Rock Center   |  October 04, 2012

Sgt. Loftus: Dealing with life during and after war

Two years ago, Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel met Sgt. Louis Loftus on a battlefield in Afghanistan. Since then, Loftus has allowed NBC News to document his life as a soldier and a citizen. Loftus is one of 100,000 returning veterans that is being treated for PTSD. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we have roughly 58,000 americans in uniform in afghanistan . it's a privilege to have been over there and seen them in action. it's america's longest war and yet it's still frustratingly isn't quite real for millions of american families who have no direct connection to it or any of those who volunteered to serve. richard engel has spent the better part of this last decade covering our foreign wars. tonight you get to meet one of the young veterans he met along the way. it's was on a battlefield when he met sergeant louis loftus . tonight he completes his story. when he came home, sergeant loftus opened his life to us.

>> reporter: this was a familiar scene in 2010 . a memorial service for a soldier killed in one of the most -- places in southern afghanistan . so dangerous that as we made our way back from the memorial -- the taliban attacked at close range. the members of the 82nd airborne were caught off guard and moved quickly to retaliate.

>> one soldier has been injured.

>> reporter: in the middle of the battle was louis loftus . he took up a gun and helped repel the taliban assault. this was life for sergeant loftus and members of his bring grade.

>> move your team around and try to get to the intersection.

>> reporter: louis dreamed of serving in the military and he was the team leader of foot patrols through farmlands littered with bombs. but the deployment was taking its toll. when we asked about the fallen soldier, the stress and pent up emotions poured out.

>> i'm kind of numb to it. to be honest i don't really feel much. i pray for his family and his soul that you know -- i try not to think about it. because when you think about it, then i get like this. and it's not -- you know, i don't -- yeah. so -- yeah, you know, everyone deals with it in their own way. i try to hide it. i try not to think about it. because i got the stay 100%. you know, i got to keep a good example. in front of the other soldiers.

>> reporter: this was sergeant loftus 's second tour in afghanistan and he longed to be home. in quiet moments he looked at pictures of a pretty girl who he wanted to marry. but would they be able to pick up whether they left off? after all he went through, louis knew returning home would not with easy.

>> surprise!

>> how's it going?

>> reporter: in november, 2010 , five months after we met him, he was honorably discharged and back in akron.

>> glasses up.

>> this is for lou loftus .

>> his family was happy to have him home safe and no one was happier than deirdre .

>> when he was five feet from the line i ran into his arms and felt like i won the lottery.

>> while he appreciated the party, he seemed overwhelmed.

>> i was nervous. i legs were shaking.

>> why were you so nervous and uncomfortable?

>> i don't know. i wasn't ready to see all those people and i walked in and everyone yelled surprise it rattled my nerves.

>> reporter: as soon as louis got back to the u.s. there were warning signs that the emotional struggle we witnessed in afghanistan followed him home. as he unbacked into deirdre 's apartment he was still anxious. experiencing fits of crying and wracked by nightmares.

>> any time he fell asleep he would be sweating. literally dripped in sweat. i would feel it from the sheets next to me.

>> reporter: louis insisted his symptoms were manageable.

>> i don't think it's affecting me -- my life. it's a day-to-day thing, you know.

>> reporter: but over the winter just a few months after he returned home, things changed. he began drinking more. depression set in and he gained weight.

>> it's hard to open yourself up. i've become distant from my family, friends. i can't reality with people.

>> do you miss afghanistan ?

>> yeah, i would say i do. i would go back.

>> why would you go back? you were happy when you left.

>> just because to help the guys and try to do a little more good.

>> reporter: like so many soldiers he missed the camaraderie.

>> you know, have a team helping you when you come home. that makes the military special. everyone's together. and your friends won't let you slip.

>> reporter: after struggling to cope with anxiety and his sleep disorder louis sought treatment at the va. he was prescribed medication and began therapy for post- traumatic stress . but he avoided his emotions and rage began to surface.

>> what got me was how on edge he was all the time. we would be talking and in a disagreement not even in an argument or raising our voices and i would say something and he would just flip.

>> reporter: by the end of april 2011 five months after returning home, his relationship with deirdre fell apart and he moved out. then deirdre found out she was pregnant. the two tried to reconcile but nearly four months into the pregnancy, they got into a fight in the car and it turned violent.

>> he was telling me that you know, i killed people in afghanistan worth more than you.

>> she goes i looked it up. you have ptsd . you are not allowed to have unsupervised visits with your son.

>> when i made that comment his face was red and his eyes were bulging out of his adehead and i knew this is it.

>> i grabbed her and pulled her out of the vehicle.

>> my ear was ripped and there was blood on my neck and my hair was out -- obviously out of order. and you know, i had cuts on both my feet and knees.

>> did you think you had done something wrong?

>> yes, i did. i hope i didn't scare her so bad.

>> but the damage was done. in december, 2011 , a year after his homecoming, he was in court, charged with a domestic violence felony. to make matters worse he was also charged with resisting arrest because several days after the incident with deirdre he got drunk, beat up his father and fought with a police officer .

>> i am sorry for what i did.

>> now more than eight months pregnant, deirdre came to the court to testify. though still angry she wanted to clarify for the judge that louis had never done anything like this before.

>> i know he has receive -- i can never put myself in his position but i want to him to know what he did is not okay.

>> reporter: the judge sense sentenced louis to three years probation and a stint in a halfway house where the instruction he is not to be in contact with deirdre .

>> why is this happening?

>> i don't think i've, you know, dealt with -- you know, dealt with it. i hear that the harder -- the more you keep it in, eventually it's going to find a way out. it's finally starting to come out.

>> what's "it"?

>> all the friends who got killed over there.

>> that's what's coming out?

>> i think so. i think it's something to do -- building up from that. and you know --

>> you knew coming back home would be tough.

>> yeah.

>> has it been harder than even you expected?

>> definitely. i never expected it be that hard. i used to make fun of people with post- traumatic stress . i would think what a sissy. what a sissy. but now i realize that it's a real thing.

>> reporter: louis got a chance to make things right just a month after his sentencing, he and deirdre almosted mason lopez loftus into the world. deirdre had the restraining order lifted so that he could attend the birth.

>> i'm going to try my hardest to be a good dad.

>> reporter: louis has found things to anchor him with unemployment well above the national average he started his own company, lj small mason jobs with his uncle. and his son has been a constant comfort. the relationship with deirdre has been rocky, to say the least. but they are back together and trying to make it work.

>> it's just how much he strug told get to where he is now. and so many things he has overcome it's just like -- with a little bit more effort from my part and his this is going to be awesome.

>> reporter: in june, more than a year and a half after returning home from afghanistan , louis finished his 90-day stint at the halfway house . he joined a ptsd support group at the va and he is focused on his family.

>> if i'm stressed out from work or someone got me upset it's like where is mason at? i got to pick him up. i have stability again.

>> reporter: but managing his ptsd is a day-to-day struggle and his tears are still close to the surface.

>> in the back of my mind it's like -- what's wrong with you? nothing's wrong. you're fine. you are still there. you got both legs. whatever -- you're going to air that but it sucks.

>> reporter: it's clear the nation's longest war will always be with him.

>> you once said that serving in afghanistan was the proudest moment of your life. now you've had trouble coming back from afghanistan . has that changed the way you think about the war and your time there?

>> absolutely not. we sacrificed in the battlefield and when we get home handling the stress and the emotions that come along with that. i feel it will get better. maybe not a year, maybe not two, three, four, five years. but the way i handle it will be better.

>> a beautiful little boy and an incredible piece of reporting from richard engel . our thanks to him and to sergeant loftus and to his family for taking part and for