Iraq War Story Hits Close to Home

Tragedy turned comic book writer Eric Trautmann's fledgling story about a private military contractor personal in September 2005.

His brother-in-law, David Shephard, was working for Blackwater USA when he died in Iraq while protecting a State Department official on a security detail.

Shephard's memory lives on in the 144 pages of "Shooters," a black-and-white graphic novel that Trautmann co-wrote as "his counterfire against unnuanced portrayals of warfare" related to soldiers and contractors.

The story's main character is based in part on Shephard, a former Lacey resident, as well as other soldiers Trautmann has met. Portions of the story set in 2003-04 take place at Fort Lewis.

The story centers on a former soldier who returns to Iraq as a contractor as he tries to cope with a traumatic experience during his Army deployment. It revolves around themes of duty and redemption while exploring current issues for an Army strained by two ground wars: post-traumatic stress disorder, a soldier's adjustment into civilian life and problems at home.

Trautmann, 40, began writing the story as a traditional novel before ShepA­hard's death. It was his effort to reconcile what he considered the media's portrayal of military contractors as out-of-control guns for hire with his brother-in-law and other contractors he met who were committed to improving Iraq and the lives of its people.

"War shouldn't be black and white," he said. "War is gray, and I wanted the book to be gray and maybe make people think a little bit before automatically assuming that's a good guy, that's a bad guy, because the world is too sophisticated and complicated."

But he shelved the story after Shephard's death.

The son of a Army lieutenant colonel, Shephard attended Timberline High School in Lacey and graduated from The Evergreen State College. He joined the Army Reserve Special Forces in 1986 and moved to National Guard Special Forces eight years later. He married his wife, Cindy, in 1997 and started a construction company when the couple was living in Lacey five years earlier. (Unlike the marriage portrayed in "Shooters," their union was a happy one.) He worked for contractors in Sierra Leone and Botswana, and deployed with the National Guard to the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, his wife said.

Shephard, a chief warrant officer, served in Iraq before and shortly after the 2003 invasion and then left for Afghanistan shortly upon his return. He was assigned to a unit of the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) based in Buckley.

His wife, a research scientist at the University of Washington, said war changed her husband. He had trouble adjusting to life back home and grew irritated at people complaining about minor inconveniences, she said. He didn't talk about his experience in an effort to shield her. The drive to return to finish something that wasn't finished, which Trautmann recalled Shephard expressing on several occasions, emerges as a major theme of "Shooters."

Trautmann's wife, Gabrielle Shephard, 37, who owns Olympic Cards and Comics in Lacey, said her brother saw his mission as trying to bring peace to the various sects in Iraq.

"He wanted to make that connection," she said. "He wanted to build communities."

Shephard returned to Iraq in summer 2005 as a Blackwater USA employee. On Sept. 19, 2005, according to reports, he was in a vehicle with three other occupants in a security convoy for a U.S. diplomat in Mosul.

A suspicious vehicle headed toward the diplomat's car, but the vehicle carrying Shephard rammed it instead. The bomb that exploded in the other vehicle killed Shephard, 41, and the three other occupants. The diplomat survived.

"That book had a lot of freight with it as I was writing it," Trautmann recalled. "Every word I typed was, 'Is this the one that's going to offend his widow? Is this the one that's going to make his father angry?' "

Around 2008, the editor at Vertigo, the adult-oriented imprint of DC Comics, approached Trautmann and co-writer Brandon Jerwa about pitching a military-A­related story. Their ideas flopped until they examined the story idea Trautmann had put in a drawer after Shephard's death.

Trautmann said his partner provided him the emotional distance to continue the project. He said the work is apolitical -- "It's not about the policies that put them there. It's about the reality of them being there." -- and what some may deem unflattering scenes of the military are presented without judgment.

Jerwa, 38, of Tukwila, said in an interview he asked Trautmann about a dozen times if he was sure about the project's direction.

"I certainly didn't want to be the person who came in from the outside and didn't get it right," he said.

The project became personal for Jerwa, as well. His wife broke most of the bones in the right side of her body after a head-on car crash in October 2008. Jerwa found himself writing about the main character's recuperation from injuries while his wife was recovering from her own 10 feet from him. The emotional toll was so great some days Jerwa was unable to write those scenes.

"It was a really rough time for us because it changed our lives dramatically," he said, although he added the experience brought a deeper level of realism to those scenes.

Steve Lieber, a well-known comic book artist who lives in Portland, accepted the writers' invitation to illustrate the story.

Gabrielle Shephard, who deliberately separated herself from the project to avoid influencing her husband, said "Shooters" strikes the right balance.

"I was really pleased with it because all the things that I said would happen happened, which was he respected the military, he respected the family, he respected Dave's memory but still told a very difficult story," she said.

The story, she continued, is relevant today as tens of thousands of soldiers try to readjust to civilian life.

She and her husband have befriended many soldiers who come into the shop, and have seen marriages fall apart and soldiers steel themselves for a coming deployment only to try to find themselves after the homecoming.

"It is a sacrifice of a piece of them that they have to give up, if not for nine months or 12 months or 15 months," she said. "But in some cases that is a piece they have to put away forever because of some decision they've had to make.

"I think this book touches on that, and that people leave and come back very different."

She said some soldiers who have started to read advance copies of "Shooters" have had to put it down because it hits too close to home.

Cindy Shephard, 48, described the project as a "beautiful tribute" to her husband's memory. But she also wasn't able to finish it.

"It's still hurts too much," she said.

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