In Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Army, Jeremy Ignont ruled. He was indestructible.
"J-Rock" - at 6 feet tall, 225 pounds of solid muscle - was a trained, prolific killing machine. His Army-measured hand-to-hand combat fighting skills were as tough as anybody in those cage matches on TV.
He could kill with his hands and with his weapons.
And he did.
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Ignont survived a blown-up Humvee with a head injury, a booby-trapped corpse that blew up next to him, burns, and a stab wound from an Iraqi who breached a compound and was hell-bent on killing Americans - until he ran into Jeremy Ignont.
That guy killed nobody else after he met up with Jeremy Ignont.
Spc. Ignont was awarded a Purple Heart for his head injury and a wall full of commendations.
"The time I got blown out of the turret, I was back with my guys in two days," Ignont said. "I would have gone back to them if they blew off my legs."
This soldier, originally from Louisiana, was deployed with the infantry three times since 2002. In the only adult world he ever knew since enlisting after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, this warrior held several buddies in his arms as they died.
His first squad in Iraq had eight men in it - six died. He saw bodies in two tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan blown into parts and dust.
He killed the enemy far too many times to ever count.
He saw suicide bombers blow up kids that he had befriended and given candy to. Kids he was there to protect, so the kids would have a better country and future.
His first marriage disintegrated while he was in Iraq. His second marriage failed too, but his second wife had ties to Columbia, so Ignont settled there after leaving the Army in the summer of 2009.
At 27, Ignont could barely sleep. When he did, he suffered nightmares. Or he would sleepwalk. He chain-smoked cigarettes, and sometimes he drank to forget.
Then he would remember and it would start all over again.
Tattooed on his chest, in the shape of dog tags, were the names of each of his buddies who died in Iraq and Afghanistan - the men he had held during their final minutes and watched what even the strongest soldier could not change.
For all his life, the Army had taken care of Ignont's needs, and for that he followed orders and received decorations.
Back home, though, he had to pay rent, find a job, buy a car, figure out what he was supposed to do in a civilian life where a killing machine is not the toughest, baddest, man.
"I was on autopilot," Ignont said. "Sometimes I would just start crying. I would see something on TV - violence or the war - and I would remember those guys dying."
One night in May, lonely, Ignont headed up to Charlotte from Columbia to meet somebody he had talked to online. That turned out to be a dud, so Ignont went home, walking along Interstate 77.
That night, Ignont told police, he came upon a car, empty, and he crawled inside to go to sleep. He was arrested for breaking and entering an automobile, and sent to the York County Detention Center where he sat under $6,000 bond.
"I was thinking in that jail I was charged with a felony, and all that I had done was gone," Ignont recalled.
The next person Ignont met, while sitting in a jail cell, would change - and arguably save - his life.
Angels come to jail
That man who came to see him two days after his arrest was an Iraq veteran who had earned the Bronze Star - the command sergeant major for six area armories of the Army National Guard.
In civilian life his name is Joe Medlin, investigator, York County Public Defender's Office.
Medlin, who knows several veterans who struggled with returns from Iraq and Afghanistan, found in the jail a quiet, almost silent military veteran who clearly had not adjusted to civilian life.
"He was legitimate; I could see it right away," Medlin said. "He made no excuses. He never mentioned that he was the victim of anything. He didn't say he had medals or anything else, either.
"I said to myself, 'This is one of my guys, and I am gonna help him.' "
Medlin walked back upstairs to the public defender's office and spoke to the chief public defender.
Harry Dest immediately headed for the jail. He talked with Ignont. He marveled about this soldier who had no prior criminal convictions - but had lived by his military convictions of duty and service since enlisting after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This is something we have never had here," Dest recalled thinking to himself. "A war hero, in jail, who has never had a chance to figure out how he was going to live in civilian life.'
"Here was a man who had never asked for a single thing in his life, who had served his country doing the unthinkable, and even though he was so physically strong, he needed some help.
"He was used to being the man who helped others, who saved his unit when the guy snuck in with a bomb."
Turned out, the only person who needed saving in civilian life was Ignont himself.
An all-too-common diagnosis
Dest started talking to Lisa Collins, the prosecutor who caught the case for the 16th Circuit Solicitor's Office. He told her that Ignont was not some common criminal who stumbled upon a broken-down car.
Ignont had no money for bond to get out of jail, but Dest didn't want Ignont released anyway. He worked out with Collins a personal recognizance bond to be set on the condition that Ignont receive immediate attention by a Veterans Affairs physician.
Medlin spent weeks investigating Ignont's service and found all the commendations and his honorable discharge after the three deployments.
He and Pat Nivens, a Veterans Affairs officer for York County, arranged for Ignont to be seen at the Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Columbia.
On June 29, Ignont got out of jail and was hustled into the waiting car of Joe Medlin. They drove to Columbia, to try to find a place for Ignont to live while he received treatment.
"The fact was, then, that Jeremy was homeless," Medlin said. "We had to get him treatment and find him a place to live."
After a day of fruitless searching that looked like it would end with Ignont at a homeless shelter, a former neighbor at the apartments where he once lived agreed to let him stay.
Treatment started immediately at the Mental Health Crisis Clinic. Soon, Ignont was diagnosed with an all-too-common ailment among the more than a million troops who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan - post-traumatic stress disorder. Tens of thousands of soldiers had been diagnosed PTSD before Ignont.
"The clinical diagnosis confirmed what we suspected from the start," Dest said, "that Jeremy had never realized that he had these problems and needed help to treat it."
Ignont then earned a job working maintenance at the VA hospital. He set up a bank account. He enrolled at Midlands Technical College on the GI Bill. He was responsible for getting to work and to the hospital for counseling sessions.
"He never missed a scheduled appointment," Medlin said. "I checked in with him and with the people he was reporting to. Some days he has to walk - two miles, each way - but he does it."
Where's the victim?
Dest and Collins had more talks about the case.
The prosecutor had done her own investigating. She had obtained Ignont's military records and found his lack of prior convictions.
She tried to reach the owner of the car in which Ignont had been found, but that person did not respond to her efforts to find out if the car was stolen or anything else about it.
Collins had a case of an alleged property crime, with no victim who would come forward.
She had a decorated military veteran who, a year after leaving the service, was diagnosed with PTSD. She also had a defendant receiving treatment for that PTSD, who had not violated bond in the month since his release from jail and had no prior convictions on his record.
This was not a crime against a person - an assault, a fight, worse - in which Collins said that, military veteran or not, there would have been no way she could drop the case.
Late last week, Collins signed documents dismissing the case. While military service does not provide a "pass" for what Ignont was accused of, she said, she had an allegation in a property crime and no victim.
And Collins had to consider what is justice while considering the defendant's mental health, new diagnosis and honorable military service to his country.
"I hope that his future bears the fruit that his record of service reflects," Collins said. "The bottom line is, this case merited a dismissal."
The prosecutor praised the public defender's office for not just representing Ignont, but going the extra mile and finding out so much about him - securing Ignont the help he needs to have a second chance at life - and following through.
The public defender praised the decision made by the prosecutor to dismiss the case as reasonable and fair.
And that decision gives Ignont a chance to try to start over without a conviction on his record - a conviction that would have hurt his chances at a job or success.
"I am proud to have played a small part in this case," Dest said. "But this was not 'a case.'
"This is about the life of a man who was a soldier, the best at what he did, that the rest of us never really see and sure never do, who now has to learn how to live the rest of his life."
The public defender's investigator and National Guard sergeant major - and Iraq combat veteran himself - hopes other soldiers who need help will reach out for it.
"If others can see that a guy as big and strong, as tough as Jeremy, can get help, they can seek help, too," Medlin said. "They earned it."
The soldier himself praised everyone.
Jeremy Ignont - trained to fight and kill, and did so for so long - was appreciative that Collins dismissed the charge. And he thanked Dest and Medlin for helping him through the darkest part of his life.
He's studying to be a social worker while undergoing treatment. He wants to get his own apartment soon.
Someday, he hopes to help other people, the way Dest and Medlin and Collins helped him.
"Soldiers who come back from Afghanistan or Iraq," Ignont said, "they need somebody to look out for them.
"Soldiers like me."