NIGHTMARE IN RAMADI
Nearly five years after the ambush, a Marine still battles the demons of PTSD
• • •
K.C. Schuring is alone, lying on his back in the heat and dust of a street in Ramadi, Iraq. Blood streams down his forehead into his eyes from a bullet that pierced his Kevlar helmet. It felt as if he’d been beaned with a fastball, but he remained conscious and upright until more automatic fire shattered his left femur, or thigh bone, and slammed into an armor plate on his back and broke two ribs. The bullet that tore through his helmet pierced the skin on his skull before exiting but didn’t penetrate his brain.
It’s late morning. Lying on a dirt road, Schuring moves his eyes and realizes the street is deserted. He doesn’t know where his men—19 Iraqi soldiers and two US Marines under his command—have gone. They were on foot patrol when they rounded a corner of a city square and walked into a blaze of gunfire.
He knows the insurgents who ambushed his platoon are watching. He knows if he moves they’ll shoot at him again. More than death, he fears capture and imagines being paraded before the media, appearing on the Al Jazeera network, or his wife seeing him beheaded on television. So he remains still. And waits.
Looking through a narrow opening in the corner of his helmet, Schuring sees a man with a short beard peeking around a corner of a building some 50 yards away. One of the ambushers. Schuring knows that the man wants to strip him of his gear and weapons.
After a quick glance, the man ducks back behind the building. When he does, Schuring slowly maneuvers his rifle into firing position. A few minutes later the man, wearing sandals and carrying an AK-47, steps out into the street and edges toward Schuring.
The insurgent realizes too late that Schuring’s M-16 is aimed at him. Schuring stares into the man’s surprised eyes as he fires. Bullets rip into the Iraqi’s head and he drops like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
A few moments later, a second insurgent runs out to aid his compatriot. He fires his AK-47 wildly, spattering shells against an adobe wall behind Schuring, who stitches him with bullets to the chest and head. The man falls dead. Schuring keeps firing to dissuade any other insurgents from coming after him, emptying a magazine and a half of 40 rounds. He thinks of tossing a hand grenade but doesn’t have the strength to remove it from his bag. If he had, he realizes later, he might have blown himself up. He takes out his 9-millimeter handgun and holds still. He looks at his watch—he always looks at his watch so he can call the incident in to headquarters. He’s been down less than ten minutes.
Schuring is unable to move, the pain in his leg and head nearly unbearable. But he’s at peace when he tells himself: I did my job here, and now it’s time for me to die.
• • •
Schuring wakes up sweating, his heart pounding as his wife, Lynn, struggles to free herself from the chokehold he has on her neck. He’s back home in Michigan, thousands of miles from that dusty street in Ramadi, but in this recurring nightmare he never left.
Schuring suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of the most florid cases Dr. David Williamson has ever seen. Schuring has been treated by the 7 East team before, and in March of this year—4½ years after being evacuated from Ramadi—he traveled from his Michigan home to see if the doctors in Bethesda could help him again.
Now 42 and a lieutenant colonel on active duty in the Marine Corps, Schuring grew up near Kalamazoo, where his family ran a bedding-plant business. A star football player in high school, he earned his BA from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he majored in art history and biology, was on the football, lacrosse, and track teams, and met his wife, a special-education teacher. They married in 1992, the year after they graduated.
Schuring had undergone training at officer’s-candidate school for two summers during college and graduated as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He chose the Marines, he says, “because it was harder, a way to prove myself.”
He reported for active duty after college, but during the military downsizing in the 1990s he transferred to the reserves and found a job in quality control in the auto industry. He earned an MBA from Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, in 2001.
With the 9/11 attacks, he knew his unit was likely to be called to active duty, so he trained it for combat. After the invasion of Iraq, he used the Rosetta Stone method to learn Arabic before deploying in 2006. Though not fluent, he knew enough to ask questions and to get the gist of what Arabic speakers told him.
In Iraq, then-Major Schuring helped train Iraqi soldiers, whom he still considers “the bravest people I met,” noting that they and their families lived under constant threat from al-Qaeda. He was stationed at an Iraqi army base called Camp Defender in Ramadi, a place he likens to the Wild West. He led regular foot patrols and once found a cache packed with two tons of plastique explosive, detonators, artillery rounds, and other weaponry.
“We were attacked virtually every day,” he says. “You never felt safe. You could never relax your guard, not for a minute.”