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Walking Wounded: The VA missed serious warning signs that presaged local vet’s violent breakdown

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Adan Castaneda in 2005 after joining the Marine Corps.

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

Adan Castaneda after his 2011 arrest.

Photo: Micahel Barajas, License: N/A

Micahel Barajas

Maria Anna Esparza, still waiting for her son to "come home."


“Look I’m a lawyer, I double check, and I almost never believe the person that’s talking to me when it’s stuff like this,” Parker said. “There is not a single statement [Esparza] has made to me that is not absolutely correct and born out in the medical record of her son. … No exaggeration or misstatements that I could find whatsoever.”

And Castaneda’s case, she says, is part of a larger systemic problem: one of a military that’s struggling to deal with the mental injuries of war. The military, she says, has a tendency to ignore what it can’t see. “This is perhaps the first war in our nation’s history in which a legitimate, known wound is psychiatric in nature and therefore invisible to the eye,” she said. “Much of the ineptitude that you see, that surrounds the mishandling of a lot of these cases, it’s simply a new area and a new territory for which their ought to be a protocol, and there is not.”

“I don’t see how a diagnoses of PTSD could have been excluded” from the VA’s assessment of Castaneda, Parker said. “It’s long been known that PTSD can play a role in kindling or exacerbating many forms of psychosis. I just don’t see how a gap in the disability rating, I just don’t see how that could have been overlooked.”

Castaneda’s case comes as the military recovers from searing allegations in recent years that it intentionally misdiagnosed PTSD and other combat-related trauma as pre-existing personality disorders, purposefully turning down soldiers for treatment for war-related mental wounds. And while his own personal story largely helped expose the practice and, along with dogged reporting from The Nation magazine, sparked much needed reforms in Congress, Chuck Luther, a retired Army sergeant who runs the Killeen-based advocacy group Disposable Warriors, says the military’s got a new strategy for dealing with traumatized soldiers.

“It’s really just a shell game right now,” he said. “It’s like being in Vegas. We’re just hiding what’s really happening.” Luther says many new soldiers who reach him through Disposable Warriors, his nonprofit near Fort Hood that fights to ensure proper counseling and treatment for mentally traumatized soldiers, tell the same story: that instead of misdiagnosis, their conditions are simply ignored.

“What they’re doing now instead of just wrongfully diagnosing guys, they’re just failing to diagnose them at all,” he said. “They’re just ignoring it, and then letting these guys hallucinate, self medicate, and letting them slip into psychotic episodes.”

And for Castaneda, he’s now started down the same path as many Vietnam-era veterans before him, says Ray Parrish, a Chicago-based advocate with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the organization’s only GI counselor. Parrish says he gets calls and letters from veterans, young and old, daily from across the country struggling with trauma brought on by combat — including some stationed or jailed in Texas. Many who’ve gone without treatment end up bouncing in and out of jail and have long been separated from VA care — the VA cuts benefits by 90 percent after 60 days of incarceration. “And the way the statute’s written, basically the VA is responsible for treating veterans’ mental health problems unless somebody else is responsible, like a jail,” he said.

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