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MILITARY TRAUMA PART OF MCVEIGH'S DOWNFALL HOW A DECORATED SOLDIER CAN TURN INTO THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBER IS AN IRONY WITH SOME ROOTS IN THE PERSIAN GULF WAR.

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When Timothy J. McVeigh, a decorated Army sergeant and Persian Gulf War veteran, was executed here Monday, he received no military burial or military honors of any kind.

After McVeigh's conviction in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, Congress passed a law making sure that the terrorist from Pendleton would never receive any such recognition after his death.

Allen Smith, one of McVeigh's best friends from the Army days, thinks that is a shame.

Regardless of McVeigh's bombing -- which Smith does not agree with or condone -- Smith remembers McVeigh as "one of the best soldiers I ever served with."

Not only that, but Smith believes that McVeigh might never have become a terrorist bomber if he had received counseling for

post-traumatic stress disorder after his harrowing experiences in the gulf war.

Would McVeigh's life have taken a different, more positive turn if he had received stress counseling after the war?

Smith thinks so. He thinks that his friend became a time bomb after his return from the war in early 1991.

"Tim died 10 years ago, back in Desert Storm," Smith said Tuesday. "The execution just made it official. I've heard people say Tim was a monster. If he was, the monster was created by our own U.S. government."

Smith, 33, of Louisville, Ky., said he and McVeigh spoke many times after the war about the carnage they witnessed in the brief but bloody conflict in 1991.

"It definitely messed Tim up. He was never the same after coming back from the gulf," Smith said. "I know, because he and I saw the same things and talked about it many times. We saw things over there that I wouldn't ever want to repeat. And we almost died many times -- usually from our own mortar shells that exploded right near us.

"Tim was shellshocked when he came back from the war. In my opinion, knowing him as I do, I don't think he ever would have become a bomber if he had received some effective counseling after the war. I think (post-traumatic stress disorder) had a lot to do with it."

A spokesman for the Army in Washington, D.C., disputed Smith's contentions, pointing out that McVeigh was psychologically evaluated and determined fit to stand trial.

"Having it all blamed on the Army would be an easy out," the spokesman said.

"I'm sure he's feeling guilty after the fact," said the spokesman, a major who did not want to be quoted by name. "But we teach the buddy system in the Army, and if he saw something in McVeigh, he should have said something to someone."

Rick Sonntag, a public affairs spokesman for the Army's medical command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, said all soldiers have access to mental health services.

"These services are always available to soldiers when they need assistance, and the soldiers' commanders have the authority to refer soldiers if they think they need assistance," Sonntag said.

Would not seek counseling

Dr. John R. Smith, an Oklahoma City psychiatrist who interviewed McVeigh for 25 hours after his arrest in the bombing case, said McVeigh was disturbed by his war experiences and would have benefited from an intensive postwar counseling program.

"Tim was horrified by his own killings of Iraqi soldiers in the war," Smith said. "And it was tragic that he did not get counseling after the war."

In interviews conducted in 1999 and last year for the book "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing," McVeigh never blamed the Army or his war experiences for the bombing. In fact, he considered the 43 months he spent in the Army, from 1988 until late 1991, the best time of his life.

But he said he was emotionally disturbed by his war experiences -- including several dangerous near-misses with land mines and mortar shells, and seeing the bodies of Iraqi soldiers lying bloated in the desert, being chewed on by dogs or dumped into mass graves.

McVeigh said he regretted that he did not seek counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder after the war.

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McVeigh recalled instances in which he became edgy and hot-tempered after the war. He described a suicidal episode when he had a panic attack at his father's Pendleton home and then fled to his grandfather's nearby home, without putting on a shirt, shoes or socks, on a cold winter day.

Months after that incident, in early 1993, McVeigh said, he tried to sign up for a stress counseling program, after he had briefly moved to Florida. He said he decided not to enroll in the program because officials told him that he could not enroll anonymously.

He was embarrassed about needing help and worried that his prospects of getting a job would be hurt if prospective employers heard that he had such problems, McVeigh said.

"They told me I couldn't get counseling anonymously or under an alias," McVeigh said. "I didn't want my name recorded in some government list of veterans who were having emotional problems, so I didn't sign up."

According to Dr. John Gonzalez, a Terre Haute psychiatrist who treats veterans with psychological problems, McVeigh's reluctance to seek counseling is a fairly common problem.

Some war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder choose not to seek counseling out of embarrassment, said Gonzalez, who served a residency in a veterans hospital. He was not surprised to hear that McVeigh fell into this category.

"Stigma is still very prominent in the United States for mental illness," Gonzalez said Tuesday. "But the government is doing its best to educate people. People are more open these days.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is an illness, although a lot of people think it is a moral, social or psychological weakness."

Gonzalez added that soldiers, police officers and other people who are exposed to dangerous situations should receive a psychological debriefing soon afterward, to find out how the experience is affecting them and whether they need help.

"The only debriefing Tim and I ever got after the war was somebody from the Army telling us: 'Don't go out and beat your girlfriend. Don't beat your wife,' " Allen Smith said. "We both saw things in that war that bothered us a lot. We both had mortar shells -- fired by our own Army -- explode maybe 45 feet away from us. I know Tim could have used some more counseling -- a lot more than he got."

Another McVeigh friend -- Robert Papovich, 55, of Cass City, Mich. -- said he, too, believes that McVeigh was adversely affected by his wartime experience.

"I think Tim was extremely affected by it," said Papovich, a journalist and frequent critic of the federal government. "He saw in the war that our own government doesn't have a problem with going over to other countries and bombing and killing men, women and babies."

In response to questions from The Buffalo News, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday sent a fact sheet noting that in September 2000, almost 134,000 veterans were receiving government benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Symptoms include recurrent thoughts of a traumatic event, reduced involvement in work or outside interests, hyperalertness, anxiety and irritability," according to the fact sheet.

The agency noted that it has a nationwide system of 206 "Vet Centers," which provide counseling for psychological trauma from war. Last year, these centers saw more than 131,000 veterans and provided more than 890,000 visits to veterans and family members. Nearly 7,000 of the veterans treated last year had served in the gulf war.

Father noticed changes

Sharon McGrath, who works with traumatized veterans as clinical director of the Copin House counseling center in Niagara Falls, said she thinks that McVeigh might have been affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He appeared to be quite bright, but he had that definite stare that people have when they've been in any tremendously horrendous situation. And combat is definitely that," McGrath said. "Combat changes an individual biochemically, and that changes behavior."

She said it is unfortunate that McVeigh could not have received counseling anonymously.

Bill McVeigh has said he noticed unnerving changes in his son after Timothy McVeigh left military service and returned to Pendleton. The elder McVeigh said his son would angrily yell and throw things at his television set when he saw then-President Bill Clinton and other government figures whom he disliked.

Allen Smith, who receives government disability payments because of a liver ailment, became one of McVeigh's closest friends while serving with him at Fort Riley, Kan., and in the Persian Gulf. McVeigh invited him to come to Terre Haute this week to offer moral support.

Because of a law passed by Congress after McVeigh's 1997 conviction, he was not eligible to receive a military headstone, burial plot or a flag to be draped over his coffin after Monday's execution, Army officials said.

Allen Smith is so upset about these restrictions that he plans to send a commemorative American flag to Bill McVeigh in Pendleton.

"I don't condone the bombing, but Tim served the Army well, he did his job, and his family should get that flag," Smith said. "Bill McVeigh is going to get a flag from me."

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