By the time he shipped out for the war in Iraq in January, Special Forces Sgt. James Alford was a wreck of a soldier.
For five months, he had been doing odd things. He disappeared from Ft. Campbell, Ky., for several days last year. He lost equipment and lied to superiors. In December, he was demoted from staff sergeant to sergeant.
In the Kuwaiti desert, he came apart. The hotshot Green Beret who a year earlier ran circles around his team members and was recommended for a Bronze Star in Afghanistan was ordered to carry a notepad to remember orders. By March, he was being cited for dereliction of duty, larceny and lying to superiors. He couldn't even keep track of his gas mask.
Finally, in April, his commanders had had enough. They ordered him to return to Ft. Campbell to be court-martialed and kicked out of the Special Forces.
"Your conduct is inconsistent with the integrity and professionalism required by a Special Forces soldier," Lt. Col. Christopher E. Conner of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group Headquarters in Kuwait, wrote April 10.
Confused and disgraced, the soldier moved back into his off-base home where he ate canned meat and anchovies, unaware of the day, the month or the year.
Sensing that something was wrong, a neighbor called Alford's parents. They drove 600 miles from east Texas to find a son who'd lost 30 pounds and could no longer drink from a glass, use a telephone, button his shirt or say his wife's name, Amber (a soldier who was still stationed in the Middle East).
They rushed him to an emergency room. A month and several hospitals later, Alford's family learned that he was dying of an illness that was eating away his brain. He had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an extremely rare and fatal degenerative brain disorder akin to mad cow disease that causes rapid, progressive dementia.
Now, as the 25-year-old soldier wastes away in his boyhood home, his parents and his wife are struggling to understand how the military could have misdiagnosed Alford's erratic, forgetful behavior as nothing more than the symptoms of a sloppy, incompetent soldier.
"He had to hold his hands to keep them from shaking, but they saw nothing wrong with my child," his mother, Gail Alford, a nine-year Army veteran, said recently from her home in a rural community near Marshall, Texas.
Alford's parents say Special Forces staff told them that a doctor in Kuwait found nothing wrong with him and that a psychiatrist there had said Alford was "faking it."
Army officials have acknowledged that the 5th Special Forces Group erred and, more than eight months after Alford's demotion, they reinstated his staff sergeant rank.
But the dying soldier's family wants more. They want a public apology for the ridicule and disgrace that they say filled Alford's final days of service.
"They called him stupid, told him he was lazy, he was a liar, that he wasn't any good, that he was a faker," his mother said, recalling what little her son could tell her about his time in Kuwait. "I want them shamed the way they shamed my son."
And they want his pay restored and his medical benefits maintained. The Army declared Alford medically incompetent, placed him on retirement status and froze his pay earlier this month until his parents could prove in court that they were his legal guardians. His mother says she was given power of attorney long ago.
Army officials say they're just following procedures intended to protect soldiers.
Alford's father, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Alford, who served 34 years, said that Army doctors have been caring and professional, and that commanders stationed his son's wife, Army Spc. Amber Alford, in Texas near her husband.
He mainly faults the Special Forces.
"I think they did everything they could to break him, mentally and physically," he said.
Maj. Robert Gowan, a spokesman for Army Special Forces Command, said 5th Group is saddened by the soldier's disease and regretful that it wasn't diagnosed sooner. But, he said, a public apology may not be appropriate.
"This disease was not caused by 5th Group and the regret they express is in regards to the tragedy," Gowan said last week, adding that the unit "acted on the information they had available at the time. If everyone would have known that Sgt. Alford was sick, things might have been handled differently."
Alford himself may have tried to conceal his symptoms, said Dr. Steve J. Williams, a clinical fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
"He was capable of masking the symptoms because he was resourceful and he was a smart guy," said Williams, who diagnosed Alford with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. "I'd ask him what floor he was on and I could catch him looking outside and counting the number of windows."
Doctors believe that Alford has the classic form of the disease, which develops spontaneously. It affects just one in 100 million people under 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Col. David Dooley, an infectious disease doctor at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, said Special Forces staff shouldn't take the blame for missing Alford's illness. A delayed diagnosis is "typical and classic"; the average lag time for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is five to seven months, he said.
"If I'm going to hold anything against them, [it's that] they might have come around a little faster when a medical problem was recognized," Dooley said. "The Special Forces Group was fairly inert to the face of data that we medics were showing them."
Alford's parents believe that he has a variant form of the disease, which is caused by eating brains or nervous system tissue from an infected cow. They wonder if he got it from eating sheep brains that locals served to soldiers as an honor in Oman two years ago.
But there is no evidence that people can get the disease from sheep.
Doctors also note that Alford didn't have the outbursts of anger and depression usually associated with the variant form of the disease, and that his illness has progressed at the faster rate resembling the classic form.
Alford was the youngest man in 5th Group and his wife says some of his team members resented his promotion. At least one team member said Alford seemed a bit immature and made a few bad decisions when he first joined, but he earned decorations, military records show.
His parents said he was awarded the Bronze Star in May 2002 for "gallant conduct" in leading reconnaissance patrols in Kandahar and helping capture suspected Iranian terrorists.
But in yet another painful point of contention, Gowan said the Bronze Star recommendation was downgraded to an Army Commendation Medal. Gowan was unable to explain the Bronze Star on Alford's uniform.
Staff Sgt. Miguel Fabbiani, a friend of Alford's and a member of the same team based at Ft. Campbell, said Alford's symptoms escalated during wartime when he was working with a new group that didn't know him as well. And people remembered past youthful errors.
Alford's parents said they didn't see him enough to detect a problem. His wife was stationed near him for a while in Kuwait, but she chalked up his odd behavior to stress.
Alford's father said the actions of his son's superiors broke the spirit of a young man who had wanted to become a soldier since he was 4.
He now lies in pastel sheets next to a wall painting of John Wayne. Wearing a Houston Texans T-shirt that hangs like a hospital gown, he stares absently into a TV that glows 24 hours, his hands gripping stuffed animals to keep them from clenching shut.
"He knows his name, sometimes," said his wife, a tiny woman in sneakers who helps tend her husband as she ponders a life alone. "Sometimes I'll go up to him, wink at him and make kissy faces and he laughs."
Her eyes well up as she remembers the handsome, arrogant boy she met as a teenager at a barrel-racing contest in Texas.
As his brain deteriorates, his organs will fail.
"He will go blind, he will go deaf, he will lose everything," his father said.
He stopped walking more than a month ago, mumbles when he tries to speak, is fed intravenously and takes medicine for insomnia, pain and tremors. Doctors have told the family that he probably won't live to see Christmas.
The Army told the family that the issues over Alford's pay could be resolved within weeks, but the family is skeptical. They aren't sure how they will pay his bills and maintain his 24-hour care without his salary.
"It's very sad when the people who are putting their life on the line for this country should be treated like this," Alford's father said. "This has been a bureaucratic nightmare. We've got enough to deal with on a daily basis, caring after our son and dealing with our pain and weariness and our suffering, to have to fight the U.S. Army."
The Army may be coming around, though. The Alfords got their first call from 5th Group Command just days ago. The soldier's father said the deputy commander apologized for what the family had been through, assigned a lawyer to work with them on pay and benefits issues, and said he would personally handle any future problems.
"It would seem to me that they are now finally accepting responsibility, and that's what I wanted in the first place," his father said.
The family had fought for four months before the soldier's rank was reinstated in September.
John Alford knew that his son might not live long enough to get the good news, so he had already told him a "white lie" that he had been vindicated.
"It was very important to him because he kept saying, 'I didn't do anything wrong, Daddy.' "