Vet who saved many in Iraq couldn't escape demons

Sunday - 3/17/2013, 2:00pm EDT

In this Autumn 2006 photo provided by Brock McNabb, McNabb places a "combat patch" on Pete Linnerooth's uniform at their office in Baghdad, denoting that he had been in-country long enough to earn the badge of honor and is officially a combat veteran. Capt. Linnerooth was an Army psychologist who counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. Hundreds upon hundreds sought his help. For nightmares and insomnia. For shock and grief. And for reaching that point where they just wanted to end it all. Linnerooth did such a good job his Army comrades dubbed him The Wizard. His "magic" was deceptively simple: an instant rapport with soldiers, an empathetic manner, a big heart. (AP Photo/Brock McNabb)

SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer

He had a knack for soothing soldiers who'd just seen their buddies killed by bombs. He knew how to comfort medics sickened by the smell of blood and troops haunted by the screams of horribly burned Iraqi children.

Capt. Peter Linnerooth was an Army psychologist. He counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. Hundreds upon hundreds sought his help. For nightmares and insomnia. For shock and grief. And for reaching that point where they just wanted to end it all.

Linnerooth did such a good job his Army comrades dubbed him The Wizard. His "magic" was deceptively simple: an instant rapport with soldiers, an empathetic manner, a big heart.

For a year during one of the bloodiest stretches of the Iraq war, Linnerooth met with soldiers 60 to 70 hours a week. Sometimes he'd hop on helicopters or join convoys, risking mortars and roadside bombs. Often, though, the soldiers came to his shoebox-sized "office" at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.

There they'd encounter a raspy-voiced, broad-shouldered guy who blasted Motorhead, Iron Maiden and other ear-shattering heavy metal, favored four-letter words and inhaled Marlboro Reds -- once even while conducting a "stop smoking" class. He was THAT persuasive.

Linnerooth knew when to be a friend and when to be a professional Army officer. He could be tough, even gruff at times, but he also was a gentle soul, a born storyteller, a proud dad who decorated his quarters with his kids' drawings and photos. He carried his newborn daughter's shoes on his ruck sack for good luck.

Linnerooth left Iraq in 2007, a few months short of the end of his 15-month tour. He couldn't take it anymore. He'd heard enough terrible stories. He'd seen enough dead and dying.

He became a college professor in Minnesota, then counseled vets in California and Nevada. He'd done much to help the troops, but in his mind, it wasn't enough. He worried about veteran suicides. He wrote about professional burnout. He grappled with PTSD, depression and anger, his despair spiraling into an overdose. He divorced and married again. He fought valiantly to get his life in order.

But he couldn't make it happen.

As the new year dawned, Pete Linnerooth, Bronze Star recipient, admired Army captain, devoted father, turned his gun on himself. He was 42.

He was, as one buddy says, the guy who could help everybody -- everybody but himself.

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He liked to jokingly compare himself to an intrepid explorer stranded in one of the most remote corners of the earth.

Linnerooth's best buddy, Brock McNabb, recalls how they'd laugh and find parallels to the plight of Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, Endurance, became trapped in the Antarctic during an early 20th-century expedition. The crew ended up on an ice floe, scrambling to survive.

This was the 100-degree desert, of course, but for them, the analogy was apt: Both were impossible missions -- Linnerooth and two teammates were responsible for the mental stability and psychological care of thousands -- and both groups leaned on one another for emotional sustenance.

"There's no cavalry to save the day," McNabb explains. "You ARE the cavalry. There was no relief."

McNabb and a third soldier, Travis Landchild, were the tight-knit mental health crew in charge of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in the Baghdad area. They were there when the surge began, rocket attacks increased and the death toll mounted.

Landchild says the three dubbed themselves "a dysfunctional tripod." Translation: One of the three "legs" was always broken, or stressed out, and without fail, "the other two would step up and support that person."

A few months into their tour, McNabb says, both he and Linnerooth -- with the approval of on-site doctors -- began taking antidepressants. "He had to have training wheels," McNabb says. "We all did."

They worked non-stop, even overnight sometimes. They listened so intently, their nightmares were not their own.

They saw guys who'd witnessed Humvees vaporize before them, medics barely out of high school dealing with double amputations, women sexually assaulted in combat zones. There were soldiers suffering from paranoia, bipolar disorder, anxiety -- one was wetting his bed. And then there were those escorted under guard after threatening suicide.

"People are in rough, rough shape ... it's misery all the time, and it does affect you," McNabb says.

Linnerooth -- the only trained psychologist of the three -- was frustrated by what he regarded as the Army's view of mental health as a second-class problem that can be minimized or overlooked during deployment, McNabb says. At times, he also felt powerless -- stabilizing soldiers, then having to return them to missions, knowing they'd be traumatized again.