Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
Early in the morning of May 27, 2011, Adan Castaneda grabbed his .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and called a taxi to drive him from his San Antonio apartment to his mother’s Spring Branch home, roughly 30 miles north of the city. Standing at the end of the dark driveway, Castaneda raised the pistol and peppered the house with gunfire as his mother and stepfather slept inside. He fired 23 rounds into the one-story country home, bullets buzzing through curtains, shattering windows and digging into walls, door posts, and framed family photos. Police found him wandering the streets four blocks away.
Castaneda’s arrest that night marked the unsettling finale of a breakdown that began with his return from the Iraq War more than two years earlier, says his mother, Maria Anna Esparza. Discharged days after Christmas in 2008, Castaneda had become increasingly depressed, paranoid, and delusional, Esparza says. He’d begun to hear voices, violent voices.
Esparza displays a brief smile as she thumbs through old family photos, saying Castaneda was always the clever one in the family, funny with a sarcastic and dry sense of humor. The humor never came back from Iraq, she says, and old photographs of Adan smiling brightly with friends sharply contrast the dull, empty gaze captured in his mugshot following the shooting. Looking at the photos, Esparza repeats, “He’s just not the same person.”
A perfect storm of substance abuse and a horrific family tragedy, the murder of his little brother, pushed Castaneda over the edge, his mother says. He couldn’t hold down a job. He isolated himself inside his apartment, shut out from the rest of the world. Even as his outbursts grew increasingly intense, doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs evaluating Castaneda for VA benefits declared he only suffered from depression, nothing more.
Now after nearly six months in solitary confinement in the Comal County Jail without mental health treatment, a judge declared Castaneda incompetent to stand trial on November 10, the day the Marine Corps celebrates its founding. When he completes a 120-day state hospital stint in the hopes of restoring his competency, Castaneda will likely go back to court to face charges that, if not dropped or reduced, could put him behind bars for over a decade.
Castaneda was deployed during the so-called surge of extra U.S. troops into Iraq, a shift in military strategy meant to quell raging violence on the ground in a war that has now claimed over 4,400 American troops, at least 100,000 Iraqis, and tens of thousands more injured. Now, Castaneda’s pending legal case coincides with what retired Lt. Colonel Hector Villarreal calls another surge. Inside a Northside conference room packed with veterans advocacy groups in early November, Villarreal warned nervously of the coming surge that’s expected to return soldiers like Castaneda, some troubled, possibly undiagnosed, and increasingly isolated from a broader society that doesn’t understand the world at war. With the declaration out of the White House this fall to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by the year’s end, America is set to welcome home some 45,000 service men and women, some fresh from their fourth or maybe even fifth combat tours. With them, they’ll bring both palpable and not-so-visible wounds of a 10-year war: skyrocketing suicide rates, unaddressed mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, joblessness, and, for some, homelessness.
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