“That young man never should have come into the Army”

Kenneth Eastridge had PTSD before he ever donned a uniform or did two tours of duty in Iraq. Now he's in prison for his part in the murder of a fellow soldier.

Topics: Coming home: The Army's fatal neglect, Mental Illness, U.S. Military, Suicide,

"That young man never should have come into the Army"

Late on the night of March 11, 2006, Kenneth Eastridge got in a fight with his girlfriend. It ended with his arrest for a felony.

The Kentucky native, an Army soldier stationed at Fort Carson, between deployments in Iraq, had fallen asleep after drinking when his girlfriend began to pound on his apartment door. She wanted inside, and she wanted to talk.

Eastridge responded with a string of obscenities and then flung the door open. He pointed a loaded pistol at his girlfriend. She looked at him like he was crazy, then turned and ran. Eastridge didn’t fire. He stood motionless, stunned by his own reaction.

Eastridge recounts the episode from a gray plastic table inside Kit Carson Correctional Center, an island of concrete and razor wire in eastern Colorado’s flat ocean of wheat. Now 25, he admits that by the time of his arrest in 2006 for felony menacing, he was already a “runaway train.” But the train would keep going for another year, through a second deployment to Iraq, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, and then the death of a fellow soldier. Eastridge is among 13 current or former Fort Carson soldiers to return from the Iraq war and then be accused or convicted of involvement in murder since 2005.

Eastridge may be unique among the soldiers whose cases have been discussed in the “Coming Home” series (read the introduction to “Coming Home” here) in that he may well have had PTSD before he ever entered the military. In previous articles in the series, Salon has discussed what happens to soldiers who develop PTSD during combat and then do harm to themselves and others. In a second article published today, we describe the case of a man whom Army doctors identified as having a psychological disorder prior to his deployment, who then was deployed anyway, only to return to the States and allegedly kill someone. With Kenneth Eastridge, the Army knew what it was getting before he entered basic training — before he ever donned a uniform. The Army may have exacerbated Eastridge’s preexisting condition by sending him into combat. Once he had been to Iraq, twice, and was diagnosed with PTSD yet again, the Army was done with him. That’s when he was loosed on the public, with tragic consequences.



When Kenneth Eastridge was 12 years old in Louisville, Ky., he killed one of his friends. As a child, he spent long hours at home unsupervised, and he liked to take out his father’s guns and look at them, pretending to shoot. As his friend Billy Bowman sat in a chair playing a video game on May 7, 1996, Eastridge fumbled with an antique shotgun and pulled the trigger. Bowman was hit in the chest and died instantly. There was lots of blood.

Eastridge, who says the shooting was an accident, pleaded guilty to reckless homicide. According to court records that would later be cited by his defense attorney in Colorado, Eastridge was diagnosed with PTSD after the shooting. He was convicted of reckless homicide; as a condition of his sentence, he was ordered to see a counselor.

It was difficult being known as the kid who had killed his friend. Eastridge dropped out of high school. He saw the Army as a brass ring — a way to make something of himself. In 2003, at age 19, he persuaded the Army to sign a waiver allowing him in despite his juvenile record. Asked about Eastridge’s waiver, and whether that waiver in any way also acknowledged a preexisting diagnosis of PTSD, Lt. Col. George Wright of Army public affairs at the Pentagon declined to comment. “Army practice,” said Wright, “is to not discuss the specifics of waivers [for soldiers]. Any medical diagnosis of any condition is protected.”

Once in the Army, Eastridge found an organization that seemed vastly different from the proud force portrayed in TV commercials. The Army might be where some patriots enlist to serve America, but to Eastridge and soldiers like him, the Army was simply a good job.

It wasn’t just “hero kids” bound for college, he says. It was also gangbangers and thugs. Kit Carson prison, he adds, is “like kiddie camp compared to the Army.”

He holds up his crooked finger, misshapen during a fight with other soldiers. Some soldiers blow off steam by flailing, “bare-knuckle, smashing each other, tearing the whole room apart,” he says.

In August 2004, Eastridge, then stationed in South Korea, went to Iraq for the first time. He was a gunner in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. A pre-deployment health assessment did not identify any major issues.

He spent a rough year in Habbaniya, Iraq. Friends died, including a trusted sergeant. Then, on Feb. 11, 2005, he nearly lost his own life. A bomb exploded under his Humvee, throwing him from the vehicle.

In the days afterward, Eastridge claims, fluid leaked from his ear. The noise hurt his ear for a while, and he sometimes found it hard to remember things, even to think. But although he’d receive a Purple Heart, he would never get to see a brain expert, say his attorneys, citing his medical records. Nor would Eastridge get a CT scan or an MRI. He was treated only for an injury to his leg and placed on crutches and light duty for several weeks before being returned to combat.

When Eastridge returned from Iraq in the summer of 2005 and was stationed at Fort Carson, he received a post-deployment health assessment. In the Aug. 2, 2005, evaluation, he complained of issues consistent with someone suffering the aftereffects of an explosion: dizziness, ringing in his ears, memory problems. “These are issues that are related to a traumatic brain injury,” said Sheilagh McAteer, the Colorado public defender who would wind up representing him several years later.

But the Army didn’t catch it. Eastridge was cleared for redeployment without limitations, according to Army documents cited by McAteer.

While not as alien as Iraq, Colorado Springs was unfamiliar territory to Eastridge, since he and members of the 2-12 had served in South Korea prior to Iraq. But Eastridge quickly found he enjoyed the crisp air and awesome view of Pikes Peak. It felt good. It had been a while since he was able to let his guard down.

Yet he was having trouble relaxing, in part because he felt the Army wouldn’t let him. Commanders, at least as he saw it, were nitpicking his every flaw. Even small things, like having to shine his boots, got on his nerves. And his unit was training hard for a return to Iraq, spending weeks at a time in field exercises.

“Everybody was getting all stressed out,” Eastridge says. “People were going AWOL [absent without leave], taking drugs.”

The rigorous training, which often afforded only weekends off, kept him away from his support network of friends and family. Eastridge says his mind was mired in the heat and carnage of Iraq, and his dreams were reruns of explosions, screams and blood.

Loud noises, such as the sound of a car backfiring, could make his heart jump. After watching action movies, he’d get excited, dominating conversations, his mouth dry, the words racing out.

He also hid weapons around the house. It made him feel safe. He kept an assault rifle hidden under the couch.

It’s not something many people would understand, Eastridge says, but the Army drilled into him the idea that he would be helpless without a gun. Moreover, that was exactly how he felt after his Humvee was hit in Iraq as he waited under cover for the medics to arrive.

“Even when you’re wounded and you’re blown up and you can’t think of anything and you’re bleeding all over the place, you’re thinking, ‘Where is my gun at?’ because you’re naked,” he says. “You have no way to defend yourself. You feel terrified, even in the United States.”

 

Eastridge says that the Army flipped a switch inside him that he could not turn off alone.

“It’s like they try to brainwash you in basic training, and that’s really what they do,” Eastridge says. “Like during bayonet training, we’ll be stabbing a big dummy and they’ll say, ‘What makes the grass grow?’ and we would say, ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ as we’re stabbing the dummy … They just pound it into your head and pound it into your head and pound it into your head to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, and they take you over there and they turn you loose and you kill and kill and kill and kill and kill, and they bring you back here and you’re supposed to turn it off for a year?”

Eastridge began to spiral out of control.

With so much training and so little down time between the long deployments, Eastridge didn’t think it was a good idea to get too comfortable in Colorado Springs, appealing as it seemed. Yet he also wanted to forget about everything, especially the Army. So he drank heavily. He squandered his savings — thousands of dollars — at local bars. He pulled a gun on his girlfriend and found himself facing felony charges.

And at some point between his first deployment and his second, Eastridge got some tattoos. One is in memory of a buddy who died in Iraq. Another is far scarier. It appears to be a Nazi-style “SS” design, although Eastridge insists it’s not. It’s just another tattoo, he says: “It’s anti-establishment.” He seems confused about its meaning. Despite saying on his MySpace page that he wants to meet Hitler (and Jesus, and “just you whatever”), and apparently giving a white supremacist salute on his MySpace page, Eastridge tries to tell Salon that the twin lightning bolts are “Russian.”

In late 2006, as his unit prepared to deploy to Iraq for a second tour, Eastridge faced a dilemma. He was supposed to go overseas, but he was also supposed to go to court.

Eastridge claims he spoke to someone in the judge advocate general’s office and to his superior in the 2-12, Staff Sgt. James Naughton, about what he should do. He says he told them he faced charges in Colorado. He says they told him he was in trouble either way. Naughton, he claims, said he had two choices: Go to Iraq or be punished for desertion.

“Everybody hates that guy,” Eastridge says. “They literally call him the devil. He’s like the worst person I ever met in my life.”

Naughton, now retired in Colorado Springs, initially declined to comment, explaining that he gives “no interviews whatsoever” regarding Eastridge’s time in the Army. However, asked to comment on Eastridge’s specific allegation that Naughton made him deploy to Iraq although he was accused of a felony, Naughton said, “Everything Kenneth Eastridge says can absolutely be put under scrutiny.”

Naughton added, “That young man never should have come into the Army.”

Eastridge knew that if he left, a judge would issue a warrant for his arrest, but he was broke and borrowing money. So he decided to go, figuring that he could build up his savings while he was fighting in the war and then use the money to resolve his legal issues when he returned.

In deploying Eastridge, who was facing a felony charge, the Army broke its own rules, says McAteer, Eastridge’s attorney. “They ignored the fact that he had an active criminal case,” she says, adding that Eastridge could have faced a range of military disciplinary actions at that point, including discharge.

Instead, Eastridge was soon on patrol again, this time south of Baghdad, shooting cats — “Iraqi pussy” — as they ran wild on the junked-out landscape. The good times, he says, were the days like those, when he was able to focus on the one thing he was always good at — firing his rifle. He shot the messenger pigeons that Iraqi insurgents used, grinning as he picked them off.

He also kept nonregulation foreign AK-47 assault rifles that he should have turned in. “I would use them for suppressive fire,” he says, motioning with his arms as if he’s shooting one out of a Humvee window.

He says he killed “lots” of Iraqi insurgents but can’t remember how many.

More of his comrades died, too. One of the worst days was June 28, 2007, when five soldiers with the 2-12 were ambushed on patrol south of Baghdad. A bomb detonated. Then a hail of insurgent machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire rained on them.

Soon Eastridge was finding it tough to sleep. He started popping Valium, even before going on patrols. He shirked duty by having sex with his new girlfriend, who was also a soldier. He also threatened superior officers. They were offenses that could get him kicked out of the Army, but Eastridge didn’t care anymore.

And soon the Army soon caught up to him. He had been reselling some of the Valium, which he had obtained without a prescription, for a dollar a pop. Military prosecutors, he says, threatened to court-martial him on drug-dealing charges.

With the possibility of a long military prison sentence looming, Eastridge took a deal in a summary court-martial process. He’d serve 30 days in a military prison camp at Arifjan, Kuwait.

Though the sequence of events is unclear, it was apparently just prior to his stint in the brig that Eastridge was finally evaluated by Army care providers. By then his mental health and substance abuse issues had long been simmering. On August 24, 2007, he received a diagnosis of “chronic” PTSD. “My feeling is that he had problems for a long time and the Army failed over and over to recognize it,” McAteer said.

For a month, Eastridge filled sandbags in the desert heat and began to envision a life outside the Army. Yet the Army was the only thing he knew, and he wasn’t expecting much help from the Army after the trouble he caused. To be honest, he says, he didn’t know what he’d do.

When his 30 days were up, the Army shipped him back to the States. When he and his girlfriend arrived under Army escort at the airport in Colorado in late September or early October 2007, they made a run for it as their escorts retrieved their luggage. Soon the two were at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Colorado Springs — and AWOL.

There, Eastridge reestablished contact with one of his recently discharged war buddies, Louis Bressler, and a friend of Bressler’s, a still-active Fort Carson soldier named Bruce Bastien. It wasn’t so much a celebration as tense and strange, Eastridge says. Bressler and Bastien seemed easily angered, so he laughed along with them, even as they joked in a macabre way about plans to rob, even murder people. “They said, ‘Did you ever want to kill someone?’ I thought they were just kidding, but I guess they were serious,” Eastridge says.

At the time, he had no idea that detectives in Colorado Springs were trying to determine who had killed Pfc. Robert James, a 23-year-old Fort Carson solider. Later, both Bressler and Bastien would admit in plea deals to playing a role in James’ slaying, saying they stole $25 to $45 from him.

The idea of committing robberies resonated with Eastridge. He still needed money. There were sensational plans, including crashing a truck into a bank vault.

 

On Oct. 29, 2007, Eastridge hit the nighttime streets with Bressler and Bastien, prowling for prey. In the early-morning hours of Oct. 30, they made their first attempt. They succeeded only in terrifying their intended victim. The three targeted a downtown bar manager locking up at closing, stuffing a bank deposit bag under her coat. One of the men — Eastridge says it was Bastien — ran full speed at the woman’s vehicle, but luckily she looked into her rearview mirror and sped away in horror, tires squealing.

The three would eventually find a victim that morning: Erica Ham. Bressler, Eastridge alleges, drove straight at her in the car, and struck her. The men then robbed and stabbed Ham; Eastridge admitted to Salon that he pointed a gun at Ham. He alleges (and statements from men incarcerated with Bastien support this contention) that Bastien was the one who wielded the knife. Ham survived by calling 911.

Eastridge says that the incident spooked him — and that he saved Ham’s life by grabbing the wheel to prevent Bressler from running her over as the trio made a getaway.

Eastridge returned to the Army. He didn’t tell his commanders about the robbery. But, as he’d anticipated, his commanders informed him that a judge had issued a warrant for his arrest while he was in Iraq because he failed to appear in court to face the 2006 menacing charges involving his girlfriend.

Eastridge went to the county jail and spent nearly a month there before posting bond on Nov. 26. When he returned to the Army this time, he was told he would be discharged under “other than honorable” conditions and was warned never to set foot on the post again. As his attorney McAteer notes, Eastridge spent “a couple hours at Fort Carson and then was processed out.”

The Army was done with Eastridge. Even though its medical personnel had diagnosed Eastridge with PTSD, the government was free of responsibility for his healthcare and would not provide other benefits, because he had not received an honorable discharge.

The Army was required, however, to give him a post-deployment health assessment to determine whether he was a threat to himself or to others. “There is no record of a post-deployment health assessment,” McAteer says. “He was never given one. The Army released him without assessing his mental condition.”

If he was found to have problems, the Army could have held him.

The Government Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — has repeatedly chided the military on the importance of the assessments. The office’s most recent criticism came in a June 2008 report to U.S. House Armed Services Committee members. The office noted “continuing problems with the completion of pre- and post-deployment health assessments.”

Days after his discharge from the Army, on Nov. 30, 2007 — a Friday night — Eastridge celebrated his release. He joined Bressler and Bastien at the Rendezvous Lounge. There, they met Spc. Kevin Shields, a Fort Carson soldier celebrating his 24th birthday.

In Eastridge’s version of what happened after that, Bastien allegedly got into a dispute with other customers. He wanted a gun. Bressler offered his, but Bastien would have to retrieve the pistol from Bressler’s car, which was parked back at Bastien’s house. So joined by Shields, Bastien borrowed Bressler’s keys and went to retrieve the gun.

By the time Bastien and Shields had returned, Eastridge and Bressler had moved to Rum Bay, a massive dance spot full of people. There, amid the pulsing music, Eastridge was in full party mode. He bought gimmicky shots in test tubes by the tray from waitresses.

The binging morphed into belligerence. Outside the bar, the men pushed their way down Tejon Street, a crowded stretch of street where bar- and restaurant-goers mingle, clashing with another group. One person in that group motioned as if concealing a gun.

So Bressler hustled to Bastien’s Audi, slunk in, peeled out and screeched to a dramatic halt on Tejon. Eastridge, Bastien and Shields jumped in. Not long after, Bressler, driving lost on dark bungalow-lined roads, stopped and puked.

A fight soon erupted — Bressler and Shields were going at it. Bressler hurled his fists clumsily. Shields threw Bressler against the car.

Then the men got back in. This time Bressler was in the back seat and Bastien was driving. Bressler was fuming after being humiliated, says Eastridge, also seated in the back. Bressler toyed with a knife, Eastridge claims, and then, as the music blared, asked for the gun. Shields, who sat in the front passenger seat, didn’t seem to hear the request. He didn’t notice Bastien reaching under the front seat to retrieve the gun and then holding it behind the seat, gently tapping it against the leather to get Bressler’s attention. Eastridge saw the gun and gave it to Bressler. He says he didn’t know what else to do.

Bressler then told Bastien to pull over so he could puke again.

When Shields got out of the car, a gunshot rang out. Eastridge looked up and saw Shields tense and then drop.

“Boom, boom, boom, boom.” Bressler emptied the gun’s bullets into Shields, Eastridge alleges. (As part of a plea agreement, Bastien was also set to say Bressler was the shooter but failed to do so in court. Bressler claims Bastien was the shooter. No one has fingered Eastridge.)

The trio sped off, Bastien at the wheel. They stopped to burn clothing with blood on it, Eastridge says, recalling Bressler gazing quietly into the flames, watching one boot burn while wearing the other.

Colorado Springs homicide investigators soon closed in. Eastridge eventually agreed to testify in the case in exchange for a lighter sentence. He pleaded guilty this November to accessory to murder, addressing other charges, including his 2006 menacing case. He received a 10-year sentence. Before Eastridge made his deal, his attorneys raised the issue of his PTSD diagnosis, hiring a doctor to conduct an evaluation. Dr. Laura Combs, a Veterans Affairs doctor in Denver, talked in her evaluation about how combat exacerbated Eastridge’s childhood disorder.

Bastien is serving 60 years. He was given a deal to testify against Bressler in exchange for guilty pleas to accessory to murder in Shields’ death and conspiracy to commit murder in James’ death. However, Bastien later refused to take the stand against Bressler, and prosecutors are now mulling whether to put him on trial.

In November, a jury was unable to conclude that Bressler had pulled the trigger on Shields. Instead, jurors found Bressler guilty of conspiracy to murder. Prosecutors then opted to seek a plea deal to resolve the murder of James and the assault of Ham. In all, Bressler, who will be formally sentenced in March, is expected to get 50 to 60 years.

Colorado Springs law enforcement officials declined to discuss the case until Bressler is sentenced.

Eastridge, who has already served a year, reckons he will be eligible for parole around 2012, depending on good behavior. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life.

“My only job skills are military,” he says.

Maybe he’ll work in the oil fields or become a welder. He’s not sure how his record will hinder his chances of finding a decent job. “I’ve thought about the French Foreign Legion,” he offers.

He’s also not receiving treatment for his PTSD in prison. He worries that if he sees a psychologist, it could delay his release date if ongoing problems are found: “Right now I just want to get out as fast as possible.”

Can he find ways to prevent his life from spiraling out of control again? “I can’t really say that I can,” he says.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

Michael de Yoanna is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who won an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative radio journalism in 2011. You can view his past work at Salon here, visit his personal website here, and follow him on Twitter @mdy1.

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