Haunted by war, troubled nurse dies

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2011 - 8:10 PM

Siblings say their brother, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Pierce, couldn't shake images of Iraq war.


As a bandaged Marine arrived from the battlefield, intensive-care nurse Jim Pierce, center, pointed while shouting out instructions at Camp Viper, southern Iraq, in this 2003 photo. The native of Bird Island, Minn., died in Goodview, Va., at age 52.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune

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Eight years ago at a U.S. military medical tent in Iraq, a local man who said he was shot while walking home asked if he was going to die.

"Not today," replied Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Pierce, an intensive-care nurse from Bird Island, Minn.

"Thank you very much," the Iraqi man said.

Pierce tended to Iraqis in the Iraq war with the same care he gave wounded Americans. But those who knew him well say he never recovered from the experience -- especially the sight of severely injured children -- and returned stateside traumatized, depressed and suicidal.

"He was blown up psychologically," said a sister, Amy Bursch of Foley, Minn.

Pierce, 52, a retired officer, died May 23 at his home in Goodview, Va. Authorities have not ruled on a cause of death; a medical examiner said it is under investigation.

Memorial services will be held Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bird Island.

Family members said Pierce apparently committed suicide in his garage after making several threats or attempts to end his life. After one threat a year ago, four friends from Bird Island flew to Virginia to visit him.

"I think the level of carnage he had seen was more than he'd ever seen before," said high school friend Patrick Daugharty. "He kept talking about all the kids who came in with legs blown off, all these traumatic injuries. I think it just rattled him."

In March 2003 Pierce was assigned to Charlie Surgical Company's Shock Trauma Unit 8, which provided emergency care in dusty tents in the Iraq desert.

He explained his role in treating Iraqis in a March 2003 interview in Iraq with a Star Tribune reporter embedded with the Marines.

"I'm not a fighter," he said. "I'm not a soldier. I'm a nurse. ... In my mind, we are legally and ethically required to do this."

On a day when at least 20 U.S. soldiers were missing or killed in ambushes, Trauma Unit 8 received more injured Marines than it could treat and sent some to a British medical unit.

An armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and Marines responded with machine-gun fire in an area with Iraqi civilians.

"He treated some babies that didn't make it," said Lee Pierce, a brother from Isanti, Minn. "I think that is what really got to him, the death and destruction of the kids as well as the Marines."

Another sister, Lynn Pierce of Sauk Rapids, Minn., recalled him telling of a severely injured woman.

"They saved her, but repeatedly he told me her life was going to be worth nothing in Iraq -- she had no arms, what did they save her for?" she recalled.

"He just couldn't get it out of his mind."

His siblings said Pierce was particularly disturbed by wounded Marines who were roughly the ages of his own son and daughter.

"I think he just felt those were his kids, in a way," Bursch said.

In the past year, Lynn Pierce said, her brother deteriorated. He called and threatened suicide April 4 and again a few weeks later.

Family members said he was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned to the United States.

"He kept saying, 'I'm not the same man I was,'" Bursch said.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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