Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
When Castaneda came home and found his guns missing, he grew afraid, paranoid, and irate, he later wrote. Frantic, he repeatedly dialed 911, and police eventually swarmed the house. Castaneda was combative, refusing to leave the house, and when police learned he was a Marine, they called out a SWAT team. “This enraged me because I felt unprotected. I exploded and took my anger out on the house,” he wrote. By the time authorities dragged him out of the home, he had caused some $20,000 worth of damage inside, Esparza says.
He was committed to the psych ward at the VA’s Audie L. Murphy Memorial Vet Hospital. But after two months, doctors declared him stable and discharged him even though, while admitted, Castaneda continued to show problems. During his time there, Castaneda nearly escaped custody, punching through a glass window, badly mangling his hand. He made his way out of the ward, but when he saw his bleeding hand he turned around to ask for help from the authorities he’d just escaped. After discharge, he again refused to live with his parents. So Esparza found him an apartment in San Antonio, Limestone Oaks on Wurzbach. He continued to have trouble with his meds whenever doctors prescribed them, she says. “It was like he just couldn’t follow the instructions on the bottle. He would take either the whole bottle or none at all,” she said. Doctors again quit prescribing, afraid he’d harm himself or overdose. “He slipped back into that abyss.”
Soon he was sending graphic, violent emails to his mother, warning her and his stepfather to stay away. By July of last year, she got a call from management at Castaneda’s apartment complex, saying they needed to get into his unit to fix the plumbing but that Castaneda wouldn’t come to the door.
He eventually opened up for a plumber, who was shocked at what he saw inside. Castaneda, disheveled and unshaven, hadn’t been showering. When he did a walkthrough the apartment, the plumber found large holes punched into the walls, a treadmill running at high speed, the refrigerator door wide open, and an inch of water on the floor. When the plumber left to call for help, Castaneda locked himself inside the apartment, his mother says. Management could hear him raging inside, punching the walls, tearing the place apart. They called the cops when they heard the sound of a pistol cocking.
A San Antonio Police Department crisis intervention team eventually took Castaneda into custody. “I remember clearly, it was at that point that the police officer told me, ‘Has he ever been diagnosed?’” Only with a depressive order, but nothing more, Esparza replied. “And the officer goes, ‘Well, this is paranoid schizophrenia if I’ve ever seen it. You need to call his doctor.’”
Substance abuse and mental illness are often two sides of the same troubled coin.
> Email Michael Barajas