When Courtney Lockhart returned from Iraq, he was a broken, changed man and then he murdered a college freshman. David Philipps says the U.S. Army failed to help him with his PTSD—and there are many more soldiers like him. His new book, Lethal Warriors, on PTSD is out now.
When an 18-year-old Auburn University freshman, Lauren Burk, was kidnapped and shot on a lonely rural Alabama highway in March 2008, speculation swirled that her death was part of a larger pattern of murder—perhaps the work of a serial killer. This week her killer is going to trial. Evidence overwhelmingly shows this was his only murder. But a closer look at his past shows it was part of a larger pattern—just not the one anyone thought.
The police found Burk, a vivacious sorority girl and lacrosse player from Atlanta, bleeding on the side of the road a few miles north of campus. Investigators had few leads—the crime seemed as random as it was vicious. Then, less than 10 hours later, at the University of North Carolina, another beautiful young college student, 22-year-old Eve Carson, was shot and left by the side of the road. This second murder was too similar not to attempt to see a pattern.
“Tonight, fear spreading across college campuses,” CNN’s Nancy Grace said that evening, devoting her nightly cable news show to the theory that someone was preying on good-looking college women.
Three days later, police arrested a 23-year old Iraq War veteran named Courtney Lockhart in Phenix City, Alabama. That day, he confessed to killing Burk. Another man in North Carolina was arrested later for the UNC shooting, ending any talk of a serial murderer. But Lockhart is, in fact, linked to a broader pattern of murders, through the Army unit he fought with in Iraq.
Lockhart was part of a brigade based at Fort Carson, Colorado that saw some of the worst fighting in the Iraq War. The brigade deployed to the city of Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle in 2004. At the time, it was the deadliest region of Iraq. Insurgent sniper fire turned the fetid, 120-degree streets into a hellish shooting gallery. Roadside bombs hit the brigade, on average, almost twice a day, every day, for a year. Hundreds of soldiers came home from Iraq mentally scarred, but a macho military culture and a crippled Army health-care system kept them from getting the help they needed. Instead, the blend of war trauma and substandard care turned explosive. At least 12 soldiers from the brigade have been arrested for murder or attempted murder since their return from Iraq. The year Lauren Burk was shot, the murder rate for soldiers from the battalion was 10 times higher than the national average. The killers have different backgrounds and are from different parts of the country. Only one thing unites them: The inability to find normalcy after the hell of war.
Lockhart joined the Army out of high school in 2003 and trained as a computer operator for an artillery canon, but when he got to Iraq there was little need for artillery, so his platoon was often used as foot soldiers. He saw regular firefights. Twice mortars came through the roof of rooms he was in.
In the two years after their return from Iraq, arrests of Fort Carson soldiers doubled. Cases of drug and alcohol abuse in the brigade increased 1,100 percent.
“I used to go to sleep looking at the ceiling thinking, ‘OK, a mortar is going to come through tonight and kill me tonight,’” Lockhart said this fall in an interview from jail.
Sixty-four soldiers in his brigade were killed in their yearlong tour, including Lockhart’s best friend and mentor, Sergeant Neil Prince. The attacks rarely let up. On an especially deadly day, an enemy mortar landed in the hatch of one of his unit’s four-man howitzers. Three men were burned alive. “We all just had to stand there and watch them die,” Lockhart said. “We couldn’t do anything. The fire was too hot. We just had to wait. Those guys, there was nothing left of them but their dog tags.”
The fourth soldier, in the crew, Stephen Sherwood, had not been in the vehicle, but he never recovered from the loss. Ten days after getting home from Iraq, Sherwood scraped the SUPPORT OUR TROOPS sticker off his car, then shot his wife five times in the face and killed himself with a shotgun.
The Army is supposed to help soldiers heal from the mental wounds of war, but at Fort Carson, the mental-health system was broken. When Lockhart arrived at Fort Carson from Iraq in July 2005, one of every three mental-health jobs at the post sat vacant, even though since the start of the war cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had soared almost 500 percent. Waits were long and treatment often relied on powerful mood-stabilizing pills.
On top of that, the tough warrior culture tended to equate PTSD with weakness, leading untold numbers of soldiers to convince themselves that they did not need help. Many superiors in the brigade discouraged grunts from seeking care, and even ordered them not to go to the hospital.
The symptoms of PTSD can include unstable moods that veer from paralyzing apathy to violent rage. Many sufferers use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. With so many soldiers grappling with their war experience, instances of assault, drunk driving, and drug use have exploded. In the two years after their return from Iraq, arrests of Fort Carson soldiers doubled. Cases of drug and alcohol abuse in the brigade increased 1,100 percent. At the same time, four of six staff positions for the substance-abuse office at Fort Carson sat empty. Cases literally piled up.
Lockhart came back from Iraq with all the symptoms of PTSD. He had nightmares and was quick to anger. His barracks at Fort Carson sat near the artillery range and the booming shells sent him trembling under his bed. Like many soldiers, he started carrying a gun constantly, out of fear. To ease his nerves, he also started smoking pot.
In February 2006, he was busted for marijuana use. No one asked him if he was having trouble from the war. Instead, his sergeant made him wax the floors of the barracks on weekends. Army regulations required him to have substance-abuse counseling, but commanders never sent him. If they had, he might have been given treatment for PTSD, and Lauren Burk might still be alive.
In May 2006, Lockhart got in an argument at Fort Carson that turned into a shoving match. He was court martialed for threatening to kill two soldiers and for his previous marijuana offense, sentenced to seven months in prison, then kicked out of the Army. Most soldiers being discharged receive a health screening to check for combat trauma. Lockhart did not.
When Lockhart returned to Alabama in 2007, his mother, Catherine Williams, felt like the Army had sent her the wrong soldier. “He didn’t joke no more. He didn’t smile. He just stayed in his room. He was shell shocked,” she said in an interview this fall.
She would find him thrashing from nightmares or hiding under his bed. She tried to get him to go to counseling, but he refused. “No one can undo what I saw in Iraq or make me who I was before, so I didn’t see the point,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t crazy, and they would probably just put me on all kinds of pills. So I didn’t go.”
His mother remembers a letter he wrote to her from jail trying to explain what happened on March 4, 2008. “He snapped. He said he woke up that morning and felt he did not have a life,” she said. Lockhart’s attorneys would not let him elaborate on what happened that night, but according to police, Lauren Burk was on her way to study at the Auburn library when Lockhart carjacked her, robbed her, and made her drive out of town. At a dark intersection, he told her to take off her clothes. There was a struggle and he shot her. In the next five days, police say, he committed four other armed robberies before he was caught and confessed.
PTSD is not an excuse. None of the other killers from the brigade have been freed because of what happened to them in Iraq. The law does not allow Lockhart to be found innocent because of his combat trauma, or because the government failed to treat his psychiatric war wounds. But if he is convicted, a jury should weigh how he served his country, and how it did not serve him, when they decide if he should be executed. The larger pattern of violence suggests war helped make him into a killer. Lauren Burk did not deserve to die. But, given what happened, neither does Courtney Lockhart.
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Journalist David Philipps was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and for the J. Anthony Lukas Award for a work in progress. His book, Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home, is out now from Palgrave Macmillan. Learn more at www.lethalwarriors.net