Distant War May Have Claimed Md. Soldier

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

James E. Dean's first Christmas as a married man was supposed to be a joyous affair.

The man everyone called Jamie had received a diagnosis of depression, but things were looking up. He frequently told Muriel, his wife of four months, that she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had plans to celebrate his 29th birthday two days before the holiday. His parents and grandmother, to whom he was extremely close, lived just a few miles away in the same St. Mary's County town -- perfect for sharing Christmas dinner and opening presents together.

But everything good in Dean's life had been overshadowed by a letter he received three weeks earlier. The letter, from U.S. Army headquarters, instructed him to report to Fort Benning, Ga., on Jan. 14. From there, he was likely to be sent to Iraq.

Dean had already fought in one war, serving 12 months as a sergeant, leading a small infantry unit on the front lines in Afghanistan. Army records show that he was an excellent soldier, and he had a fistful of awards to prove it: for service in defense of the nation, good conduct and outstanding marksmanship with rifles and grenades. He was such a good soldier, in fact, an Army spokesman said, that the military needed him back just three weeks after his first Christmas with his wife.

He couldn't stomach the thought. His post-traumatic stress disorder, which was diagnosed shortly after he returned from Afghanistan, became worse immediately after he received the letter -- and so did his drinking and his rages, family members said. He would break down in front of his wife, telling her over and over that nobody knew what it had been like.

"The next time you see me, it's going to be in a body bag," she said he told her as he walked out of their house for the last time.

On Christmas night, Dean drove to his childhood home on the farm where his parents still live. He took up one of his hunting guns and called his family; he said he was going to kill himself. Fourteen agonizing hours later, he was dead -- not by his own bullet but by that of a Maryland state trooper.

Tim Cameron, the St. Mary's County sheriff, said the 17-year veteran of the state police, who was not identified, had no choice but to shoot Dean. Dean had fired at three police vehicles and was pointing a gun at an officer. Once-promising negotiations with the man barricaded inside the house had stalled, and Dean was making threats to shoot everybody in sight. Besides, they couldn't take any chances with a soldier who had won a medal for shooting Afghan insurgents.

"I am satisfied that throughout the night and the next day personnel did their job as policy, procedure and law dictates," Cameron said.

Dean's family disagrees. If the officers' priority was to get Dean out safely, the family wanted to know, why were the people he trusted not allowed to talk to him? Why was his cellphone service cut off when he was trying to call his grandmother's house? Why were they pushing him closer to the edge by pumping noxious gas into the house and breaking the windows?

"We told them, 'We're his family; we know how to calm him down,' " said Dean's grandmother, Mary, who for her safety was removed from her house adjacent to the one where her grandson held dozens of officers at bay. "I'm telling them if he just hears my voice he'll come down from it, and they're telling me to keep quiet or they'll lock me up for obstruction of justice."

Cameron said the officers couldn't establish a line of communication long enough to consider having anybody talk to Dean, which is why they resorted to gas to get him to leave the house. When the young man opened the door with his gun raised, Cameron said, the trooper believed his colleague's life to be in imminent danger -- giving him the cue he needed to shoot to kill.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company