A Year at War

updated 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Eleven months into his tour of duty, he was singled out by superiors as a reliable soldier with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. He hadn't seen combat, but as a "nation builder" patrolling the streets, the 30-year-old Army private first class knew well the stresses of this unconventional war. "You see everybody you don't know as potentially the enemy," he says. "Searching a car and not knowing if it is actually a car or if it's a car bomb. When you do this for a year, it wears you out. You're numb. When a bomb went off in Baghdad, we had to see body parts, burning, destruction. It's very draining."

What pushed him over the edge, however, wasn't a terrorist attack but a fire at a shooting range that killed his closest friend. Suppressing his grief, the soldier turned to alcohol, exacerbating a drinking problem that has plagued him for years. "Nobody wants to be the guy that says 'I wasn't strong enough to hold it in,' " says the private, who has requested anonymity because he wants to inform his family in person when he returns. "We are not supposed to have feelings in the Army. I think that's why me and my friend were so close. I could talk to him."

Fortunately, there was someone else he could talk to. His commander referred him to the 113th Medical Company, one of at least 22 combat-stress groups in Iraq set up to help troubled soldiers counter the strain of war with hot meals, a comfortable bed and the care of trained counselors. A year after American forces bombed Baghdad last March 20, the need for such stress relief is as great as ever. American deaths in the conflict—553 at press time—continue to rise, while GIs remain at risk daily of terrorist attacks across Iraq. And that is taking its toll: According to the Army, 645 soldiers have been sent to facilities in the U.S., Germany and elsewhere for mental-health reasons. At least 25 soldiers and Marines have taken their own lives in Iraq. At least another 6 Army personnel committed suicide after returning to the U.S.

Military specialists say the effects of long deployment coupled with the enemy's tactics have made this assignment more fraught than others. "We have seen severe insomnia, sleepwalking, nightmares, disorganized behavior and intense fear," says Maj. Mark Brown, a psychiatrist and team leader at the 113th. The causes go beyond bullets and mortars. Spc. Kimberly Hoffman, 20, whose unit maintains telephone systems, has visited the 113th four times for anxiety, tearfulness and lethargy brought on by conflicts within her unit of six soldiers, who have worked, eaten and bunked together with little contact with others for nine months. "It starts wearing on your nerves," she says.

Last September, the Army dispatched a 12-member Mental Health Advisory Team to Iraq and Kuwait for a 41-day fact-finding mission. Their recommendations are due to be released later this month. Meanwhile, the Army leans on its combat-stress companies, which treat mild psychological cases—prescribing antidepressants if necessary—close to the front. The idea of in-theater stress relief dates back to World War I, when shell-shock victims were given a break from fighting. In Korea, counselors were brought to the field of battle. It sounds like compassion, but to the military, it's all about getting troops back to work. "In the last year, 2,008 [troops] were seen by combat-stress units, and 1,919 have returned to duty—a 95 percent rate," says Maj. Ron Glaus, head of the mental-health section at HQ 2nd Medical Brigade, which oversees the 113th.

When the private arrived at the unit, two modest adjoining residences in Baghdad, he found a rec room with a TV, a dartboard and books—including a veritable library of Harlequin romances—and a cot that looked far more inviting than what he was accustomed to. Still, his stay was highly regimented: morning chores of mopping and dusting, followed by a full day of counseling and classes in anger and stress management, conflict resolution and alcohol awareness. Some sessions teach simple breathing and relaxation techniques.

How effective combat-stress groups prove in the long run remains to be seen. But the private, who was discharged on March 6 after three days and continues to undergo alcohol counseling, seems thrilled. At least it was a start. "I realized a lot of things [were] wrong with me," he says, cautioning other GIs to seek help if they need it: "You gotta stop being so tough."

THE BLOOM FAMILY
Picking up the pieces after the death of a husband and dad

A few months after their father's death, the Bloom girls welcomed a new man into their lives: a bulldog puppy they have named Chubby Buddy. David Bloom liked to call everyone Buddy. "Because they named him with the spirit of their dad in mind, he's a little bit of their dad," says Lee Woodruff, a family friend. "They can hug him. They can touch him."

Almost a year after Bloom, the weekend Today anchor who died in Iraq of a pulmonary embolism at 39 last April 6, his family--widow Melanie, 41, twins Nicole and Christine, 9, and 3-year-old Ava—is still sorting out how to cope. "Dave was everything to them," says his brother John, 38. "They're not over it by any stretch." Melanie, says Lee, "has a really strong faith, and she's turned to that over the last year just to figure out the 'whys' that you've got to ask yourself." The girls, John says, "have so many great friends at their school. They've really fallen back on them." Long accustomed to life with a husband on the road, Melanie has tried not to make dramatic shifts in her daughters' routines. One major change: To distract them from their loss, the family spent the Christmas holidays at Disney World. Back home in Westchester, N.Y., they draw strength from images of Bloom. "They look at photo albums and videos," says Lee. "They want to remember."

SHOSHANA JOHNSON
The former POW gets used to fame—and flashbacks

Shoshana Johnson still has nightmares. "There's a lot to deal with sometimes—the bad dreams, the flashbacks," says Johnson, 31, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sees a psychotherapist. On her daily visits to her old post, Fort Bliss, Texas, she sometimes imagines seeing comrades who were killed early in the conflict last March. "I'll go, 'Oh my God, that's [Lori] Piestewa! That looked like Ruben Estrella,' "she says. "It freaks you out."

So does her newfound celebrity. Though she has attended glam events like the NAACP Image Awards, Johnson still struggles with the loss of anonymity. "People come up—I don't know them from Adam— [and say] 'How you doing, Shoshana?' " she says. "That's been so hard getting used to."

Still, paid appearances at colleges and corporations supplement the monthly $1,000 she receives in disability pay from the Army. (The gunshot wound she received in the March 23 firefight that led to her 22-day imprisonment shattered both ankles, leaving her with a limp.) And she hopes she will soon be able to move from her parents' house in El Paso into her own place with her daughter Janelle, 3. "By the grace of God I came home," she says. "A little scarred, you know—and that includes the head. But I'm still doing pretty good."

JESSICA LYNCH
Postpones her wedding and college while she recovers

Worn out from another round of physical therapy, former Army private first class Jessica Lynch walks into her Palestine, W. Va., home to find 30 letters awaiting her: a typical day's mail from fans and autograph seekers. The former POW tries to respond to every one. "They supported me when I needed it," says Lynch, 20. "The least I can do is sign a paper."

Lynch's life has changed drastically from the one she left behind when she went off to war. Not only is she a household name who netted $1 million for her memoir I Am a Soldier, Too, but she gets to hobnob with other household names—Leonardo DiCaprio at the Golden Globes, for instance. "Yes, he was really handsome, but he was nice, too," she says. "I feel like I'm dreaming, like I'm living in someone else's body."

Her own has a ways to go. Lynch undergoes rehab five days a week. Her left foot is still numb and supported with a brace, and nerve damage still limits her bowel and bladder control. On the personal front, she has postponed indefinitely her planned June wedding to Army Sgt. Ruben Contreras, although they remain engaged. Lynch is mum about details, but her grandmother Wyonema Lynch reports she still wears his ring and "they still talk on the phone quite a lot." Though she plans to earn an education degree and teach kindergarten, physical therapy is Lynch's No. 1 priority for now. "I'm just giving it time," she says. "I've got to be patient."

For Iraqis, Uncertainty Still Rules

Citizens interviewed by PEOPLE a year ago tell how their lives have changed

YASSIN ABBAS, TAXI DRIVER
Improved economic activity hasn't paid off for him

Yassin Abbas sees the sleek new cars flooding Baghdad's streets—thanks to open borders and no duties on cars—and shakes his head. "I have an old Toyota Crown. People prefer to get picked up in newer cars," he says. That's just one of his headaches. Afraid to be out after dark, he ends his shifts at 7 p.m., cutting into the $5 a day that supports his parents. Military roadblocks create traffic havoc too. "Everybody was happy to get rid of the regime," he says. "But people now worry what the end will bring."

RITA ELIAS, STOCKBROKER
Happy Saddam is gone, she nonetheless dreams of America

This past Christmas, Rita Elias and her family didn't celebrate outside their home. In fact, as a Christian in predominantly Muslim Iraq, Elias almost never openly practices her faith these days. "We rarely go to church now," she says. "There is a fear of bombs in places such as churches."

The aftermath of war has forced many changes in Elias's life. Her family locks its Baghdad home—recently repaired after a bomb fragment destroyed their rooftop store-room—at dusk. "The robbers and thieves rule the night," says Elias, 30, who works for the Middle Eastern Bank. "It makes me feel like a prisoner in our own house." The stock exchange where she worked as a trader is now inhabited by squatters. Now she works at a branch of the bank and a minibus picks her up each morning to take her there. Always fashion-conscious, Elias has never donned the head-covering many Muslim women wear. But now, with growing sectarianism, she says she stands out. "People are staring at me. Before, they didn't," she says. "I don't think I have to wear a scarf as a Christian."

Right after the war, Elias says, American soldiers would patrol the streets and "talk to people, buy things from shops and play soccer with the children." She rarely sees them on patrol now because of increased attacks. Elias, who has sisters in Michigan, looks at the soldiers as a symbol of the promised land. "If I got the opportunity I would leave," she says. "I would prefer America."

SALAH IZAT
He survived the war, then lost a leg

Last April, two weeks after a U.S. missile attack damaged his north Baghdad home and killed many civilians, Salah Izat started to feel pain in his right leg. Trapped in the hell of war, he ignored it. "There was no use going to the hospital because of the chaos," he says. "The pain increased until there were sores and bruises on my foot." A May doctor's visit revealed that Izat, 51, was suffering complications from the diabetes he had been battling for 10 years. By the fall, gangrene had set in. "They amputated the leg on Nov. 23."

Now Izat is on disability leave from his job as secretary to the dean of the Iraqi Musical Institute, which still exists but has been looted and significantly depleted. He and his wife, Amira, 44, have spent much of the past year rebuilding their one-bedroom flat. The front balcony was blown into the living room in the blast, which shattered windows and incinerated furniture and clothing. (Fortunately, Izat was at work, and Amira and their children Ahmed, 13, and Sally, 10, were on an errand when the bomb hit.)

One piece of good news: Wages for long-underpaid public servants have increased in post-Saddam Iraq. "My salary as a teacher is 10 times better," says Amira. "Now I get 280,000 dinars ($200) a month."

But things are far from ideal. "I was expecting the U.S. to raise our quality of life, but it has not been so," Izat says. "There is no order in the street and the government. I'm worried about car bombs and terrorism—and what will happen in 5 or 10 years' time."

Richard Jerome and Bob Meadows. Reported by: Pete Norman in Baghdad, Joanna Blonska and Rose Ellen O'Connor in Washington, D.C., Michael Haederle in El Paso and Liza Hamm in New York City

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