Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
When he returned he was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon and Certificate of Commendation for his service. Back at Camp Pendleton, he started to drink heavily, claiming he couldn’t fall asleep otherwise. Superiors complained that he’d report in the morning with the smell of alcohol on his breath. They threatened to reprimand him, but there’s no record they ever did.
One morning in February 2008, after a night of heavy drinking, Castaneda slit his wrists. “I felt that I could have been killed any day while in Iraq. I realized that I was going to die anyway and that all of my friends were going to die eventually,” he later wrote. “I was tired of feeling that at any moment I could die. I decided to end it.”
Yet he changed his mind before he bled out, crudely patching his wrists with T-shirt fabric and duct tape before driving himself to the emergency room. He called his mother asking for the family’s insurance information. He refused to go to on-base doctors, Esparza says, because he was embarrassed, paranoid, and didn’t trust base officials. Doctors at a San Clemente emergency room quickly admitted Castaneda to the hospital’s psych ward. “He of course denied [that it was suicide] at the time, said it was some kind of training accident,” she said.
Doctors at the off-base hospital noted Castaneda showed signs of acute psychosis and suicidal ideation, and hospital records show he was discharged the following day into Marine Corps custody.
Still, according to Castaneda and his mother, base officials never confronted his growing mental health and substance abuse problems, even after the suicide attempt. “Nobody ever talked to me about my ever having been in the psych ward,” Castaneda wrote. The only action his staff sergeant and base officials took was to clear his room of sharp objects and remove his pet bluebird. “My staff sergeant and a lot of people knew that I had been in a psych ward. … The whole thing was just swept under the rug and ignored,” he wrote.
Esparza still recalls the military’s handling of the incident in disbelief. “That was the time they should have caught him. That’s when he should have been put into counseling, should have been treated. Instead he’s been ignored. They’ve continued to ignore him,” she said with a sigh. And to Esparza, her son’s problems are partly to blame on a lack of adequate help early on.
Castaneda’s paranoia grew more intense, and he started filing repeat grievances against his commanding officers for various alleged offenses. Soon after he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in December 2008, he packed up all his belongings and made the long drive back to San Antonio. A military medical exam conducted a month before his discharge, less than a year after his suicide attempt, says Castaneda showed no signs of mental illness.
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