BRUNSWICK, Maine — Scott Couture joined the Army Reserves in 1999 because it was the right thing to do for his country — and for his family.
With one young son and another on the way, enlisting in a military police unit seemed like both “a good deal” and a relatively safe way to get serious about supporting a growing family. At the time, the 94th Military Police Company hadn’t been deployed since the first Gulf War.
But after the fall of Baghdad three years later, everything changed.
Scott, a Maine Marine Patrol officer, kissed his wife, Darcie, and their two boys, then headed for war.
The 94th arrived in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, in April 2003 for what would become the second-longest deployment of any unit since World War II, including 15 months in combat zones such as the notoriously violent “Sunni Triangle.”
After returning from Iraq, Scott suffered from irritability, depression and insomnia and was eventually diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. It cost him his job as an officer for the Maine Marine Patrol, which enforces laws and leads search-and-rescue missions on the state’s waters.
PTSD also has caused perhaps irreparable damage to Scott’s relationship with Darcie and their two teenage sons. It may still cost the family their beloved farmhouse on the outskirts of Brunswick — depending on whether the Maine Public Employees Retirement System overturns an initial decision to deny Scott disability retirement benefits.
Neither Scott nor Darcie has ever questioned his decision to fulfill his military obligation — or to decline what Scott said was an offer by his Marine Patrol supervisor to get him out of deployment because his civilian job was deemed essential.
“I signed on the dotted line. I swore an oath,” Scott said recently, sitting at their kitchen table and staring out a window at the winter sky. “How would you live with yourself [if you had to say], ‘Oh yeah, my buddies went over there, and I didn’t go?’”
But Scott’s deployment was extended twice without notice.
“We’re both that kind of person that, you have a responsibility, you committed to something, you have to follow through,” Darcie said, her arms crossed. “But on the other hand, I expect that same level of commitment and follow-through from the other parties involved.
“It was inhumane what they did to them, and now we have to keep fighting just to get help to deal with everything that they did to us, to Scott as a human being, to our family,” she said. “And I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to try to convince the people that are supposed to be there to help us that we need help.”
Life in a war zone
The 94th trained Iraqi police, provided security to special forces soldiers searching Iraqi homes, and patrolled battle zones near Fallujah and Ramadi — all tasks made more difficult because of Iraq’s mix of languages and cultures.
Members of the military police unit were the first Americans most Iraqis they encountered had ever seen, Scott said.
They battled dysentery from open latrines, dehydration because of rationed water, 132-degree heat and the maddening sandflies. Reservists drove unarmored Humvees and wore regular flak vests rather than full ballistic vests issued to special forces soldiers.
The enemy recruited bombers with a $50 bounty — “and if you killed an American, you got more,” Scott said.
“When you first get there, you really feel like you’re doing something that is important,” he said, but questions about their mission began to gnaw at their psyches and their nerves as the months dragged on.
Violence and cultural differences weighed on the reservists. Explosions from an ammunition dump near the base became commonplace as starving Iraqis stripped brass from ammunition rounds to sell. Scott and his unit found the body parts of 39 people surrounding a crater, including children who had been sent to strip the brass.
‘Losing my humanity’
When children as young as 5 threw pebbles, and then larger rocks, at U.S. Humvees, Scott said a local sheikh told the reservists, “‘What you must do is grab the child and you must strike him.’”
“We said, ‘They can’t do this. We obviously don’t want to shoot any kids, but we can’t have them endangering our soldiers,’” Scott said.
The next time rocks flew at the Humvee, Scott pulled the vehicle off the road and ran toward the child.
“I hit him with my hand open like this, with the side of my hand, so I know his bell was rung,” Scott said, swallowing.
No more rocks were thrown.
“So now every area we went to, we started grabbing kids and smacking them upside the head. … I don’t know how long you think you can do that without feeling [messed] up about it. … And then you know, the constant struggle, trying to think, ‘Am I doing the right thing? So here I am, brutalizing kids. What … is wrong with me?’” he said.
After awhile, he said, “I felt like I was losing my humanity. It was like slipping away. You start to not believe in what you’re doing.”
Scott was awarded a Bronze Star in 2003 for actions that a fellow military police officer likened to a scene from an action movie.
After several members of his squad entered a large apartment building and drew sniper fire, Scott and other reservists ran through gunfire into the building and secured it. From the roof, Scott saw a grenade beneath him on the sidewalk, but he couldn’t tell whether the pin had been pulled, Michael Gifford wrote in his book, “Taking Anbar: A Frontline Account of the Hunt for Iraq’s Lethal Insurgency.”
Scott “took matters into his own hands and advised his team to cover him,” Gifford wrote. “With an Iraqi policeman curiously gazing over his shoulder, Scott carefully aimed his M16 and fired, barely missing it as the first bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk. The second shot connected, and the decades-old grenade exploded into a cloud of gray smoke and concrete powder.”
Scott said Thursday that he’s pretty sure he hit the grenade on the first shot.
Later that same night, exhausted and stunned from the events to the point of “numbness,” Scott and several other military police officers were guarding a bridge when a car careened around the corner and Scott ordered the driver to stop.
“I’m saying, ‘Just keep your hands where I can see them’ … and I hear these screams, and there’s a little girl. I look in the back seat and she had — her hands were blown off and she — it was the most horrible — she looked at me as if I did it to her,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears. “And I would never do that. … You almost don’t want to live with yourself … it’s more than you can take. At that point I didn’t even know if I wanted to come home or not.”
Long way home
Two months later, the 94th Military Police Company learned it would be extended another 200 days. The company returned to Ramadi and started a police academy, where Scott said, “We really did some good work.”
In April 2004, hours before they were to return home, the reservists were standing on the tarmac when they learned they would again be extended.
Some reservists dropped to their hands and knees to vomit, Scott said. A “wailing” filled the air as they called to tell their families they weren’t coming home.
When the 94th arrived back in New England in July 2004, the reservists were evaluated by the Veterans Administration. Scott said he reported some minor joint problems, but he acknowledged that perhaps because of the “macho” environments of both law enforcement and the military, he was “straight-faced and stoic” about any potential psychological symptoms.
He returned to work, enjoying his new Marine Patrol responsibilities in Harpswell.
“You didn’t necessarily know you weren’t OK,” he said. “You were extremely happy to be home, in one piece, reunited with your family … it’s such a profound feeling. It compensates, it overcomes any of those bad feelings you might be having — you don’t recognize them.”
Scott saw friends he’d served with show signs of PTSD, but he explained them away as complications of relationships or work stressors.
He joined the Marine Patrol dive team and enjoyed it, despite assignments that included personally recovering four bodies.
That didn’t help, he said. “I realize that.”
But Scott grew irritable and forgetful, once missing an entire assignment with the dive team. He also was quickly angered. One day he stopped a boat on which an infant with no life preserver was a passenger.
He struggled to contain his anger: “I said, ‘Have you ever recovered a dead child off the bottom of a river?’ I could feel it inside me — I can feel it now.”
At home, Darcie told him he was tense and volatile around their sons, although Scott didn’t realize it. He was sensitive to loud noises.
While he was confident he was behaving responsibly, Scott received written warnings at work and was suspended from search-and-rescue activities with the dive team.
Although he received counseling and other treatment at a VA center in Lewiston, Scott resisted telling the marine patrol about his symptoms, not wanting supervisors to see “how broken” he was.
The stress took its toll on Darcie. She quit her Department of Marine Resources job and set up a small consulting company so she could work from home. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure and began to lose her hair.
At Darcie’s insistence, Scott returned to the VA for re-evaluation. An initial assessment of 20 percent for a knee injury was increased to 30, and finally 80 percent because of PTSD.
In April 2014, Darcie wrote to the VA, pleading on Scott’s behalf: “I look so hard to see the man I married still in there, somewhere. Sometimes I catch a short glimpse, but for the most part, you need to know that my husband never truly came home from Iraq. I have a broken, damaged stranger in my house now, and I need help to take care of him, and to learn how to live with him.”
Darcie said she worries that Scott is one drop in “a silent tidal wave” of Mainers who served in Iraq, then came home to find that the services they need aren’t there.
“I don’t think people recognize the full measure of the cost that veterans have paid and their families and us,” she said. “This is our family. Besides everything Scott had to go through, we had a really nice little family.”
“I hate that you put that in the past tense,” Scott replied.