NEW PORT RICHEY — In April, Dianne and Greg Clouse clipped a story out of the St. Petersburg Times and sent it to their son, Zakary Gansert, a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. They were worried and had been for months, ever since he got home in August after a year in Iraq.
He was changed — angry, jumpy, full of nightmares when he could sleep, which wasn't often. He and his wife separated. He didn't speak of Iraq. He told his parents he was in the warrior transition battalion at Fort Carson, which was what the article was about.
The story, originally written by the New York Times, talked about the Army's warrior transition units, which were created after the 2007 controversy about shortcomings in veteran care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. These units were supposed to be places where physically and emotionally injured soldiers could heal. The story said there were about 7,200 soldiers at 32 units in the Army, with about 465 soldiers enrolled at Fort Carson.
"For many soldiers, they have become warehouses of despair, where damaged men and women are kept out of sight, fed a diet of powerful prescription pills and treated harshly by noncommissioned officers," the story read.
Gansert got the article in the mail, but he didn't talk with his parents about it. He didn't say if he felt the same way, if he thought his care was adequate.
"Wow," is all he said, according to his mother. Then the subject dropped. Dianne and Greg — who is Gansert's stepfather but raised him since he was a toddler — said their son often sounded groggy when they spoke. They knew he was prescribed Xanax, but didn't know what else.
"He was so lonely," Greg Clouse said.
Since he was a child — the youngest of five — all Gansert wanted to do was to be in the Army.
"He felt that God intended him to be in the military and serve our country," Dianne Clouse said.
Now, he told his parents he planned to be discharged, move back to the Tampa Bay area, join the reserves and continue his treatment at a VA hospital.
Early last week, he began coughing up blood, his mother said. She said he was scheduled to have tests done July 15.
But that morning, he was found dead in his barracks, his parents said.
They don't know what happened. The Army completed an autopsy and is running toxicology tests, the Clouses said.
"Right now, it's still under investigation," said Brandy Gill, a spokeswoman for Fort Carson. "The Army is very much looking into it and we are doing the best we can to figure out what happened."
Gill wouldn't confirm that Gansert was in the warrior transition unit. She said he was officially listed as a private in the 2nd Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
"The Army is a family, and we care about every single one of our soldiers," Gill said. "Every one of them is important."
She said "our hearts and prayers" go out to Gansert's relatives.
His family said they know it was not suicide. He was excited about coming home, they said.
Greg Clouse talked of how charming his son was before the war. People were drawn to him; kind, funny, handsome Zakary, who loved art and camping and sports. He grew up in Ohio, moving with his parents when he was 16 to New Port Richey, where he graduated from River Ridge High School.
His parents last saw him when he came home for a few days for Christmas. His mother said he was happy to be here and didn't want to go back — but knew he had to.
"This is absolutely devastating," Greg Clouse said. "My boy …"
He paused, cleared his throat.
"He was such a good boy," he said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.