'He Should Never Have Gone to Iraq'

Pvt. David Dietrich had a history of cognitive problems. He struggled in boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., striking at least one of his superiors as unfit for the military. Dietrich was so slow at processing new things, some fellow soldiers called him Forrest Gump. His squad leader, Pfc. Matthew Berg, says Dietrich couldn't hit targets on the rifle range and had trouble retaining information. "He was very strong physically, but mentally he wasn't really all there," Berg says. Recruited as a cavalry scout, one of the toughest specialties in the Army, Dietrich seemed to lack the essential skills for the job: concentration, decisiveness and the ability to move around without being noticed. He was sent for psychological evaluations at least twice, yet somehow Dietrich advanced—from Fort Knox to Germany and on to Iraq in November 2006. Eight weeks later, at 21, Dietrich was killed by a sniper while conducting reconnaissance from an abandoned building in Ramadi.

What was a guy like Dietrich doing in the military? At a time when an overstretched Army is sending into combat thousands of soldiers who once would have been considered mentally or physically unfit for duty, his story illuminates the complexities and human cost of the war—and shows how hard it is to find the line between tragic circumstances and military misconduct.

Dietrich's problems did not surface on enlistment tests. In Iraq, it's unclear whether his cognitive issues had something to do with his death. Yet his superiors had serious misgivings about the troubled soldier. One of them says he worried that Dietrich would pose a danger to himself and others if he was sent to Iraq and pushed to have him processed out of the military—only to be rebuffed by higher-ups. In conversations with NEWSWEEK, he asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing his Army career. Berg, the squad leader, says he is speaking publicly because he feels partially responsible for Dietrich's death. "The Army was under a lot of pressure to graduate scouts at the time, and even now … no matter how competent or incompetent," Berg says.

His observation appears to be borne out by the Pentagon's own data. According to records made available to NEWSWEEK, the attrition rate for GIs with health, performance or conduct problems in their first months of Army service has dropped by as much as 45 percent since 2004. In other words, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan strain the Army more and more, fewer problem soldiers are getting weeded out in basic training. An Army spokesman would not comment specifically about Dietrich's mental issues nor let NEWSWEEK see his medical file, citing confidentiality. But Col. David Hubner, commander of the 194th Armored Brigade, which trains Army scouts, said: "We feel confident in the soldiering skills of those who meet the standards of graduation."

Dietrich's problems started long before he enlisted. Abandoned as a child by his father and later by his mother, he lived with his grandfather in a cluttered trailer home for a time before entering the foster-care system, according to Craig and Jean Raisner of Marysville, Pa., where Dietrich grew up. Craig Raisner was Dietrich's troop leader in the Boy Scouts and he and his wife looked after the troubled youngster, although he never lived with them for more than a few weeks at a time. Both Raisners are professional educators and Jean's specialty is learning disabilities. She says Dietrich had a sunny smile and a tenderness about him that would sometimes give way to angry outbursts.

Jean says Dietrich was diagnosed at 16 as having severe processing problems. The determination was made by doctors at Philhaven, a facility in Pennsylvania for people with "significant mental health problems," according to its Web site. After a series of run-ins with his foster parents, Dietrich spent two months at Philhaven, then left the foster family and returned to Marysville, taking turns living in his car or with assorted friends. Despite the diagnosis, the Raisners say Dietrich's situation improved. He made it to school most days, and he completed enough coursework to graduate.

Dietrich pined to be a Marine—his grandfather had been one—but failed the aptitude test. He then contacted an Army recruiter and said he wanted to serve as a base fireman, having been a volunteer in Marysville's fire department. Somehow, at the Army's enlistment office, Dietrich managed to pass the same standardized military-recruitment test he'd failed in the Marine office. When he showed up alone to sign his contract, he was offered a $19,000 bonus to be a scout and to ship out within weeks, according to Army records.

The Raisners are careful not to badmouth the Army. Their own son is in Air Force ROTC, and they describe themselves as firmly pro-military. But the recruitment process troubled them. "I was angry because I knew he was not scout material," Jean says. When Dietrich came over that night and told them excitedly about the bonus, Craig replied: "What good will that do you if you die in Iraq?" Craig says the next morning he phoned the recruiter, who assured him he would look after Dietrich. But the Army was missing a key bit of information that Dietrich apparently withheld from his application. Frank Shaffery, the Army's deputy director of recruiting operations, says Dietrich never mentioned his mental-health problems, including his turn at Philhaven. "There is nothing here that would have disqualified him or would have caused us to ask for additional information," he said, thumbing through Dietrich's file during an interview at his office.

At boot camp, certainly, Dietrich's problems were out in the open. Berg says he was often getting himself and the men around him in trouble. Though he was given individual instruction at the rifle range and hundreds of extra rounds for practice, he still missed his targets. When the rest of the troop graduated in July 2006, Dietrich was kept back for more training. Jean Raisner says he phoned one day and talked about shooting himself in the foot if he wasn't allowed to go home. A month later, Dietrich passed his basic rifle marksmanship test, according to an Army spokesman, and was told he would be heading to Germany and on to Iraq.

In phone calls from Ramadi, Dietrich complained to the Raisners that for weeks all he did was fill sandbags at the base while others conducted missions. He also said that in Germany, doctors had given him antidepressants and medication for attention-deficit disorder. Jean and Craig thought his commanding officers did not want him on operations. But just before Christmas, Dietrich told them he'd been on his first mission outside the forward operating base. His second mission—the one on which he was killed—followed days later. Spc. Brendan Burkhardt says team members positioned themselves in an abandoned building and took turns watching the area furtively from open windows. Burkhardt said he thought Dietrich performed much like the other soldiers that day but with tragic results: he was shot dead a few minutes after starting his shift at one of the windows. Burkhardt said the men put him on a stretcher, ran with him for about a half mile and loaded him on a vehicle. By the time Dietrich reached the base, he was dead.

The Army promoted Dietrich to private first class after he was killed and gave him a bronze-star medal for meritorious service, praising his "duty, performance and selfless service." When Berg heard from a buddy about Dietrich's death, he felt ill. "There's a bit of guilt associated with what happened," he said by phone recently from Fort Hood, Texas, where he serves. "He should not have been a scout, should not have gone to Iraq, should not have been killed." On his arm, Berg had a tattoo made with Dietrich's name, the date and place he was shot and the letters KIA.