Photos: Soldier's struggle with PTSD turns tragic

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Staff Sgt. Robert Carlson raised the gun to his head. In the parking lot of their duplex, his wife was calling the police.

"Please help," she cried. "He punched me in the face."

His intention, Carlson would say later, was to kill himself. Instead, alone on the second floor of their house, he lowered the gun from his head, pointed it toward a window and squeezed the trigger again and again, nine times in all.

Some of the rounds went into the roof of a garage, just below the window. Two rounds hit apartment buildings across the street. One round flew into the headlamp of a responding police SUV.

That was July 2012. Now, two years later, after being found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to eight years in prison, Carlson wonders about the fairness of such a punishment. "I know I did wrong," he said recently from the detention facility at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. But is jail time appropriate for someone who, before he fired those shots, spent 16 months in Iraq, followed by 12 months in Iraq, followed by another 12 months in Afghanistan?

Forty months total at war: He had survived a blast from a suicide car bomb. He had killed an Iraqi insurgent as the man's children watched in horror. He had traded places one day with a fellow soldier who then was killed by a sniper's bullet, standing in the very place where Carlson would have been if he hadn't switched. Did his years in combat mean he was deserving of compassion?

Compassion or conviction -- that's the choice more and more communities across the country are facing as the effects of 12 years of war are increasingly seeping into the American legal system.

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