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After war, teacher's life unraveled

The Baltimore Sun

Those who served with Brian Norman agree that he was an exceptional soldier - capable, meticulous and brave. He had two combat tours, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq, and was awarded two Bronze Stars.

He was also known as a singular teacher, one who demanded a great deal from students but also inspired and encouraged them. He helped with college applications, went to school football games, and even took students drag racing.

But this fall, his life unraveled.

On Nov. 12, he was arrested for allegedly slapping the buttocks of a 16-year-old girl, a junior in one of his classes at North Harford High School in Pylesville. Norman, a history and social studies teacher, was suspended with pay.

On Dec. 9, a Harford County grand jury indicted him on two felony charges, sexual abuse of a minor, for the alleged slap, and soliciting the production of child pornography, for allegedly asking the girl to e-mail him revealing photos of herself.

Ten days later, Norman, 34, fatally shot himself at his apartment just outside of Bel Air. He made sure no one could get to him until after he died, stacking chairs, a table and a huge chest of drawers against his front door and his bedroom door.

Friends and family say Norman was devastated by the charges - especially by the prospect of not being able to teach anymore - and claimed adamantly that he was innocent.

They also say he was suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Since returning from Iraq in May, Norman had been depressed, they said.

"He was very different. He wasn't his normal, hyper, crazy, runaround self," said his friend Jeremy Bender. "He seemed very down from what he normally was."

Norman first came to Harford County in 2001 from the Pittsburgh area, where he had grown up. He taught first at Magnolia Middle School and then at C. Milton Wright High School.

Norman threw himself into his job. In 2006, he and 100 or so Wright students designed and built a trebuchet, a 3-story-tall wooden launching tool similar to a catapult. Norman spent $300 of his money, and many hours of his time, on the project. That March, on the day before his deployment to Afghanistan, he and the students put on a show for the rest of the school, hurling watermelons, bowling balls, basketballs and 12 packs of soda 600 yards through the air.

He loved cars, and he had a 1970 Chevrolet Vega that he had modified for drag racing. At Wright, he started a car club, which eventually included 12 members. Several times, he took a group of students to the Cecil County Dragway, where he sometimes raced the Vega. After getting parents' permission, he let some students drive the car on the track. He was also a skilled marksman and occasionally took students to a shooting range in Hickory, again with parents' consent.

"The kids loved him," said Joe Fleischman, an engineer who lives in Bel Air. "He was young enough that they could relate to him." Norman taught Fleischman's son, Joseph, at C. Milton Wright in 2005 and eventually got to know the whole family. "You knew that if you left your child with Norman, he was going to be safe," Fleischman said. "I trusted him, and I'm a very protective parent." The Fleischmans were one of several families that became close to Norman after he taught their children. When he came back from overseas on leave, he sometimes stayed at their houses.

Norman had many hobbies. He and his friends regularly got together to work on cars, ride motorcycles, play video games or watch Ultimate Fighting.

Bender, 27, who lives in Abingdon, knew Norman better than perhaps anyone. They met in 2003 when both taught at Magnolia Middle. They hit it off on the first day of school, when Norman noticed Bender's modified Dodge Dakota pickup in the parking lot. They talked at least once a day and hung out almost every weekend."He ran a thousand miles a minute," said Bender, who is now an insurance adjuster.

In the military, Norman, an Army National Guard staff sergeant, made a similar impression. In Afghanistan, the other soldiers in his unit nicknamed him "Jimmy Neutron" after the hyperkinetic cartoon character who can fix any device in any situation. "It was almost like he didn't sleep," said Sgt. Maj. Kemp Freund of Ellicott City, who was Norman's commanding noncommissioned officer in Afghanistan.

Freund says Norman hated inactivity. Near the end of his tour, while stationed for a few days at a base near Kabul, Norman found himself with nothing to do. So, on his own, he decided to repair the 12 trucks in the unit's motor pool, Freund recalled.

In Afghanistan, where he served from March 2006 to June 2007, Norman spent much of his time training Afghan recruits in a remote outpost in an area largely controlled by the Taliban that was under regular attack with mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. In Iraq, where he served from November 2007 to May, he oversaw convoys of up to 40 vehicles, sometimes driving eight hours at a stretch, facing the constant threat of roadside bombs and ambushes.

The strain of combat eventually took its toll. Bender says Norman suffered from anxiety attacks, nightmares and flashbacks to his combat experiences. He suspects Norman had PTSD since he returned from Afghanistan.

Fleischman thinks Norman's condition played a key role in his suicide. "The Iraq war has claimed another ... victim," he wrote in an e-mail.

Norman was also lonely. "His brother had found a girlfriend while he had been away," Bender said. "I had found someone and got married. That's what he wanted in his life. He couldn't find someone that was right for him. That was frustrating for him."

Norman's legal problems began in late October. After receiving a tip, the Harford County Sheriff's Department started an investigation on Norman. On Oct. 27, distraught over the inquiry, Norman tried to kill himself by swallowing more than 100 sleeping pills and drinking half a bottle of Southern Comfort, according to friends and court records. But he called friends and told them what he'd done. They called 911, and he was taken to a hospital in time. He entered an intense treatment program for soldiers with PTSD at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Hospital. He went through therapy and began taking medication.

When Bender picked him up after a week, he seemed better. "For the first time in a long time, he seemed like his old self, like he was before Afghanistan," Bender said.

But a few days later, on Nov. 12, he was arrested for the alleged slap and told not to come to work anymore.

"It shot him right back down," Bender said.

Looking for evidence, sheriff's deputies took Norman's computer, his cable box and his video games. Bender says his friend spent much of his time sitting alone in his apartment, thinking about the possibility that he wouldn't be able to teach anymore.

"He couldn't see losing his teaching job," said Lee Norman, his father, who lives near Pittsburgh.

After Brian Norman's first suicide attempt, deputies also confiscated his weapons. But according to Bender, sometime over the next month, Brian Norman took a handgun from the home of friends without telling them; on Dec. 19, this was the gun he used.

Brian Norman's lawyer, Andy Battista, says his client had a strong case. "From what I can see, we would have had a very successful fight," he said. Battista said the two witnesses to the alleged slap did not back up the victim's story.

The prosecutor handling the case believes Norman would have been convicted. "I have no doubts on this case whatsoever," said Bruce Smith, an assistant state's attorney.

Norman's funeral will be Monday in Irwin, Pa. Friends are planning a memorial service Jan. 10 in Harford County at a site to be determined.

Since last weekend, more than 100 friends, fellow soldiers, colleagues, parents and students have written e-mails and posted messages online, recalling Norman. Almost all have praised him; some say he is innocent; a few say he is guilty.

But many say that whatever might have happened between Norman and the alleged victim, his achievements shouldn't be neglected.

"It seems a shame," Fleischman said, "that the only time he got in the paper was for what he did in the last five weeks."

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