'He saved many; now he's home': The vet who could help everybody couldn't help self
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.
"Sometimes he felt he was putting a Band-Aid over a bullet hole," McNabb says.
For about half his tour, Linnerooth's office was a 12-by-12 trailer. His heavy-metal soundtrack provided a sound buffer. 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.
Linnerooth wrote about that in an essay, describing a soldier who died after her Humvee had been struck by an armor-penetrating explosive.
"I stood at her head and considered her hair ..." he wrote. "The blast had mussed her hair. Removed her foot, cleaved her abdomen, but mussed her hair. For whatever reason I looked at it and longed to smooth it back from her forehead. Like I do for my children. .... Hell, I don't know what to do in an abattoir of human suffering, it's not my job. I deal with easy things, like the paranoid, the personality disordered, and those without hope. All I wanted to do was smooth her hair, perhaps compose her for the next stage of her journey. But I never did it, and regret it to this day."
Even as he comforted others, Linnerooth was showing signs of strain.
Ray Nixon, then a medic at Riva Ridge, remembers anguishing over critical decisions — assigning soldiers to what could be life-and-death missions — and talking to 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 into 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."
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 — they'd met as teens in Rochester, Minn. — 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.
"I think it was just kind of like a wall that he put up," she says. "I asked him about that later, and he said if he let that guard down, then it would be like a dam flooding and it would just all come out and he couldn't be that way."
There were some early warning signs, she says, including jokes about suicide. She dismissed it as gallows humor.
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."
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