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Family life has bolstered Dustin Jolly on his return from Iraq. He quickly reunited with his estranged wife, Carman, and now fills the role of Mr. Mom with Aaliyah because Carman goes to beauty school five days a week and he cannot yet hold down a job.
Family life has bolstered Dustin Jolly on his return from Iraq. He quickly reunited with his estranged wife, Carman, and now fills the role of Mr. Mom with Aaliyah because Carman goes to beauty school five days a week and he cannot yet hold down a job. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)

'Nothing's wrong with you'

When he came to, Andy Wilson squinted through a gauzy haze and struggled to remember how he'd landed in the Texas Army hospital's emergency ward.

"What the [expletive] are you doing here?" the groggy staff sergeant asked a friend and fellow soldier when he finally opened his eyes.

"I'm here baby-sitting you," Chris Liu, who had served with Wilson in Iraq, told him. "That's what I'm doing."

The comrades exchanged some rough and profane banter at his bedside, but beneath the bravado was an air of crisis.

Ever since his friend Jeremy Regnier's combat death six months before, Wilson had been slipping away. The day before, he had swallowed a bottle of an antipsychotic drug.

"I put the pills in my mouth," he said. "Just ate them."

There was just too much to handle. His marriage, always stormy, was in free-fall. His mind flickered again and again with images of Regnier, cut down by a roadside bomb.

Most soldiers put the horror behind them, enclosing it in an armored inner space, or seeming to. But, for others, moving on is the work of months, or years. Or a life.

It is a condition with an off-putting, antiseptic name -- post-traumatic stress disorder. It is as old as warfare and as new as yesterday's casualty list. Yet, remarkably little is known of why it afflicts some and exempts others, why its symptoms can be so insidious and so adamant.

Wilson only knew what he felt -- possessed, immobilized, ashamed. He had left Iraq early, and he believed his superiors now considered him damaged goods. The soldier who ran when others stayed. The commander who swapped places with Regnier minutes before the bomb tore him apart.

"I should have died," Wilson said.

Instead, he unraveled.

The Army had come into his life at a desperate time, and helped him pull together. He'd found a reservoir of strength and had been tapped, early on, as a leader. But one night, and one loss, and all that was gone.

Four days after Liu left Wilson's bedside, a superior officer visited him in the hospital. Wilson said he asked whether the Army considered his psychic wounds worthy of formal recognition.

"I take nothing away from anybody who has lost limbs -- nothing at all because they deserve more than just a Purple Heart," Wilson would later explain. "Maybe they should come up with something for us crazy guys. I don't know. But we have wounds that we're going to carry with us for the rest of our lives. I sit alone in my house sometimes and I cry like a big baby because of what happened."

But the visitor to his hospital bedside, a captain, saw things differently, Wilson said. There would be no battlefield award for Staff Sergeant Andrew M. Wilson.

And, he recalled, the captain told him why: "Because nothing's wrong with you."

In the days that followed, after he was discharged from the Texas hospital's psychiatric unit, Wilson returned to his limited, clerical duties at brigade headquarters at Fort Hood.

In a rear storage room sat cardboard boxes full of military decorations -- ribbons and badges and medals, including the one established by George Washington during the Revolutionary War to recognize those killed or wounded in action: the Purple Heart.

One evening, on the way out the door, Wilson found himself unable to resist.

"I snagged one," he said.

He carried it home, tucked it away, and later placed it in the trunk of his car.

The Army considered him ineligible for the honor. But Wilson had his own ceremony in mind. He would pass the medal on to someone who would understand, and who knew that sometimes survival, by itself, can be a hero's work.

Trying to treat an inner wound
The fury of the blast wouldn't fade. Andy Wilson replayed the seconds, hours, and days that followed over and over again.

It had been loud even by Baghdad standards. The bomb that killed Regnier shattered the sleep of soldiers hundreds of yards away.

Colonel Paul S. Hill, new to the front and still trying to get accustomed to the noises of the night, had felt it. He awoke with a start at 4:30 a.m.

"You hear mortar rounds all the time over there," the Army psychiatrist said. "Some of them were close and some of them weren't. But that was close."

At age 71, Hill had seen his share of wartime trauma. The 20-year Army veteran, who spent a year in Vietnam, had worked hard to win a volunteer posting to Camp Victory, the sprawling military post near Baghdad's airport, despite his age. He understood the inner wounds of war and he wanted to help heal them.

By mid-morning on the day of the attack, Wilson was sitting across from Hill in his makeshift office, a modular trailer where the men would form the beginning of a professional bond that Wilson would later credit with saving his life.

"He was pretty rattled," Hill said of Wilson. "I was pretty concerned about him."

Wilson began to see Hill daily, consultations he believed were fueling chatter on the base that he was crazy or a coward.

He wasn't either of those things. He just couldn't be a soldier anymore.

He appeared before his platoon and apologized. He refused to carry his weapon. He balked at any suggestion that he return to patrol.

"Every time I close my eyes I see it," Wilson remembers telling Hill. "I smell it. I can't get this blood off of me. . . . I don't know how to do this."

Before his promotion to sergeant, Wilson had memorized the Army's noncommissioned officer's creed. "I will provide leadership," it states. "I know my soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own."

Now, Wilson believed he'd betrayed those words.

The encouragement and backslaps from soldiers, who remembered the strapping leader whose orders could sometimes seem like kindly suggestions, did not help.

"I didn't understand why I was alive," Wilson said. "Why was he gone? And why so fast? I made a promise to bring them all home."

One question was particularly haunting: Why had he traded places with Regnier moments before the bomb went off?

"Are you all right, buddy?" Sergeant Moises Garcia, his roommate in Iraq, had asked him the day after the attack.

"You know, I'm not all right at all," Wilson told him.

For the next several weeks, he had kept busy with maintenance work in the motor pool. He had narrowly dodged a car-bombing near the airport's main gate. Coaxed back to limited duty, Wilson squeezed into the back of a Humvee for a patrol or two.

"Riding around like an idiot," he said.

In early December, scheduled for a two-week, mid-tour leave, he said goodbye to the soldiers he had helped train.

He embraced Specialist Dustin S. Jolly, the other survivor of the roadside attack, and implored him to stay safe. I'll be back, Wilson assured him.

But back in Texas, he battled nightmares and unexpected crying spells. When a restaurant bus boy dropped a tub of dishes, he ducked for cover under the table. During an electrical storm, when a loud and unexpected clap of thunder struck, he hit the deck, frightening his young daughter, Ayana.

"I was freaking," he said. "I needed to find out what the hell was wrong."

Days before he was to return to Iraq, he learned that Colonel Hill, the doctor he had seen in Iraq, had completed his tour and was now back in Texas. Wilson paid a visit, and with the help of the psychiatrist, Wilson's orders to return to war would soon be rewritten.

"There's a prevailing opinion in the Army," Hill said. "The idea is that these reactions are normal and they'll just go away. Well, I just think that's illogical."

Going it alone in a struggle
When Dustin Jolly's best friend, Sergeant Chad Rosenbaum, died in a car bombing a little more than three weeks before Regnier was killed, Jolly had considered quitting the Army altogether.

Rosenbaum had been like a brother, and his death leveled Jolly. "That about broke my heart," Jolly said. "I loved him."

But with Regnier's death, Jolly felt something more visceral, and inexorable. Like nothing ever had, it scared the daylights out of him.

"I used to roll out the gate almost every night after that and I'd be drenched in sweat,' " Jolly said. "It would take me a good hour-and-a-half, two hours after being out there to start calming down."

He couldn't sleep. He battled headaches so severe they made him vomit. He, too, sometimes blamed himself, wondering if he had driven the Bradley differently that night -- faster or closer to the center of the road -- Regnier might still be alive. He spoke to a military chaplain about it.

Jolly, reassigned to another Bradley crew, struggled to get through his nightly patrols, but he knew the stigma that can follow when a soldier seeks psychiatric help. He had heard the whispers in camp about Andy Wilson.

"If I would have tried, I could have got out of doing my job," Jolly said. "But I felt that, OK, if I didn't do my job that's only going to make the next guy do twice the amount of work."

As he counted off the days until the end of his tour and, soon thereafter, his discharge from the service, his family in Indiana e-mailed him frequently with words of encouragement.

It was simple stuff, but it helped. At a time when being alive seemed senseless, he was reminded of a life he still wanted.

Jolly had grown up shooting turkey and squirrel in the woods behind his grandfather's house, and, from Baghdad, he kept tabs on the hunting season back home. He e-mailed his family about his plans to buy a supercharged Mustang and perhaps settle down on a small piece of land in the old neighborhood once his Army days were over.

"I know in my head I've only got to make it this far," Jolly said. He would stick it out.

As Jolly marked time in Iraq, Andy Wilson was back at Fort Hood, where his childhood memories were being excavated by Dr. Hill.

The psychiatrist learned that his patient had been struck in an old and broken place. As with so many with post-traumatic stress, war had found his weakest point. Unlike Jolly, Wilson had nothing in the way of family to fall back on.

His father, John Ernest Wilson 3d , was a master carpenter and hopeless alcoholic. His family says he was arrested nine times in a single year for driving while under the influence and, when Andy was 7, spent time in prison for robbery.

His mother struggled to stay sober, too, often unsuccessfully. She smoked crack and snorted cocaine.

"We were both nuts then," said Mary Jones, Wilson 's mother, who still battles addiction.

In one of Wilson's earliest childhood memories, his father is drunk and passed out on the couch while he -- then just 4 or 5 -- is heating macaroni and cheese over a gas stove. When his grandmother walks in, horrified to see the sleeve of little Andy's sweater sagging close to the flame, she grabs the boy and storms out.

"From then on, I lived with grandmother and grandfather for a few years," he said.

Later, he would spend time in a foster home, his darkest days. He was sexually abused at least twice by the man in the house, he says.

"No one believed him," his mother said. "And that's the sickest part of the whole damn thing."

The man who emerged from that boyhood would blend trouble and toughness with a tender, compassionate core. The teen who sold pot on the streets of Dayton became the popular staff sergeant who opened his home on Thanksgiving, serving turkey to soldiers with nowhere to go.

"I am traumatized by my childhood," Wilson said. "But it didn't run my life."

In his examination of Wilson, Dr. Hill took note of his patient's troubled family history. He recorded Wilson's overdose in 2001 on an over-the-counter sleep medicine, his volcanic marriage that was now nearing its end, and his devotion to his little daughter, Ayana.

And he assessed his patient's current state.

"At times he has felt suicidal without a plan," Hill wrote in a formal report.

Wilson, Hill concluded, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Service member is unfit for further military duty," Hill said in the findings he made for an Army medical evaluation board in early 2005.

Wilson's military career was at its end. And, almost, his life -- two days after Hill's report, he swallowed the bottle of antipsychotic pills.

Coincidentally, a separate wing of the military was, at that moment, producing another piece of paperwork on Wilson's service.

"A great leader and soldier! Very deserving," one commander wrote, recommending him for the Army's Meritorious Service Medal.

"His genuine concern for soldiers permeated from his platoon throughout the battery as a noncommissioned officer that could be trusted in any situation," one citation reads. "His dedication to duty and selfless service bring great credit upon himself . . . and the United States Army."

Within days, an Army lieutenant general made Wilson's award official.

As troops return, an anxious meeting
Cooper Field is a wide and well-worn parade ground outside the First Cavalry Division headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas, where, during special events, soldiers on horseback still gallop furiously, a ceremonial nod to the division's storied past.

In March 2005, some 600 soldiers of the Fifth Air Defense Artillery Regiment who had patrolled Baghdad's infamous "highway of death" in convoys of armored vehicles, returned to Fort Hood after a long, hot year at war.

As proud, giddy families packed the grandstands on the field's southern edge, bus after bus rolled down Cooper Field, providing hulking metal screens for passengers who disembarked on the opposite side. Then the buses drove off and there -- at attention -- stood the ramrod troops.

"Oh, you can't even explain it," said Debbie Jolly, Dustin's mother who was there with family and friends. "That was something. You're so glad to see him, but then you were crying for the ones that weren't there."

Jeremy Regnier's family watched the ceremony from seats they found in a small section of bleachers set off to one side.

Their military chaperone that day was Andy Wilson, one of his last formal duties before discharge.

Wilson and Kevin Regnier had spoken briefly on the phone the day after Jeremy had died. But this was his first encounter with the man he knew only from the stories that Jeremy Regnier had told about his dad during the unit's tense and tedious patrols.

Wilson, anxious and excited to welcome home the men he trained and fought with, felt nervous and uncomfortable about greeting the Regniers.

"It was a weird day," he said.

And as he watched Andy Wilson approach him that day, Kevin Regnier sensed it immediately.

"He came walking up and his head was down and he introduced himself and we shook hands," Kevin Regnier recalled. "He said, 'Sorry,' and I said, 'You've got nothing to be sorry about.' "

Regnier and his family -- his wife, Shawn, and his daughter Amanda -- wanted to hear the precise details about what happened to Jeremy directly from Wilson. And, in a nearby hotel room, amid tears and hugs, he told them about that last patrol. The jocular banter among the men of Chaos 4 that night. The decision to trade places. The sudden explosion and thick smoke, the frantic attempts to revive their friend.

"We wanted to know that he wasn't in pain and that he didn't suffer," Shawn Regnier said.

No, Wilson assured him. Jeremy was gone too fast for that.

For Wilson, it was a day of whipsawing emotion.

"My eyes welled up and I couldn't take it because I should have been in that formation, or Jeremy should have been in that formation," Wilson said.

Instead, with Kevin Regnier next to him, Wilson stood by as his old comrades approached. There were double-takes and awkward pauses. Both men could detect the discomfort.

"Everybody knew that that was Jeremy's dad," Wilson said. "They automatically knew."

"None of them could look at me," Regnier said. "They all said sorry. I had to actually get on them. 'That's not what we're here for. We're here to welcome you guys back. We're glad the rest of you made it. We wanted him to come home. He didn't. We're not here to bring you guys down. We're here to bring you guys up.' "

Wilson said when he walked up to a superior, and held out his hand, he got a cold brushoff.

"He just looked at me, shook his head, and walked away," Wilson said.

Master Sergeant Joel Gutierrez said he doesn't recall the details of that reunion. "I honestly don't remember not shaking his hand," Gutierrez said. "I don't remember shaking his hand either."

If Wilson felt scorned by some officers, he was buoyed by his reception from the soldiers he knew best. It was genuine and warm.

Later, at a barbecue he hosted, Wilson served hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, steak, and plenty of beer to his old Army gang. The Regnier family was there and, mindful of the instructions Jeremy had given him before his final tour -- to take care of his Bradley crew if anything goes wrong -- Kevin Regnier pulled Wilson and Jolly aside.

"Whether you want to be or not, you're adopted," he told them.

Starting over with a family
By summertime, Kevin Regnier's adopted sons had returned to civilian life.

Andy Wilson went home to Dayton, Ohio, where he made plans to return to college, build a new career, and finalize his divorce.

Dustin Jolly returned to Indiana, and focused first on repairing his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Carman Arteaga, the striking young woman he had danced with at the junior prom.

They were a family of three now. And Dustin was learning to master new skills: bathing, feeding, changing, and playing with Aaliyah, the bright-eyed 2-year-old he'd come to love.

"She's about my best friend these days," he said, beaming at the tiny girl in his lap.

The Jollys had married in April 2001 on the same day Dustin joined the Army.

Carman blamed their marital fracture on the lonesome strains of military life. He was away too much. She was too far from family and friends.

"I was so young," said Carman, 23. "Totally out of my element."

When Dustin came home to Bloomington after his discharge in the spring of 2005, he remembered he still had a box of Carman's belongings. He called and suggested they meet for a drink to make the exchange.

"I wanted to see him. I was excited. I was happy," she said. "It was like the first time I'd ever seen him. If something's there, it just all comes back."

The couple reconciled, and shared a modern, modular home with Dustin's grandfather, Tom Crouch, a soft-spoken and gentle former auto worker who owned the place.

Carman immediately noticed a difference in Dustin; so did Crouch.

Late at night, when Dustin fell asleep on a living room couch, his grandfather watched as his grandson twitched, jerked, and convulsed in his sleep.

Once -- apparently in mid-nightmare -- Dustin dropped into a stoop, balanced on the balls of his feet, and began to slowly survey the living room like a battle zone.

Crouch, careful not to startle the man he remembered as a carefree little boy with a fishing pole, crept over to his grandson, speaking to him in barely a whisper.

"Dustin, you all right?" Crouch said, patting the young man's knee. "You all right, Dustin?"

With Carman, Dustin could be short-tempered. He seemed always on alert. Loud noises frightened him. His leg seemed in perpetual motion, bouncing up and down like it had a life of its own. Sometimes at night, he urinated in the sink. Frequently, he awoke with a start, his face dripping with perspiration.

"Being around crowds of people, it bothers me," Jolly said. "I get nervous feelings."

But sometimes Carman saw a better side of Dustin. He was more a homebody now. He cared more about his family. He didn't drive as fast. He didn't drink as much.

If Wilson embraced the help of Veterans Affairs doctors and the therapy they prescribed, Jolly firmly resisted them.

During one visit to the VA hospital in Indianapolis, seeking treatment for splitting headaches that made him vomit, Jolly felt he was being eyed with suspicion by the medical staff.

"They acted like I was just somebody off the street, like a drug addict or something," he said.

Jolly decided to see a private doctor instead.

And, his wife said, he remained in denial when anyone mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Weeks later, Jolly sat on his living room couch, reading a newspaper article that detailed the symptoms. Then he gave the article to his wife, asking her to read it, too.

The story's checklist was chilling: hypervigilance, irritability, nightmares, flashbacks, sleeplessness, isolation.

As if a switch had been thrown, Jolly turned to his wife, his eyes wide.

"That's exactly what I have," he said, telling her something she'd known for quite some time.

In cross-country trip, a journey to connect
Andy Wilson took Kevin Regnier at his word.

He leaned on him for emotional support. He telephoned weekly. He paid extended visits to the Regnier home in New Hampshire, sleeping in the bedroom whose closet still holds Jeremy's clothes.

In late May 2005, Wilson, in dress military uniform, stood on a bridge that carries Route 116 over the Ammonoosuc River in downtown Littleton, N.H., and saluted when a plaque in Jeremy's honor was dedicated.

The Memorial Day ceremony enshrined Jeremy Regnier there along with 46 other Littleton soldiers who fell in battles at Bull Run, the snowy forests of Europe, and the jungles of Vietnam.

"I was up there for my soldiers and for myself a lot, too," Wilson said.

On his long drive home back to Ohio, Wilson took an emotional detour.

He drove to Southern Pines, N.C., to visit Mount Hope Cemetery, where his father is buried.

Just after dawn, he approached the grave of John Ernest Wilson, who had died in a 2002 car crash at the age of 52.

Wilson recited a prayer. He saluted the grave. And then he placed on the granite stone a picture of his daughter Ayana, a pine cone to symbolize his father's Carolina roots, and a handsome military medallion he had retrieved from the trunk of his car. The Purple Heart.

As the sun rose, he recalled, he spoke to his father for a few minutes.

"I just want you to be proud of me," he said.

And then he drove away.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at Dina Rudick can be reached at

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