Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
On the drive back to Texas, Castaneda started hearing voices — voices telling him to hurt himself, telling him to come home and kill his little brother, Esparza says. “He later told me that he kept telling the voices he wouldn’t do it, that he loves his brother,” she said.
Despite their welcome, he refused to move back in with his mother and stepfather. Instead he moved in with his 20-year-old brother, Alonzo Garza. He bought a pistol to better protect his little brother. Yet it would be with that gun that Brendon Ashley Griffin, a friend of Castaneda’s brother, would shoot and kill Alonzo Garza during an altercation inside the apartment while Castaneda slept in his room. The tragedy sent Castaneda deeper into what his mother now calls “the darkness.” Afterward, he disappeared for several days, missing his brother’s funeral.
“When these folks come back from the war, we are seeing an incredible increase in war-related mental and psychological problems,” said Judge Wayne Christian, who presides over Bexar County’s veterans court. The program is meant to catch soldiers in the criminal justice system and set them on the path to treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery. It’s part of a growing wave of such courts, pioneered in Buffalo, N.Y., three years ago and built upon the framework of jail diversion programs that provide treatment for those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness.
About half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the VA have been diagnosed with mental health issues, the most common being combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, which can spark symptoms like nightmares or an overall numbness to the world, according to the VA. Preliminary findings of a new study of active duty Marines released earlier this month point to a leading cause of PTSD being guilt from moral dilemmas faced in combat, so called “moral injuries” that may lead to more severe reactions like family violence or even suicide if left untreated.
In 2009, a staggering 1,868 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans attempted suicide, one every 80 minutes, according to a new Center for a New American Security report, the side effect, some advocates fear, of a military that fails to adequately confront the mental trauma, like PTSD, that comes with combat. Angered over the growing epidemic of veteran suicide — the VA last year admitted that veterans now account for one of every five suicides in the country — the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco this year ordered a major overhaul of the VA, saying the agency’s “unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.”
“The primary thing we’re seeing in the veterans treatment court is drugs, alcohol, and family violence,” said Christian. “For a lot of these, I’d call them the residual effects of the war.” Eight Texas counties now have such courts, most centered in heavily populated metro hubs. On the Bexar County docket, Christian says he sees an abundance of self-medication, veterans using drugs and alcohol to cope with what they’ve experienced. “I’ve been shocked and amazed at how dramatic the effect of [PTSD] is on a lot of these guys coming back,” he said. “It doesn’t allow them to live a normal life. It’s a demon that’s very difficult to shake, and the vast majority of those with PTSD don’t get help — they to try to deal with it on their own.”
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