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Behind the Navy Cross, a hero's troubled heart

Despite heavy resistance from enemy automatic weapon fire and a barrage of grenades, Corporal Workman fearlessly ...

Jeremiah Workman stood at attention and tried to listen as the narrator read the citation that detailed what he'd done to earn the Navy Cross, an award for valor that is second only to the Medal of Honor.

... Corporal Workman again exposed himself to enemy fire while providing cover fire for the team when an enemy grenade exploded directly in front of him, causing shrapnel wounds to his arms and legs ...

He was standing on the parade ground, facing a grandstand packed with hundreds of people, including his wife and his mother. Behind him were several hundred Marine recruits who were about to graduate from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., where Workman had recently lost his job as a drill instructor after he suffered what he calls a "mental meltdown."

... Although injured, he led a third assault into the building, rallying his team one last time to extract isolated Marines ...

When the narrator finished reading the story of Workman's "extraordinary heroism" in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Richard Tryon pinned the Navy Cross to Workman's uniform and the crowd in the grandstand stood and cheered. It was a moment of well-deserved triumph, but it didn't make Workman feel any better.

"When they put that medal on me, from that point on, I sunk deeper into depression," he recalls. "Everybody says it must be awesome to win the Navy Cross. Well, as a matter of fact, it's not. I lost three guys that day, so for the longest time, I didn't even want to wear it. I'd look down at it and see three dead Marines."

Workman, 23, is sitting in a restaurant at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., where he now works, his Navy Cross ribbon pinned to his uniform, just above his heart.

"If we lost three people, why did I get an award?" he says softly. "The last thing I think is that I'm a hero."

"I enlisted two days after my 17th birthday," Workman says. "I was a junior in high school. A year later, when I graduated, they shipped me to Parris Island."

He grew up in Marion, Ohio, son of a factory worker and a housewife. A jock in high school, he wanted to be an Ohio state trooper, but you have to be 21, so he figured he'd join the Marine Corps first.

"In my eyes, the Marine Corps was the elite, the tip of the spear," Workman says. "I walked into the recruiter's office and said, 'I want to be a Marine.' I was probably the easiest person they ever talked to."

After boot camp he spent two boring years guarding nuclear submarines at a base in Georgia. In August 2003, he married his high school sweetheart, Jessica Jordan.

In September 2004, he was sent to Iraq and stationed at a base outside Fallujah, the insurgent-controlled city where four American contractors had been killed in the spring, their corpses burned, dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge.

"Fallujah &

that was no man's land," he recalls. "When we drove past, you didn't even look because you knew it was a bad place."

In November 2004, Workman's platoon, part of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, got its orders: It would join the thousands of soldiers and Marines attacking Fallujah &

Operation Phantom Fury, the largest American military action since the invasion of Iraq. First, warplanes pounded the city with bombs. Then, in a driving rain, the Marines moved in.

Workman was a squad leader in a mortar platoon. For 17 days, they hunkered down in the mud in the northwest corner of Fallujah, firing at insurgent positions.

"We killed a lot of people with those mortar rounds," he says, "but it's not personal. You don't see the guys' eyes."

mid-December, the Marines had conquered most of Fallujah and there wasn't much need for mortar fire anymore, so Workman's platoon was split in two and sent out to patrol the city, searching houses, looking for weapons. On Dec. 22, the other half of the platoon got into a nasty firefight.

"Some Marines were wounded pretty badly, and they're all charred. It looks like they've been in a fire," Workman recalls. "They come back and we're like, 'Holy cow!' So it's our turn to go out the next morning and we're kinda nervous. That night we're all still up at 2 o'clock in the morning, scrubbing our weapons, making sure they're perfect. We all had this gut feeling that the next day, we're gonna get in some sort of fight."

"It starts out like any other normal day," Workman says.

Workman commanded one team of 10 Marines; his friend, Sgt. Jarrett Kraft, commanded another.

"I take my guys on the right side of the street. Kraft takes his guys on the left side of the street," he recalls. "We search the first two houses &

same old crap, we found some guns and ammo and carried it out to the street and threw it in the Humvee."

Searching the third house, Workman heard a blast of machine-gun fire from the house across the street, where Kraft and his men ran into a group of heavily armed insurgents.

"We were pretty much ambushed by a lot of insurgents on the second floor of the house," recalls Kraft, who is now a police officer in Fresno, Calif. He also was awarded a Navy Cross for his actions that day.

"I was scared," Workman says, laughing. "I really was. ... When you get caught in a situation like that, it's a real man check. For two seconds, you have to look in that invisible mirror that's not there and look at yourself and question yourself as a man. And say, 'OK, I'm a corporal in the Marine Corps and I have guys that are looking up to me for leadership. What am I going to do?' ... So I grabbed everybody in the house and we come running."

Gun smoke rose from the windows of the house across the street. Workman ordered several men to guard the outside and then led the rest inside, where a lieutenant informed them that Marines were trapped on the second floor.

"The lieutenant looks at me and says, 'We gotta get in there.' I said, 'OK, I'll follow you.' " He laughs. They then formed a line called a "stack" at the foot of the stairway.

"The lieutenant gets out of the way. Now, I'm the front man. I don't want to be." He laughs again. "In the citation, it says that Workman went in first every time. I'll be honest: It wasn't planned that way. ... The lieutenant says, 'On three we're gonna go.' One, two, three. Bam! He kicks me and I go running up the stairs."

As he ran, machine-gun bullets buzzed past him, but he made it to the safety of the landing, protected from insurgent fire by a thick wall. But he was alone. Nobody had followed him.

"I remember him going up the staircase," says Kraft, who had escaped from the second floor after the ambush. "There was a lot of confusion and the second guy in the stack sort of hesitated and that kept the rest of the stack back."

"So these guys are downstairs yelling at me, 'Get back down here.' And I'm like, 'You get up here.' I'm cussing at 'em," Workman says, smiling. "But it was a lieutenant, so I pretty much have to go down. I closed my eyes and did a Superman dive down the stairs."

The fall knocked the wind out of him. His buddies stood him back up.

They formed another stack with Workman again in front. He took off. This time, everybody followed and they reached the landing safely. They crept up another set of stairs toward the second floor. Workman had almost reached the top when a yellow grenade bounced into view.

"This thing went off and it felt like somebody hit me in the leg with a baseball bat," he says. "I look back and guys were laying down, knocked over. And I go, 'Is everybody good?' ... Pretty much everybody got hit with shrapnel but we were all able to fight."

They climbed the stairs and fired at the insurgents, who were barricaded in a bedroom. After an intense firefight, the Marines ran low on ammunition and retreated outside to reload.

then, two of the Marines they'd come to rescue were dead. Two other Marines dropped their bodies off a porch, then jumped down after them.

"One of the Marines comes stumbling out of this yard next to the house," Workman says. "He's covered with blood. He looked like a zombie. And he just falls over. I run up and grab him."

"Workman grabbed him and dragged him down the street while the insurgents were firing down at us from the rooftop," Kraft recalls. Workman carried the wounded Marine to a couple of Humvees, where a medical corpsman began working on him. Workman saw two other Marines sprawled in the back of a Humvee: Cpl. Raleigh Smith and Lance Cpl. Eric Hillenburg.

"Hey, doc!" he yelled. "Get up here!"

"They're all right," yelled the corpsman, who was treating the Marine that Workman had dragged to safety.

"I'm yelling, 'Doc, get your ass up here!' And he's yelling, 'They're all right, dammit, leave 'em be.' And I'm like, 'Get up here!' And he says, 'They're dead, man, they're dead.'"

Workman jumped out of the Humvee. "This was the first time I'd ever seen a dead Marine, ever," he says. "It was like somebody flipped a switch, like it wasn't even me anymore. ... I grabbed whoever's standing around and we ran back into the house. Now it's like vengeance. I want to take as many insurgents out as possible."

The house was dark, the air heavy with smoke. Workman led another charge up the stairs and ran into another grenade.

"It knocked most of us down," he says. "At this point, none of us wants to get up. We're like, 'We're gonna die here.' My buddy, he gets up and fights and I hear this horrendous scream. They hit him with an AK47 and it literally tore the whole triceps off his arm."

Workman pulled the pin on a grenade and tossed it into the bedroom where the insurgents were barricaded, and then the Marines tumbled back downstairs.

"I collapse at the bottom of the stairs," he says. "I'm, like, done. And Major (Todd) Desgrosseilliers grabbed me by the helmet and dragged me out of the house."

All the Marines were out of the building and an M1A1 tank had arrived. It blasted the house to rubble.

At least 24 insurgents were killed in the battle. The Marines lost three men &

Smith, Hillenburg and Lance Cpl. James Phillips.

"We went back to the makeshift morgue at Camp Fallujah," Workman says, "and we unloaded the bodies."

He's been talking for over a hour, sitting in the museum at a table in Tun's Tavern &

named for the place the Marine Corps was founded. He started out with laughs but now he's serious, his green eyes sad and tired.

"The next morning I felt like I'd been in a car accident," he says. Corpsmen had pulled some shrapnel out of him, some still remains. "Everybody was pretty much wounded. And three guys were dead. ... Eric and James lived in the same bedroom. I went into that room and there are two empty racks. Seeing the empty cots, that's when it sank in. ... When somebody dies, you gotta get all their belongings and take it back to base camp. You're going through the pockets in their cammies, finding pictures of their girlfriend, their mom and dad."

After a few days of rest, Workman's platoon was back out, patrolling roads and manning checkpoints outside Fallujah. They remained there until April 2005. Workman didn't see much action, but he kept busy enough that he didn't think too much about the day his buddies died.

He was promoted to sergeant and he re-enlisted, requesting to become a drill instructor after his return. That spring, his platoon was at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

"That's when the world came crashing down," he says. "That's when you have time to think about what really happened, that they're really gone."

Jessica, his wife, was in Ohio, attending Nationwide Beauty Academy, studying to become a hairstylist. He was in California, partying every night.

"It's easy to self-medicate with alcohol," he says. "With Marines, you're not gonna get off the plane and say, 'I need help from a psychiatrist.' We adapt by getting drunk every night."

When he arrived at drill instructor school at Parris Island that September, he stopped drinking, he says. That's when the nightmares began:

"I would dream this: a staircase, never ending. And I'm running back and forth, being chased by insurgents, and they're throwing grenades at me. And I run and I run and I run until I finally get tired and I can't go on and they catch me and they kill me. Then I'd wake up and I'd be crying and I'd have mental pictures of my guys laying in the back of that truck."

He avoided the nightmare by avoiding sleep. All day he worked as a drill instructor, all night he paced and brooded.

"Physically, I was a drill instructor," he says. "Mentally, I was somewhere else."

One day in the spring of 2006, he marched his recruits into the mess hall and then froze, staring into space.

"I didn't see the recruits, I didn't see anything," he recalls. "People are saying, 'Hey, what's going on?' I said, 'I don't give a (bleep) about you, I don't give a (bleep) about the recruits.' ... I went downhill from there and they sent me to mental health."

The doctors concluded Workman was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They prescribed some pills and sent him home for 10 days.

"They wanted to get me home to be with my family to mellow out," he says.

Back in Ohio, he stayed with Jessica at her parents' house. Late one night, he got out of bed and wandered into the garage.

"He was out there for a while and I thought, 'What's he doing out there?'" Jessica remembers. "I went out there and he had my dad's rifle, and I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'I don't know why I'm here.' "

She took him inside and later that night saw him swallowing a handful of pills. "I had to literally stick my hands in his mouth and make him vomit," she recalls.

"Obviously, I probably wanted to hurt myself," Workman says. "But I don't remember much about it."

When he returned to Parris Island, he was assigned to do odd jobs, "basically like a janitor," he says.

And then he won the Navy Cross.

Suddenly, he was a hero. Reporters interviewed him. Generals posed for pictures with him. He met Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Ross Perot, Hillary Clinton and various other bigwigs. His home town declared Jeremiah Workman Day. Strangers begged to buy him a drink.

"Everybody else was more excited than I was," he says. "I was just slipping further into depression because I was reliving everything now. Everybody wants you to tell the story: How did you do it? How many people did you kill? I'm like, why don't you ask me to tell stories about my guys?"

His guys, Smith, Phillips and Hillenburg, haunted him. He saw them in his dreams. He saw them when he looked at his Navy Cross. They got killed and he got a medal. Did that make any sense? That summer, he had their names tattooed on his back.

"This," he says, "is what I have to put in my mind to be able to wear this medal and not be ashamed: I accepted this medal for three guys who didn't make it back. So it's really theirs."

In the fall, Workman was transferred to Quantico and stationed at the new National Museum of the Marine Corps. He walks around in his uniform, talking to tourists, sometimes posing for pictures with the ones who recognize the importance of the Navy Cross ribbon on his chest.

"I'm an ambassador for the Marine Corps, I guess," he says with a laugh.

Jessica found work as a hairstylist. On Feb. 21, she gave birth to their first child, a son, Devon.

Months ago, Workman stopped taking his medicines. "I don't want to be a pill popper," he says. "But I pay for it. I have more bad days than I probably would if I was on the medication."

"I'd rather that he was still on the medications," says Jessica. "His mood swings are so much worse. He'll be fine one minute and then he's freaking out. With PTSD, you never know. It's a roller coaster every day."

When people call you a hero, what do you think?

He thinks for a moment. "Hero?" he says. "I almost laugh."

And then he does laugh. But he quickly gets serious. "Almost any infantry Marine would have done what I did. You don't have a choice. What are you gonna do? Not do it? And live for the rest of your life knowing that you hesitated and didn't act and more people may have died because you didn't do anything?"

He risked his life for his fellow Marines and that pleases him. "I did learn a lot about myself that day," he says. "In front of family and friends, you're the big tough Marine but ... you always question yourself about whether you have what it takes in a situation like that. Not everybody does. I answered my own question that day. I was scared and I didn't want to do it, but I did it. That gives me some pride, I guess."

But that was then, he points out, and this is now. "I couldn't tell you if I could do it again," he says. "I would love to believe that every time something like that happened, I would do the same thing, but I don't know."

He does know one thing: He wants to go back to Iraq.

"I've volunteered. I've told everybody I can. Right now, they want to keep me here. ... A lot of these high-ranking people think they know what's best for you. And in their minds, what's best for me is staying here and having a normal family life and going home every night. Whereas in my mind and in my heart, I want to get back into the fight."

He says: "A lot of my friends have been there three or four times. I think if I got one more tour over there, I'd feel better in the heart. I don't want to go down as a one-hit wonder."