Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
Bexar’s court was founded in the fall of 2010 after months of resistance by District Attorney Susan Reed. By the time Christian joined the veterans court at the start of 2011, it had a docket of about 8 cases. It’s now ballooned to over 50 cases, he says, with another 40 or so under consideration. Today whenever someone’s charged with a misdemeanor crime in Bexar County, they’re questioned about military service. Like most other such courts around the country, Bexar County’s court doesn’t accept felony cases, and a number of pieces must align before veterans can make their way through the system; the prosecutor must be willing to admit that emotional or mental problems stemming from military service warrant leniency in court, the victims must be willing to drop charges, and the judge has to accept and take interest in the case.
And with Bexar County’s court already receiving up to 100 referrals a month, Christian says he expects that number to jump even higher as more veterans return. “We already have this constant stream of these folks coming in,” he said. “As thousands more come back, I know we’re going to start seeing more of them.”
Attorney Allison Lanty, who’s represented numerous veterans facing misdemeanor charges in Guadalupe County’s veterans court, said, “If you have a case like this, you hope it’s in San Antonio or somewhere that’s established a court to deal with these problems.” Nearby Comal County, for instance, has no veterans court. “I’ve had multiple clients come back and tell me in order to sleep at night they have to drink,” she said. “They get a DWI and they were never drinkers before they went overseas. …They never drank, and now they do it to fight the nightmares, they tell me.”
Soon after her son’s funeral, Maria Anna Esparza got a call from the Bexar County Jail. Castaneda had totaled his car in a drunk-driving accident. Charged with a DWI and assault on a police officer, he made bail and moved back in with his mother and stepfather. “His behavior became very edgy. He couldn’t do anything just a little bit. He had to do it a lot,” Esparza says.
He’d stay up late into the night, drinking entire cases of Red Bull. When a doctor prescribed him valium, he took the whole bottle. “He wasn’t even aware of what he had done. He couldn’t find the pills the next day, didn’t know why the bottle was empty,” she says. When his doctor stopped prescribing valium, fearing he’d overdose, Castaneda again turned to alcohol. One night he took the family truck and drove it to a nearby H-E-B. Police called Esparza later that night saying they found Castaneda wandering the parking lot in a daze, trying to break into cars. Then one night that summer, Castaneda pulled a pistol inside the house, pointing it to his head. “He said, ‘I need meds, I need something to keep me from doing this,’” Esparza recalled. She called the VA’s suicide hotline; Castaneda left. She gathered all the guns and fled with her husband and granddaughter.
> Email Michael Barajas