Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
“It’s a surge. It’s a reality, and it’s coming,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal and others worry the complex patchwork of VA services, advocates, and veteran support groups won’t be enough to keep many of this new generation of soldiers from slipping into fates like Castaneda’s. Just look to the streets, Villarreal says, and you’ll see what he calls “the walking wounded” from a previous generation at war, the neglected Vietnam-era vets whose mental wounds went ignored and undiagnosed for decades. “No one ever helped them, no one ever decompressed them,” he said. “We spent months training them to be killers, then they came back on a Thursday and we expected them to just jump back in and go to university by Monday. … I’m worried that’s the same thing we’re doing with this new batch of guys. There’s no decompressing.”
In October 2009, Castaneda, then 23 years old and less than a year out of the U.S. Marine Corps, sat down with his mother in a small San Antonio apartment to finally confront the demons swimming in his head. Enlisting in 2004, fresh out of high school, he requested an infantry assignment, anxious to serve a country at the front lines. A summer program at Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy at age 16 tightly drew him to the Corps, telling his mother: “Real men enter the Marines Corps.”
As a sniper assigned to the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Scout Sniper Platoon, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and by spring 2007 was sent off to fight in Iraq. He came back a starkly different person, Esparza says. He rarely talked about his combat service. He started drinking heavily, growing increasingly paranoid and violent. He once collected dirt in film canisters from his other overseas trips with the Marines — mementos from stations in Okinawa and the Philippines. From Iraq, he brought back nothing but troubled memories and mental anguish he couldn’t seem to shake.
With the help of his mother, Castaneda wrote down his story, detailing his service in Iraq, the killings, the fear, a suicide attempt, and the mental wounds that followed him home, hoping to change the VA’s diagnosis. “He was laying with a pillow over his face for a lot of the time. He couldn’t look at anything,” his mother recalls. “That’s the only time he ever really talked about it to any of us. I think he just doesn’t want to go there anymore, it’s too painful.”
Castaneda’s platoon was deployed to Iraq in early 2007, where he spent nearly eight months carrying out missions in Ramadi and Al-Karmah. He writes of intense firefights, close calls with improvised explosive devices, and clearing mangled bodies from the gruesome scenes of suicide bombings. “I was repulsed by what I saw,” he wrote. “I kept expecting that I would get shot and die.”
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