentagon has recently instigated new procedures for monitoring the mental health of returning troops. But his story would not have been told but for a group of determined activists and a British journalism student who was among the handful of people the reservist e-mailed just minutes before he killed himself.

Craig Evans, 19, a student at Bournemouth University, was working on a project about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had been in regular contact with Mr Barber. But the e-mail message he received on Monday 16 January told him something was terribly wrong. It read: "I have nothing to live for any more - I am going to be checking out of this world." Mr Evans said he tried to contact the US embassy and some of Mr Barber's friends in the US to alert them to what he suspected might happen. "I e-mailed him back and wrote, 'I am going to ring you, don't do anything stupid'.It was an effort in vain: within an hour Mr Barber had used his shotgun to end to his torment.

Mr Evans said: "Doug said he wasn't the same person when he got back [from Iraq] - he was paranoid, had lost his social skills, his marriage was over, he couldn't walk down the street without worrying something was going to blow up. I made a promise to him that I would do everything I could to get his story out there."

Mr Barber was a member of the 1485th Transportation Company of the Ohio National Guard and was called up for active duty in February 2003. He arrived in Iraq in summer 2003, when the initial invasion had been completed and just as the insurgency was gathering strength.

He spent seven months in Iraq, driving trucks and trying to avoid the deadly perils that confronted him. He was haunted by the deaths of his colleagues and by the fear and desperation he saw in the faces of Iraqis. Like many reservists pushed into the front line, Mr Barber said he was not properly trained.

"It was really bad - death was all around you, all the time. You couldn't escape it," he said in an interview after he returned to Alabama with the campaign group Coalition for Free Thought in Media. "Everybody in Iraq was going through suicide counselling because the stress was so high. It was at such a magnitude, such a high level, that it was unthinkable for anyone to imagine. You cannot even imagine it." He was opposed to the war but felt obliged to go because he believed that without the experience his opinion would be invalid.

Friends said that when Mr Barber returned things started to fall apart and he split from his wife of 11 years. He had been prescribed clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug that can cause depression. One friend of more than 13 years, Rick Hays, a minister from Indiana, said: "He was a really good guy, pretty level-headed ... He liked to have fun. But when he came back from Iraq the difference in him was so sad."

Charlie Anderson, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said the federal Veterans Administration relied too heavily on the use of drugs for dealing with returning soldiers suffering from stress.

Mr Barber's sister, Connie Bingham, said a funeral was due to take place on Saturday.

'We live with permanent scars from horrific events'

Doug Barber wrote this internet article on 12 January, just before he died

My thought today is to help you the reader understand what happens to a soldier when they come home and the sacrifice we continue to make. This war on terror has become a personal war for so many, yet the Bush administration do not want to reveal to America that this is a personal war. They want to run it like a business, and thus they refuse to show the personal sacrifices the soldiers and their families have made for this country.

All is not OK or right for those of us who return home alive and supposedly well. What looks like normalcy and readjustment is only an illusion to be revealed by time and torment. Some soldiers come home missing limbs and other parts of their bodies. Still others will live with permanent scars from horrific events that no one other than those who served will ever understand. We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out.

Others come home to nothing, families have abandoned them: husbands and wives have left these soldiers, and so have parents. Post-traumatic stress disorder has become the norm amongst these soldiers because they don't know how to cope with returning to a society that will never understand what they have endured.

PTSD comes in many forms not understood by many: but yet if a soldier has it, America thinks the soldiers are crazy. PTSD comes in the form of depression, anger, regret, being confrontational, anxiety, chronic pain, compulsion, delusions, grief, guilt, dependence, loneliness, sleep disorders, suspiciousness/paranoia, low self-esteem and so many other things.

We are easily startled with a loud bang or noise and can be found ducking for cover when we get panicked. This is a result of artillery rounds going off in a combat zone, or an improvised explosive device blowing up.

I myself have trouble coping with an everyday routine that often causes me to have a short fuse. A lot of soldiers lose jobs just because they are trained to be killers and they have lived in an environment that is conducive to that. We are always on guard for our safety and that of our comrades. When you go to bed at night you wonder will you be sent home in a flag-draped coffin because a mortar round went off on your sleeping area.

Soldiers live in deplorable conditions where burning your own faeces is the order of the day, where going days on end with no shower and the uniform you wear gets so crusty it sticks to your body becomes a common occurrence. We also deal with rationing water or even food. So when a soldier comes home they are unsure of what to do.

This is what PTSD comes in the shape of - soldiers can not often handle coming back to the same world they left behind. It is something that drives soldiers over the edge and causes them to withdraw from society. As Americans we turn our nose down at them wondering why they act the way they do. Who cares about them, why should we help them?

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