Hidden war zone scars claim another soldier's life

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 6:00 a.m. MDT

Dale McIntosh stands with children in Central America. McIntosh did private security work in Iraq and Afghanistan. (family photo) Dale McIntosh stands with children in Central America. McIntosh did private security work in Iraq and Afghanistan. (family photo)

Dale McIntosh was no stranger to death. When it wasn't everywhere around him, it was a constant threat, something that kept him literally looking over his shoulder for months at a time.

A former Marine, he hired himself out as a privately contracted bodyguard in the Middle East, where he lived on the edge and saw and did things so terrible that it haunted him. He survived firefights, ambushes, exploding cars, road mines, snipers and rocket-propelled grenades. In the end, he escaped without any wounds, or at least none we could see.

When he returned, he seemed to be the Dale that his friends remembered — charming, gregarious, warm, outgoing — but inside, he was hurting and disturbed. McIntosh brought demons home with him.

In 2006, I wrote a lengthy profile about McIntosh, then a student at Westminster who took time off from his studies to pursue quick money and an adrenaline fix in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the postscript: McIntosh took his own life in February in Harlingen, Texas. He was 35.

"It's still hard for me to talk about," says Dale's older brother Robert. "Another veteran falls through the cracks."

Robert, who is an anesthesiologist and former Army officer who served in Iraq, says his brother suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. It's another cautionary tale about the damage of war and violence, the kind of damage that is more difficult to see and repair than a bullet hole.

I met Dale through a mutual friend in 2006, and we had several discussions about his experiences, which was the basis for the Deseret News story. The youngest of five boys, Dale grew up in a military family. His father Tony served in the Army for 30 years, including a stint in Vietnam, before settling the family in Star Valley, Wyo. Four of his five sons served in the military.

After graduating from Utah State, Dale served five years in the Marines — part of it in special ops — but felt unfulfilled because he never saw action. He compared it to being an athlete who never got in the game. Eager to use his military skills and see action, he signed on to do private security work. At the time, there was a big demand for security firms, the most famous and controversial of which was Blackwater. With a shortage of manpower, the U.S. government hired the firms to protect American interests and personnel in the Middle East. They were largely ungoverned by law, which did not make them popular at home or abroad. McIntosh spent six months in Afghanistan, five months in Iraq, two months in Bosnia and then another two months in Iraq before returning to Utah in the fall of 2005.

The work was dangerous, but lucrative. McIntosh made as much as $25,000 in one month. Aside from the money, there was another reason McIntosh took the work. He told me several times that he craved the thrill of combat. "It's addicting because you do get an adrenaline rush, and it gives you a new appreciation for life," he says.

When he came home and enrolled at Westminster to study finance, he struggled to fill that void. "I started going to the shooting range and shopping for a bullet bike, something to get the blood pumping," McIntosh told me then. He slept with a pistol by his bed.

I eventually lost track of McIntosh, but I learned from his brothers that he returned to the Middle East to do more security work after the story appeared. Between trips abroad he completed his degree in finance at Westminster and moved to Glendale, Ariz., to enroll in the MBA program in international business at Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Dale seemed to be doing well, but Keith and Robert say he was conflicted by his experiences. I remember during a visit to my home. he opened his laptop and showed me gruesome and violent photos and videos he had brought home from the Middle East. The video showed ambushes recorded by cameras mounted on the dashboard of bulletproof SUVs as security teams made their way through Baghdad and other hostile urban areas. He showed me photos of men lying dead in the street with the tops of their heads shot off and bodies that had been picked clean by packs of dogs. McIntosh, when asked the obvious question, said he had killed people, but didn't elaborate. He had also seen friends die.

Tony Sr., McIntosh's father and a Vietnam vet, worried about his son's trips abroad and seemed to foresee trouble. "The things people see in a combat zone … sometimes it's hard to get over it," Tony told me in 2006, a year before he died of cancer. "Sometimes they never get over it. A lot of these homeless people are vets. They just couldn't handle it mentally."

Robert says that Dale "implied in a sad way that he had to kill many, many people. I suspected this, but never really knew. He told me he had to do some terrible things. … He struggled with combat-related guilt and couldn't reconcile that with his current civilian life."

Says Keith: "He had a hard time adjusting to this life. He'd come back here and most of the kids he was going to church or school with – well, he had gone through things they hadn't experienced. Over there he had to kill people to stay alive and they're trying to kill him. Back here he'd meet people whose biggest problem is someone didn't call them on Saturday."

Developments at home only added to Dale's sadness. Counting a sister-in-law, four of eight family members died of cancer. This, say family members, affected Dale profoundly. Dale's death makes it five who have died. "I have a family photo of the eight of us, and now there are only three left," says Keith. "It's tough to look at it."

Robert says Dale had been suicidal for some time, the result of depression, PTSD and anxiety, and he took medication for all of them. He was hopeful for his brother when he returned from another overseas mission. "I read one of his journal entries in which he writes about his testimony and faith in God, and that he didn't know if this is good but 'I like what I do but it conflicts with my beliefs. I think this is my last mission, and I'm going to do something that doesn't clash with what I believe.' He came back full of energy."

Needing only a foreign language to complete his MBA in international business, Dale was invited to live with Robert and his family in Harlingen to study Spanish and live rent-free. "He was studying and living with me, my wife and my two daughters," says Robert. "They all fell in love with him. It was the happiest I had seen him."

In the spring, Dale decided to go to Guatemala and later Dominican Republic to immerse himself in Spanish. In the fall he ran out of medications for his depression and none of the local doctors would fill his prescription. In November, one of Dale's former military associates who was working in Dominican Republic called Robert to tell him that Dale had attempted suicide. "He had cut both radial arteries," says Robert, who flew to Dominican Republic and brought his brother back to Texas.

"I told Dale, 'I'm going to help you but you've got to do everything I say,' " says Robert.

Dale was hospitalized at a VA facility in Texas. Robert criticizes the care his brother received there, calling it "cursory and not in depth." He was eventually released to Robert's care and put on an anti-depressant, but for some reason not Adderall, a drug used to treat PTSD that he had taken with good results when he lived in Utah. "There was a disagreement among psychiatrists," says Robert. "One wanted him committed; another didn't."

During the next couple of months, Robert says, Dale was overdosing Adavan, an anxiety medication. Robert describes him as frequently paranoid, angry and disoriented. He says he confronted Dale and told him: "You're in trouble; this is going to end badly. I can't help you by myself anymore." He urged Dale to enter a volunteer treatment program in Waco, Texas, for soldiers with PTSD and offered to pay for it. According to Robert, Dale was convinced he was trying to lock him away.

Robert says Dale's behavior became so erratic that it upset his family, so he convinced him to move to another house with the promise that he would visit him frequently.

"He was there four or five days," recalls Robert. "I'd go there and spend all day with him. That Saturday morning I saw him, and he was upset. I told him he needed more help. I had not taken his guns. He kept them in a closet. I told him that this was getting bad and that he needed help. I got him groceries; he said he'd take a nap. A few hours later he took his own life. I went back to see him and found him. It's been the most excruciating pain I've ever felt."

Robert has spent months ruminating on the final weeks of his brother's life. He believes that despite all the programs offered by the VA, veterans fall through the cracks because there is not a protocol to follow.

"Suicide has a stigma," he says, "but it's the end of a disease process, like cancer. It happens to a lot of soldiers. Young guys go over there and do things they were taught were wrong their whole lives and then they come back and it's very difficult. We are a civilian society; most people haven't done this, so there is no understanding of what they've been through, no support network. It's like these cute little pit bulls they put in a ring to fight and maim and then they expect them to interact with kids. It doesn't work."

In the end, there is something Dale said that has stuck with his brother Robert. "He told me, 'I don't want to die; I just want the pain to stop.' "

Email: drob@desnews.com

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