Vet who saved many in Iraq couldn't escape demons

Saturday - 3/16/2013, 3:12pm EDT

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, 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.

Linnnerooth 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.

This was the desert, of course, but the analogy seemed apt: Both seemed impossible missions -- Linnerooth and two teammates tended to the psychological needs of thousands -- and both groups depended on each other to survive.

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

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 and the death toll escalated.

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."

They counseled guys who'd witnessed Humvees vaporize before them, young medics dealing with double amputations, women sexually assaulted in combat zones. There were soldiers suffering from paranoia, bipolar disorder and anxiety. And then there were those who were suicidal.

"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 seeing them return to missions, knowing they'd be traumatized again.

"Sometimes he felt he was putting a Band-Aid over a bullet hole," McNabb says.

For about half his tour, Linnerooth's office was a 12-by-12 trailer. His heavy-metal soundtrack provided a sound buffer. A blanket serving as a makeshift room divider also provided a modicum of privacy.

Linnerooth brought hope to those gripped by hopelessness. In a desert, he could always find the glass half full.

But he wasn't just confronting emotional trauma. He was in the same complex as the Riva Ridge Troop Medical Clinic. When mass casualties arrived, he helped out, squeezing IV bags and handling bandages.

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