Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown
Published: November 30, 2011
Soon after his return, Anthony says he began to isolate himself, “dropping out to live on the edge of society.” He began to suffer from debilitating panic attacks, which he thought were seizures or even mild heart attacks at first. Hesitant to settle down, he kept moving, traveling from city to city for decades. Travel had turned to homelessness. Some things still bring to mind what he witnessed in Vietnam. “You go by a dumpster and smell something dead. It brings back memories: death, the smell of death.”
After the apartment incident, Castaneda was again committed to a psych ward at the VA hospital, but he was discharged after just three weeks when doctors declared him stable. Castaneda’s memory started to deteriorate. He languished inside his new apartment. He couldn’t drive and was too afraid to take the bus. “When he takes the bus, he gets lost,” Esparza says. On one bus trip, Castaneda circled San Antonio for the better part of a day unable to find his way home.
By October of last year, communication between Esparza and Castaneda was at a minimum. He only sent text messages, sometimes incoherent, violent messages in all caps. Once, she says, “He started texting me: ‘Why would they do this to me?’ Why would the government do this? They’ve planted dead bodies all around me.’” When she rushed to go see him she found him near-catatonic and unable to finish simple sentences.
By this spring, Castaneda stopped taking his mother’s phone calls. Esparza filed for another mental health warrant. SAPD’s crisis intervention team visited Castaneda, but didn’t take him into custody, saying he wasn’t a threat to himself or others. Castaneda’s messages to his mother grew increasingly threatening. The standoff culminated with him showing up on her driveway at around 4 a.m. on Friday, May 27, and firing on the house. “This time [the District Attorney] kept saying they’re pressing charges, even if we choose not to,” Esparza says.
When arrested, Castaneda was booked in on two charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, along with one count of deadly conduct. By the time he was arraigned, the DA’s office had secured two additional charges of attempted murder, along with one count of tampering with evidence (police claim that when they stopped Castaneda he dropped the pistol into a nearby bush). Says Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp: “Whatever offenses are committed we charge them with it.”
“It is going to require an exponential increase in personnel to care for the psychiatric casualties of this war,” said Chrys Parker, a retired local lawyer, civilian chaplain, and pastoral psychotherapist who is contracted by the U.S. Army as an instructor of military personnel, including Army chaplains.* Soon after Castaneda’s most recent arrest a local veteran connected Parker with Castaneda’s mother, who was searching for anyone who could help with her son’s case. Parker quickly got to digging through the young man’s records.
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