A Troubled Marine’s Final Fight

16 minute read

‘At some point I remember looking out the window and seeing a man hiding behind a tree. I knew I could kill him, but some part of me kept saying, No, don’t hurt anyone. I fired at the tree and laughed because I knew I could have hit him. When I smelled the smoke from the rounds fired, I had a rush. Suddenly I was back in the fight.’ David Linley’s last night as a free man began, like so many others before it, in his dark basement, watching Band of Brothers. Or was it Saving Private Ryan? Deep into a bottle of Bombay gin at the time, Linley can’t recall what was on the screen when his wife Kristin came downstairs to do the laundry. She was surprised to see him wearing, for the first time at home, the Marine fatigues he had worn in Iraq.

Her interruption was minor and routine–a light switched on, a noise from the washer–but it triggered in Linley something he couldn’t ignore. Feeling an irrational rage welling up inside, Linley ordered Kristin to leave the house with their 3-year-old son Hunter and 3-week-old daughter Hannah. Then Linley, age 41, kept drinking. Over the next 24 hours, he tried to kill himself twice by filling the house with natural gas, once by sitting in his running car inside the garage and once by hanging.

As a Marine sergeant, Linley saw action and witnessed horrors in Grenada, Lebanon and Iraq a generation ago. Ten years ago in January, he headed back to Iraq on his final combat deployment. He had earned an expert rifleman’s badge, the corps’s highest. The Marines tapped him for prized assignments guarding U.S. diplomatic outposts in Brazil and Pakistan, jobs that required top-secret clearance. He was discharged from the corps, honorably. Twice.

But his final firefight was on his suburban street 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Chicago, and the enemy was local police. When it ended, he’d traded 17 years in uniform for 16 years behind bars.

This is a story about what untreated posttraumatic stress can do to a man, his family, his life and his neighborhood. There are about 200,000 incarcerated veterans in the U.S., about 14% of the nation’s prisoners. Contrary to public perception, Afghanistan and Iraq vets are only half as likely to be incarcerated as those who fought in earlier wars, but they, like Linley, suffer from PTSD at three times the rate of older veterans. All told, perhaps as many as 10,000 Afghanistan and Iraq War vets–there is no sound estimate–are in the nation’s prisons, where mental-health treatment is spotty at best. Linley is one of them, a sad and costly example of a nation too busy to care. “These cases are much too common,” says psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general. “We are throwing these guys away.”

I was wearing my full camouflage uniform that I wore in Iraq, including dog tags, survival gear and my fighting knife on my belt. I don’t know when, or why, I put it on. It just felt appropriate to die as a Marine in combat gear.

Shortly after 2 p.m. the next day, on Sept. 22, 2006, a pair of police officers showed up at Linley’s two-story house, bought a year earlier for $232,500. They’d been dispatched because Linley’s new employer was concerned by his absence from work. One knocked at the front door, arousing Linley from a drunken stupor. “Linley appeared calm, polite and cooperative,” the police report said, although the police noted the bayonet-style knife hanging from his webbed belt.

The officer ordered Linley outside once he smelled gas. But Linley locked the door and barricaded it with a wooden bench. Then he made the biggest mistake of his life.

He grabbed a bolt-action .22 from an upstairs closet. He had bought it as a gift to give his son someday. It was the only gun in the house. He retrieved bullets from the basement.

The police, given the gas, the knife and Linley’s retreat inside, summoned reinforcements, who began to encircle the house as they arrived on the scene. They turned off the exterior gas valve to 130 Wethersfield Lane.

A short time later, Linley, unprovoked, began squeezing off rounds from a second-story window above his garage. The initial volley shattered windows in an unoccupied police car parked in front of his house. He moved to the back of the house and began firing at a neighbor’s storage shed that was shielding two police officers. “We had several officers basically pinned down behind sheds and trees,” Bolingbrook police lieutenant Michael Rompa says. “I don’t know the exact amount of rounds that he fired, but it was listed in the hundreds … it was probably closer to a thousand rounds.”

Once I opened the door we spoke briefly, but then the officer began yelling at me to come outside. He started reaching back, as if to draw his weapon. I instantly went into fight mode. I slammed the door shut, saw the officer trying to get in and saw the second officer begin to run around toward the back of the house. I was being surrounded.

As the afternoon dragged on, some 30 officers–including state police–arrived. They asked the FAA to order a news helicopter buzzing overhead to leave the scene. They approached Linley’s house in an armored vehicle. They deployed a pair of robots in an unsuccessful effort to search the house. They lobbed tear gas inside. Nothing seemed to work.

Police restricted access to the 95 other homes in the Hunters Trail subdivision and sent bewildered neighbors fleeing or into their basements. “He was a very gentle person,” says Mike Dahlberg, who lived across the street. Police kept Dahlberg from his home as his wife and son huddled inside with five police officers during the standoff. “Whatever war can do to a person,” he says, “I think it did it to him.”

Linley now maintains that he never intended to hit anyone; none of the 125 shots Linley fired–Rompa’s estimate was considerably off the mark–during the nine-hour shoot-out found a human target. The onetime Marine marksman says what he did was “stupid,” triggered by PTSD and fueled by alcohol.

Linley says he was aiming at trees and over the heads of responding police officers. “If Dave had wanted to kill a cop, he would have killed a cop,” Pete Gill, a Marine comrade, says flatly. “Because even your most basic Marine can hit something at 100 yards, and he didn’t hit a one of them. If that wasn’t a cry for ‘Shoot me because I don’t want to shoot you,’ I don’t know what was.”

I was acting like I was in a firefight, but there was that voice in my head telling me I was in a safe place and there was no danger. I was supposed to be dead, and I was determined to die, to not hurt my family. Now I was being hunted down.

Talking with Linley, now 48, inside the visitors’ center at the Graham Correctional Center in southern Illinois, is bleakly enlightening. His records and the accounts of fellow Marines, relatives and neighbors reveal a once squared-away sergeant–he has no record of parking, never mind speeding, tickets–tormented by what he witnessed during his four combat tours.

The product of a broken New York City family, Linley joined the Marines as a radio operator in 1982 at age 17, with his mother’s signature on his enlistment papers. During his first 10-year stint on active duty, he spent six years overseas, seeing action in Grenada and Beirut and in the 1991 Gulf War. In between deployments to war zones, he spent three years as a Marine security guard at U.S. diplomatic outposts in São Paulo and Islamabad. After a decade as a civilian, he reupped at age 36, angered by the 9/11 attacks. “I was anxious to be back into the fight,” he says. “I felt I had a duty that was not finished.” He spent seven months as a sergeant in Iraq’s violent Anbar province in 2004.

Once he returned from Iraq, Linley and Kristin moved to suburban Chicago, near her parents. They bought a house and had their second child as his life slowly unwound. “He was no longer outgoing but became socially and emotionally withdrawn,” Kristin recalls. “We’d always attended church regularly, but he stopped going with me.” Once a beer drinker, Linley began “self-medicating” with liquor. “He hit the bottle hard when he came home,” Kristin says. “He started locking himself in the basement to get drunk.”

Nine months before the shoot-out, Linley acknowledged the disconnect between those who fight and those back home. “They either ignore you or become scared of you,” he wrote in a letter to the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper. “When they ask, ‘What was it like?’ they zone out with dazed looks on their faces when you start to describe what you have seen.”

And he said he had seen plenty. His Beirut and final Iraq tours were especially bloody; many Marines were killed, but it was the civilians, especially children, caught in the cross fire who Linley says fueled his nightmares. In Beirut, he’d called for a strike on a threatening bus that local newspapers later said had killed 12 children. In Iraq, he saw a young teenager rummaging in an ammo dump lose both arms in an explosion. He survived roadside-bomb blasts.

Linley sought help from the VA and others but was leery of what acknowledging his ills would mean for his career. (He says they had already derailed a job with the U.S. Border Patrol.) “I fault myself for not reaching out more,” Linley says. “You get cocky and prideful and think, I’m a sergeant. I can handle this.” He wanted to head back to Iraq for a fifth combat tour, but Kristin thought he had done his duty. Job hunting, a new baby and his wife’s brain tumor (successfully removed) added to the stress.

So did a lack of comrades. All his earlier trips home from overseas had been to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he could soak in the warmth and understanding of his Marine buddies. But when he returned home for the last time, in 2004, he found himself in an unfamiliar Midwestern suburb where such fraternal solace was harder to find.

Linley recalls being surprised by how the sight of police at his door triggered a flashback. “I thought those dark memories were buried forever,” he says. But a 1987 study of Israeli troops who fought in Lebanon five years earlier shows such thoughts don’t always stay buried. “Even when combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder remits … the afflicted person may become highly sensitized to stress in general,” it concluded. “He is permanently altered, harboring the potential for a future response on re-exposure to threatening stimuli.”

What began as a sad ritual in Linley’s basement on a Thursday night became a matter of life and death for his neighborhood as Friday afternoon darkened into evening. He fired in the direction of the police negotiator’s voice and fire trucks on the scene. In between shots, Linley bellowed out the Marines’ Hymn. “Today’s a good day to die!” he shouted to the cops. He almost got his wish. Three hours after the officer had knocked on his door, a police marksman fired law enforcement’s lone bullet that day, a .308 round that winged Linley but didn’t bring him down.

People were foolishly standing in a place I could have easily shot them, but it was more of a game now. I was shooting close enough to let them know I was there and waiting for them to shoot me. They didn’t. Eventually they did shoot me. At the time, it really pissed me off that they didn’t kill me.

He surrendered seven hours later, after what he says was a failed effort to hang himself with parachute cord. Shortly after midnight, Linley stumbled out of his front door, wounded, haggard and unarmed. “Linley’s shirt is soaked in blood and there is an evident hole in the upper left arm of the shirt,” the police report said. His eyes were bloodshot and watery. “He appears pale in color and moves very slow.”

Police arrested Linley at 12:30 a.m. “We were able to take him into custody, get him medical attention and save his life,” Rompa says. Linley has been locked up since. The state charged him with two counts of attempted first-degree murder, six counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm and one count of criminal damage to government property. Bail was set at $3 million; he faced up to 240 years in prison.

Linley spent nearly three years in the county lockup awaiting trial in the Illinois courts. (Their motto: Audi alteram partem, Latin for “Hear the other side.”) During his trial, Linley’s legal team argued that he was legally insane during the shoot-out. “This guy’s not a criminal, and he’s never been a criminal,” says psychologist Don Catherall. “He was hurting in many ways by that point.”

But Randi Zoot, the state-appointed psychologist in the case, concluded that while Linley was suffering from mental ailments when the shoot-out happened, “they were not of such severity as to substantially impair his ability to understand the wrongfulness of his actions.” Rather, his “voluntary intoxication” that “impaired his judgment and loosened his impulse control” was to blame. His blood-alcohol content was 0.195% after the shoot-out, more than double the Illinois limit for driving. “If you go out and you get yourself drunk and you kill somebody while you’re driving, just because you’re very impaired by drinking isn’t enough” to absolve guilt, Zoot says. That’s true, she adds, even if Linley was trying to self-medicate his PTSD by drinking.

In September 2009, state judge Daniel Rozak found Linley not guilty of the two counts of attempted murder and “guilty but mentally ill” on the seven counts of firearms violations and damaging government property. (Linley and his family, on the advice of their lawyers, had waived a jury trial because of Rozak’s pro-vet record.) While the judge said he gave veterans “a huge break” at sentencing, the length of the shoot-out and the number of shots fired required imprisonment “to deter others from committing the same offense.” Although Linley hadn’t hit anyone, he’d come “close enough” and couldn’t control ricochets.

Linley, the judge added, didn’t prove that he was “unable to appreciate the criminality of his conduct as a result of a mental disease or defect.” In a 21st century variation on World War II’s catch-22, Linley was crazy–just not crazy enough. Rozak said that despite Linley’s mental illness, “with proper treatment” he “was unlikely to reoffend.”

The trouble is, Linley has never gotten that treatment. “I’ve seen a psychiatrist about every six months for 30 minutes, which is absolutely useless,” he says. “I have received no treatment for PTSD at all–nothing.” Linley says he sought an antidepressant in anticipation of a VA-sponsored prison PTSD-counseling group. Such counseling depresses Linley, so he wanted to get on an antidepressant for the sessions. He took Celexa, prescribed by a corrections psychiatrist, for about a year, awaiting the counseling. But the VA never came, prison officials say, because there weren’t enough veterans seeking such help there. Linley says he stopped being “doped up” on the medicine, which made him “foggy and nauseous,” once it became clear the VA wasn’t coming.

A prison official, who declined to discuss the specifics of Linley’s case because of privacy restrictions, said it’s possible he is being seen only twice a year by a psychiatrist “because he’s not behaving poorly, so there’s no issue that has to be addressed by a psychiatrist.”

There are 49,000 inmates in Illinois prisons–a fourfold increase since 1980–and 20% of them receive mental-health care. “There’s a real lack of capacity to deliver any meaningful mental-health care, especially specialized care like PTSD treatment for veterans,” says John Maki, who heads the Chicago-based John Howard Association of Illinois, dedicated to improving the state’s prisons. “It’s so overcrowded and underresourced that delivery of this kind of care, even when it’s ordered by a judge, is extremely difficult if not impossible.” Linley earns $125 a month keeping the furniture shop’s electronics humming; he spends much of it on phone calls to his kids and on instant coffee in the prison commissary. “Hey, I was in the military–I need my coffee,” he explains.

Some days I feel an overwhelming shame. When you strive to do your best, work hard and be honest in life, it’s not supposed to end up like this.

The state appellate court upheld Linley’s sentence in 2011, and he now has a clemency appeal pending before Governor Pat Quinn. “One week in a mental-health facility probably would have prevented this whole affair, and he would be happily married, raising his kids and working,” says Bruce Benson, who worked alongside Linley in the cable-TV business in the 1990s. “He had one bad day in his life, and it has cost him 16 years plus his marriage.”

Kristin divorced Linley in 2011. Struggling to make ends meet, she and the children rarely make the four-hour drive to visit him. “The divorce has nothing to do with the fact that he’s in jail,” she says. “It has to do with what the military did to him. The man who came back from Iraq wasn’t the man I married.”

Linley, like all those who wore their nation’s uniform after 9/11, volunteered for duty. “They have been proud to serve their country,” the Institute of Medicine said in a 2010 report detailing troops’ service and its consequences. “If they have been wounded, physically or mentally, they expect their government to return the favor.”

With time off for good behavior, Linley is slated to leave prison on April 28, 2020. Maybe then he will get the help he needs.

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