Criminal or victim?

Criminal or victim?

Communities weigh how to deal with battle-scarred soldiers who do wrong after coming home

Published on September 20, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Staff Sgt. Robert D. Carlson raised the gun to his head. In the parking lot of their duplex, his wife was calling the police.

"Please help," she cried. "He punched me in the face."

His intention, Carlson would say later, was to kill himself. Instead, alone on the second floor of their house, he lowered the gun from his head, pointed it toward a window and squeezed the trigger again and again, nine times in all.


A screen grab from a video of Robert Carlson in prison in Alaska in 2012 and Carlson in the Army. (Courtesy of Robert Carlson)

Some of the rounds went into the roof of a garage, just below the window. Two rounds hit apartment buildings across the street. One round flew into the headlamp of a responding police SUV.

That was July 2012. Now, two years later, after being found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to eight years in prison, Carlson wonders about the fairness of such a punishment. "I know I did wrong," he said recently from the detention facility at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. But is jail time appropriate for someone who, before he fired those shots, spent 16 months in Iraq, followed by 12 months in Iraq, followed by another 12 months in Afghanistan?


This is the seventh story in a multi-part series examining the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on the 2.6 million American troops who served and fought. Find the full results of a nationwide survey of active-duty troops and veterans here.

Forty months total at war: He had survived a blast from a suicide car bomb. He had killed an Iraqi insurgent as the man's children watched in horror. He had traded places one day with a fellow soldier who then was killed by a sniper's bullet, standing in the very place where Carlson would have been if he hadn't switched. Did his years in combat mean he was deserving of compassion?

Compassion or conviction - that's the choice more and more communities across the country are facing as the effects of 12 years of war are increasingly seeping into the American legal system.

The vast majority of veterans who have suffered mental wounds in combat do not commit crimes, but post-traumatic stress disorder has been found to increase the risk of criminal behavior, especially when combined with alcohol, family stress or feelings of anger. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who reported problems with PTSD and alcohol were seven times as likely to engage in acts of "severe violence" than veterans with neither of those problems, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers affiliated with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Another study by the same research team found that 23 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD and irritability issues had been arrested since returning home from combat, compared with a 9 percent arrest rate for all of the 1,400 veterans in the survey.

What to do with such soldiers when they commit crimes? When are wounds such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury a cause of a good soldier's criminal behavior? When are they simply an excuse?

Carlson's case shows how complicated answers to such questions can be. Prosecutors, his defense attorney, grand jurors, commanders, battlefield comrades - all have come to differing and evolving conclusions, as has Carlson's wife, Chelsey, who when the bullets began flying took cover and then watched in horror as her husband emerged from their apartment. His gun was pointed at his chin.

"Just shoot me!" he was yelling to officers whose guns were drawn, too, according to police reports.

Earlier that evening, the couple had gone out drinking with friends, returning home after 3 a.m. He had fallen asleep on the couch. She had been watching a movie with a girlfriend when he flung open the door to their bedroom and, accusing her of infidelity with another soldier, demanded to see her cellphone.

Their fight had spilled down the apartment's stairs and into the parking lot, where he hit her in the face with his hand and she fell to the wet grass. "If the cops show up, there will be blood!" he had screamed, according to witnesses, as he headed back inside.

Now a half-dozen police were fanned out around her husband.

"I messed up! I just want to talk to my wife!" he was screaming. A cellphone video captured what came next. Carlson was on his knees, the gun still pointed to his chin, his finger still on the trigger. He pressed his forehead to the ground and lay motionless for several seconds as if he were about to shoot himself. Then in a quick motion, he ejected the magazine from his pistol and flung the unloaded weapon at the police, who rushed him, jumped on him and restrained him.

Chelsey was sobbing hysterically. Her friend and a neighbor held her and tried to comfort her, while she begged the officers to let her talk to her husband.

"What am I going to tell Bob's family?" she cried as the officers loaded Carlson into a police car. "What am I going to tell our son?"

"Tell them the truth," an officer replied. "Tell them he beats on women."

Chelsey's back was sore. Her clothes were wet. She was starting to shiver in the cold. She watched in silence, and as her husband was driven away, she felt her anger being replaced by a mix of panic, worry and concern. She wished that she had just let him have the cellphone, that instead of calling police, she had called one of his fellow soldiers to calm him down. A few officers were searching for bullet holes and spent shell casings from Carlson's gun. Chelsey asked one of them if she could go inside the apartment and get some shoes, dry pants and a pack of cigarettes.

Stay back, he told her. Her home, he said, was now a "crime scene."

“If the cops show up, there will be blood.”

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“If the cops show up, there will be blood.”

A nationwide poll of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reveals the profound and enduring effects of war on the 2.6 million who have served

'Violent things'

Andrew Baldock, the local prosecutor, had no doubt that what had occurred that night was a serious crime, deserving of serious punishment.

Andrew Baldock, the prosecutor in Fairbanks, said that what occurred that night was a serious crime that deserved severe punishment.

Carlson had hit his wife three times in the face. He had threatened that there would be "blood" if she called police. He had fired nine shots, five in the direction of a responding police officer. "You can certainly see the intent to kill," Baldock said.

The charge he thought most appropriate after considering all of the evidence: attempted murder.

Like a lot of district attorneys in towns near big military bases, he was seeing more and more current and former soldiers with no criminal histories doing some "crazily violent things," he said in a recent interview. There was a 38-year-old Iraq veteran who had held his family hostage at gunpoint. A few months before that, a soldier being treated for PTSD had aimed his gun at state troopers, who shot him. On the night of Carlson's shooting, another soldier - also based at Alaska's Fort Wainwright - had shot his friend in the head, killing him.

Most of the time these cases involved heavy drinking and allegations of cheating spouses or girlfriends, Baldock said. Usually, the defense attorneys claimed their client's untreated PTSD had caused the violence. Baldock found it almost impossible to untangle the various causes.

Immediately after Carlson's arrest, a detective asked him if he was suffering from PTSD. "It used to be years ago that we never had to ask soldiers about this, because we weren't at war for frigging 13 years or whatever it's been," he said to Carlson in an interview that was captured on video. "But now we have to ask . . . because we've got so many guys like yourself coming back from that s---hole that are dealing with, you know, over there."

"I was always able to deal with my own s----," Carlson replied, his hands clenched together, elbows resting on mud-stained jeans. "I never had anyone help me out."

Because Baldock had to get the case to a grand jury quickly, there was not time to dig into Carlson's service history. The prosecutor's job was to focus on the facts from the night of the shooting, all of which told him that Carlson was a danger to the community who had fired his gun deliberately and need to be punished.

That was the case he made to the grand jury. He called a crime-scene expert who showed jurors where the bullets from Carlson's gun had landed, as well as the detective who had interviewed Carlson and the other witnesses in the housing complex. He called the first patrol officer on the scene, who described the fear he had felt when one of Carlson's bullets struck his car.

And he called Chelsey, who talked about the fight that evening, how Carlson had threatened her and then hit her. She also described him as a caring father who had gone to war for too long, suffered from PTSD and had fired blindly out of the window as a release rather than a desire to kill.

Carlson had served as a machine-gunner and on sniper teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. "If he wanted us dead, we'd be dead," Chelsey remembers telling the grand jury.

Baldock had taken more than 600 cases to grand juries, including many involving domestic violence in which the victimized spouse had pleaded with jurors for mercy. He was good at his job and could count on one hand the number of times he had not been able to persuade a grand jury to move a case forward to trial.

This time, though, the grand jury chose not to indict Carlson on any of the charges. They felt "sorry for him," Baldock would later say. Frustrated and angry, he shared the news first with police officers and the detective who had testified before the panel. "We'll decide what our next step is going to be," he said.

“This guy's gonna kill himself.”

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'Unlimited potential'

That next step involved the Army, which assumed jurisdiction of the case and, before Carlson could be released from jail, charged him again with attempted murder. He picked up two attorneys: a young Army captain and Chris Zimmerman, a 64-year-old civilian lawyer who led his defense.

While the prosecutor had focused on one night, Zimmerman decided that the best approach for a defense would be to focus on an Army career defined by steady promotions, awards and hidden mental wounds that, he would show, grew worse with time.

A combat award described Carlson's "poise and skill" in killing a fleeing Iraqi insurgent during his first tour. "Absolutely unlimited potential," said a performance review, written after the second tour. "Promote to [sergeant first class] ahead of his peers," said his last evaluation.

An Army psychiatrist's evaluation, which Zimmerman had requested, described the mental toll of all that combat. Carlson had been hiding on a rooftop when he received the order to kill the unarmed insurgent. The man's children - the eldest of whom looked to Carlson no older than 8 - started screaming before the man's body hit the ground. Carlson told the psychiatrist he thought of those children sometimes when he looked at his then-3-year-old son.

His toughest moment, he said, had come near the end of his first tour when he had asked to be moved out of the machine-gun position in his armored vehicle. The soldier who took his place was struck by a sniper's bullet that blew through his skull.

Six years later, Carlson said he felt a lingering sense of guilt and responsibility for his friend's death. Back from Afghanistan, he struggled with drinking, fits of anger and feelings of anxiety that had led him to start carrying his gun with him on routine errands in town. He told the psychiatrist that on the night of the shooting he "hoped the police would kill him."

To Zimmerman, the performance evaluations and the psychiatrist's PTSD diagnosis told the story of "a good soldier, a good guy," who had broken under the strain of more than three years of combat, someone who needed treatment and not prison time.

Nonetheless, Zimmerman knew the Army system, in which he had been trying cases since the 1970s. He also knew military judges often viewed mental-illness defenses with more suspicion than sympathy.

His suggestion to Carlson was to cut a deal with prosecutors to drop the attempted-murder charge and the possible 25-year sentence that came with it. In exchange, Carlson would plead guilty to multiple counts of assault and both sides would agree to cap his prison time at no more than eight years. Zimmerman assured Carlson that the eight years was just a number and that the actual sentence, determined by a military judge after hearing testimony from Carlson's friends, fellow soldiers and former commanders, would almost certainly be much less. His best guess was zero to two years.

"We'll beat the cap," the lawyer promised.

“I really wish they would have shot me.”

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'A barrage of gunfire'

The sentencing trial lasted five hours.

"This case is about Sergeant Carlson shooting at a police officer. That's what it comes down to," the Army prosecutor said to the judge who would determine Carlson's sentence. "There needs to be a message sent to the community that this is not tolerated."

"Everybody says he's trustworthy. Everybody says he's honest," countered the defense attorney. "That's who Bob Carlson is."

A police officer testified: "There was a barrage of gunfire. There was a lot going through my mind. . . . I felt that my life and the lives of the women that were around my truck were immediately in jeopardy, and I felt very fortunate to make it out alive."

The psychiatrist testified: "He felt edgy, was more prone to anger. He was using more alcohol to cope with his symptoms, and he felt as though he needed to isolate himself from everyone because he just didn't feel right. . . . It went against who he was as a person and as a soldier to come in and get care."

"But he had other options than being physical with his wife, didn't he?" the prosecutor asked.

"He could have not hit her," the psychiatrist replied.

"He also had options not to shoot out of the window?" the prosecutor asked.

"Correct," the psychiatrist said.

Carlson's wife testified: "I mean, it was an isolated incident. This is not something that's in his character. I don't think there's a chance of this or anything like this ever happening again."

Carlson testified, too: "After I hit her in the face, I really felt like a dirtbag. I wanted to shoot myself, and I just couldn't do it. And out of frustration and anger, I just shot the gun out the window. . . . I don't know. It was kind of like a – like a release or something. I really don't know, your honor."

Finally it was the judge's turn: "Staff Sergeant Robert Carlson, this court-martial sentences you to be confined for a period of eight years."

Chelsey Carlson, who recently divorced Carlson, says they still speak occasionally on the phone about the shooting. Chris Zimmerman was the civilian lawyer who led Carlson’s defense that was focused on his Army career defined by steady promotions.

'Someone who needs to heal'

Carlson was ushered into a small room with his wife and his defense attorneys. His military attorney began to cry, and Carlson did, too.

"Where are they going to send me?" he asked his attorneys, who explained the next steps. He would be flown to the prison at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and would have a chance to apply for clemency, which was now his best hope.

As soon as Carlson arrived at the prison, his military attorney started putting together his clemency packet. It included the psychiatrist's report, Carlson's service records, a trial transcript and two dozen letters from friends, family members and former soldiers, each making the case for compassion.

This was happening at a time when the military legal community was having its own debate about what to do with soldiers such as Carlson. The Judge Advocate General's Corps' main academic journal, Military Law Review, had published a groundbreaking and controversial article by an Army prosecutor that called for major changes in the way military courts handle troops with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The system's narrow focus on discipline over treatment failed to acknowledge the mental wounds that were causing some soldiers' criminal behavior, wrote Maj. Evan R. Seamone, the chief of military justice at Fort Benning, Ga. The result was a military justice system "at odds with itself," one that was "creating a class of individuals whose untreated conditions endanger public safety" and would, without treatment, "grow worse over time," Seamone wrote in the article, titled "Reclaiming the Rehabilitative Ethic in Military Justice."

Carlson's military attorney made a version of this argument in his clemency packet. If clemency was denied, Carlson's fellow soldiers would be "demoralized by the knowledge that the institution they have so sacrificially and faithfully served has discarded one of their brothers when he was weakest and most broken," the lawyer wrote. "Hard prison time will not resolve the trauma in Staff Sgt. Carlson's life that led to this incident. . . . This is someone who needs to heal."

To buttress the clemency request, the military lawyer included letters from soldiers who had fought alongside Carlson in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We saw many brothers-in-arms lost and spent way more months than we should have in theater," one of those soldiers wrote on Carlson's behalf.

"Bob didn't survive three combat tours to sit in a jail cell and miss out on the next eight years of watching his son grow up," wrote another.

"To this day I would trust the life of my daughter to him just as swiftly as I trust him with my own life," wrote a third.

The clemency packet was sent to Maj. Gen. Michael H. Shields, the commander of all Army forces in Alaska, for final determination. As it turned out, Shields had been Carlson's brigade commander during his longest and toughest tour, which gave his family and friends hope. If any general would understand the toll that all of that combat had taken on Carlson, it would be Shields, they thought.

Thirty soldiers had died under Shields's command in Iraq, each of them remembered by a small granite marker at Fort Wainwright.

A memorial marker was erected in memory of Spec. James Doug Bridges at a lake and memorial park at Fort Wainwright. Bridges was fatally shot in the head after switching places with Carlson during a shift.

On the desk in his Army office, the general keeps a book that contains pictures of those soldiers and copies of the handwritten letters that he sent to each of their families, including the parents of Spec. James "Doug" Bridges, the skinny 22-year-old from Buhl, Idaho, who had switched places with Carlson and been shot in the head. "There isn't anything I can say . . ." that letter began.

At home, Shields had saved snapshots of himself pinning Purple Hearts on his wounded troops as they passed through the Mosul or Baghdad hospital. There are more than 100 photographs of these soldiers - bloodied, bandaged, some of them missing limbs - stored on his computer's hard drive.

The clemency packet arrived at Shields's office on a Monday, and his answer came back on a Friday afternoon. "The sentence is approved . . . and will be executed," the general wrote. The clemency request was rejected.

Asked recently about his decision, Shields said he would not discuss Carlson's case. Instead, he talked about other soldiers from his and Carlson's 16-month Iraq tour, including one sergeant who charged into an insurgent-controlled building to rescue his wounded troops. Enemy fire shattered his jaw and shoulder and knocked him unconscious. The sergeant had left the Army, sought treatment for his mental wounds and was now attending college.

"We have soldiers that are serving honorably with PTSD," he said. "Past performance is not necessarily an excuse for poor or bad or criminal behavior."

Birds fly over a lake and memorial park at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, where Carlson was based.

'Living in the past'

Five months after Shields's decision, Carlson was starting another day in the base prison. Like all of his days now, it began at 5:30 a.m. in an open bay with about a dozen other inmates, almost all of them Iraq and Afghanistan veterans serving time for drug offenses, assaults or stealing from the Army.

The inmates are assigned work details in the prison laundry, carpentry shop and vegetable gardens. They clean and mop their living bays, which consist of bunks, one shared television and some board games. A few times each day, a guard escorts them to the chow hall, the library or a small weight room. Each night the lights cut out at 10.

Robert Carlson during his second tour of duty in Iraq in 2008. (Courtesy of Carlson Family)

"You find yourself living in the past," Carlson said of his life now. "I go back to that night, back to everything that led to me being here." Sometimes that's Iraq - the long patrols, the suicide bombings, the sight of his friend, dead from a sniper's bullet, in the hospital in Baghdad. Sometimes it's Afghanistan. Sometimes it's the moment he lowered the gun from his head and squeezed the trigger. "It was a blind rage," he said of his decision that morning. "I didn't think of any consequences at all."

Carlson said that he "deserves punishment." He also said that he deserves mental-health counseling but is not getting any in jail, that the closest the prison offers is a weekly PTSD support group led by a chaplain and a couple of outside veteran volunteers.

In one of those meetings, he said, the chaplain told him that his reaction during the fight with his wife - the rush of rage that he felt - had been conditioned in him during his hundreds of combat patrols. One of the veteran volunteers said the stress of combat had built up in small increments through each deployment. "You don't deal with it," Carlson said, "and eventually it spills over."

A few times a month, Carlson calls friends from his Iraq and Afghanistan tours.

"We don't talk about the old days, because the old days hurt," said Corey Nixon, who served alongside Carlson in Iraq and has struggled with his own mental wounds from combat.

Carlson speaks most often with his parents and sisters in Minnesota, who worry about him.

"He needs help, for sure, and isn't getting much," his mother said. "I don't know what he talks about with the chaplain or how much time they even have together. . . . It's so hard to talk at that level over the phone."

Recently, his sister flew out to the base prison to spend time with him. She tried to ask him about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he told her he didn't want to discuss them. "Not here," he said. "Not in this place."

Chelsey doesn't visit Carlson - the couple divorced recently - but they still speak occasionally on the phone about the shooting, their lives and their 5-year-old son, who lives with Carlson's parents. Carlson's plan when he gets out of prison is to be with his son. "I want to go back to being a father," he said. He also wants to seek treatment for his PTSD, although his dishonorable discharge could make it hard for him to receive it through Veterans Affairs.

For now, though, that future feels far away, he said, especially compared with the past, which is where his mind usually goes during quiet moments at the end of the prison day. He revisits the chaotic chain of events that ended an otherwise honorable Army career - the paranoia and anger, the gun pointed at his chin, the nine shots through the window, the ride away in the police car.

"How did I get out of control so quickly?" Carlson said he asks himself again and again, along with other questions.

"What made me snap?"

"What happened to me?"

"There's just a lot of what-ifs," he said.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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About the series

A multi-part series examining the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on the 2.6 million American troops who served and fought.