America's Extreme Warriors

Staff Sgt. Shaun McBride would rather be in a war zone than at home. He likes the adrenaline, he says, even the "fear someone can shoot you." He hates the petty responsibilities of home life, the bills and family issues.

He's clocked 43 months in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first wife of three years sent him divorce papers while he was fighting Taliban militants—she wanted to marry a friend of his. (She couldn't be reached for comment.) "Whatever," says McBride, 32, with a shrug. Now he's remarried—to Evangeline (Star) McBride, a 27-year-old divorced mother of one—and getting ready for his fifth deployment with the Third Brigade combat team of the 101st Airborne Division.

When asked in front of Star what he misses most when he's overseas, he doesn't hesitate: his souped-up Mustang. He likes to drive it fast, and "show what's what" when another flashy car pulls up next to him at a stoplight. But even the driving is better in Iraq. There, you "do whatever you want on the road. You own the road … You can go into people's houses without being invited in. It's like you own their house."

Sergeant McBride is a soldier's soldier. He knows his job, and loves it above all else. At a time when the military desperately needs trained fighting men and women, he's always ready to go. But there's also something disturbing about a young man who thrives on conflict and doesn't really feel at ease with his family. Asked the hardest part of coming home, he responds: "Having to live with other people. Having to deal." He doesn't like having to rush to pick up his stepdaughter from day care, or to get the groceries. Where is the line between the highly valued fighting man and the guy who's loving it too much, and been too long in the war zone?

A tiny fraction of Americans are doing the bulk of the country's fighting and policing in far-off lands. Less than 5 percent of Americans are in the active military at any time. Of those, a much smaller number of officers and enlisted men have done multiple tours. Most are in the Army, and less than 15 percent of Army soldiers have done three or more deployments.

Some of those men and women answer the call because they think it's their duty, whether they like it or not. Some go because it's a good way to advance their careers, or because they like the extra money they get with combat duty. Others just like it. "Soldiers want to fight," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was the youngest and most decorated Army general when he retired in 1996. "That's why they signed up."

First Sgt. Jason Dodge is that kind of soldier, an extreme guy in every respect. He gets to his office between 0425 and 0428. A few hours later, he's on his morning run—usually 10 to 15 miles. He can climb a 30-foot rope using just his arms in 10 seconds. He works best in a room without direct sunlight, he says, and doesn't like to eat more than one meal a day—"and that's dinner with my wife, but only because she makes me." His job: to engineer explosives to blow down doors and walls.

It doesn't seem to really bother Sergeant Dodge, 36, that most of his Army buddies have moved on, either transferring to a nondeploying base or leaving the military altogether. He'll miss the old tradition of going to an Outback Steakhouse with his Army friends and their wives before and after each deployment. ("No one was authorized to go while we were gone," he says.) But the way he sees it, he's got a job to do, and it's in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Dodge's wife, Dana, 31, says he's always himself when he gets back from a deployment, but she does handle him carefully at first. "Maybe his temper is a bit short when he first comes home," she says. "If he gets that look, I can just tell and walk away for a while." She's learned not to call him and make one request, then tack on others. She also knows he doesn't like crowds.

Does Dodge like the war zone? "I don't look at it like that, sir, I really don't," he says. He enjoys "playing with explosives," and shooting his gun, and forming the tight bonds that can be forged in a hostile setting. But he also feels professional satisfaction. "I haven't lost a single soldier ... and I consider that my biggest accomplishment," says Dodge, whose brother died in a training accident in 1995. "If I wasn't there, I don't know who would do my job. But what I do know is that I would do it better."

Everyone likes doing what they're good at. But soldiers have to weigh the benefits and costs in ways that others don't. The more time soldiers do in war zones, the more likely they are to suffer posttraumatic stress disorder. A mental-health survey conducted by the Army has quantified the psychological wear and tear of repeated tours. As of spring 2008, 27 percent of noncommissioned officers with three or four deployments had shown symptoms of PTSD, compared with 12 percent of those with one tour.

An optimist reading the data might point out that nearly three quarters of NCOs don't suffer any such mental-health symptoms. But in worst-case scenarios, a stressed soldier can be lethal. In early May, 44-year-old Army Sgt. John M. Russell went berserk in a military stress center in Baghdad, killing five fellow soldiers. Russell was weeks away from finishing his third tour in Iraq, and apparently thought the military was trying to get rid of him.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert Lakes, 39, knows that war has changed him. Everyone tells him he seems a little different after each new deployment. He looks visibly exhausted at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, sitting in an office with no windows at Fort Campbell, just north of Nashville. "I really got to watch it," he says. "Sometimes you get back from a normal day here [on base in the United States] and you're just blown. You just want to lay down and go to sleep. I didn't quite used to be like that. But that might just be me getting older, too. I can't really point to the war and say that did it."

After clocking an astounding 52 months in Iraq, he's planning to go again. He manages the heavy equipment that goes from Fort Campbell to Iraq, keeps it in working condition in the war zone and then ships some of it back again. That means he deploys early to prepare, and stays longer to make sure all the loose ends are tied up. "It cost me an 18-year marriage," says Lakes with an awkward laugh. "But you know, I just do what they tell me to do, go where they tell me to go. I don't think about it too much."

Lakes has a fiancée now, 38-year-old Pamela Doss. They met on Facebook, and realized they had many shared interests and traits—a love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a taste for marshmallows burned black. She got into the relationship knowing that he'd be deploying again and again. But she wishes it were otherwise. "I finally met someone I'm compatible with, and I have to share him with the rest of the world."

Lakes could have gotten a transfer and avoided another deployment. But like other soldiers who opt for more tours, he feels that his fellow soldiers depend on him. "There is nobody else in the unit doing my job," he says. "I don't have a choice." He hasn't seen a psychologist one-on-one, but has phoned a help center called Military OneSource to talk over divorce issues and, in one instance, stress over back-to-back deployments when he was "only home a month or so."

Many military personnel say it's not the number of tours that gets to them, but the length of each one. The Army has the longest tours, with soldiers generally doing a year or more. Army Intelligence Officer Jessica Ohle, 42, currently garrisoned at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, has logged 39 months in a combat zone (as well as additional time in the Balkans and Kuwait), and she wants to keep doing it. But she also wants shorter stints. "When I went to Bosnia in 2001, it was a seven-month deployment, and I remember thinking, this is a loooong time," she says. "But then September 11 happened, and now we're doing 12 months. Seven months now seems like a dream to me."

Part of the trouble with long tours is the stress of holding together a normal life back home. "When you're gone so long, you put your whole life on hold," says Ohle. "You can't plan anything." That can be OK if you're single, but Ohle has been dating another Army intelligence officer who is in a different brigade. They met during a training exercise many years ago, and then in 2006 spent a few months together "downrange," as Ohle calls the combat zone. After that, the dating was long distance. They've been "together-together" only since February, and Ohle expects her boyfriend to deploy again sometime this summer.

Whenever she comes back to the United States, Ohle faces culture shock similar to anyone who returns from a foreign land. She's overwhelmed by the food selection in the markets, and the number of people in the aisles. But unlike ordinary travelers, she also needs to keep her anger in check. "When someone with a shopping cart gets in your way, you can't just yell at them to get out of the way," she says. "Interacting with people requires a reset."

Sergeant McBride and his wife know he has some PTSD-like symptoms. It's always tough when he first comes home from overseas. After his last deployment, she recalls, she suddenly dropped a laundry basket. He started screaming at her never to do that again. "He was about ready to hit the floor," she says—as if he were taking cover from an incoming round. "After three months, he gets normal again."

Star understands what bugs him about home life. "There are bills; you're getting nickeled-and-dimed all the time here," she says. "Everyday life, errands and all that." She handles the mundane duties—including the phone calls to banks or the cable-TV service. "He's kind of antisocial," she says. "It's a hassle for him." The sergeant objects: "I'm not antisocial, I just don't like dealing with strangers."

He may always have been a bit that way. McBride joined the Army in 1996, when he was just 18. That was after he'd dropped out of high school and his mother had kicked him out of the house, he says. Mom was glad when he signed up: she thought he could use the discipline. He did an early stint in Korea and had a child with his first wife. But he was back in the United States on 9/11, taking his wife for surgery that day. He dropped her at the clinic and went to breakfast at a McDonald's, where he saw the towers falling on television. He then picked up his wife, dropped her at home and said, "Sorry, I'm going to work." At the base, everyone was buzzing. "We all knew we were going to war," he says. "We were all excited about it."

Now he's in his fifth year of marriage to Star, and headed into his fifth deployment. Star knows how to handle his moods, and tries not to surprise him with much. She likes that he's an authority figure who can tell her "no," which she "missed out on growing up." When she bought a puppy during one deployment, and it chewed up a carpet, Star e-mailed a photo with a caption: "Don't kill the dog." Shaun says he was "pissed," but he's come to love the dog.

Star knows her husband is less warm than other men, those who show lots of affection to their wives. "I meet them all the time and I'm like—you exist?" she says. "He's kind of emotionally closed. Sometimes it's lonelier when he's here than when he's gone."

Over several interviews with NEWSWEEK, there were two moments when Sergeant McBride let down his tough-guy guard. The first was when he teared up recalling 9/11. The second came when he mentioned that on his upcoming tour he'd be in a desk job, orchestrating the positions of soldiers "outside the wire." To the pleasant surprise of his wife, he offered that he was "ready to take a break" from the real action.

Still, McBride insists the deployments don't wear him down psychologically. "If you want help, you can go and get help," he says. "We do -suicide-prevention briefings every two months or so." But he scoffs at the suicides: "It's just a bunch of weak people." Has he ever been to a psychologist? "No. Never seen a psychologist one-on-one," he says. Star intervenes, in her usual plain-spoken manner. "He needs to. Write that down." Shaun laughs: "Whatever."

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