Earlier this month, C.J. Chivers received notification that he had received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for the article posted here. Chivers, a Marine veteran of the First Gulf War, brought the reality of Marine combat to this story of a Marine returned from combat in Afghanistan with PTSD coupled with involuntary alcohol dependency. Sam Siatta, the Marine who had experienced hellish conditions in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan and that conditioning landed him in the Illinois criminal justice system. If this is a (fair & balanced) story of the futility of of our times, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
By C.(hristopher) J.(ohn) Chivers
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit.
It was a few minutes after 2 AM on April 13, 2014. Siatta had just forced his way into a single-story home in Normal, IL, a college town on the prairie about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. A Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a 24-year-old freshman studying on the GI Bill at the university nearby, Illinois State. He had a record of valor in infantry combat and no criminal past. He also had no clear reason to have entered someone else’s home, no motive that prosecutors would be able to point to at trial — no intention to rob, no indication that he knew or had even seen before any of the three young female teaching students who lived inside, or the boyfriends who were with two of them.
Two of the women and one of the men had awakened minutes earlier when they thought they heard someone opening and closing the front door. It had been an unnerving sensation, the feeling that an intruder had stepped into the home. They tried to settle themselves and return to bed, only to be jolted by a house-shaking bang — the sound of Siatta hitting the back door with such force that he splintered the jamb.
The door swung open into a dining area. Siatta strode into the unfamiliar space, just around the block from the similarly sized home where he rented a room. A little more than six feet tall and weighing about 175 pounds, he was a thoroughly trained veteran of a small-unit ground war and heavily tattooed, with red tally marks on his sternum indicating seven Taliban kills from 2009 and 2010. His former company commander would later tell a trial judge that of the 388 troops he led in Afghanistan, Siatta was the man the militants feared most.
The women cowered behind a flimsy bedroom door. One of them dialed 911. Another clutched a stubby kitchen knife.
Since leaving the corps in 2012, Siatta had been unable to switch off the habits of war. He was hypervigilant and struggled to relax. He watched people, sizing them up and scanning for threats. In the varying situations of everyday life, he constantly repositioned himself so no one got behind him. Much of this was appropriate for combat patrols. Some of it drew from his training. All of it was mentally and emotionally exhausting, unsuited for a peaceful life. Going to a restaurant, moving through knots of people at a party, visiting the mall, finding a seat in a classroom relative to other people and windows and doors — each was a challenge requiring effort and will.
Siatta had been in a deepening funk for months. For more than four years he had been stalked by memories of civilians his platoon had killed, people whose lives had abruptly ended for a reason as unforgiving as it was simple — being in the wrong place when the shooting began. The Department of Veterans Affairs would later say he suffered from depression, alcohol dependency and PTSD. But until this moment, he had adapted with behaviors allowing him to pass as less troubled than he was. He avoided crowds. He drank prodigious amounts of alcohol to dim his heightened alertness and to muffle his sorrows. He socialized rarely, often only with his mother or brother.
The dining area Siatta had entered gave way to a little kitchen, which opened into a small living room. In that adjoining room, perhaps 25 feet from Siatta, stood one of the boyfriends, another young former Marine. In any number of situations, the two men might have become friends. But they had served in different places and jobs in the corps, and the man in the living room had no idea he had anything in common with the man in the kitchen. He positioned himself between his girlfriend and the shattered door.
He was shorter than Siatta but more muscular, with a build hinting at years of weight training and competitive wrestling. He was also sober. He looked across the kitchen at the broken door. The deadbolt was still extended. Whoever had forced the door was strong. He heard movement around the corner, a rustling from the back of the house. He held a steak knife with a serrated eight-inch blade, the weapon he managed to muster in the seconds he had to think.
Siatta stepped into his line of sight. He was walking toward the living room, deeper into the house.
Only one man knows exactly what happened next. Knife in hand, he identified himself as a former Marine and demanded that Siatta get out.
“You don’t belong here,” he said. “You need to leave.”
Siatta kept walking, the man said, and lifted a frying pan off the stove as he passed by. “You have been bad,” he said, raising the pan by its handle. “And this will do.”
Whatever options had existed narrowed to one. The fight began.
The first time I saw Sam Siatta was in April 2016 at the Shawnee Correctional Center, a medium-security state penitentiary in southern Illinois. He was brought by the guards to a dreary conference room, away for the moment from a cellblock for serious offenders. Before he arrived, a correctional officer asked me and two members of the law firm representing Siatta whether we wanted a guard stationed nearby, in case the inmate acted up.
Siatta walked in wearing blue prison garb. He had the light feet and muscular shoulders of a young fighter. His short sleeves offered glimpses of grim tattoos — a skull resting on an hourglass on his right forearm, among others — common to many grunts. He looked tough. He also looked deflated. He came off as nervous, scared and almost painfully polite, a man overwhelmed by his circumstances.
Richard R. Winter, the attorney who days before had filed an appeal of Siatta’s conviction, asked how he was doing. Any pretense of Siatta as a threat to visitors fell away. He was not doing well. Shawnee, he said, was run by gangs, which he had to take care not to cross. Two cellmates had been Latin Kings, and another was a sex offender who had almost drawn Siatta into a fight over a petty cellblock theft. The aging penitentiary in Pontiac, where he was held while awaiting a court hearing, was worse. There the inmates shouted and wailed through the night, he said, and the place was thick with rodents.
Siatta seemed distraught. He wanted to go home. Did Winter have any news, he wanted to know, about his appeal? Winter gently said it would take time, perhaps a few months before they could expect a hearing.
I had heard of Siatta in February, when T.G. Taylor, a recently retired Army officer, contacted me about a Marine infantry vet who had forced his way into a house in his neighborhood and been stabbed repeatedly by another former Marine. After a helicopter flight to a trauma center, the infantry vet — Siatta — was charged with home invasion, found guilty at trial and sentenced to prison. Taylor had taken a job at Holland & Knight, the firm handling the appeal, which was brought on the grounds that Siatta did not intend to commit the crime because he was almost catatonically intoxicated at the time. Siatta’s case, Taylor said, was about PTSD, a subject he and I had discussed over the years as we tried to help friends struggling with life after war. I was interested but cautious. I served in the Marine infantry in the 1980s and 1990s and knew what everyone who has moved past the slogans knows: That a small fraction of Marines are trouble — problem children, in the gentlest construction of the corps’ otherwise profane slang. Some of these Marines turn criminal and deserve every bit of punishment they get. I told Taylor that I would have to review the case carefully before considering coverage.
By chance, I knew Major Scott A. Cuomo, who commanded Siatta’s rifle company in Afghanistan. Cuomo is driven and serious. He had led the school that trains all Marine infantry lieutenants, a post reserved for established stars in the grunt officer corps. I called him with two questions: Was Siatta a problem child? If not, what was going on? Cuomo said Siatta was a solid Marine in combat — a gifted marksman, trusted by his peers, invaluable in firefights and deserving of gratitude, not incarceration. He said he was perplexed by everything he heard out of Illinois.
Reading the case file raised more questions. The prosecutors had taken a hard stance against Siatta, first with charges and in plea negotiations and later in a deposition and in court, where a prosecutor belittled the idea that the accused might have been drunk as a coping mechanism for post-combat illness. Not everyone in the courtroom seemed to concur. At the end, when Siatta’s life had finally tanked, the trial judge all but apologized for sentencing him to prison.
I agreed to meet Siatta in Shawnee. Over a few hours of conversation, he toggled between being marginally expressive and almost poetic. At this late date he had developed a cleareyed view of what ailed him. He described his anxiety and drinking as conditions that grew almost imperceptibly, finally overtaking him in 2014. Until then the symptoms had been easy for him to play down, even if others were concerned. “You don’t notice when you grow half an inch, because you see yourself every day,” he said. “But if you see your loved ones, they say, ‘Oh, you’ve gotten tall.’ ”
Once he relaxed, Siatta talked of the killing he had done in Afghanistan — hesitantly at first, then thoroughly — replaying the cool mechanics of precision rifle fire, describing fatal mistakes, tracing where his mind traveled after. His war had been darker than his new lawyer and family knew, more brutal than he expressed in court. It was too late to expect anything to come of it. More than five years remained on his sentence, and Siatta was unlikely to receive help from Illinois’s overburdened correctional system in that time, not even counseling or medication. His fate would depend on a long-shot appeal, which focused on a narrow and not firmly established matter of law. In the waste and shame of a respected vet being warehoused in a penitentiary for a crime he could not recall was part of the foot soldiers’ experience of the Afghan war, including the return to a country content to thank them without understanding them, or why they sometimes stand apart.
Lance Corporal Samuel J. Siatta arrived in Afghanistan in October 2009, one of thousands of Marines who cycled through the effort to defeat the Taliban in Helmand Province, the corps’ ambitious piece of President Obama’s first-term reboot of the Afghan war. He was a rifleman in Fox Company, Second Battalion, Second Marines, a member of First Squad, Third Platoon.
As he stepped off the aircraft at Camp Leatherneck, a base on the steppe that served as a hub for Marine operations, he was an almost timeless character, a young Marine from the prairie who might have fit into the long lines of riflemen volunteering for his service’s previous wartime campaigns. An adopted son in a Roman Catholic family in Illinois, he was handed to the couple who raised him on the Fourth of July in 1989, when he was 3 days old. His mother’s eldest brother fought as a Marine in Vietnam, and his maternal grandfather was a Marine in World War II. By the time he was in the fourth grade, he was telling grown-ups that he intended to be a Marine.
His father fell ill with cancer and died when Siatta was 12. Siatta had always been a quiet child and was more so after. A sixth-grade classmate, Ashley Volk, found him approachable and kind. The two dated that year. “He was my first kiss on the cheek,” she said. Volk made a condolence card for their class to sign and puzzled over how he contained his grief. “Sam never cried in front of us,” she said. “It always made us scared for him, because we didn’t know how he was dealing with it inside.”
By eighth grade, Siatta had started lifting weights and hanging out at the gym. Volk worked out as an excuse to be near him. The war in Iraq was raging. The Pentagon’s early success in Afghanistan was unraveling. Anyone could see there was much more fighting ahead, and against foes whose harassing and often dark tactics, emphasizing ambushes, improvised bombs and suicide attacks, were exacting a bloody toll. Siatta let it be known that he still intended to enlist.
Siatta and Volk were an off-again, on-again couple in high school, years during which she tried to talk him out of becoming a Marine. He gave her nicknames, including “pretty lady” and “gypsy,” and resisted her efforts to dissuade him. As a senior he was old enough to sign on the line. Volk pleaded with him again. His decision was firm. He had an urge for action and a sense of duty, and seemed not to care how hard or risky it would be. “It wasn’t about enjoying it,” he told me. “It was about the idea that our Constitution isn’t a bunch of toilet paper, like most of our generation thinks it is.” He enlisted while still in school and requested a place in the infantry, the corps’ toughest job.
With four years signed away, Siatta began seeing less of Volk, thinking that it would be unfair to leave her waiting while he was gone to war. He departed for boot camp in San Diego on the day he graduated, in May 2008. Volk remembers feeling scared. But she had no argument left to make. “He did it for our country,” she said. “That’s an old soul.”
At boot camp Siatta followed the familiar arc of transformation from civilian to Marine, although as weeks passed he displayed a skill that set him apart: He was an exceptional shot. The Marine Corps is built around its rifles. It expects every member to master what it considers the basic tool of modern war, via thorough training and annual requalification on shooting out to 500 yards. Siatta outshot almost everyone around him. This was not readily explicable. Siatta was raised in a household without firearms and was neither a hunter nor a weapons buff. He had never fired a rifle before.
Instructors in the corps often say that recruits with no weapons experience can become accomplished shots because they have no bad habits to unlearn. Siatta offers this as the explanation for his own superior skill. But when he talks of how he shot, it is also clear that when he looked down the barrel of a rifle he was capable of extreme patience and calm. Even in firefights he could sweep away distraction and focus on the habits that make precision marksmanship possible.
In late 2008, after completing boot camp and an infantry course in which he demonstrated a knack for mixed martial arts and a high pain tolerance to go with his fine motor skills, Siatta checked into his battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC. In many ways, two of his supervisors said, he was not a model Marine. He wore his uniform sloppily, could be inattentive in garrison and did not show the enthusiasm and initiative of some of his peers. He was pegged as “a field Marine,” a grunt suited for battle but not for the corps’ broader insistence on perfection. “Sometimes we’d say that if Siatta did not shoot as well as he did, we wouldn’t know what to do with him,” said his former squad leader, Sergeant Joseph M. Perez. Siatta accepts this reputation easily and said he chafed at the spit-shine requirements of Marine Corps base life. “They’d say, ‘Your boots are dirty,’ ” he told me. “And I’d be like: ‘Of course they are dirty. I’m a fucking rifleman. I joined to do a dirty job.’ ” All agree that his skill with a rifle assured his place. As his platoon readied for combat, its commander, Second Lieutenant Tyler P. Kurtz, selected him for a particularly difficult role: designated marksman.
The DM, as troops call this position, was a recent adjustment to the corps’ small-unit organization, a role between that of regular riflemen and snipers. It was made necessary, in the corps’ view, by the arid environments of Afghanistan and Iraq, where a dearth of vegetation often meant that gunfights occurred at long ranges, and conventional units needed Marines with skills and equipment to hit targets outside the ready range of standard M4s or M16s. Rare is the Marine who does not wish to shoot better; a culture that celebrates riflery bestows credibility and respect on those who shoot best. Siatta’s selection was an honor, the more so because he was otherwise untested. Kurtz, now a captain who commands a Marine infantry company, said he chose Siatta nonetheless because he exuded maturity when behind a rifle. “He was a natural,” he said.
Siatta’s selection brought pressures he had not contemplated before. In Afghanistan he would be called on to do the shooting that would make gunfights stop. Through the lens of a telescopic sight, he would also be expected to watch over and protect his platoon, which meant eyeing civilians through cross hairs, one after another, and looking for indicators — a partly hidden weapon, the remote detonator of a bomb — that might give him a military justification to kill. This would require a constant commitment to discernment and a disciplined sense of restraint, balanced with a willingness to take others’ lives, sometimes in the intimate fashion that can come with an eight-power scope. Even the nickname for the role, Guardian Angel, was freighted with a presumption of unerring perfection and righteous power.
Siatta had shot only paper targets. He wondered whether he was good enough. What would happen to his friends, he asked himself, if he choked?
The prewar preparations of Second Battalion, Second Marines left little time for rest. Siatta lived in Fox Company’s barracks, where underage drinking was forbidden and policed by noncommissioned officers. He was too young to purchase alcohol legally or enter bars and did not show much interest in alcohol in any event. His fellow Marines recall him hanging back, unlike some of the louder personalities. “He was very quiet, very internal, one of the guys who didn’t say much,” Perez said. “When he spoke, it was pretty comical, because it was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ ”
In late October 2009, the battalion landed in Afghanistan and quickly moved into the rural badlands. In keeping with the corps’ latest way of waging war, its Marines were to spend a seven-month tour characterized by an unrelenting pace of small foot patrols. At Camp Leatherneck, Fox Company was given its first mission: to set up in patrol bases near the village of Lakari, drive off the Taliban and help the Afghan government extend security and services into the area.
It was an ambitious order. Helmand Province, Afghanistan’s largest, had had a light Western military presence since 2001. Much of it had taken the form of British units in fortified outposts with limited influence over territory around them. After a bloody campaign in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the Marine Corps shifted attention to Helmand, turning the province into the corps’ own corner of Afghanistan. The villages around Lakari, nestled amid irrigated cropland along the winding Helmand River about 90 miles from Pakistan, formed a Taliban and drug-runners’ stronghold. Other Marines raided Lakari in the summer, but they left, and the area remained beyond the Afghan government’s reach. The local bazaar, on dusty land east of the river, was a no-go zone — full-on enemy turf.
On November 1, the company’s First and Third Platoons arrived at Patrol Base Lakari, a crude outpost built weeks before. Little more than tents surrounded by a 13-foot-high dirt berm, it had the hastily conceived and temporary feel of much of the Marine involvement in Afghanistan. It was reached through a gate and watched over by four raised bunkers where Marines rotated turns on post, one in each bunker by day, two by night.
From behind sandbags and bulletproof glass, the Marines looked upon a desolate vista and could feel menace awaiting them. Like the bazaar, about a mile to the south, the patrol base was situated just outside the irrigated cropland, at the edge of the steppe. Vegetation and a maze of dried mud walls lay to the west and southwest. The year’s poppy crop had been harvested. A stubble of corn stalks dotted the landscape. The farmers between the base and the bazaar were presumed to be spotters who watched the Americans’ routine and signaled their movements to the Taliban. No patrol could leave the base without being seen before it reached the fields.
Whenever Marines ventured into the neighboring patchwork of farmland, canals and homes, they were entering a network of interconnected traps. Small slits had been cut in the mud walls — Marines called them “murder holes” — from which the Taliban could fire. Bombs had been buried in the dirt. Ambushes were laid by fighters who typically kept a canal between themselves and their targets, preventing the Marines from employing their preferred tactic of rushing attackers. The patrol base was a target for rockets. The Marine unit that had lived in it for the past few weeks was leaving Afghanistan, ending its tour and passing to Fox Company a mission that would require small-unit gunfighting on someone else’s home ground. In his journal, Siatta recorded his first impression, in standard grunt-speak: “The coffee here tastes like shit.”
By 2009, the eighth year of its Afghan occupation, the United States had repeatedly reshaped its reasons and practices for fighting its post-September 11 wars. Under ideas in favor at this moment, nicknamed COIN, the military’s inelegant shorthand for its optimistically conceived counterinsurgency doctrine, troops were expected to follow a three-stage process to declaw and displace the Taliban: clear, hold and build. This meant sweeping through an area to weaken opposing fighting groups by force and then holding the ground and trying to secure it over time, all in the service of allowing the central government’s local project to take root and grow. At the same time, Marines were told to coach Afghan forces and befriend villagers (in part by handing out cash) and urge them into roles (informants, contractors, local officials) that would make them partners in the new way. They were also supposed to encourage farmers to abandon the cultivation of opium poppy, the region’s most lucrative cash crop.
That was the theory and the hope, often officially expressed. In practice it meant destroying a firmly established local economy and bringing in rule by outsiders. And the first phase — “clearing” — was a euphemism for violence, repeatedly applied via small gunfights and supported by American artillery and air power. A corollary, often unstated but understood by those doing the patrols, was that any group of Afghans willing to face the Marines head to head would gradually be thinned, while every seven months the Americans, bloodied and made jumpy by firefights and bombs, would be replaced with fresh troops. It was small-scale attrition warfare, with hearts-and-minds jive.
Siatta’s turn came quickly. On November 2, his second day at the patrol base, Third Platoon was gathering to meet the Marines they were replacing when two rockets roared in and exploded, one inside and another outside the perimeter. Siatta ran for his equipment — flak jacket, helmet, first-aid kit and the rest — and stood with his rifle waiting for a ground attack that never came. He was at war now, “heart racin, hands shakin but had a smile on my face,” he wrote in his journal. “I dont know why I was smilin maybe it was because I could have got blown the fuck up and didn’t.”
To stop incoming rockets, the patrols would have to make the Taliban think twice about taking such risks. That night, Siatta was issued a Mark 12 Special Purpose Rifle, the more accurate descendant of the M16, which he would carry throughout his tour, along with open-tip match-grade ammunition, a departure from the military’s standard full-metal jacket rounds that sacrificed armor penetration but caused more damaging soft-tissue wounds. The rifle was equipped with a suppressor to muffle its report. Siatta was a hunter now. Clearing the fields around Lakari was his job. He was 20 years old.
On a section of steppe the Marines called “the eastern desert,” Siatta adjusted the rifle’s scope. His practice range, an empty expanse of compacted soil and tiny tufts of dried grass, was safe. The local fighters did not leave the security of their home turf to fight in the open. Like an athlete stretching on a sideline before competition, Siatta made his last preparations. Methodically firing into rations boxes, he determined and wrote down the data for exact distances, then set the scope for 300 yards and taped the chart to his rifle’s stock. He was ready.
The squad was green. Its leader, Sergeant Perez, was the only Marine who had been in combat before. The first patrol passed without incident. But Fox Company was aggressive, and within days its Marines were pushing beyond where the departing unit had regularly gone. They were looking for fights.
At the lower ranks of the Marine Corps, the Pentagon’s airbrushed language of war can fade away. Tactical slang hews closer to battlefield fact. Marines talk of “bait patrols,” in which one group of grunts heads off to a contested area trying to draw fire, while others wait, hoping that once the Taliban show themselves they can attack their flanks. And they talk of the most straightforward mission of all: movement to contact, which means exactly that.
On November 7, Siatta’s squad, accompanied by Lieutenant Kurtz and a machine-gun team, headed just over a mile south and stopped beside a house to talk with whoever approached. Siatta’s journal entry that day was unequivocal about the purpose.
Now let me be clear our mission was not to talk to the locales and shot the shit. Our mission was to get the Talibans atention and hopefully have them attach use and give there position away.
The battalion leaving Afghanistan was opposed to the mission. Kurtz faced contradictory orders. His company commander was telling him to push south, while the operations officer in the command center was ordering him back. The Marines headed back.
On the return walk, they were attacked. “Gunfire opens up out of a tree line,” Siatta’s journal reads. “Rounds cracking and snaping through the air and skipin across the ground.”
The squad reacted as infantry units in their first firefight often do. Most of the Marines opened up with everything they had. Siatta found a position along a mud wall, fired a few shots and then stopped. Through his scope he saw nothing to shoot.
Around him others cut loose. The squad’s M249 automatic weapons and M240 machine gun tore through belts of ammunition. The fire-team leaders lobbed one high-explosive 40-mm grenade after another. Lance Corporal Dustin J. Hagglund, who led the machine-gun team, described it afterward as “an ammo dump, basically.” Two cows, he said, were cut in half. The firefight was of a familiar type: a swift and ferocious clash between combatants who scarcely glimpsed one another. Beyond signaling toughness and an eagerness to fight, it accomplished little. “We did the suppression, we closed with them and we pulled back,” Lance Corporal Jeffrey Ratliff said. The Taliban also withdrew. No one, it seemed, had been struck.
The Marines strode back to their patrol base, exuberant, riding the rush of having been under fire and coming out alive. This is one of war’s exhilarating drugs. It fueled backslaps and shouts. “Everyone was like high-fiving and everything,” Hagglund told me. “We were the first squad in the company to get in a firefight.”
A few minutes later Hagglund was in a bunker when a Toyota pickup rushed toward the gate. It stopped short. Its occupants hopped out and retrieved a wheelbarrow from the bed. A few Afghan soldiers ran to meet them. In the wheelbarrow was a small boy who had been shot through the skull.
The bullet had struck above his left eyebrow and blown out the back of his head. But it had hit high enough that the child was still alive — unresponsive, breathing fitfully. The man pushing the wheelbarrow was his father. Siatta watched as the Marines took the child to their aid station and rested his shattered skull over a stainless-steel bowl. A corpsman tried to keep what was left of his head intact by cupping it in his hands. A sandstorm had blown up, grounding the helicopter fleet. It was a few hours before an aircraft took him away. Not long after, the radio brought word. The boy had died.
Hagglund thought the child might be 4 years old. Siatta and Perez thought he might be 6. No one was exactly sure how he had been shot. Ratliff figured he was hit while running through the gunfight to save the cows. The corpsman who examined the wound said it was caused by a 5.56-millimeter bullet, which matched weapons that the Marines carried. Perez tried consoling his squad. “This is how it works,” he said. “Rounds go everywhere in firefights, and as hard as we try to prevent civilian casualties, this is going to happen sometimes.” He reminded them that they had not shot first. They were ambushed. But words, he knew, had limits. “My guys felt guilty,” he said.
After the first night, the Marines barely discussed the boy’s death. “We just kind of did the man thing, and we did not talk about it ever again,” Perez said. Hagglund described a collective reticence. “None of us talked about our feelings,” he said. “We were gung-ho. We were taking care of business.” They bleached the stainless-steel bowl, ate out of it and went back out on patrols.
Siatta was shaken. His training had not prepared him for what it felt like to look down after a gunfight upon a child with part of his head gone. “During all of our work-up, shooting targets, throwing grenades, doing all that, you never once saw kids mangled,” he told me. The boy reminded him of his niece. He was one firefight into the only line of work he had ever wanted and was confronted with “one of those sights — it was like maturity overnight, a sobering.”
Fox Company intended to clear the area around Lakari quickly. The next week was a blur. “Nothing,” Siatta wrote in his journal, “but firefight, rockets, ambushes, post resuply missions and just chaos.”
And then he took his first clear shot.
On November 17, the platoon commander, Kurtz, accompanied the squad, reinforced with a machine-gun team and Afghan soldiers, on a mission deep into Taliban turf. He had noticed a pattern. After each gunfight, the Taliban’s fighters seemed to withdraw to the same fields and buildings west of the bazaar. Kurtz was sick of it and planned to walk straight into their area, summon them to a fight and kill as many of them as he could. “It was a pure and simple movement to contact, and nothing else,” he said.
The squad set off in midmorning. To Kurtz’s surprise, no Taliban fighters showed up. “Basically we humped all day,” he said. The squad continued a few miles west of the bazaar, into an area where no Marines had been before, when an ambush erupted around part of it. One team of Marines was filing across a field when the Taliban opened fire. The range was short. The ambushers were about 200 yards away. Following their training, the Marines in the kill zone turned toward the gunfire and charged. Those in the strip of vegetation between the fields alternated between shooting and rushing, trying to envelop the attackers.
An Afghan soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade near the lieutenant, and the back blast nearly deafened him. The Taliban was firing with a PK machine gun, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles. The squad was spread out, with Perez and Siatta moving with a team a few hundred yards off. Perez looked behind his Marines and saw a man on a roof about 300 yards away, partly hidden by a wall. He raised his four-power scope for a closer view. The man did not seem to be holding anything but was watching the fight, perhaps directing the Taliban.
Siatta was beside Perez with an eight-power scope. Under the rules, Marines were required to have “PID” — positive identification — of a combatant before firing. Even warning shots were forbidden without an officer’s approval. Another platoon had recently shot an Afghan with a radio, only to discover that the radio was a harmless transistor for listening to the news and that the man had a mental disability. The Marines had been warned about avoiding more mistakes.
Siatta kept his sight on the man. He did not see a weapon, a radio or a cellphone. But he was suspicious. Perez told him to fire a warning shot and chase the man off. “I told Siatta to shoot under the guy,” he told me.
Siatta fired. The man collapsed. Perez lowered his M4 and looked down at Siatta. “Did you just shoot that man?” he asked.
Perez was astonished. But they were midway through a gunfight, with Marines pinned down in a field, and he understood that Siatta could have hit the man unintentionally. He decided to wait to confront him.
The squad fought south for about 600 yards, clearing several buildings. At one point they were taking fire from a compound, and as Kurtz was organizing an airstrike, he saw, through a gap in the wall, a woman inside. She was holding a baby. Kurtz thought the Taliban might have pushed her into view as a human shield. He called off the airstrike. Some of the Marines watched several unarmed men sprinting away from a building they were closing on and asked for permission to shoot them. Kurtz thought the fleeing men were combatants who had ditched their weapons. But again, he said, he followed the rules. He ordered the squad not to fire. It was a maddening fight, under an ornate system of restrictions that the Taliban knew how to exploit, a style of war that could enrage those who followed it. “A lot of the guys in the squad were pissed at me that day,” Kurtz said.
Back at their base, Perez asked Siatta to explain his shot. “Were you sighted on that guy?” he said.
Siatta, he said, answered, “Yes.”
“He told me he wanted to feel what it was like to kill someone,” Perez later recalled.
Perez was angry and concerned. He reported the incident to Kurtz, and the company began investigating Siatta. Kurtz, too, was disturbed. He sensed trouble. Villagers had been gathering at the gate, complaining about every mistake Fox Company made. Kurtz expected they would soon arrive with a body.
He warned Siatta that he stood to face charges. “We’ll see how this plays out for you, bud,” he told him. Kurtz took away his rifle and suspended him from patrols. Siatta was near tears. Perez supported the lieutenant’s position and said he wondered about Siatta’s suitability for war. “There is a difference between wanting to kill a person and killing the right person,” he said. “Our concern was that Siatta would fall into the trap of killing for pleasure, which he had the ability to do.”
Years later, the shot remains a point of contention. Siatta said he understood the reprimand but steadfastly defends his actions. “This is one of the stressors of being a designated marksman,” he told me. “You have to make that call. That guy was bad news. That was a shady guy.” In the same circumstance, he said, he would take the shot again. “You could save your buddies’ lives,” he said, “at the expense of your own ass.” Perez said these answers are unacceptable. “He can say the guy looked shady, but that doesn’t give you the right to shoot him,” he said. “If I let my squad shoot everyone who was shady, we could have killed an entire village.”
For a few days, Third Platoon patrolled without Siatta. Everyone waited. The villagers did not appear. A patrol to the building found no sign of anyone wounded. No blood, no bandages, no one making accusations. A body never turned up. Perez returned Siatta’s rifle and reinstated him.
The fighting intensified, along with the frustration. On one mission, the platoon tried to capture a Taliban commander about six miles away. The man escaped. Siatta was so annoyed after listening to a “bullshit speech about even though we found nothing we still came out on top” from Cuomo, the company commander, that he wrote in his journal that he “wanted to punch him in the face.”
Not yet two months into his tour, Siatta was no longer a naïve kid from the prairie. He had hardened, and was both angry and more alert. He was harboring doubts about the war. Marines were doing the most dangerous work and were told that Afghan forces were going to build on their success. After watching the Afghan soldiers his platoon worked with, Siatta was certain that was not going to happen. When he visited them in their tents, he said, “they’d be in there on their rugs, making chai, smoking dope. I’d be like: ‘You guys are fucking turds. We’re here to do shit, and you’re high as fuck.’ ” When Marines patrolled, many of the Afghans stayed back.
Always there was another patrol.
On November 22, the Marines in another platoon were attacked, and when Third Platoon went to help they were ambushed, too — trapped by gunfire from multiple directions. Attack helicopters came to their aid, forcing back the Taliban.
Once the ambush was broken, First Squad was ordered to sweep a compound from which the Taliban had been firing. A building inside had been hit with two Hellfire missiles. The squad crossed a cold, waist-deep canal and stacked at the entrance. Siatta was on point. They threw a fragmentation grenade over the compound wall, then followed it inside. As Siatta pushed through the gate, he saw the remains of an Afghan. His guts were exposed through disheveled clothes. He was maybe 14.
his stomach had been blown open and his intestense had spilled out onto the ground and his body had been peppered with pieces of the rocket. It was a fucked up thing to see. but I continued to clear into the first room on the left of the building and the first thing I see is an old man who was pretty much blown in half and his legs were hanging on by just tishues of skin. he was still alive if you want to call it that but he was still consious. it sounded like he was choking on his blood, he died minutes later, and the rest of the family who lived there were cut up by frag and debre.
Siatta watched the family file out — bereaved, terrified and covered in fine, powdery dust. They were powerless, unable to communicate with the Americans who stood in their home.
The Marines were grieving, too. Lance Corporal Nicholas Hand, from First Platoon, had been shot through the head and killed, perhaps by gunfire from that house. Another Marine had been hit in the leg. Kurtz said the platoon already sensed that the plans for Helmand were destined to fail. “It was obvious even then that this wasn’t going to work,” he said. “I think everyone understood that this was just going back to the Taliban again as soon as we leave.” He could see that some of his Marines were having difficulty processing it all. The misdirected carnage, the feeling that their sacrifices and risks were connected to a campaign that could not succeed — all of it, Kurtz said, preyed on their minds.
Siatta kept his feelings inside but described the episode bluntly in his journal: “Boy did we fuck that up.”
Soon after, on Thanksgiving, his writing captured the funk into which he was descending.
Today is just another day without my family holiday. Just dont mean anything. and really ever since my Dad past away holidays slowly every year lost their meaning. Im sitting here behind a 240 Bravo medium machine gun and Im supost to feel the holiday spirit, I think not. It hurts to think about how holidays used to be and that they used to mean something when I was a kid. but Im reminded every day out here that Im not a kid and yesterdays not today and never will be.
Siatta’s breakout moment happened on November 29, as First Squad was attacked while crossing a field. This was by then a familiar event. The squad was spread out, and Siatta and three Marines were separated from most of the others, who took cover by a building and returned fire. Siatta and the exposed team, including Perez, were alone and unprotected. They scrambled for a ditch that was perhaps a foot deep. Bullets thudded all around as they huddled there.
The only concealment was short grass. They tried to return fire, but each time they invited more bullets. They decided to dash across about 50 to 75 yards of open ground, to the ruins of an abandoned building. On a quick countdown — 3, 2, 1, go — they stood and bolted, sprinting for the better place, gambling that the Taliban would miss.
They reached the broken building. Siatta pressed himself chest down behind a mound of dirt, extended the bipods on his rifle, looked over the top and fired about 10 shots, roughly toward where the gunfire was coming from. Then he did what he had been trained to do. He slowed his breathing. He focused. As the bullets cracked by, he put his eye to the glass and considered his options. He wondered: Where would he be if he were them?
There was a building across the field. Siatta had a good feeling about it. He had settled in now, as if he were part of the earth. He pointed the scope toward the building’s left side and placed the cross hairs at the corner. He breathed slowly. He waited.
A man stepped into the cross hairs. He was young, maybe in his 20s, wearing a white top and a dark vest. He held a Kalashnikov rifle. Siatta wasn’t sure of the range, but thought it might be 250 yards. His scope was set for 300. Expecting his bullet to strike slightly high, he rested the cross hairs below the man’s chest, slowly exhaled and eased the trigger back until he felt the rifle’s light kick.
The bullet struck the man near his genitals. Siatta watched him drop. It happened as Perez called a cease-fire.
“I just shot someone,” Siatta said.
“Is he dead?” the sergeant asked.
Siatta looked through the scope. The man writhed in the confused agony Marines call “the kicking chicken.” Siatta figured the open-tip bullet had torn out his buttocks. He fired a few more times. The man went still.
“He is now,” Siatta said.
A second young man stepped out. Now Siatta knew the distance. The puzzle was solved. His first shot looked as if it hit squarely in his chest. The man collapsed.
Siatta felt relaxed. He kept his scope trained on the corner. A third man stepped out, reaching for one of the downed men. Siatta fired. The man spun and stumbled away. Siatta thought he had hit his arm.
Perez watched through his four-power scope. “It was almost like a video game — I know that sounds ridiculous,” he said. “But one guy stepped into the open, and Siatta shot him, and he dropped violently, and then another guy stepped into the open, and Siatta shot, and that guy went down violently, and then a third guy came out, and Siatta hit him too.” Siatta, he said, “was basically the main effort of the entire squad.”
As the squad waited for Siatta to take another shot, the corner exploded in fire and dust. Other Marines had seen the Taliban fighters, too, through the sight on a TOW missile system. Kurtz had cleared them to shoot, ending the fight.
Siatta now had undisputed combat kills. At first it felt good. His doubts had been erased. “I’d wondered: Can I deliver? Am I just a target shooter? Will I let my guys down?” The cloud over the previous shot, for which he had risked a criminal charge, was evaporating.
His satisfaction was temporary. War plays on the mind. Marksmanship can seem simple one moment and complicated the next. Siatta’s doubts nagged him anew. He wondered if the kills were luck. “Was it a fluke?” he asked himself. “Was I a good-enough shot?” Other thoughts plumbed darker depths. Siatta had been curious about what it felt like to kill. His journal shows his unease upon finding out.
It was a great day and one of the worst days Iv had so far. Today I thought my family was going to get a folded flag and bullshit letter saying wat a great Marine I am and shit like that but I made it.
I hope my family recognizes me when I get back. and I hope they understand I’ve changed but only through the acts of self preservation. My mind cannot be healed from the horrors of war. I hope they understand.
In the next two weeks, Siatta shot at least six and perhaps as many as 10 more people, according to his diary and Marines present.
On a December 10 patrol that would become the most significant mission of Fox Company’s tour, the platoon departed on a raid to capture a Taliban commander whom Special Operations forces were trying to arrest. The weather had turned bad, no aircraft were flying and the commander was reported to be in a compound west of the bazaar.
The Marines seized the compound but did not find him. They settled inside, listening with an interpreter to intercepted Taliban radio chatter. Their foes were saying they had found the Americans’ boot prints in the fields but were not sure where they had gone. Soon the Taliban figured it out. The platoon came under attack from three sides.
Kurtz was organizing the fight when he received an unexpected order. The Taliban boss was now said to be in a building in the bazaar. Third Platoon was to go there and catch him. Until then, the bazaar was considered so dangerous that the Marines were told not to approach it. The platoon had assumed that when the time came to clear it, the entire company would be involved in a large planned operation. Now the platoon — about 40 Marines, already under fire — was to rush there immediately. Kurtz dryly calls the mission “Operation Santa Claus — because you had to be 8 years old to believe it.”
It was during this confusion, he said, that Siatta solidified the respect of his peers. He had climbed onto a shed roof with another Marine and was watching over the platoon’s movements when the Taliban started shooting again. The roof was flimsy, made of thin branches. The two Marines were exposed, with only a sack of grain and an empty 55-gallon drum to hide behind.
Kurtz, overwhelmed and unsure about how best to organize the platoon’s movement with the Taliban seeming to swarm around them, watched from below as Siatta scanned the farmland. He heard the distinct sound of a suppressed Mark 12, something between a metallic click and the snap of a whip. Siatta had seen two men, he said, and with a few shots killed them both. “It’s done,” he said, and slipped to the ground. The platoon crossed the field.
The fighting grew into a rolling battle, with lulls followed by fresh clashes. Another platoon joined in. During one skirmish, Siatta said, he hit a Taliban fighter carrying a machine gun as he hustled across a bridge. It was a long, difficult shot. He judged the distance before killing the man by watching the arc of machine-gun tracers as another Marine fired bursts that missed.
Later, Siatta was with another squad as it hurried across yet another dangerous area. The Marines took fire from behind. Most of them ran for a canal and slid down its bank, but Siatta remained in the open. Kurtz watched as he took a knee, assuming a position Marines practice on rifle ranges. Alone, under fire, with neither cover nor concealment, Siatta was visibly relaxed. Through his scope he spotted a fighter with a rifle about 250 yards away, lurking in a shadow by a wall. Siatta fired twice.
The first round missed, striking the wall to the man’s left. Siatta moved the cross hairs right. The second shot hit. “He’s down, sir,” Siatta said to an incredulous Kurtz as he rejoined the squad. Kurtz describes the moment with something like awe. “The small-arms fire we were taking just ended,” he said, “and never started up again.”
After the operation the Marines held the bazaar. The pace of fighting subsided. Kurtz finished Operation Santa Claus with an indelible sense of debt to Siatta, who he said kept the platoon safe during the worst of its tour. “I’d do anything for Sammy,” he told me. “All of us owe him a lot. He killed people who would have killed other people, including some of us.” He also said that Siatta’s controversial shot early in the fighting, at the man on the roof, may have been the right call. “He probably had a good gut instinct, in retrospect.”
No matter these feelings, Kurtz speaks of his former DM with sadness. Siatta’s transformation, he said, was welcomed on the battlefield but is painful to think about now. “Watching Sam evolve from that sweet, innocent kid to that killer he became, the killer we needed him to be,” he said, “it breaks my heart.”
Siatta, as he fought, had narrowed his thoughts to basic impulses and simple goals. “You are not fighting for America,” he said. “You are not fighting for the Marine Corps. You are just a bunch of 19-year-olds trying to make it to chow.” His journal entry after the fight for the bazaar described the self-loathing of a warrior disgusted by his own success.
The Marines in my platoon talk up to me like Im sumthin special they say Iv got a gift but this is one gift Id gladly return. These guys talk about killin as if it were a sport. Killin is just the art of survival.
A few days later he wrote of guilt.
I go to sleep every night knowing I have the blood of so many on my hands and no amount of soap could ever wash these stains away.
On Christmas, as Fox Company waited for a visit from a general, Siatta was smoking as much as an entire pack of cigarettes on a six-hour post, and contemplating suicide.
Fuck the General he doesn’t know a dam thing about wat weve done here. The only thing he knows about what weve done here is the reports he reads from our Lt. He doesn’t know anything about combat or to lose a good friend.
I tried calling my Mom for Christmas, I got through but the phone disconnected. Fuck it I’m used to getting fucked down here so I wasn’t to disappointed.
I’m on post rit now and Iv been on post since 4 am It’s 10 am Iv been looking at my Rifle and was wondering. Wat dos hot brass taste like. I mean really, racking a round around in the chamber, sticking the muzzle in your mouth and blowing the fillings out the back of your dom. It kind of made me curious, but neither here nor there. I guess wat Im trying to say is Im having a marry fucking Christmas and joy to the world peace towards man and all that bullshit.
In late December, while pinned down beside a canal, Siatta was almost killed by a burst from a Taliban machine gun. A bullet struck the ground near his head. His face was cut by fragments and bits of stone. His ballistic goggles were gouged.
Perez ran to him and found him with blood streaming down his face. Siatta appeared stunned and then panicked. Perez assured him the wounds were not serious and tried to get Siatta to shoot a pair of fleeing Taliban fighters. The distance was long. It was the only time Perez saw Siatta have difficulty making shots. He fired, and fired again. He kept missing.
The squad captured a wounded Taliban fighter, shot through the knee. When a medevac helicopter came, Perez opted to evacuate the prisoner and not Siatta. He regrets the choice, because it denied Siatta the medical documentation necessary for a Purple Heart. A corpsman cleaned and bandaged Siatta’s face, and they hiked back to their outpost. Perez said he tried to submit Siatta for a Purple Heart, but the company blocked it, saying the wounds were not serious enough. “I was upset about that, because if he didn’t have his goggles, he would have lost an eye,” Perez told me. “I felt personally responsible for it. I didn’t medevac him. I felt personally responsible for denying him what he deserved.”
After that fight, the pace of combat further slowed. Just shy of 100 days in Afghanistan, Siatta had time to reflect.
Sitting on post and not in firefights is really starting to fuck with me. Its making me rethink all the disitions Ive made here and making me question if they were the right ones to begin with. The men I’ve killed well 15-year-old boys with Guns is more like it but did I deserve to kill them did they deserve to die.
I mean I’m 20 years old I know damn well the risks of joinin the Marine Corps in time of war But did these young boys, Boys that I’ve killed know what the fuck they were doin or even fighting for, these are the questions I ask myself.
In spring 2010, before the battalion completed its tour, Kurtz recommended Siatta for a medal recognizing his valor. Lakari was calm, and Siatta would be going home. He seemed to have been spared. His diary hinted at looming troubles.
The last person to get hit by an IED was Cpl Nicely and he lost Both his legs and Both his arms. Iv seen and done a lot of Bad things some good but I’m supost to just forget thoughs things and just start back up write where I left off when I get back home. How can I do that? No response.
When Second Battalion, Second Marines returned to Camp Lejeune, Siatta’s mother, Maureen, and his brother, Tony, flew from northern Illinois to meet him. Maureen had been almost entirely out of touch with him throughout his tour. Siatta had written home rarely. His calls were infrequent and short.
Maureen booked a room near the base and spent a weekend trying to reconnect with her son. Siatta did not sleep at night and did not leave his bed most of the day. He spoke very little. Maureen watched him, saddened and concerned. She settled on an accommodating explanation, telling herself he was exhausted and jet-lagged, still living on the Afghan time zone.
Several days later, in May, the Marine Corps granted Siatta post-deployment leave, which he spent at his mother’s home. President Obama was visiting Illinois for Memorial Day, and Siatta was invited to a presidential ceremony at a cemetery in Elwood. It was a short drive, and he would have been the perfect prop: the infantry Marine freshly returned from Obama’s surge. He refused to attend. At his trial, when asked why he declined, he dismissed any interest in public ritual. “Maybe because my experiences in Afghanistan didn’t feel so great for me,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t think a parade was the most fitting thing.”
Maureen noticed that he still kept night hours. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment and worked days at a pharmacy. At night she watched him brood. Siatta had never been a drinker and was allergic to beer. Now he was drinking heavily and for hours on end. Many nights he left for bars. She asked him how, at 20, he was able to buy alcohol. He told her that when he showed military identification, he had no trouble. When he came home, he was awake almost until morning, pacing, getting drunker on liquor he poured himself. She sat in the living room, asking him to relax.
“No,” he’d say.
“Want something to eat?”
“Want to go to the store?”
Several times that week he blacked out. Maureen was unsure what to think or do. He told her nothing of Afghanistan, of the killing he had seen and done. She did not intervene. “I just thought maybe he had to clear his head,” she said. “I figured: ‘Let him go. He’s got to clear his head.’ ”
Returning to Camp Lejeune after his leave, Siatta fell into a similar pattern. The corps considered him tested now. He received his medal. The battalion’s Scout Sniper Platoon recruited him, and he left Fox Company to join them. He loaded up on tattoos, including a sword-wielding Lady Justice on his chest and abdomen, topped with seven hash marks for men he claimed as kills. The Marines he deployed with were coming of age. There had been little opportunity to spend money in Afghanistan, and many returned with savings. Some bought cars. They were turning 21 and could legally visit bars. On weekends, groups of them would take trips, sometimes to the beach. Siatta rarely went along. “He kind of went into a shell,” Ratliff said. “I’d invite him out, and he was like, ‘No, I just want to stay in my room.’ ”
Siatta wrote to Ashley Volk. She was a college student and aerial dancer now, with an apartment in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood. He flew to meet her. Their first night together was surreal. Siatta was quieter than usual and emanated discipline and self-control. Volk had always been outgoing and talkative; they had joked for years that she was his opposite. Looking at him after their long separation, she sensed that something troubled him. She tried drawing him out.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him. “Tell me. What are you thinking?”
“It’s nothing, pretty gypsy,” he said.
That night they made love. “I felt our old connection,” she said. Immediately after, Siatta withdrew. As she lay beside him, he reached for a blanket and wrapped it tightly around his body, with all his limbs tucked inside. He was like a Marine sleeping on hard ground, plank straight, self-contained, cocooned, alone. She passed the night uneasily. “No contact, no cuddling, no pillows,” Volk said. “He was there. But he was gone.”
The next night he did the same thing.
The battalion joined the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, and in spring 2011, as Libya sank into civil war, the Marines were ordered aboard amphibious ships headed for the Libyan coast. On his last visit to Chicago, Siatta gave Volk his Afghan diary. He had thought of destroying it but decided to entrust it to her. She read the first page and stopped. They had a day and a half together before he shipped out, and she was emotionally stretched as it was. “I was hugging him, telling him I was going to kidnap him,” she said.
After he was gone, she started reading again. When she came to his account of the child shot through the head in Siatta’s first firefight, she felt panicked and stopped. For weeks she read his chronicle, section by section, again and again. No matter the kill-or-be-killed mentality Siatta had been reduced to, she could see him there, the grieving boy she had known since sixth grade.
Day 34 Lakari
This entry has nothing to do with wat im doin here in afghanistan but it’s just been on my mind. I call this entry coffee and memories.
When I was a small boy nothin more than 4 … I would wake up around 5 or so in the morning to watch my dad get ready for work. He would shave, brush his teeth and you no the usual. But when he was done with that he could get the Newspaper and drink his coffee. He would let me sip on his coffee and it would just be me and him. Now I didn’t really know my father to well because he died when I was so young but thoughs memories I have of him drinking coffee is wat keeps him alive in my mind.
Now what made me think of thoughs memories of my dad Drinking coffee was here in afghanistan we stand a lot of posts and a lot of partrols, so usually were very tired and we drink a lot of coffee. Ever cup I drink I think of my dad so Ive been thinkin of him quit abit. and if I ever have kids, when Im getin ready for work I want them to sip on my coffee.
Volk wrote letters to him and mailed them to his ship, the USS Bataan. At first Siatta replied. But life as a Marine on the ship, with its claustrophobic berthing areas and dull routine, was mind-numbing. As sea time dragged on, he closed himself off. He stopped answering her letters.
The war in Libya did not require him to go ashore. The ships made port visits in Europe, where Siatta and his friends were given time off, much of which was spent binge-drinking. “Whenever we had free time, we all got lit up,” he told me. In February 2012, the battalion returned to Camp Lejeune. His time in the corps was soon up. He left the service unceremoniously and drove home to Illinois in a used Chevy he bought with his combat pay. He did not tell Volk he was back. She began dating another man.
Siatta sought an even quieter life than before. His family noticed his anger, his social withdrawal and what they now acknowledge as his alcoholism. He seethed at his mother for putting a welcome-home message on a sign at a local McDonald’s. “I don’t want anybody looking at me,” he told her. He seemed intent on near anonymity and on avoiding discussion of the war. “He wanted no one to know that he had been there,” she testified at his trial. “He didn’t want anyone saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ He wanted nothing. He wanted to be left alone.”
Siatta spent more than a year living in his mother’s home. He did not contact Volk and assumed she had moved on. For months, he was listless. “How did you spend your time?” one of his lawyers asked at trial. “I didn’t,” Siatta replied. “I would say I probably sat in my room, nothing.” Inside his bedroom, his mother said, he drank and played video games. She would rest on a couch near his door, listening through the night. “I used to hear him hitting the wall,” she said.
As a teenager Siatta had cut the lawn of Larry Stonitsch, a former Marine who owned Rovanco Piping Systems, a manufacturer of insulated pipe in Joliet. Now Stonitsch offered him a job at the factory. Siatta was reliable and quiet and did not talk about his combat service. Stonitsch understood. “I had a stepdad who was in the Battle of the Bulge and never was right after that, after the things he saw and did,” he told me. “He drank too much. So I have some empathy for that.”
Outside Rovanco, Siatta was barely functioning. He shrank his social world ever smaller, to the point of skipping family gatherings. In 2013, convinced her son had stagnated, Maureen suggested he consider college. He was eligible for GI Bill benefits, she told him, and should take them. “Here is where my guilt comes in, because I am the one who talked him into going to school,” Maureen said. “I kind of wonder, if he had stayed here, if we would have figured out that he needed services, and he would have gotten treatment.”
Siatta enrolled in Joliet Junior College that summer and transferred to Illinois State in the fall. He had no academic focus, no plan beyond enrolling in the minimum number of credits to receive the GI Bill’s monthly housing allowance. School brought him neither sanctuary nor inspiration. Classroom environments made him anxious; the bustle of students kept him vigilant. He could not relate to most classmates, who had little sense of where he had been. Often he spent weekends at his mother’s house.
By spring he was on a trajectory to fail. He stopped doing homework, then stopped attending most classes. Many days he stayed in the room rented with his housing allowance, in bed. He slept until afternoon and did not eat until almost evening. When he did socialize, he would drink first, heavily, to dull his anxiety. Two years out of the Marine Corps, Siatta was doing little more than staying alive.
On Saturday, April 12, 2014, Siatta was invited by a young woman he had met the week before to a house party a block from where he lived. Around 10 PM, alone in his basement bedroom, he opened a bottle of Don Julio tequila and started pouring shots. By the time he left for the party with Mark Kramer, a Navy-veteran friend who dropped by, the bottle was almost empty.
Siatta had been at the party a few minutes, hanging out on the front porch, when he thought he heard another guest say something rude to his host. Without warning, or even speaking, Siatta sucker-punched him in the face and knocked him to the floor. The man, a coach at a CrossFit, was not seriously hurt. But the hosts and guests were startled, and Siatta was asked to leave. Kramer walked him home, where he encouraged him to apologize and asked if he was suffering from PTSD. The two men returned to the party, only to be told again to leave. This time the woman who invited Siatta escorted him back to his house, leaving him outside his door.
Siatta tried to call or text the woman. From there, he said, his memories stop. What he did next, step by step, is not clear. But at some point he set out into the neighborhood. Shortly after 2 a.m. he smashed through the back door of 706 Samantha Street, where the female teaching students lived. It was perhaps 100 feet away from the party.
At first the former Marine inside did not see Siatta. He grabbed two knives from the kitchen, dashed back to the bedroom, handed the smaller blade to his girlfriend and told her to lock her door and call the police. He returned to the living room and stood, back to the wall, knife in hand, facing the rear of the house.
For a minute or so, nothing happened. The man later told the police that Siatta might have descended to the basement, which was accessible through a door in the dining area. If that is what happened, it might have meant that Siatta thought he had entered his own home and was looking for his bed. If he did go downstairs, he did not stay long.
He stepped into the other man’s line of sight.
The fight was swift — “it went by like a flash,” the other man said. Siatta struck him on the head with the pan, and he countered with the knife, stabbing Siatta in the shoulder or chest and then grabbing him in a bear hug. The two men grappled to the floor. Siatta lost his hold on the pan, the man said, and grabbed him by the throat. The man rolled onto Siatta, trying to force him to release his grip. He stabbed downward several times. Siatta let go.
“I quit, I quit,” he said.
Another man in the home, who was dating another woman who lived there, emerged from the back bedroom and helped hold Siatta down.
The first police officer to arrive, Sergeant Robert Cherry, pulled up in a patrol car. He saw two women waving frantically at a window. They were mouthing words through the glass: “He’s inside! There is somebody inside the house!”
Cherry called for backup, drew his pistol and stepped through the back door. He saw two men atop a third. He asked them to back away and looked down at Siatta, who was gasping, bleeding from a stab wound to his neck. His plaid flannel shirt was soaked in blood. The sergeant put on latex gloves, knelt and asked his name.
“Sam,” Siatta answered.
Cherry smelled alcohol.
“I am going to die,” Siatta said.
“You are not going to die,” Cherry said.
Siatta’s eyes rolled in his head. “If I die, you are going to be my heroes,” he said.
He had nine wounds — four in the neck, two in the left biceps and one each to the left cheek, right shoulder blade and back of his head. Blood pooled on the floor and splattered the walls. At the hospital, his disorientation was total. “How did this happen?” he asked.
A Life Flight helicopter rushed him to Peoria. The knife that had plunged into his neck missed his carotid artery and jugular vein. A surgical team repaired damage to smaller blood vessels and left behind thin platinum coils from a catheter procedure under his chin.
Siatta woke the next day. His first thought was that he had been mugged or struck by a car. Two detectives entered his room, turned on a digital audio recorder and read him his rights. Siatta was on pain medication. He asked them to leave.
Whether Siatta remembered it or not, he had committed a serious crime. The case gained momentum swiftly. In late April, a grand jury indicted Siatta on charges of home invasion causing harm — a Class X felony, the second-most serious category of crime in the Illinois penal code. The charge carried a mandatory sentence of six to 30 years, putting Siatta’s offense in the same league as aggravated kidnapping or the predatory sexual assault of a child. Barring a plea deal or an acquittal, he was on a path to prison.
The news took time to reach Siatta. That same month, he had entered a residential substance-abuse rehabilitation program at a VA hospital west of Chicago, where combat-based PTSD, depressive disorder and alcohol-use disorder were diagnosed. The VA prescribed him Xanax and hydroxyzine for anxiety and approved roughly $1,300 a month in disability benefits for service-connected depression and PTSD. Six weeks later, Siatta transferred to a federal health care center in North Chicago for more inpatient counseling.
When Siatta checked out of the hospital in July, he turned himself in for booking. The evidence against him was strong. His mother retained a private criminal defense lawyer, Hal Jennings, who approached prosecutors about a plea to a lesser felony and a sentence of probation. Siatta had no previous criminal record. The man he had fought had not been seriously hurt. Given Siatta’s combat service and apparent post-combat illness, Jennings considered it a reasonable request. But Kristin Alferink, the assistant state’s attorney handling Siatta’s prosecution, was firm. In September, she offered a plea to the original charge and a 10-year prison term. Jennings rejected it. “I was not under any circumstances going to plead that kid into prison,” he said.
The state’s inflexibility in part reflected the wishes of the man who had fought Siatta. Since the struggle in the kitchen, he had suffered from insomnia and was having difficulties in crowds or when people approached him from behind. “I’m completely paranoid of everything,” he told me. He tried to make his house feel safer, he said, by having it “wired to the gills with security cameras.” He slept with a loaded Walther P38 pistol by his bed. He still found it difficult to relax. “The heater goes off,” he said, “and I jump back five feet.” It was as if some of Siatta’s PTSD symptoms had been transferred to him. He entered therapy and started taking anti-anxiety medication. But he remained angry. He knew little of Siatta’s service in the Marine Corps. It might not have changed his feelings if he did. “He could have been Jesus incarnate,” he said, “and I still would have wanted blood.”
Jennings and a partner, Carey J. Luckman, prepared for trial. They gathered military records and character recommendations from Siatta’s supervisors in the Marines. They also arranged for him to undergo a second psychological evaluation. In May 2015, he was reviewed by Don R. Catherall, a psychologist specializing in trauma disorders and a Marine veteran of Vietnam. Catherall’s report echoed the VA’s diagnoses of PTSD and severe alcohol-use disorder, and noted that Siatta had not had a drink in more than a year. This, he wrote, “officially constitutes remission of the substance-use disorder.” He added, “As long as he remains sober, he is unlikely to repeat the behaviors that led to this unfortunate situation.”
That summer, not long after Siatta’s evaluation, Ashley Volk called him. She was angry about how he had cut her off, wounded by his silence. He said he had been hurt and was getting it taken care of. She was worried, but he assured her it was not serious. In July, she asked him to meet for burgers at the Lockdown Bar & Grill, a prison-themed bar in Chicago. Upon seeing him, she said, she immediately fell back in love. After three hours of talking, they kissed.
They spent the night together in her apartment. She saw the new scars on his neck, shoulder and arm and assumed something else had happened to him in the Marines. They became a couple again. Siatta was still closed off to most people, but he began to tell her about Afghanistan. Maybe, she thought, he was finally opening up. He did not tell her anything of the home invasion, or that he was awaiting trial.
Siatta’s prospects for avoiding prison were likely to rise or fall depending on whether a judge and a jury would be willing to view his combat experience, and his self-medicating with alcohol, as factors in the home invasion and fight. In September 2015, Jennings and Alferink, the prosecutor, traveled to North Chicago to depose Sheilah C. Perrin, a psychologist supervising Siatta’s treatment for the VA. Under questioning by Jennings, Perrin laid out her views, noting that Siatta, who was also present, had entered 30 to 40 compounds containing insurgents. She described common behaviors for veterans with such histories: reclusion, avoiding crowds, unceasing vigilance and using alcohol as a coping technique “to escape from their pain and from their memories.” She listed Siatta’s diagnoses and said that once Siatta entered a strange home and was confronted inside, the knife would have been a “huge, huge, huge trigger.” Her assessment was unambiguous. “He needs treatment,” she said. By the end of the questioning, she had teared up.
Alferink pushed hard, inquiring why Perrin had been “emotional” and asking whether she had the “same empathy and thankfulness” for the man Siatta had fought, who was also a veteran. During a half-hour of often-testy exchanges, Alferink proposed that Siatta’s PTSD was not related to his combat service and suggested that his use of alcohol was “similar to somebody who just broke up with their boyfriend” or “who couldn’t cope with losing a job.”
Jennings still thought he had a strong defense. The character references from Marines were glowing, and he was ready to argue that the fight in the kitchen was a conditioned reflex for a troubled man with Siatta’s combat record.
A few weeks before the trial, Jennings was discussing the case with Siatta’s mother, Maureen, when she mentioned that her son had kept a journal in Afghanistan. Siatta had recently retrieved it from Volk. Jennings asked to see it. It was a small tan notebook on which Siatta had drawn a human skull with a cracked forehead. When Jennings started reading, he could not stop. On October 22, 2015, less than three weeks before the trial, he entered a copy of the journal into the court record. “This is the key,” he told Maureen. “This is what could win your case.”
By then Siatta had graduated from a substance-abuse program and been sober for a year and half. He was in counseling. He suffered from anxiety, but less acutely, allowing him to stop taking Xanax and hydroxyzine. He was exercising, taking up martial arts and weight lifting again. It helped his moods. His relationship with Volk softened his antisocial side. Jennings asked Alferink to read the diary and consider Siatta’s last night of drinking and the home invasion in light of his combat service and PTSD, and his apparent progress since. He hoped the state would consider a better plea deal. “If Sam didn’t have the best mitigation package in the world, who did?” he said.
Alferink, in keeping with the wishes of the man who had fought Siatta, declined to change the offer. Ten years in prison, or trial.
The trial opened on November 9. Jennings and Luckman hoped the judge would allow jurors to consider Siatta’s actions a result of involuntary intoxication. This defense had precedent in Illinois among defendants who had been drugged by others, but not with defendants trying to drown PTSD with alcohol. The state tried to quash the argument outright. Alferink told the court that “the reason why he consumed the alcohol has nothing to do with this case.” She added: “He could have consumed the alcohol because he was suffering from PTSD and wanted to be able to go to a party. Again, he could have consumed the alcohol because he was trying to get over a breakup, because he just lost a job. The reason for the underlying alcohol consumption does not matter.”
At each opportunity for sympathy, the state moved against. In jury selection, Alferink asked whether any of the potential jurors had military experience. Two said they did — a former Navy petty officer and a Marine reservist who had been injured in an accident in Afghanistan. Alferink had them excused from serving on the jury. This denied Siatta, in Jennings’s view, a trial by peers. “She excluded the only people who had any chance of understanding this defendant and what he went through,” he said.
Siatta’s lawyers did not dispute the central facts of the case. But Catherall, the psychologist, offered a profile of Siatta as a Marine utterly unmoored by war. “Seeing these children die as the result of what he went over there to try and do in a positive way was kind of shattering for him,” he told the jury.
Alferink countered by asking how much Catherall was being paid as a defense witness — he said his rate was $300 an hour — and sketched him as a shill.
The trial was over in two days. The jury found Siatta guilty within hours.
Siatta spent the holidays at home, awaiting sentencing. About two weeks before going to prison, he finally told Volk of his problems. But he insisted that he had a good legal team and that the conviction could be worked out. Volk made a dinner reservation at the Signature Room, the luxury restaurant on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, for the night of his sentencing hearing. She planned to celebrate a good ending.
The day before sentencing, she saw him off from her home.
“You promise, you promise, I’ll see you tomorrow night?” she said.
“I promise,” he said.
Siatta knew his options had run down. He returned to court and apologized in a statement leaden with resignation. “I have no memory of that night,” he said. “I can’t explain what happened that night. I wish I could. You know, I’m getting treatment for my illness. I think I’m doing better, but I’ve got a long road ahead of me, and that’s all I got.”
The case of the People of the State of Illinois v. Samuel Siatta then took a rare turn. The trial judge, Scott Drazewski, expressed gratitude to the man he was sending away. “Mr. Siatta, as an American citizen, I thank you for your service to your country,” he said. “Your patriotism, your valor, your courage and your heroism — according to those you’ve served with, you were an exceptional soldier who led by example.”
But Drazewski added that he was hearing the case as a judge, not just a citizen, and because of mandatory-sentencing guidelines he had no option of assigning Siatta to probation. “Although it is with regret,” he said, “I’m still required to follow the law.” He sentenced Siatta to six years in prison, the legal minimum — four years less than the prosecutors had offered in their plea deal.
Siatta passed the next month at the Stateville Correctional Center, awaiting transfer to the prison where he would serve his sentence. Inmates in reception status have few privileges. Siatta was on 24-hour lockdown and received no visitors. His cellblock seemed to him like an enormous warehouse, with inmates in cells stacked upon cells. The air filled with their din.
During 28 days there, he said, he rarely left his cell. Meals were delivered to the door and eaten inside. Every Tuesday he was allowed out for a shower, in a stall where the water was scalding hot. His cell did not have a window, and the lights were never off. Between the noise and the incessant brightness, he slept fitfully. As he lost his sense of time, he was not sure when he was supposed to rest. He remembers seeing a clock once, during a group orientation. It said 9 AM. By his estimate, he had eaten breakfast seven hours before. His anxiety rose again, and when he asked for medications, none were provided, he said, though he had a diagnosis and prescriptions from the VA.
A schedule took shape. He would lie on his bunk until breakfast, then eat and get back on the bunk until lunch. After lunch he would do squats and push-ups, then return to the bunk until dinner. Each day he received a carton of milk. A previous inmate had accumulated enough cartons to make a crude deck of playing cards, which he had left in the cell for others. Siatta did not use them. He felt himself sliding into a mental hibernation. He managed to send Volk a short letter.
“I love you so very much my love,” he wrote. “You are my one and only, and I promise. I love you so so so much and we will have a life filled with love and happiness. To my pretty gypsy, from your love, Samuel.”
He didn’t know what else to say. The legal system bewildered him, and he found it hard to think in concrete terms, beyond that he had to leave.
Outside the prison, his new lawyer, Richard Winter, was preparing an appeal. Winter had agreed to represent Siatta in late 2015, between the conviction and the sentencing. A partner at Holland & Knight, an international firm, he specialized in commercial and antitrust litigation from his 30th-floor office in downtown Chicago. He had no experience in criminal law and had taken Siatta as a client via a peculiar impulse. Holland & Knight offers pro bono representation to clients who cannot otherwise afford it. Over the years, Winter had helped autistic children in court fights against school districts in and around Chicago and had worked on Hague Convention cases, trying to reunite children with parents in international custody disputes. In November 2015, he had just read Rogue Lawyer (2015), a novel by John Grisham about Sebastian Rudd, a bourbon-drinking, gun-carrying lawyer with a bulletproof van who fights for justice for unappealing clients. Winter was amused by Rudd, a cartoonish figure. He was also impressed by his legal tactics, which he thought were able. Soon after finishing the book, Winter received an office-wide email describing Siatta’s case and asking if anyone wanted to step in. He figured this was a case for someone of Rudd’s talents, and it looked interesting on the merits. He volunteered to try.
Two weeks later, he met Siatta and his mother at a rest stop on Interstate 294. Siatta impressed him. He was in his last weeks of freedom before an expected prison term and was on his way home from PTSD counseling. Winter read the case file, looking for a basis for appeal. He attended the sentencing hearing in January and watched his new client depart for prison. The judge allowed Siatta about a minute with his mother, and after he was gone Maureen lingered in the courtroom, then in the hallway. She looked numb. Winter told her, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Winter knew the appeal would consume much of 2016. He also figured that while he might persuade the appellate court to consider a retrial, allowing a judge to instruct jurors to consider an involuntary-intoxication defense, the chances were probably slim. And even if the judges granted a new trial, he knew, Siatta would still need to prevail before a jury, of which there was no guarantee. Winter’s backup plan was to seek a pardon from the Illinois governor after the appeals process was exhausted. Either way, Siatta was not coming home anytime soon.
By March, the state had moved Siatta from Stateville to Shawnee, where inmates lived in two-story X-shaped buildings, called houses, each with a central station from which guards watched over the population. Siatta was assigned to a cell in 4-House. It was a drab and musty place with missing floor tiles, an upper and lower bunk, a toilet and a small steel sink. His cellmate, a moody man with a thin mustache, was doing time for failing to register as a sex offender.
Early each morning, the locks would click open. Inmates could step into the cellblock corridor and file into the darkness and cold for a short walk to the cafeteria for breakfast and a cup of water. The routine was repeated for lunch and dinner. The schedule also allowed for about an hour of “day room” time — to lift weights in the open-air yard, use telephones in a call center or buy food and toiletries in the commissary with money their families added to their prison accounts.
Buying extra food drew attention. In the cash-free ecosystem of prison, purchases became currency. A T-shirt, a coffee cup, a package of cookies — these could be traded or gambled. They also attracted thieves.
The guards tended to cluster in the central section of each house, and they ventured only occasionally into the cellblock corridors. This meant that when the locks were released, there was a moment in which inmates could furtively enter one another’s cells. Siatta returned from one meal to find about $50 worth of food stolen. His cellmate was enraged at the breach of turf. He told other inmates that he would find the thief and punish him.
Siatta had probably seen more violence in his life than anyone else in 4-House. But he understood that fighting as an inmate carried special risks, and not of injury. If the guards discovered a fight, everyone involved could be taken to solitary confinement — called “seg” for “segregation” — and have their prison records marked up. This could prevent an early release. Siatta’s case was on appeal. He could not afford trouble. He tried talking his cellmate down. “I got a lot of stuff going on,” he told him. “I got a good case. I can’t be getting into fights, going to seg, getting new charges over some tuna packet.”
One day during day-room time, a few gang members appeared in the corridor near their door. Siatta’s cellmate had heard who the thief was and had been giving him angry looks. The man wanted to know why. “I’m coming to the conclusion you stole our stuff,” the cellmate said.
Siatta did not want to be involved. He slipped out of the cell, and the gang member stepped in, while his friends stood casually in the hallway.
The fight lasted maybe 15 seconds. One gang member watching from the corridor looked into the cell and pronounced the fight over, and the group broke up and drifted away.
Siatta’s cellmate was left on the floor. He had been beaten badly. He had a gash in his head, which had been slammed against the steel bunk. He was bleeding all over the tiles. Siatta examined the wound and knew it needed medical attention. But the man refused to approach the guards. He told Siatta he would stay in the cell for a few weeks and eat commissary food until the bruises and cuts healed.
The plan did not last long. The guards opened an investigation. Six inmates were sent to seg, Siatta said, including the two who had fought. Siatta was transferred to another house.
His new cellmate was a member of the Latin Kings; among his many tattoos was the gang’s symbol, a five-point crown. He laid down the rules. “In here, this house, it’s our house, and we’re cool,” he said of their cell. “But out there you are not affiliated, and if you get in trouble I can’t help you.” Siatta left Shawnee for a court appearance related to his appeal and was held at the decrepit Pontiac Correctional Center before returning to Shawnee and a cell with another Latin King. The same code applied: We get along inside the cell. Out there we don’t know each other.
Siatta never quite found a friend. He tried participating in a veteran-support group but saw it as a sham. In his first session, when inmates were introducing themselves, an attendee claiming to be a former Marine mangled Marine Corps jargon. The counselor asked the man, who looked to be in his 30s, what rank he had held.
“General,” the inmate proudly answered.
Siatta had heard enough. He never attended again.
Each day Siatta had phone privileges. But calls to his mother, which he yearned for, usually left him disappointed. He would ask if there was news about his appeal, he said, “and it was always just, ‘No.’ ” The counseling he had attended at the VA with a therapist who knew him was replaced by a once-a-month, 15-minute mental-health checkup. “It was basically: ‘Do you want to hurt someone? Do you want to hurt yourself?’ and ‘All right, see you next month,’ ” he said. Depression gripped him again.
He tried exercising during his yard time, knowing it soothed his symptoms. Some weeks he managed to work out in committed bursts, though three or four inmates were usually lined up at each piece of equipment, waiting a turn. But as his depression settled over him, he passed his weeks passively, unable to push through the pack. Mostly he slept — an activity he was assured of, because his cellblock was on lockdown 21 hours a day.
In April, as Siatta brooded in prison, I wrote to Scott Drazewski, the judge who had not wanted to send him there. He declined to discuss the case. State rules, he said by email, prohibited judges from commenting on matters under appeal. But after visiting Siatta in Shawnee, I met with Donald D. Bernardi, a retired state judge and former peer of Drazewski’s, who understood how mandatory-sentencing rules had forced Drazewski to incarcerate Siatta.
Bernardi knew the outlines of Siatta’s criminal file. I shared details from his combat tour: the boy shot through the head, the civilians struck by Hellfire missiles, Siatta’s run of methodical killing in late 2009. It was all news to him. We talked about the frustration and anger many combat veterans share as their wars have dragged on with no visible end, and how Siatta’s depression and PTSD were not unusual. We discussed the words of support from Cuomo, Siatta’s former commander. “Having watched and fought, up close and personal, with Mr. Siatta, I remain humbled by his incredibly courageous actions,” he had written. We also talked about the severity of Siatta’s crime. A man of his background smashing into anyone’s home was a frightening prospect.
Bernardi’s reaction surprised me. He looked at my notebook on the table, in a way those familiar with reporters do when they are about to say something quotable, and said, “If this case does not call for mitigation, then mitigation has no meaning.”
The county’s legal circle is small. Bernardi said the elected state’s attorney, Jason Chambers — Alferink’s boss — had practiced in his courtroom early in his career. “He’s a good guy,” he said, a reasonable lawyer who could see more than one side of an issue.
A few hours later, I met Chambers in his office for a conversation with him and Alferink. We reprised the conversation with Bernardi. Alferink politely excused herself for a scheduled court appearance. Chambers was pleasant but inscrutable. I told him I planned to visit the crime scene and talk with the people who were in the house when Siatta broke in, and would get back to the prosecutors with questions.
I was in New England two days later when Chambers sent me a text message. He asked for a phone number for Richard Winter, Siatta’s attorney. That afternoon he called Winter and made an unsolicited proposal. He was ready to vacate Siatta’s conviction, he said, and allow him to leave prison and plead to a lesser charge with a sentence of probation. And he was willing to make it easy. He wanted Winter to get documentation from the VA confirming that Siatta would be enrolled in mental-health care. Once he had it, the state would ask the appellate court to let Siatta out of Shawnee — immediately. They would work out the new plea deal later.
Siatta was asleep on his bunk on the afternoon of May 19 when he heard a voice on the intercom saying his door was to be unlocked and he should approach the guards’ station. A guard told him that he needed to go for fingerprinting. This made little sense to him; the Department of Corrections already had his prints.
Until this point Siatta had little inkling of his shift in fortunes. Winter had kept his mother up to date on Chambers’s plans, but she did not want her son crestfallen if they stalled or were rejected in appellate court. She had told him only that Winter was working on his case and that “there might be some news one of these days.”
That afternoon, after lawyers and the appellate-court clerk refined the language and conditions for a court order, the appellate judges issued an order to release Siatta on a $10,025 bond, pending disposition of his appeal.
A guard escorted him to a prison office. Siatta was unsure what was happening. “They asked me, ‘Where’s your property?’ ” he told me later that day. “And I was like: ‘Why? Why do I need my property?’ And they said, ‘Because you are going home.’ ”
Siatta was escorted back to his cell with a plastic bin to collect his possessions. The guard gave him three minutes — barely enough time to hand off a coffee cup and about 20 packages of ramen noodles and chocolate-chip cream pies to his latest cellmate, who was serving 12 years.
“I’m going home,” Siatta said.
“What do you mean, you’re going home?” he asked.
“I guess my lawyer is working on some stuff, and I’m getting out of here,” Siatta said.
The cellmate, whose prospective parole date is in 2022, shook his head.
Minutes later, Siatta was gone, walking down the cellblock, carrying the bin. The prison officials inventoried his possessions — a hot pot, a few books and magazines, a pair of plastic flip-flops — and handed him an envelope with $63.90 in cash, the balance from his commissary account. Someone gave him a pair of gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt, and Siatta changed out of his prison blues. He kept the white sneakers with his inmate number, Y11107, handwritten on the side. He looked very much a prisoner still. A guard told him to sit and wait. His possessions were transferred to a cardboard box.
After an hour or two, Siatta was led through a series of heavy doors to Shawnee’s reception area, where T.G. Taylor, the former Army officer who first told me of Siatta’s incarceration, was waiting. “Hey,” Siatta said and smiled lightly. Taylor explained that he would be driving him to a motel in Marion, where his mother would meet him. They spoke in the clipped language of two grunts readying for a patrol.
“Are you good?” Taylor asked.
“I am good,” Siatta said. He walked across the lot, past the guards’ cars, with an expressionless face. In the car, he was subdued. He ate a cheeseburger as Taylor tried to explain what just happened. “I had no idea,” Siatta said.
Taylor called Maureen. “We have him,” he said. Maureen had posted his bond in Bloomington and was en route to meet them. Siatta took the phone. “Hey, Mom, how you doing? I’m good. What? I did, yeah. Where you guys at? An hour and 10 minutes away. You’ve seen Shawnee before. It’s not great. Yeah. Yeah. Me, too.”
He hung up. Behind the wheel, Taylor had a wad of snuff tobacco behind his bottom lip. There had been no tobacco in prison. “You, uh, wouldn’t have a pinch of that Copenhagen, would you?” Siatta asked.
Taylor shared what he had and pulled into a convenience store to buy another can. He asked Siatta to wait in the car. He had been released so quickly that he risked being mistaken for an escapee.
In the motel lot beside the highway, Taylor opened a duffel, found a workout shirt and tossed it to him. Siatta now looked like the free man he was. He headed to the motel coffee bar, made a tall cup and positioned himself with his back to the lobby wall, watching the entrance. For an hour, he paced between the lobby and Taylor’s room, until Maureen showed up. She and her son walked slowly toward each other and locked in a silent and almost motionless embrace.
When she let go, she addressed Taylor with near disbelief. “Thank you,” she said, over and over, softly.
Siatta borrowed her phone. He had a call to make.
Ashley Volk was home in her kitchen in Chicago. She had been working graveyard shifts tending bar. She knew that Winter had been trying to get Siatta out but did not know about Chambers’s offer, or that a release was imminent. She saw Maureen’s number and answered.
Siatta’s voice was on the other end.
“Love,” he said.
“Oh my God!” she screamed. She fell against the kitchen cupboard and then to the floor, where she curled up, sobbing. Through the phone she could hear Siatta. He was crying, too.
The next day, I met Chambers in a coffee shop. Everyone was surprised by the state’s abrupt change in position. There was a question to explore: Why did Chambers propose exactly the resolution to the case that his office had resisted for two years?
Chambers described a criminal-justice system that resembled an overworked mill. His office handles almost 5,000 cases a year, he said, and it was not possible for him to follow each of them closely, much less read all the case materials. In Siatta’s case, he said, the journal that illuminated his combat history was not available during the plea-negotiation phase. It showed up just before trial.
After we met the first time that spring, he said, he reviewed the file and found the journal. By the time he was done reading, he said, he was not surprised Siatta had ended up in handcuffs. “You take a 19-year-old and you put them in this extreme situation where they are being asked to do things — or maybe not asked, but are choosing to do things — that are contrary to the values they had growing up, and the US government pats your back and says, ‘Good luck,’ ” he said. “I don’t see how that is not a recipe for something to go wrong.”
From his point of view, Chambers said, the plea deal in the works was not actually a large shift. Siatta had received the minimum sentence for a Class-X felony and would soon plead to more than the minimum sentence for a felony one class down. “From a practical standpoint, it is a big change,” he said, because Siatta was out of prison. “From a legal standpoint, it is a hair’s width apart.”
And for society, Chambers added, the new arrangement was probably safer. If Siatta were to behave well in Shawnee, he would be eligible for release in less than three years and would return with virtually no counseling or care for his PTSD. Now Siatta would be under state supervision for several years, receiving care throughout. “The rationale for me became, ‘What makes people safer over the long term?’ ” he said. “Is it treatment or just getting him off the street?”
The man who had fought Siatta in the house in Normal found that his feelings had changed, too. Though he himself did not serve in combat, the Marine Corps remained central to his life. He served four years as a clerk and was honorably discharged as a noncommissioned officer. GI Bill benefits helped underwrite his college studies, and his brother was on active duty. Having been sequestered as a witness during the trial, he did not hear details of Siatta’s combat tour until January, at sentencing, and as he learned more he came to see Siatta as a drunken Marine who did something stupid. The home invasion was not personal. “At the end of the day, it was just a random act,” he said. When Chambers called him in the late spring to discuss vacating Siatta’s conviction, he listened to the prosecutor’s new proposal. After he thought about it, he told me: “I wasn’t angry anymore. I was ready to put it past me and to forgive.”
After talking with Volk on the phone to tell her he had been released, Siatta went with his brother to a Target to replace his prison sneakers. Whether it was the sudden change from Shawnee to the big box store or the effect of the food, caffeine and nicotine he had consumed, he was overwhelmed. He vomited. The next day he registered with the bond office in Bloomington, and in the summer he appeared in court and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge, attempted home invasion, and began four years of probation with weekly counseling at the VA.
He felt sluggish. He did little more in the first weeks than visit Volk and go to the gym. “His energy level was way down,” she said. Volk was struggling as well. The months Siatta spent in Shawnee, Volk said, had passed for her in gray procession. Every day was tasteless and colorless. But she understood that Siatta had it worse. Now that he was back, she was patient, willing to let therapy have its effects and allowing him to set his own pace. She was thrilled by his shift in fortune — “when I saw him, it was like being reborn,” she said — but was not expecting a fairy tale. When he seemed withdrawn, she invited him to walk. “We took the dogs around the block,” she said. “The next time, we walked a few more blocks.”
By the fall, Siatta was making his appointments, in good standing with his probation officer and going out more. He was physically fit. The VA reduced his disability rating from 70 percent to 50 percent — a shift suggesting that doctors there felt his PTSD had less of a hold on him. When I visited him in late November, we ate three meals together in restaurants over four days. Each time he was amiable with the staff and did not appear vigilant. Twice he sat with his back to the door. He had not had a drink in almost two and a half years. His eyes seemed bright, his voice light, his demeanor relaxed. He was also looking for a job, although it was hard as a felon on probation to get past a background check. He was almost hired by a moving company, he said, until he told the supervisor of his conviction. He had not given up. Volk thought she might soon have something lined up for him to check IDs at the door of the sports bar where she worked.
While he waited, he was splitting time between his mother’s home and Volk’s place, and speaking of marriage. Volk knew where he had been and what he had done, and she accepted it all. Familiarity, Siatta suggested, was relief. “Explaining is exhausting,” he said, “and we’ve got most of it done.”
One morning after meeting his probation officer, Siatta was in the basement of his mother’s house, hitting a heavy bag. Upstairs in a scrapbook were photographs of his life, including one taken days before he left home for the Marines, when his recruiter had brought the family a cake. He was a shy kid with acne and muscular arms, able to do 28 pull-ups even before arriving at boot camp. He did not look much older now, in the basement, working the hanging bag. He had wrapped his hands with tape. His legs and feet were bare. Sweat beaded on his shoulders. The air carried the smack of each impact, followed by a pause. He was striking the bag steadily, resisting the urge to acknowledge the sharp pulsating in his hands as he tried to build pain tolerance and toughen his fists. “You don’t want to break your hand on someone’s face,” he said.
Siatta was training to make an amateur mixed-martial-arts fight card and break into the Midwestern club-fighting scene. His regimen included sparring with a police-officer friend. He had only one problem so far. He lacked full control of his left arm. The stab wounds, it seemed, had caused nerve damage. He jabbed the bag with his left hand — thwack — and frowned. “It feels off, my hand-eye coordination, almost like my targeting system has been severed,” he said.
I asked him whether entering the ring with one good arm to exchange blows with a trained fighter carried more risks than he might want, especially considering the delicate platinum coils in his neck that could be dislodged. He seemed tired of the question. It was the type of discouragement he had heard since telling friends he was enlisting in the Marines. “If my dream was to be a lawyer or doctor, something that was socially acceptable, then everybody would be happy,” he said. “But when I tell people I want to be a fighter, they are like, ‘Ooh, you’re going to fuck yourself.’ ”
People warn him that he is going to get hurt, he said, and “I’m like, ‘Well, it is fighting, so that’s almost a definite.’ ” He hoped to earn enough money to pay the hospital bills. Hands throbbing, face blank, his left-side targeting system not quite right, Sam Siatta hit the bag. ###
[C. J. Chivers is a long-form writer and investigative reporter for The New York Times Magazine and the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing with "The Fighter." Chivers also received a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 as part of a team of New York Times reporters and photographers awarded for their dispatches from Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also is the author of an acclaimed book about the AK-47 assault rifle entitled The Gun (2010). Chivers received a BA (English cum laude) from Cornell University and an MS (journalism) from Columbia University where he was the valedictorian of his graduating class.]
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