For one Marine, torture came home
By Ann Louise Bardach
By ANN LOUISE BARDACH
Angeles Times" -- -- ABOUT A YEAR and a half ago,
a 40-year-old former Marine sergeant named Jeffrey Lehner,
recently returned from Afghanistan, phoned and asked to meet
with me. Since his return he had been living with his father, a
retired pharmacist, in the Santa Barbara home where he was
raised. I first heard about Jeff from an acquaintance of mine
who was dating him and who told me that he was deeply distressed
about what he had seen on his tours in Afghanistan, Pakistan and
the Middle East.
We met for lunch at a restaurant on Canon Perdido in downtown
Santa Barbara. Jeff was focused, articulate and as handsome as a
movie star. He was quite wound-up, but utterly lucid.
There was no way I could have known that day the depths of
Jeff's unhappiness, no way I could have predicted the tragedy
that would follow. I listened closely to his story and, while I
was surprised by what I heard, I had no particular reason to
He had joined the Marines enthusiastically, he told me, and
served as a flight mechanic for eight years. Not long after
9/11, he began helping to fly materials into Afghanistan with
the first wave of U.S. troops.
In the beginning, Jeff supported the administration's policies
in the region. But over time, that began to change. As we
talked, Jeff brought out an album of photos from Afghanistan. He
pointed to a series of photographs of a trailer and several huts
behind a barbed-wire fence; these were taken, he said, outside a
U.S. military camp not far from the Kandahar airport. He told me
that young Afghans — some visible in blue jumpsuits in his
photos — had been rounded up and brought to the site by a CIA
special operations team. The CIA officers made no great secret
of what they were doing, he said, but were dismissive of the
Marines and pulled rank when challenged.
Jeff said he had been told by soldiers who had been present that
the detainees were being interrogated and tortured, and that
they were sometimes given psychotropic drugs. Some, he believed,
had died in custody. What disturbed him most, he said, was that
the detainees were not Taliban fighters or associates of Osama
bin Laden. "By the time we got there," Jeff said, "the serious
fighters were long gone."
Jeff had other stories to tell as well. He said the CIA team had
put detainees in cargo containers aboard planes and interrogated
them while circling in the air. He'd been on board some of these
flights, he said, and was deeply disturbed by what he'd seen.
Was Jeff telling me the truth? As a reporter who writes
investigative articles, I get calls frequently from people with
unusual stories — sometimes spot-on accurate ones, sometimes
personal vendettas and sometimes paranoid, crazy stories. Jeff
seemed truthful, and he had told the same stories almost
verbatim to several friends and family members. But I was
worried because at the time, I hadn't heard about such abuses in
Afghanistan, and Jeff's stories were hard to verify.
More worrisome, Jeff was seeking treatment for post-traumatic
stress disorder, and I wondered whether he could withstand the
scrutiny his allegations would generate.
PTSD's symptoms can include anxiety, deeply frightening
thoughts, a sense of helplessness or flashbacks. Jeff's case
apparently stemmed, according to Jim Nolan, a fellow veteran and
a friend from Jeff's PTSD support group, from witnessing the
"unspeakable," and from his inability to stop what he knew to be
His case was compounded, his friends said, by strong feelings of
"survivor's guilt" involving the crash of a KC-130 transport
plane into a mountain in January 2002 — killing eight men in his
unit. He'd been scheduled to be on the flight and had been
reassigned at the last minute. As part of the ground crew that
attended to the plane's maintenance, he blamed himself.
Afterward, he went to the debris site to recover remains. He
found his fellow soldiers' bodies unrecognizable. He also told
me he was deeply shaken by the collateral damage he saw to
civilians from U.S. air attacks — especially the shrapnel
wounding of so many Afghan children.
Jeff told me that he often couldn't sleep at night, thinking
about what he had seen and heard. He had gone to Afghanistan a
social drinker but came home, like so many veterans, a problem
drinker. And he admitted self-medicating with drugs. He was
seeking help — and just days after we met, he drove 100 miles to
enter a treatment program in Los Angeles. But the Veterans
Affairs hospital's PTSD ward was full, he told me, so he was
placed in a lockdown ward for schizophrenics, which only
aggravated his isolation and despair.
Jeff left the hospital after a day. He got in touch with Dr.
Sharon Rapp, who is the only psychologist trained in treating
post-traumatic stress for all returning veterans who live
between L.A. and San Francisco, according to the Santa Barbara
VA office. Rapp, who is by all accounts a gifted and dedicated
therapist, placed him in a PTSD group with about 10 Vietnam
veterans who took Jeff under their wing. But it became
increasingly clear that he, like so many veterans, needed far
more than outpatient and group therapy.
At the time Jeff told me his story, I didn't quite know what to
do with it. Such allegations were not yet being reported — and
many Americans would probably have found his accusations
unimaginable. For multiple reasons, I put his story on the back
burner. I continued to stay in touch with Jeff — and
occasionally spoke with his father, Ed, who invariably answered
the phone — as I ruminated on his troubling tale.
However, late last year, details about secret prisons began to
appear. Human Rights Watch, for instance, reported that a number
of men being held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,
had given their lawyers "consistent accounts" of being held and
tortured at a secret American-run prison in Afghanistan. I
decided it was time to call Jeff and meet again.
It was early December. Jeff was still living in his father's
home off Old San Marcos Road. He'd broken up with my friend and
another woman to whom he had been briefly engaged, and he was
struggling to stay sober.
But by the time I called, it was too late. The day I phoned,
Jeff had quarreled with his father. That afternoon, they held an
unscheduled counseling session with Rapp. According to the Santa
Barbara County Sheriff's Department, Rapp was so concerned after
their meeting that she phoned the Lehner house about 6 p.m. Ed
answered, spoke with her and then called his son to take the
phone. At that point, the line suddenly turned to static.
Fearing the worst, Rapp called the police.
The worst proved to be the case. The police found two bodies,
and quickly labeled the case a murder-suicide. Ed Lehner, they
said, had died from multiple gunshot wounds, and Jeff from a
single, self-inflicted wound to the head.
The irony was that after eight years in the military, the first
and only person Jeff Lehner killed was his father.
Nolan, who said he returned from Vietnam in emotional tatters,
was not entirely surprised by the turn of events. According to
Nolan, Jeff's relationship with his father, a soft-spoken man
with diabetes, had strains predating his Marine years, and it
had deteriorated as Jeff's dependency on him deepened. "He had
talked about suicide a couple of times during our meetings,"
Nolan said, "as all of us had at one time or another. It's about
a loss of respect. When you lose respect between family members,
there's nothing but anger left, and that's how the rage works in
There are ways to deal with the rage, of course, but treatment
of returning veterans is woefully inadequate, owing to a lack of
funding. Although the VA acknowledges PTSD as a serious problem
for returning veterans, VA hospitals around the country have
sharply reduced their inpatient psychiatric beds, according to
the Los Angeles Times.
Suicide, meanwhile, is an enormous and growing concern.
Statistics are hard to come by, but some estimate that although
58,000 veterans died in combat in Vietnam, more than that took
their own lives after returning home. In a 1987 CDC study, the
suicide rate for Vietnam vets was 65% higher than that of
civilians. The Army estimates that the suicide rate among Iraq
veterans is one-third higher than the historical wartime
average, owing to the psychological strains of no-holds-barred
insurgency warfare. That means we're looking at a future
blizzard of suicides without an adequate VA program in place to
address the crisis.
Without Jeff and the further details he could have provided, I
doubt I will ever know for certain whether all his Afghanistan
stories are true. But no matter what you believe when you read
this, the story of Jeff's life and death raises issues we must
grapple with if we're going to continue sending troops into
insurgencies and guerrilla war zones. Thirty years after
Vietnam, we seem to have learned very little.
Of course, I feel badly now that I didn't spend more time with
Jeff or try harder to get his story published while he was
He had such a dazzling smile — the type you knew was destined
for great things.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH writes the Interrogation column for Slate and
is the author of "Cuba Confidential, Love and Vengeance in Miami
and Havana." Her article on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's ties to
the tabloids was a finalist for last year's PEN USA journalism
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
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