She was a good soldier. The Army said so.
Military leaders decorated her with commendation, achievement and good conduct medals, and more than a handful of other service ribbons and badges in her first four years.
They sent her to Iraq with the 47th Forward Support Battalion at the start of the war. As a field medic, she was among the first on the scene to treat soldiers hit by roadside bombs, snipers or other wartime violence.
"I loved my job," Spc. Michele McPherson says. "I loved the military."
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Then McPherson herself became a victim of another type of violence in Iraq. She was sexually assaulted by two U.S. Army sergeants, men she knew and trusted.
One held the door shut while the other pinned her on the ground, unbuttoned his pants and assaulted her. Those few minutes of Aug. 7, 2003, began the nightmare that now has the 25-year-old woman fighting to regain custody of her 2-year-old daughter, Katelyn.
It's a messy story. Other than McPherson and her parents, few were willing to talk about it. Their accounts -- supported by military and medical records, court transcripts and congressional correspondence -- depict the unraveling of one Wisconsin soldier who spent 15 months in Baghdad and her ongoing battle to rebuild her life and win back her baby.
McPherson joined the Michigan Army National Guard in 1999 as a high school junior. She went on to study radiology in college, and in 2002 -- about a year before her parents moved to Janesville, Wis., -- she joined the Army. She was stationed in Baumholder, Germany, and quickly excelled, earning top awards for physical training and expert shooting.
There she met James McPherson, an Army private and friend of a friend. They began dating, and in April 2003 both were ordered to Iraq. They married days before they left. Once there, they were stationed an hour apart.
For the first several months, Michele McPherson thrived, according to her commanders and co-workers.
"She was an outstanding soldier ..." McPherson's platoon sergeant in Iraq, Titheben Caldwell, wrote to investigators. "She gave 100 percent in whatever she done."
One day, Caldwell noticed McPherson wasn't herself. She told him she had been sexually assaulted.
Spc. Allana Glines-Bull, too, noticed a change in McPherson.
"Until this point in time she was somewhat shy and naive with an undying desire to learn everything there was to learn in life, she loved everyone and everything, even if they were mean to her; and she always smiled no matter her mood," Glines-Bull wrote in her letter to investigators.
After the assault, everything changed.
Her relationship with her husband deteriorated. A couple of days after the assault, he confronted and threatened the assailants. Afterward, he was sent to an aid station for help and observation. It happened to be the same aid station where McPherson was working as a medic. While there, he overdosed on a bottle of ibuprofen. Michele McPherson was on duty and had to help evacuate him to a combat support hospital.
James McPherson was discharged soon after from the Army.
Depression overcame Michele McPherson and she "began to emotionally break down," Glines-Bull wrote.
Glines-Bull suggested she talk to an Army chaplain and seek help.
McPherson told her she had been ordered to keep the assault quiet while an investigation was conducted. So she continued with her duty, going on raids and patrols, driving in convoys and treating wounded soldiers. She survived roadside bombs and mortar attacks. One of her close friends didn't.
In July 2004, her tour in Iraq was up and she was sent back to Germany, where she was reunited with her husband, and then to Fort Rucker, Ala., where she worked at the Army health clinic and he looked for a civilian job.
Nine months later, Katelyn Rose McPherson was born, into the unsettled world of two Iraq war veterans.
Michele McPherson's symptoms worsened. Images of blown-off faces pierced her thoughts. Guilt that she didn't go on the patrol that killed her friend chipped away at her. She had panic attacks while driving.
Anger and frustration simmered over the assault, which was not intercourse but was violent and traumatic. More than 18 months had passed without word on what sort of punishment, if any, the offenders received. When she filed a formal inquiry, the response letter stated that the military had no record of the offense.
The Army did investigate the assault in 2003, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Division told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the records were kept in Iraq and not filed properly in the United States. Army documents show that one of the soldiers involved received a letter of reprimand for "indecent assault."
Meanwhile, McPherson says, her husband blamed her for the assault and his discharge from the Army, and she partly believed him. She contemplated suicide.
"He said I was a no-good soldier, good for nothing," she says.
James McPherson had little to say besides this: "The best I can say is look into the Southeast Alabama Medical Center, where she was committed twice."
Michele McPherson sought psychiatric help shortly after Katelyn was born. According to medical records, doctors diagnosed her with bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. In June 2005 they prescribed seven drugs, including lithium and the anti-depressant Lexapro. Over the next couple of months they added the sleeping aid Ambien and the stimulants Ritalin and Adderall, which are prescribed to improve concentration.
"I was like a zombie," McPherson says. "It was like I was sleepwalking."
On Nov. 7, 2005, McPherson checked herself in to the mental health ward at the Southeast Alabama Medical Center, a private hospital recommended by the Army. She agreed to have her mother-in-law, Elizabeth McPherson, take Katelyn to her home in California while she tried to recover.
But it wasn't that simple. McPherson spent 10 days in treatment. Over the next seven months, she was in and out of the hospital. Doctors prescribed more drugs, including the anti-psychotic Geodon and benztropine to counter the side effects of the anti-psychotics.
In addition to bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, but they never focused on treating it, McPherson says.
McPherson repeatedly told doctors of her nightmares about carrying dead soldiers to the morgue, panic attacks and other symptoms, she says, but they never addressed those symptoms.
The Army would not comment on McPherson's medical treatment or release her records, despite having written permission from McPherson.
While McPherson tried to recover, Katelyn was shuttled between Alabama and California. James McPherson moved out of the house and later filed for divorce.
In September 2006, the Army discharged Michele McPherson, saying she was no longer fit to serve. They cut her a severance check for $18,174 and ended her seven-year military career.
McPherson's dad, Bob Haas, remembers the day clearly. It was Sept. 22. He drove from his home in Wisconsin to Fort Rucker to retrieve his daughter.
"It was like nobody was there," he says of his daughter. "She could barely talk. It was terrible.
"I thought she was getting a raw deal. Instead of them helping her, she spends 15 months over there and has a little trouble, they cut her out. It's not right."
Haas and McPherson contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., which launched an inquiry into her case.
Four days before McPherson was discharged, Elizabeth McPherson walked into the courthouse in Sonoma County, Calif., and filed an application for temporary guardianship of Katelyn.
"Because of Michele's past actions, threats of suicide, and disinterest in Katelyn, my son, James, feels I can provide the stable environment Katelyn needs until he can relocate to Sonoma County," she wrote in the application. "I do not believe my daughter-in-law, Michele, is capable of caring for Katelyn."
James McPherson signed the application.
On Sept. 20, a judge reviewed the paperwork and signed the guardianship order. There was no hearing, and Michele McPherson was never notified.
The judge, Elaine Rushing, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"It's a very loose standard," says Andrea Ramos, an attorney with Public Counsel, a public interest law firm in Los Angeles. "If you have a child in your care, you can file for temporary guardianship."
Elizabeth McPherson wouldn't answer questions for this article but said: "What are they saying? Let me guess, that I kidnapped Katelyn?"
She later e-mailed a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that says the issue is "very personal to the child and to everyone else involved" and that she didn't want to invade Katelyn's privacy.
Her attorney declined to comment.
Once in Wisconsin, Michele McPherson sought help at Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison. A psychiatrist there, Timothy Howell, immediately recognized McPherson's symptoms as chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Howell wrote in a letter dated Oct. 26, 2006, that he saw no evidence to warrant a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He took McPherson off most of the drugs, other than a thyroid medication and an anti-depressant.
McPherson improved almost immediately, she and her family say.
"The difference is we're in the business of health care," says Patricia Resick, director of the Women's Health Sciences Division of the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is financed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. "The military and the VA have different goals. Their job is not first and foremost taking care of people. At this point in time, it's having a war."
With continued counseling from the VA and the focus on her post-traumatic stress disorder, McPherson is remarkably better now, according to family and friends. She smiles and laughs. The nightmares are only occasional. She's no longer exhausted.
She has two part-time jobs, at a Pick `n Save and at the Prent packaging plant. She's always on time and does more than is required, her supervisors say.
"She's very responsible," says Patti Schindler, McPherson's manager at Pick `n Save. "She's always the first one to say, `Do you need me to do something?' She's always looking for extra work. She'll work any shift in any department."
The one thing holding her back, McPherson and others say: her separation from Katelyn. `I want her back'
"How does anyone expect her to carry on, how's she supposed to heal when you rip her baby away?" says Pat Haas, McPherson's mother. "Shouldn't she have the right to raise her daughter? Yeah, she had some problems, but she got help. She's better."
There have been no allegations in the guardianship documents and court transcripts reviewed by the Journal Sentinel or in interviews with Michele McPherson, her parents and her attorney, Charlotte Creaghan, that McPherson ever harmed Katelyn in any way.
"I'm pretty shocked this was granted in the first place," Creaghan says of Elizabeth McPherson's temporary guardianship. "Usually there's more evidence against the mom -- you can prove she's a meth freak or something. This case is highly abnormal. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted about it."
At a hearing scheduled to begin April 27, a judge will spend a couple of days hearing testimony from witnesses and experts and those on both sides before ruling on who should have custody of Katelyn.
Michele McPherson worries about continuing to afford legal representation to make it through the hearing. She's already spent $9,000 on attorneys and several thousand more on trips to California for previous hearings and to visit Katelyn. And Creaghan says the next hearing could cost another $15,000.
"What is she supposed to do? Give up and say, `Keep her?'" Pat Haas says.
McPherson and her mother worry the court will favor Elizabeth McPherson because she's had Katelyn in her care for so much of the young girl's life. James McPherson recently moved in with his mother and Katelyn.
"I want her back. I want to sign her up for dance lessons and swimming and be her mom," Michele McPherson says. "But I can't get too emotional, or the court will think I'm unstable.
"I don't know what to do."