The Good Soldier

Do you like green eggs and ham?

I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham!

It was September 28, 2003, Andrew Pogany's second day in Iraq, and he was steering a Land Rover through the night toward Samarra with another Special Forces soldier on board and an M4 rifle in his lap. This stretch of road, which ran through the especially nasty enclave of insurgent strongholds called the Sunni Triangle, was known for ambushes of Army convoys just like his. "This is Indian country down here," a Green Beret had told him earlier in the day. "You'll be lucky to make it out alive." Pogany should have been completely focused on the road, scanning the surroundings for signs of trouble, but he was a little distracted.

Would you like them in a house?

Would you like them with a mouse?

A 32-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Fort Carson, Pogany been assigned to fill a vacancy in a highly trained, twelve-man Special Forces A Team just two weeks before they shipped out to fight in the still-young war. And now he was learning something about one of them. Sitting next to Pogany, gripping his own rifle, medic Ken Lehman had decided it was the perfect time to recite lines from Dr. Seuss. Over and over again.

Would you eat them in a box?

Would you eat them with a fox?

It seemed to be the only way Lehman could calm himself, but it was rattling Pogany. On and on it went — in a car, in a tree, on a train, in the rain. Pogany told him to shut up, asked him, begged him, and finally managed to plug him up with a cigarette.

What an introduction to war, Pogany thought to himself later that night after the convoy had made it safely to Samarra and he tried to fall asleep in a mortar-scarred barracks, gunfire echoing through the city. He didn't have much time to reflect. Soon, explosions sounded in the distance, and truck engines roared nearby. Outside, Pogany found chaos: Soldiers were screaming and running through the compound as smoke billowed around them. A strange, metallic odor filled the air. It was the smell of blood.

There had been an ambush; several Iraqis had been captured and brought back to the compound. All that was left of one of them was in a body bag — a body bag being unzipped as Pogany turned to look. Six seconds. That's how long the bag was open, but that was all it took. It was enough to see exactly how the heavy artillery round had ripped straight through the man's torso. Enough to make out all the blood and shredded flesh. Enough to know it was difficult to call what was left a body.

Pogany turned away and went back to his room. He had the fortitude to stomach this, he told himself. He'd trained for war for years, and before that he'd been a volunteer firefighter. He'd received stellar military reviews and had been recommended for immediate promotion. Most important, he was Special Forces. But the body bag had set something off inside his head, something that didn't make sense. Everything started moving in slow motion. Then came nausea, trembling and terror. He tried to sleep again, had horrible dreams, and woke up to discover his room exploding around him. A mortar must have exploded, he thought, as he watched the ceiling cave in.

It was all in his head. Pogany realized later that he'd been hallucinating.

The next day, he told his team sergeant he needed help, that he was having a nervous breakdown. An Army psychiatrist agreed. "Solider reported signs of symptoms consistent with those of a normal combat-stress reaction," he wrote in his report. But Pogany's commanding officers wouldn't hear of it — he had to start acting like a soldier. It wasn't as simple as finding some guts and going back to work, Pogany replied; there had to be something physically wrong with him. "So, well, if you can't help me here," Pogany said, "I guess you are going to have to send me home."

They did so on October 7, and a week later, Pogany received his coming-home present: The U.S. Department of Defense charged him with cowardice. It was a military crime that hadn't been used to convict a soldier since 1968 — and it was punishable by death. With a hook like that, national media was all over the story. Jessica Lynch, America's hero, was just then front-page news. Now Pogany was America's coward.

"I am not trying to screw the Army," the staff sergeant tells Pogany. They're sitting in a chow hall at Fort Carson, the massive Army installation south of Colorado Springs, early one bright morning several weeks ago. "But I am looking out for myself," he says. "I've been here for twelve years, and to get treated like this? Hell, no."