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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Bush's Legacy

Meet Matt LaBranche, the 40-year-old former Army sergeant, whose memories of his nine months as a machine-gunner in Iraq has left him, as he says, "feeling dead inside."

LaBranche has recently got tattoos at a seedy place down the street from the Army hospital where he was a patient in the psychiatric ward. His back is now covered in images, the largest the dark outline of a sword. Drawn from his neck to the small of his back, it is emblazoned with the words LaBranche says encapsulate the war's effect on him: "I've come to bring you hell."

Combat stress disorders - named and renamed but strikingly alike - have ruined lives following every war in history. Homer's Achilles may have suffered from some form of it. Combat stress was documented in the late 19th century after the Franco-Prussian War. After the Civil War, doctors called the condition "nostalgia," or "soldiers heart." In World War I, soldiers were said to suffer shell shock; in World War II and Korea, combat fatigue or battle fatigue.

But it wasn't until 1985 that the American Psychiatric Association finally gave a name to the condition that had sent tens of thousands of veterans of the Vietnam War into lives of homelessness, crime or despair.

A war like the one in Iraq - in which a child is as likely to die as a soldier and unseen enemies detonate bombs - presents ideal conditions for its rise.

Before America's invasion into Iraq, LaBranche was living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and children and had no history of mental illness.

He deployed to Iraq with a National Guard transportation company based in Bangor. He came home a different person.

Just three days after he was discharged from the military hospital, he was arrested for threatening his former wife. When he goes to court Dec. 9, he could be looking at jail time.

He lies on a couch at his brother's house most days now, struggling with the image of the Iraqi woman who died in his arms after he shot her, and the children he says caught some of his bullets. His speech is pocked with obscenities.

On a recent outing with friends, he became so enraged when he saw a Muslim family that he had to take medication to calm down.

He is seeing a therapist, but only once every two weeks.

"I'm taking enough drugs to sedate an elephant, and I still wake up dreaming about it," LaBranche said. "I wish I had just freaking died over there."

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