When the envelope arrived, Windy Horner was talking with her husband, Nick — Windy on a cell phone, Nick in the Blair County jail.
Windy did not recognize the return address. She feared hate mail; her husband is charged with killing two men and robbing a sandwich shop, and she blames his actions on post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Iraq, but others do not agree.
"Just because horner went to iraq," read one reader comment on a newspaper Web site, "doesnt mean he shouldnt get what he deserves!!!!!!!"
Now, she wondered: Should she open the envelope? Go ahead, Nick said.
The note was from a complete stranger, a woman named Laurie Claar. It was written on a card decorated with a rainbow and flowers, bearing the message, "Caring Thoughts Are With You."
"I'm not sure what to say to you all except I understand and you all are in my prayers," Claar wrote. "And I don't think bad of Nick as he needs help to deal with PTSD."
Her words reached a young couple sorely in need of encouragement.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Nick, this is wonderful," Windy said, crying. And Nick, too: "I could hear him tearing up in his voice. It was like, 'Maybe we're not alone in this.'"
They were not. Claar, too, had been devastated by the war come home.
And so began the unlikely friendship of Claar, a 49-year-old grandmother of five, and Horner, a woman the same age as Claar's youngest daughter. Windy Horner has been invited to spend Thanksgiving with Laurie Claar and her family; they are grateful for each other's company.
They are linked by tragedy, yes, but also by a shared conviction that the military does an excellent job of keeping troops alive during combat — but not so well at keeping them healthy afterward.
Linked by PTSD?
On April 26, Laurie Claar sat in the darkness next to her son's grave, cradling a doll she dressed in the clothes he had worn as a newborn. She was waiting for the clock to strike 11:04 p.m.
Exactly 25 years before, Matthew Claar had been born.
"I just had to be there at that time," Claar said tearfully. It comforted her, she said, to remember a time when she could still protect her son.
More than seven months before his mother's vigil, fueled by guilt and PTSD, the Marine Corps veteran had pulled the trigger on the 9mm pistol in his mouth.
In Iraq, the young Marine hunted house to house for insurgents, including one Matt shot several times. "Even when Matt told me that, he was shrugging it off," said Matt's father, Roy "Bud" Claar Jr. "But I could see in his face there was more to it than he was letting on."
His four-year hitch ended in 2006. When he came home, he was moody and unpredictable. He was arrested twice for drunken driving in one 15-day stretch. He went to work for his father, a self-employed roofer.
"If it wouldn't have been for me he couldn't have held a job, to be honest," Bud Claar said. Sometimes, his son would become upset at the least provocation and walk off the job.
But he wasn't screened, diagnosed and treated for PTSD until after he was treated at a VA hospital for a work-related injury, a few months before he killed himself on Sept. 21, 2008.
Still mourning her son, Claar was moved by newspaper accounts of the charges against Nicholas Horner, a 29-year-old Army veteran.
On April 6, prosecutors say, Horner — veteran of three combat deployments — banged on a rear door of an Altoona Subway sandwich shop and fatally shot the 19-year-old clerk who opened it, Scott Garlick. Then, Horner ran down the street and allegedly gunned down Raymond Williams, a 64-year-old retiree gathering his mail.
On June 3, the Altoona Mirror published a hand-printed letter Nick mailed from jail, apologizing for and attempting to explain what he had done:
"I'm not looking for forgiveness or simphy (sic). I just want people to watch for PTSD cases. There are so many of them. This needs to stop!" Horner wrote.
That day, Claar mailed the drug store greeting card to the Horners' address listed in the newspaper.
Sharing eerie tales
Windy called the cell phone number in Laurie's card. One day after visiting Nick, she met one of Claar's daughters, Autumn Houck, 30, across the street from the jail, and followed her to Laurie's home in Hollidaysburg, seven miles from Altoona.
Windy spent hours sharing pizza and doughnuts and stories about Nick and Matt with Claar's husband, children and grandchildren.
They shared tales of frightful nights when Nick and Matt brandished guns and insisted on "clearing" their homes, room by room, military-style, looking for "enemies." Nick, too, had been arrested for drunken driving since his return from the service.
In Iraq, Nick searched for roadside bombs, and Windy said he was traumatized by children killed by the artillery that cleared the way for his Army unit.
Windy said the Army took Nick's gun away the last time he was in Iraq, in 2008, after he cleared his barracks there, too. He was discharged because of PTSD in January.
Back in the states, she said, Nick sometimes attacked her in bed at night — as though she were an enemy — only to "wake up" or snap out of what seemed like a trance and not remember a thing.
That's one reason she believed Nick when he told a court-appointed psychiatrist that he didn't actually remember the shootings and robbery — though he has no reason to doubt them.
"I just remember I was Tasered, then I was riding in the back of the police car," Horner told the doctor, though police say Horner told them he also remembered a female Subway worker handing him money.
Rising suicide rates
Windy said her husband talked about suicide, cried often, and hid a loaded weapon in the couch cushions when he'd watch TV. Nick Horner spent hours or days in the basement and had to be coaxed upstairs for meals or even to color Easter eggs with his children.
Months before his arrest, Windy recalled, a VA counselor told her to get used to having a broken husband.
"She told me, 'Your husband died in Iraq. You're either going to have to deal with that or move on,'" Windy said.
Since 2002, about half of the more than 1 million U.S. service members discharged from Middle East deployments have been screened for PTSD because they sought help at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. About 134,000 showed signs of PTSD, making it the most common combat-related affliction, said VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter.
Rising suicide rates prompted the VA to train workers nationwide to locate veterans in trouble with the law, even before the Army found a possible link in July between intense combat and 11 slayings attributed to 14 soldiers at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo., between 2005 and 2008.
"Sometimes, our first indication, and the family's first indication, that there's a problem are these little brushes with the law — getting themselves into trouble, fights, those kinds of things," said Jan Kemp, VA's national suicide prevention coordinator.
But the prosecutor in Horner's case, Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio, says 5 million Americans have PTSD and that "alone is not a defense to any crime."
And in a statement, the families of the victims said his trial "should be an examination of the criminal actions of Nicholas Horner and not a referendum on the military's handling of our country's soldiers."
Windy Horner and Laurie Claar actually have little in common.
Claar, a mother of four, spends her days watching her grandchildren or picking up a few extra dollars cleaning houses. Horner, a nurse at a drug treatment center, has been married less than three years. She and Nick were wed on a Florida beach on St. Patrick's Day, 2007; though childless, she was helping Nick raise his two children from his first marriage when he was arrested.
The Claars are active in a support group at the Veterans Administration hospital in Altoona and want the military to better train veterans to re-enter society. Laurie tells anyone who asks that the military needs to help veterans adjust better to civilian life.
"When you go to basic training, they train you for what they want you to be in a war situation," Claar said. "Why can't they take a couple of months to retrain them to go back to society?"
Windy's efforts, meanwhile, are mostly focused on Nick.
Her Web site, http://www.helphorner.com, has raised about $2,000 — a fraction of what is needed.
"I knew Nick would have to fight for his life while he was deployed, but I never thought he'd have to fight for his life on U.S. soil," Windy said. "He's just a kid that needs help."
But she also needs help, and the Claars are there for her.
"I was just amazed that someone would be behind us that wasn't, like, family," Windy said. With the Claars nearby, she can "vent and freak out and have somebody like Laurie and Autumn come to Nick's court hearings with me."
Windy texts or calls Autumn daily. Nick is now pen pals with Autumn's 11-year-old daughter, Hailee; the day Windy met the Claars, he spoke with Laurie on the phone.
"I think I could connect to Nick because I was thinking about my own son: What if the tables were turned? What if that were him in jail?" Laurie Claar said.
She does not pretend to have any great insight into the crimes Nick Horner is accused of committing, or what to do about them.
"I just think of him as a young person with an issue that he didn't necessarily ask for," Claar said. "Nick and Matt, they served their country, and they didn't ask for the situations that they got into."