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A former Marine accused of murdering the mother of his two sons was haunted by recollections of bloody battles in Iraq, in which he felt responsible for the deaths of a number of women and children, according to a friend.
Marine Corps officials, including the sergeant who led Walter Smith into battle in 2003, confirmed that the young Marine was involved in some of the most intense fighting of the war. And that fighting, said 1st Sgt. Nick Lopez, resulted in the deaths of civilians who were caught in the crossfire or used as human shields by Saddam Hussein's soldiers.
Smith, 24, is charged in the March 26 drowning death of Nicole Speirs, the 22-year-old mother of his twin sons, in the bathtub of the family home in Tooele.
Lopez said Smith was among the Marines who opened fire on a car approaching a checkpoint on April 8, 2003, in Iraq. The man inside, who was not a combatant, was killed. Smith may also have been forced to fire into civilian vehicles that had been commandeered by Iraqi soldiers in the first brutal days of fighting in and around Baghdad, Lopez said.
In many instances, Lopez said, that fighting resulted in the deaths of civilians, including women and children.
In an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune, a man identifying himself as Dennis Petersen of Orem, said he had befriended Smith and described some of the events, later confirmed by Lopez, that troubled Smith.
In particular, Petersen said, Smith was distraught over the deaths of noncombatants, including one specific instance in which the Marine felt responsible for the deaths of women and children.
"When Walter realized his role in this tragedy, he lost his mind," said Petersen, who declined a phone interview.
Lopez said he recognized that Smith was having a difficult time dealing with his experiences in Iraq. Shortly after returning from the war, Smith was discharged from the service "for medical reasons," Lopez said.
Several people who knew Smith said he promptly entered into counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as had many of the Marines in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment.
Lopez said many of his Marines returned home extremely distressed by their experiences - especially the deaths of civilians and the loss of comrades, including Utahn James Cawley, who was killed during the push into Baghdad.
Documentary filmmaker Coby Broyles has followed the postwar lives of several of the Fox Company Marines, reservists predominantly from Utah and Nevada who called themselves "The Saints and Sinners."
Broyles said she has interviewed about 25 men from the unit and said nearly everyone has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Flashbacks and nightmares are common, she said.
"Readjustment for them is hard," she said, "and I don't think enough people in our society are aware of that, and I think it makes their readjustment harder."
Some of the men have conceded to losing their temper, Broyles said, but she is not aware of any of them committing violence since returning home.
What role Smith's military experiences might have played in Speirs' death is unclear. Smith's attorney, Matthew Jube, said Tuesday he would seek his client's medical records from the military and private practitioners who treated the Marine.
But forensic psychologist Martin Williams said he was doubtful that post-traumatic stress disorder could account for or explain Smith's alleged violent behavior.
"One aspect of PTSD is anger - irritability and outbursts of anger," said Williams, a University of California at Berkeley psychologist who is often called to testify on traumatic-stress issues. "And then there is the thing everybody seems familiar with, and that is flashbacks . . . that classic situation where a veteran hears a car backfiring or some loud noise in the middle of the night and suddenly he's out of bed, on the floor, looking for his gun."
Williams noted, however, that PTSD sufferers remain conscious of and responsible for their actions.
Jeff Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California, agrees with Williams' analysis, but he also notes that exposure to the violence of war can materialize in ways aggravated by the symptoms of PTSD.
"One element of PTSD is emotional numbing," he said. "If a person has been exposed to a great deal of violence and has lost the inhibition against violence and at the same time has experienced the emotional numbing of PTSD . . . it is conceivable that they might respond to an otherwise minor irritation or perceived threat with an explosion of rage and aggression."
Tooele Police Department Sgt. Todd Hewitt said Smith's military and medical history didn't enter into his agency's investigation into Speirs' death.
A medical examiner was unable to classify Speirs' death as an accident or homicide, but police say Smith recently admitted to the murder after checking into the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salt Lake City. There, according to an affidavit filed in support of murder charges, the 24-year-old told detectives, "I am responsible for Nicole's death."
Tooele County prosecutors filed first-degree felony murder charges against Smith on Dec. 7.
Lopez said Smith was a good Marine who had "the utmost of respect for authority and was well-disciplined."
He said Smith, whom he described as "quiet," didn't seem troubled at all "until we got home."
The senior Marine said that although none of Smith's troubles would justify what he is alleged to have done, the questions raised by the incident have him worried.
"I'm now asking myself, 'Are we doing enough for these guys?' '' Lopez said.