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

  • 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.

    At some point I remember looking out the window and seeing a man hiding behind a tree. I knew I could kill him, but some part of me kept saying, No, don't hurt anyone. I fired at the tree and laughed because I knew I could have hit him. When I smelled the smoke from the rounds fired, I had a rush. Suddenly I was back in the fight.

    David Linley's last night as a free man began, like so many others before it, in his dark basement, watching Band of Brothers. Or was it Saving Private Ryan? Deep into a bottle of Bombay gin at the time, Linley can't recall what was on the screen when his wife Kristin came downstairs to do the laundry. She was surprised to see him wearing, for the first time at home, the Marine fatigues he had worn in Iraq.

    Her interruption was minor and routine--a light switched on, a noise from the washer--but it triggered in Linley something he couldn't ignore. Feeling an irrational rage welling up inside, Linley ordered Kristin to leave the house with their 3-year-old son Hunter and 3-week-old daughter Hannah. Then Linley, age 41, kept drinking. Over the next 24 hours, he tried to kill himself twice by filling the house with natural gas, once by sitting in his running car inside the garage and once by hanging.

    As a Marine sergeant, Linley saw action and witnessed horrors in Grenada, Lebanon and Iraq a generation ago. Ten years ago in January, he headed back to Iraq on his final combat deployment. He had earned an expert rifleman's badge, the corps's highest. The Marines tapped him for prized assignments guarding U.S. diplomatic outposts in Brazil and Pakistan, jobs that required top-secret clearance. He was discharged from the corps, honorably. Twice.

    But his final firefight was on his suburban street 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Chicago, and the enemy was local police. When it ended, he'd traded 17 years in uniform for 16 years behind bars.

    This is a story about what untreated posttraumatic stress can do to a man, his family, his life and his neighborhood. There are about 200,000 incarcerated veterans in the U.S., about 14% of the nation's prisoners. Contrary to public perception, Afghanistan and Iraq vets are only half as likely to be incarcerated as those who fought in earlier wars, but they, like Linley, suffer from PTSD at three times the rate of older veterans. All told, perhaps as many as 10,000 Afghanistan and Iraq War vets--there is no sound estimate--are in the nation's prisons, where mental-health treatment is spotty at best. Linley is one of them, a sad and costly example of a nation too busy to care. "These cases are much too common," says psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general. "We are throwing these guys away."

    I was wearing my full camouflage uniform that I wore in Iraq, including dog tags, survival gear and my fighting knife on my belt. I don't know when, or why, I put it on. It just felt appropriate to die as a Marine in combat gear.

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