A Troubled Marine's Final Fight

When his nation called, Marine Sergeant David Lindley answered. But when he came home hurting, his country let him down

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Peter Van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

When his nation called, Marine Sergeant David Linley answered. But when he came home hurting, his country let him down.

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Linley says he was aiming at trees and over the heads of responding police officers. "If Dave had wanted to kill a cop, he would have killed a cop," Pete Gill, a Marine comrade, says flatly. "Because even your most basic Marine can hit something at 100 yards, and he didn't hit a one of them. If that wasn't a cry for 'Shoot me because I don't want to shoot you,' I don't know what was."

I was acting like I was in a firefight, but there was that voice in my head telling me I was in a safe place and there was no danger. I was supposed to be dead, and I was determined to die, to not hurt my family. Now I was being hunted down.

Talking with Linley, now 48, inside the visitors' center at the Graham Correctional Center in southern Illinois, is bleakly enlightening. His records and the accounts of fellow Marines, relatives and neighbors reveal a once squared-away sergeant--he has no record of parking, never mind speeding, tickets--tormented by what he witnessed during his four combat tours.

The product of a broken New York City family, Linley joined the Marines as a radio operator in 1982 at age 17, with his mother's signature on his enlistment papers. During his first 10-year stint on active duty, he spent six years overseas, seeing action in Grenada and Beirut and in the 1991 Gulf War. In between deployments to war zones, he spent three years as a Marine security guard at U.S. diplomatic outposts in São Paulo and Islamabad. After a decade as a civilian, he reupped at age 36, angered by the 9/11 attacks. "I was anxious to be back into the fight," he says. "I felt I had a duty that was not finished." He spent seven months as a sergeant in Iraq's violent Anbar province in 2004.

Once he returned from Iraq, Linley and Kristin moved to suburban Chicago, near her parents. They bought a house and had their second child as his life slowly unwound. "He was no longer outgoing but became socially and emotionally withdrawn," Kristin recalls. "We'd always attended church regularly, but he stopped going with me." Once a beer drinker, Linley began "self-medicating" with liquor. "He hit the bottle hard when he came home," Kristin says. "He started locking himself in the basement to get drunk."

Nine months before the shoot-out, Linley acknowledged the disconnect between those who fight and those back home. "They either ignore you or become scared of you," he wrote in a letter to the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper. "When they ask, 'What was it like?' they zone out with dazed looks on their faces when you start to describe what you have seen."

And he said he had seen plenty. His Beirut and final Iraq tours were especially bloody; many Marines were killed, but it was the civilians, especially children, caught in the cross fire who Linley says fueled his nightmares. In Beirut, he'd called for a strike on a threatening bus that local newspapers later said had killed 12 children. In Iraq, he saw a young teenager rummaging in an ammo dump lose both arms in an explosion. He survived roadside-bomb blasts.

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