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Former soldier Tyrone Roper's road home from Iraq follows many twists and tormenting turns

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS — HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- Tyrone Roper pushed a shopping cart through the maze of a WalMart Supercenter here, loading up on milk, eggs, soda and salsa. His 3-year-old son, Deja, scampered from aisle to aisle.

For Roper, 28, the mundane chore on a warm spring day was a delight. Roper has finally stopped running -- from the war in Iraq, the Army, his family, himself.

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He has come here, to the piney woods of East Texas, to live again with his wife and children in a double-wide trailer.

But his life is hardly back to normal more than a year after he killed as many as eight enemy fighters in Najaf and Baghdad - there is no official count - as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

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Once praised by fellow soldiers for his lethal ways with a machine gun, he is still coping with mental injuries from a war that nearly drove him to fratricide and suicide.

"I still have a ways to go," he says in a soft voice.

Roper's case shows that while the carnage continues in Iraq with growing American casualties, at home soldiers who have done tours of duty continue to grapple with the cost of the war.

His grim tale, however, is about more than one soldier's struggle to right himself after seeing and committing violent acts. It offers a close view of the complicated subject of combat stress and the shades of gray that can emerge from wrestling with personal shame and doubts of others.

Unlike all but a handful of soldiers, Roper has seen his personal drama unfold through varied lenses before millions in North America and Europe. After The Sun detailed his plight in October, his story was picked up by NBC News and news outlets across Canada.

In Germany, Roper was painted as a trigger-happy "Terminator" who was emotionally undone by his deeds and driven to desertion. The story in Stern magazine, with a circulation of 1.1 million, failed to say that he left only after his release papers were filed and that he received an honorable discharge.

In Canada, he was portrayed as the victim of a grenade attack that never occurred.

Roper, a member of the Salteaux Indian tribe who was born in Canada but dreamed of becoming an American soldier, admits lying to Saskatchewan Indian magazine. He thought fellow Indians would find physical wounds nobler than a mental meltdown. Roper also had to contend with those who question whether his meltdown happened as he says it did.

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What is clear is that his evacuation from Iraq after he threatened to kill another soldier in May last year reflected the Army's heightened sensitivity to signs of mental distress among its troops.

As of May 31, the Army had brought home 761 soldiers for psychological reasons, including 383 cases of depression and 37 of adjustment disorder.

Two of Roper's former Army superiors suspect that he played up, or made up, the effects combat had on him. They say he did so because he knew it would be his ticket home to deal with unrelated marital problems. Roper now believes that he came unhinged in Iraq because of his actions in war as well as troubles at home. Since then, he says, he has struggled with shame about his collapse and former Army mates' continuing skepticism.

These days, he says, he draws support from tribal elders in Canada who fought in wars as distant as World War II and who have held several healing rituals with him on the Saskatchewan prairie near where he grew up.

"They told me it gets better with time," Roper says. "You just have to keep at it."

Roper still has the flattop haircut he had in the Army and the wide upper body that makes him seem equipped with shoulder pads. His wife's midnight blue Ford pickup still bears a yellow 101st Airborne sticker, even though the Army let him go in October.

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But he has a pronounced paunch. A year ago, his muscular, 6-foot-1 physique made it easier for him to lug his machine gun, a "squad automatic weapon" capable of firing 800 rounds a minute.

His SAW had a high-powered scope that allowed him to see the enemy when others in his unit could not. A red dot indicated where the bullet was likely to hit, and he used the technology to deadly effect.

Kills

On April 1, 2003, Roper recorded his first kill of the war on the edge of Najaf, a city south of Baghdad. He told his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Todd Landen, that he saw a combatant with an AK-47. Landen told him to shoot. Roper did. The man dropped.

The man was the first of several people Roper killed in Iraq. He puts his number of kills at eight. The Army does not keep such statistics.

"I did see him hit a few guys," Landen, 34, says by phone from Fort Benning, Ga., preparing for a promotion to sergeant first class. "He definitely didn't hesitate to pull the trigger."

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The next day, April 2, Roper's Bravo Company resumed patrol. Fedayeen forces loyal to Saddam Hussein were disrupting U.S. supply lines, and the 101st Airborne had been sent to root them out.

Roper's squad met the enemy but with a complication. Men with Kalashnikov rifles were using women and children as shields. After a moment's hesitation, Landen says, he called for smoke grenades and told soldiers to shoot over people's heads to help scatter the crowd.

"Everybody did scatter," Landen says, "and [Roper] picked off a few people with AKs." Landen nominated Roper for a Bronze Star, but he didn't get it.

More firefights occurred April 3, the day coalition forces punctuated their capture of Najaf by toppling a statue of Hussein. The next day, with the fall of Baghdad days away, Roper was hardly feeling triumphant. He wrote a bleak letter to his wife, April, at Fort Campbell, Ky.

"I feel so alone right now," he wrote. "I'm the only one in the battalion who has killed people, and I thought it wouldn't bother me, but it sure has after awhile though and it hurts me like nothing else ever has. I know it was either them or my self or friends. But every one won't shut up about it [and it] is really starting to bother me."

About that time, a Sun reporter interviewed Roper in Najaf. Although he did not express guilt, he thought about his victims. "The next day, I started to feel I killed someone, took away somebody's grandfather, somebody's father, somebody's son," he said then.

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The only sign that Roper was behaving oddly, fellow soldiers say, appeared one day when gunfire rang out a few hundred yards away. Roper was told to walk onto a road and peer through his scope at looters, says Jason Keefer, then a corporal. Without orders, he says, Roper opened fire. Even so, it was not such an alarming act during a war, Keefer says.

Different accounts

By Roper's account, he held up fairly well early in the invasion. But in late April his unit - the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment - moved north to Mosul. There, he says, he began to suffer sleeplessness, nightmares and guilt over the killings he had done.

The breaking point, he says, occurred in May when Keefer abruptly told him to pull guard duty as he finally fell asleep on a roof. Roper says he lunged at Keefer, grabbed his neck and punched his jaw. As Keefer lay on his back, Roper says, he threatened to kill him.

Keefer, speaking from Fort Lewis, Wash., and Landen dispute parts of that account. They say Roper threatened Keefer but never touched him. And they blame Roper's worsening mood on his rocky marriage, not on guilt over killing.

"I don't really buy the whole 'went crazy' story," Keefer says. "I think he just wanted to go home."

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Landen recalls Roper crying one day after he called his wife: "Something he'd done in his past came back to haunt him, and his wife was really angry and wanted a divorce." Landen says he did not know the details, and Roper does not want to publicize his marital problems.

Later, in Mosul, Landen says, Roper uttered "the key phrase you have to say in combat to get on a plane home. He said, 'I feel like killing somebody.'"

Landen reported the threat up the chain of command, even though he felt Roper was "milking his marriage issue."

Roper received medication to calm down and rejoined his squad a few days later. Then he left for a second time and never returned, going first to a field hospital, then to a military hospital in Germany. On June 20, he landed at Fort Campbell, then a ghost town with most of the 101st Airborne still in Iraq.

Back in the United States, it became apparent to Roper that he might have to go back to Iraq.

He says a doctor at Fort Campbell told him he did not have post-traumatic stress disorder, disagreeing with an earlier medical assessment. Privacy laws prevent the Army from discussing Roper's case, and he says he has no paperwork.

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Meanwhile, sergeants running the skeletal crew at Fort Campbell questioned Roper's sincerity. Sgt. Kenneth Bishop told The Sun in October, "I think he's faking it."

In August, Roper was told to pack for Iraq, even though he says he still had bad dreams in which he would see the faces of people he killed. "That's when I lost my faith in the Army," he says now. "I was so depressed, anxious, nervous. I couldn't believe they were going to send me back."

Roper says he considered suicide but didn't want his two children, Deja and 6-year-old daughter Passion, to grow up without a father, as he had.

After reporting to Army physicians, he says, he was admitted to a Kentucky psychiatric hospital. A week later, he was out of the hospital and, soon, on his way out of the Army. The Army decided it best to end his three-year enlistment a year early.

To Canada

But on Oct. 12, with four days to go, Roper took off. One reason, he says, was a fight with his wife, which neither would discuss on the record. The other reason was to escape young soldiers who kept asking him how it felt to kill.

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An Army buddy drove him to the Nashville airport, and Roper soon landed in Calgary, Alberta, where he had friends. He began drinking heavily in Canada, bumming beer money from friends. It was during this phase that he e-mailed The Sun about the anguish he felt from the war.

Roper made his way east to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his aunt, Sarah Desjarlais, took him in. At first, he would sit in the den of her townhouse like a zombie, she says. At night he would sleep with a light bulb burning.

She worried that he might kill himself and asked whether he was suicidal. He said no, but she urged him to get help.

'We can't forget'

Earlier, Roper had met tribal elders who, like him, were war veterans. That contact proved more valuable to him, he says, than any psychiatrist or anti-depressant.

In November, he drove north to the Sweetgrass reservation over flat prairie broken only by grain elevators, tall gabled affairs that loom like houses in the sky.

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At the reservation, Roper met with Philip Favel, a grizzled World War II veteran of Canada's army. Favel is a Cree who speaks his native tongue and lives in what resembles a modern subdivision.

As grand chief of the Saskatchewan First Nation Veterans Association, Favel organized sweat ceremonies for Roper. Several members of the tribe gathered around piping hot rocks and prayed for forgiveness as water was splashed on the rocks, creating bursts of steam. At a subsequent feast, they dined on fresh deer to honor those Roper killed in Iraq.

"I understand what happened to him," Favel, a fit-looking, chain-smoking 81-year-old says in an interview at Sweetgrass, weeks after the sweat. "I still think about it. A lot of us want to forget about it, but we can't forget about it."

International story

By November, Roper's story had come to the notice of Stern magazine's New York office, and reporter Jan Christoph Wiechmann had flown to Saskatoon to profile Roper as "someone who thinks a lot about war and its effects on people."

The result was an eight-page spread published Jan. 2 under the headline, "A Tale of Killing." The article luridly recounts Roper's military exploits, saying he killed at least 20 people. Wiechmann says Roper put the total at eight but that the tally was probably higher because there were times when he fired and might have killed.

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Roper, Wiechmann writes, began the war as a "super warrior," turned into a "killing machine" and then, in his mind, became "invincible." Relating the time Roper shot at the looters, he writes: "Like the Terminator himself, he stands alone on the street, legs spread wide, and empties his magazine."

In the magazine, a photo of Roper dragging a dead deer on a hunting trip in Canada appears near one of three U.S. soldiers, none of them Roper, dragging an Iraqi man over pavement. Roper's cousin, Jenn Campeau, thinks it fed the stereotype of "the bloodthirsty Indian."

The Stern article details Roper's efforts to regain mental equilibrium. But nowhere does it say that by the time of the sweats, Roper was no longer on the lam. The Army had released him in October, deciding not to punish Roper and surprising him with an honorable discharge, which he showed The Sun. A leading German television network, ARD, also sent a crew to Canada and aired a segment about Roper.

As Wiechmann shadowed Roper, 4,000 copies of Saskatchewan Indian were being mailed across the province. The winter issue covered Roper's return from Iraq and showed him being honored at the annual Indian summer games in July, just after he returned.

The article's author, Bonnie Leask, says she was shocked to learn from a Sun reporter that Roper had not, as he told her, suffered head, neck and back wounds in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Mosul. "We hold our veterans very near and dear to our heart," she says. "It never occurred to me to question him."

At first Roper blamed Leask for the confusion. But later he admitted to The Sun that he had misled her. He did not care what people in Germany thought of him, he says, but plenty about what people in Saskatchewan thought.

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"I didn't want anybody to know I was going mental," he says. He worried that they would think, "He's weak; he came back because he couldn't handle killing people."

Family

The trip late February to Huntsville, Texas - where his wife and children had moved in with his mother, Margaret Roper - was supposed to last a week. But he stayed on to repair his relationship with his family, along with his mental state.

Since then he has driven his son, Deja, to SuperCuts for a flattop haircut like his. He has cleaned the back yard, cooked dinner for the family and met his wife for lunch at the strip mall near her workplace.

"It's good to be back," he says. "I still get mad at things I used to not, little things. I still don't sleep as well, six hours a night."

He says he does not have as many bad dreams, though, and rarely takes sleeping pills. He has been off anti-depressants for months. "It's progress, but not the final chapter," says his wife, April, a bank teller who is studying to be an accountant. "It's not all sunshine and roses."

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After moving to Texas, Roper began looking for a job, ideally one on an oil rig, the kind of high-paying work he did in Canada before joining the Army.

One spring day, he sat down with job counselor Ignacio Ruiz at the WorkSource job center, a sterile landscape of computer monitors with a library-like quietness. A few leads looked promising, especially a job installing traffic lights, but nothing panned out on that visit.

"See you next week," Roper said, scooping up Deja for the drive home.

A job, Roper felt then, would mean money for more counseling. He did not pursue military benefits, put off by rumors of a long wait. And a job would give him an added measure of self-worth, which he has not felt since the war.

Then his fortunes improved. He was hired to work on a West Texas oil rig: two weeks on, two weeks off. Officials at Rowan Companies Inc. in Houston confirmed that Roper is an employee.

One thing Roper is not trying to do is forget the war. He says he made good friends, even if some doubt his woes, and he had "great experiences," including combat.

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Under a hot Texas sun, he says he looks forward to adorning the back of his Jeep Wagoneer with a bumper sticker that shows the 101st Airborne's path across Iraq.

That path begins in Najaf, where he killed his first enemy fighter. It ends in Mosul, where he spoke of killing one of his own. Every time he sees the sticker, he'll be reminded of what happened in the war.


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