Vet who saved many in Iraq couldn’t escape demons

Pete Linnerooth, right, and Brock McNabb ran a mental-health clinic for U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Linnerooth couldn’t overcome his own demons and killed himself. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Brock McNabb/Associated Press

Pete Linnerooth, right, and Brock McNabb ran a mental-health clinic for U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Linnerooth couldn’t overcome his own demons and killed himself.

He had a knack for soothing soldiers who’d just seen their buddies killed by bombs. He knew how to comfort medics sickened by the smell of blood and troops haunted by the screams of horribly burned Iraqi children.

Capt. Peter Linnerooth was an Army psychologist. He counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. Hundreds upon hundreds sought his help. For nightmares and insomnia. For shock and grief. And for reaching that point where they just wanted to end it all.

Linnerooth did such a good job that his Army comrades dubbed him “The Wizard”. His “magic” was deceptively simple: an instant rapport with soldiers, an empathetic manner, a big heart.

For a year during one of the bloodiest stretches of the Iraq war, Linnerooth met with soldiers 60, 70 hours a week. Sometimes, he’d hop on helicopters or join convoys, risking mortars and roadside bombs. Often, though, the soldiers came to his shoebox-sized “office” at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.

There they’d encounter a raspy-voiced, broad-shouldered guy who blasted Motorhead, Iron Maiden and other ear-shattering heavy metal, favored four-letter words and inhaled Marlboro Reds – once even while conducting a “stop smoking” class. He was that persuasive.

He could be tough, even gruff at times, but he also was a gentle soul, a born storyteller, a proud dad who decorated his quarters with his kids’ drawings and photos. He carried his newborn daughter’s shoes on his rucksack for good luck.

He left Iraq in 2007, a few months short of the end of his 15-month tour. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d heard enough terrible stories. He’d seen enough dead and dying.

He became a college professor in Minnesota, then counseled vets in California and Nevada. He’d done much to help the troops, but in his mind, it wasn’t enough. He worried about veteran suicides. He wrote about professional burnout. He grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anger, his despair spiraling into an overdose. He divorced and married again. He fought to get his life in order.

But he couldn’t make it happen.

As the new year dawned, Pete Linnerooth, Bronze Star recipient, admired Army captain, devoted father, turned his gun on himself. He was 42.

He was, as one buddy says, the guy who could help everybody – everybody but himself.

–H H H––

He liked to compare himself jokingly to an intrepid explorer stranded in one of the most remote corners of Earth.

Linnerooth’s best buddy, Brock McNabb, recalls how they’d laugh and find parallels to the plight of Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, Endurance, became trapped in the Antarctic during an early 20th-century expedition.

This was the desert, of course, but the analogy seemed apt: Both seemed impossible missions – Linnerooth and two teammates tended to the psychological needs of thousands – and both groups depended on each other to survive.

McNabb and a third soldier, Travis Landchild, were the tight-knit mental-health crew in charge of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in the Baghdad area. They were there when the surge began and the death toll escalated.

Landchild says the three dubbed themselves “a dysfunctional tripod.” Translation: One of the three “legs” was always broken, or stressed out and without fail, “the other two would step up and support that person.”

They counseled guys who had witnessed Humvees vaporize before them, young medics dealing with double amputations, women sexually assaulted in combat zones. There were soldiers suffering from paranoia, bipolar disorder and anxiety. And then there were those who were suicidal.

Linnerooth – the only trained psychologist of the three – was frustrated by what he regarded as the Army’s view of mental health as a second-class problem that can be minimized or overlooked during deployment, McNabb says. At times, he also felt powerless – stabilizing soldiers, then seeing them return to missions, knowing they’d be traumatized again.

For about half his tour, Linnerooth’s office was a 12-by-12 trailer. A blanket serving as a makeshift room divider also provided a modicum of privacy.

Linnerooth brought hope to those gripped by hopelessness. In a desert, he could always find the glass half full.

But he wasn’t just confronting emotional trauma. He was in the same complex as the Riva Ridge Troop Medical Clinic. When mass casualties arrived, he helped out, squeezing IV bags and handling bandages.

–H H H––

Even as he comforted others, Linnerooth was showing signs of strain.

Ray Nixon, then a medic at Riva Ridge, remembers anguishing about critical decisions – assigning soldiers to what could be life-and-death missions – and talking with Linnerooth.

“He always made me feel better,” Nixon says. “He knew exactly what to say, exactly what direction to guide you in – but Pete was very bad at taking care of himself. Any time he was having problems or getting overwhelmed, instead of asking for help, he’d lock himself in his room and try to deal with it alone.”

He didn’t socialize. Friends, he’d say, were potential patients.

A year into the tour, McNabb says, Linnerooth walked in a doctor’s office and said: “’I can’t stand it. This is too much. How much more misery and torture are these kids going to go through?’”

The doctor, McNabb says, asked if he might hurt himself. Linnerooth said he wasn’t sure.

As he was evacuated, he told McNabb he was crushed having to abandon his teammates. But they were happy.

“We kind of had this hope that one of us made it,” Landchild says. “Yeah, he’s broken as heck, and he has a lot of healing to do, but he got out.”

–H H H––

He wasn’t the same. His family noticed it when they met him in Schweinfurt, Germany.

“He came home burdened,” says his younger sister, Mary Linnerooth Gonzalez. “He was disappointed that he couldn’t affect the wheels of change. ... I think he was defeated.”

Amy, Linnerooth’s wife at the time says they had trouble resuming their lives. He didn’t discuss what he’d seen while in Iraq, and didn’t open up at home.

There were some early warning signs, she says, including jokes about suicide.

In 2008, after nearly six years in the Army, Linnerooth was a civilian again, returning to an academic world where his former professors remembered him as “brilliant” and “amazing.”

Linnerooth was hired to teach psychology at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he had earned his master’s degree. He quickly became annoyed with 19-year-olds griping about tough grading standards – he’d just come from Iraq, where their peers worried about survival.

He missed meetings and seemed paranoid, shredding papers in his office, Houlihan says.

Things also were bad at home. Amy Linnerooth says they tried marital counseling.

In early 2009, Linnerooth’s depression took a disastrous turn. He nearly died from an overdose of pills.

His buddy, McNabb, phoned.

“Jesus, man you can’t even kill yourself right,” he teased. Linnerooth laughed.

But he also confided: “I just hated where my life was going. Here, I’m arguing with my wife. ... I want to be normal for my kids. ... I was tired of being here.’”

Amy Linnerooth says her husband was very remorseful.

“He thought that was a really stupid thing to do to the kids and us,” she says. She was convinced he’d never try to harm himself again.

By late 2009, though, his marriage was failing, and his job wasn’t working out.

Linnerooth was given an extended leave and headed west to start a new life.

–H H H––

McNabb had invited his pal to him join him at the Santa Cruz County Vet Center in California.

Linnerooth liked his new surroundings, but his ongoing divorce and separation from his kids weighed on him. Still, he remained an attentive, loving father. He’d fly to Minnesota often, and while in California, he’d call his children, Jack, 9, and Whitney, 6, every night.

He also felt his work as a veterans’ readjustment counselor was helping people. With McNabb, he conducted a suicide-prevention class for an Army Reserve unit, even as he himself was being treated for PTSD.

He became vocal about the strains on military psychologists. Linnerooth talked about the pressures to The New York Times and Time. He told the magazine in 2010 that “the Army has been criminally negligent” in not having enough mental-health experts to serve combat vets, putting a bigger burden on those doing the job.

He joined Bret Moore, another former Army psychologist he befriended before Iraq, to produce an academic paper about professional burnout.

For a time, Linnerooth seemed happy, telling Moore about his budding relationship with Melanie Walsh, a social worker. They’d met a decade earlier when she was an undergraduate assistant at Reno. Moore was invited to their July 2011 wedding in Lake Tahoe.

But soon marital strains surfaced. He also began missing deadlines for their paper.

Moore says he eventually toned down Linnerooth’s work to make it more academic and less emotional. The paper was published in 2011 in an American Psychological Association journal.

Linnerooth moved to Reno to be with his new wife. He was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with vets struggling with PTSD and other problems.

There was a hitch, though. He was approaching a two-year deadline to get a state license required by the VA.

McNabb urged him to take the test. For some reason, he didn’t. The VA let him go. (The agency said in a January statement that it was forced to terminate Linnerooth because of the lack of licensing but offered to take him back once he finished the requirements.)

“He felt betrayed,” his widow says. “He deteriorated after that, and he deteriorated quickly.”

–H H H––

At the end of last summer, Linnerooth returned to Minnesota so he could see his children daily. He traveled to California, though, for a joyous occasion – the birth of his son, David.

He spoke often with McNabb, and seemed optimistic, considering careers outside psychology.

Linnerooth was busy with family during the holidays: He traveled west to see his baby. On Jan. 1, he spent a happy day with his son, Jack.

The next day, though, McNabb says, a fight with his wife, alcohol and a loaded gun proved a tragic combination.

“For the record, Pete Linnerooth did not want to die,” McNabb says. “He just wanted the pain to end. Big difference.”

–H H H––

His family and friends gathered on a bitter cold January day in Minnesota to bid farewell.

The night before, McNabb wondered how to honor his friend’s legacy. He was limited to 30 characters on Pete’s headstone. How do you capture a life in a handful of words?

McNabb then remembered something Linnerooth once said: “Maybe we’re all meant for just one great deed and we’re done.”

That gave him an idea.

The next day, Capt. Peter J.N. Linnerooth was laid to rest with taps and a 21-gun salute.

On a February day, the engraved headstone arrived. It is etched with Linnerooth’s name, his military service and a tribute to his great deed, summed up in this spare epitaph:

HE SAVED MANY

NOW HE’S HOME.

Capt. Peter Linnerooth’s headstone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis. Enlarge photo

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Capt. Peter Linnerooth’s headstone at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.