LAS VEGAS (AP) - With a Silver Star medal clipped to his Air Force jacket, 1st Lt. Thomas Cahill spoke humbly about his efforts to pilot a rescue helicopter through enemy fire while flying low over eastern Afghanistan's snowcapped mountains.
His "uncanny skills," his citation read, for keeping the Pave Hawk airborne in thin air at low rotor speed with mortar rounds whizzing by resulted in saving three men during that mission on March 3, 2002.
"As dark as it was, impacting the terrain was my first enemy," he said five years ago after his award ceremony at Nellis Air Force Base. "I would say it was probably luck."
In the years since Operation Anaconda, Cahill's luck and his adversary have changed. Cahill's enemy now is post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety that stirs nightmarish memories of terrifying ordeals from the battlefield.
He was court-martialed and pleaded guilty May 27 to charges related to off-base thefts and was confined in the brig at Nellis until his release in September. Cahill's attorneys argued that his illness caused him to lose focus in his job with the 561st Joint Tactics Squadron and do things out of character.
"Who rescues the rescuer?" asked one of his attorneys, Craig Mueller.
"The Air Force admitted they didn't recognize his PTSD and change of ehavior until the end of his tour," Mueller said days after Cahill's case concluded. "There are eight or nine people today who wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for him."
Cahill was brought up on military charges after he was arrested by Las Vegas police in 2006 for stealing a car-haul trailer. He also was charged with stealing an all-terrain vehicle, a race boat, making a false official statement, conspiracy to commit larceny, conduct unbecoming an officer, receiving stolen property and obstructing justice.
The race boat and all-terrain vehicle theft charges were dropped from his guilty plea, but the other charges stood.
Cahill was sentenced to five months' confinement, but was released a month early for good behavior. In lieu of a $10,000 fine, he paid $8,000 in restitution to cover the thefts, a Nellis spokeswoman said.
Part of his sentence entailed counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy for post-traumatic stress. It aims to change thoughts to change behavior.
For his plea, Cahill's attorneys said, he will be allowed to retire honorably from the Air Force as a captain, enabling him to pursue veterans benefits and continued counseling for post-traumatic stress through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cahill declined to be interviewed but offered an apology in a handwritten statement.
"My decision is based on my fear of any retaliation that could come from my speaking out about the lack of proper treatment for my PTSD," he said.
His mother, Susan Peek, also declined interview requests. She testified on Cahill's behalf, as did his brother.
Air Force officials at Nellis wouldn't comment about Cahill's case, but confirmed he has returned to duty with the 99th Mission Support Group.
They said they don't have a specific program to deal with post-traumatic stress among active duty troops but focus on awareness and hope that those with post-traumatic stress voluntarily seek help through the mental health program at the base north of Las Vegas.
"Awareness is a big piece of this," said Lt. Col. Kevin McCal, a Nellis psychologist who served in Afghanistan and commands the 99th Medical Operations Squadron.
"What we do in the Air Force is a lot of prevention education."
An airman, soldier, sailor or Marine deployed for extended periods in the war zone "can come back a different person," McCal said. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can include forgetfulness, fatigue and family problems.
"When you come back, will your morals have changed, and will your beliefs change? It's possible that ... some of those things might be challenged," McCal said.
"It's unlikely you'll come back and say something like, 'It's OK to beat my wife,' when it wasn't before. Or, 'I think I want this in the store, so I'll just take it.' You'll still recognize right from wrong."
Still, McCal said, there may be an inability to adjust to life away from the battlefield.
"You could come back an individual that has a shorter temper because your patience is not what it used to be," he said, "You could come back and be an individual that doesn't sleep so well for whatever reason."
Some who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder don't seek help because they think they should be able to handle it themselves, McCal said, "and therefore they stop talking, and the symptoms get worse."
McCal said active-duty post-traumatic stress disorder cases have increased at the base since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but
some cases fall through the cracks. And few of those who check in
for help are pilots.
"I won't say they're scared of mental health, but they don't like to go anywhere which may risk their flying status," McCal said.
Helicopter rescue pilots, he noted, have a more close-up view of the battlefield than, say, a fighter jet pilot.
"Rescue pilots have to land usually under hot fire, pick up somebody who is hurt or injured, more likely severely if they're called in. So, they have a higher degree of danger.
"I don't think the public needs to be scared that the military is getting wiped out by PTSD, or that parents have to worry that all kids that go to war are going to come back with some kind of four-letter disorder, because they won't, all of them," McCal said.
"But they do need to know that if their kids come back and they're not the same somehow and different to see if they can get them some help. Again, it's all about education."
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)