Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in trouble with the law

Experts see more soldiers facing criminal time

RICHARD LEONARD WAS at a Lake Street gas station buying a soda and cigarettes when he snapped.

Ordinarily, Leonard is something of a gentle giant. A former defensive lineman at Mankato State, he's a calm man with a quiet demeanor. But on this afternoon in the fall of 2007, it all changed in an instant.

"There were a couple of Middle Eastern fellows at the counter," Leonard says. "I can remember seeing them talking, speaking Arabic, and then they both looked over at me and started laughing."

Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson
Richard Leonard survived his tour in Iraq, but he says his life fell apart when he came home
Dave Fick
Richard Leonard survived his tour in Iraq, but he says his life fell apart when he came home

Convinced they were mocking him, Leonard flew into a rage. He dropped his soda, bolted behind the counter and threw himself at the nearest antagonist. Pushing him up against the plate-glass window, Leonard braced his forearm against the man's throat and began screaming at him.

Leonard doesn't remember what he was yelling—it was like he was possessed. "I had tunnel vision. I was shaking," Leonard says. "My buddy had to yank me off him. He dragged me back behind the building and said, 'What is wrong with you, dude?'"

A year and a half earlier, Leonard was in Iraq with the Minnesota Army National Guard, manning the turret gun on a Humvee escorting a supply convoy of 30 trucks south of Baghdad. It was his first mission—a dry run with the unit his team was replacing. As the convoy rolled south through the dark desert night, Leonard's Humvee brought up the rear, making sure no one got too close.

Suddenly, he saw headlights behind him—far back, but closing quickly.

Leonard activated his radio and alerted his truck commander. "Sergeant, there's a car to our rear, over 500 meters out."

"Keep your eyes on it. If it gets closer than 500 meters, let me know."

The car loomed larger in his view. "Sergeant, the vehicle is 500 meters out."

"Start your escalation of force."

Leonard flashed the floodlights on his turret on and off at the car. It kept closing. He fired a flare from his grenade launcher across its path, then a warning shot from the turret gun, but the car didn't slow down.

"Sergeant, the vehicle is now within 100 meters, it has not complied with our escalation of force."

Even before the response came back, Leonard knew what he would have to do next.

"Disable the vehicle."

Leonard gripped the 240 Bravo mounted machine gun, aimed for the headlights, and pulled the trigger. In two quick bursts, dozens of bullets rattled out, sounding like a whole box of Black Cat fireworks set off at once.

The car veered off the road and into a ditch, tumbling over and over before coming to rest back on all four wheels.

"That fucker flipped three or four times, Sergeant," Leonard said. "He's stopped by the side of the road."

The convoy paused briefly. Another Humvee dropped back to take rear guard duty while Leonard's vehicle backtracked to check on the sedan. A hundred meters away, Leonard and his Sergeant took off on foot, approaching carefully with their rifles up.

The hood of the sedan was gone, the roof badly crumpled. The windshield was completely spider-webbed, but somehow still intact. Leonard peered through the driver's side window, using his gun light to illuminate the cabin.

The driver, a middle-aged man, was clearly dead, his face awash in blood. In the passenger seat was a dead woman with blood dripping from her nose and ears. In the back were two boys, not more than 11 or 12. One had been killed by a bullet that tore away his face. The other was crushed when the car rolled--his neck wrenched 180 degrees so that his face now pointed backwards.

Leonard and the Sergeant searched the trunk, but didn't find any weapons or explosives. Within a few minutes, the convoy was rolling again.

In the following months, Leonard's team ran convoys in and out of Baghdad, across the desert, encountering plenty of small-arms fire and roadside bombs. Leonard was awarded a Purple Heart after a roadside bomb nearly killed him just before Christmas.

The unit was supposed to come home in March, but in late February, they learned their tour would be extended through July. Morale plummeted. The unit requested transfer to a slightly less dangerous posting. The request was denied.

When Leonard finally did make it home to Wyoming, Minnesota, he tried to settle back into a life with his wife and their son. But the idyllic home he'd left behind just wasn't the same upon his return.

Collection agencies were hounding him for overdue student loans. Dogged by suspicions of infidelity, Leonard divorced his wife and moved in with his mother.

Then he assaulted the Middle Eastern man in the gas station.

"When I got home, I was having a hard time functioning," Leonard says. "I came back from Iraq and things went to shit."

NINE YEARS AFTER the invasion of Afghanistan, with the Iraq war winding down, the consequences of these conflicts are finally reaching U.S. shores.

"Across the country, people involved in criminal justice are seeing recent veterans picking up criminal records," says Tony Tarantino, a policy expert with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. "There's no question, this is one of the biggest challenges we're facing as a country when it comes to reintegrating veterans."

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