Veterans’ ‘psychic wounds’ untended, critics say

ContraCosta Times

One night last July, Iraq war veteran Nicholas Rusanoff followed his neighbor, Peter Losher, into the parking garage of their Redwood Shores apartment complex.

Rusanoff was breathing heavily. His eyes were wide open, and his hands were clasped behind his back. He demanded the keys to Losher’s Volkswagen Jetta, and Losher quickly complied.

“As I was getting out of the vehicle, he looked at me and said, ‘You’re not Iraqi, you’re not Iraqi,'” Losher later testified at a court hearing. “I said, ‘No, I am not.'”

Losher said he could hear Rusanoff screaming in pain as he drove away.

Rusanoff, 25, is one of a growing number of soldiers who have returned from the war in Iraq only to become entangled in the criminal justice system at home.

Some have committed minor offenses; others are facing serious charges of domestic violence and even homicide. Many are struggling with psychological issues as they try to adjust to civilian life.

No one tallies the number of soldiers and veterans in the criminal justice system, so it’s impossible to know how many criminal cases involving Iraq war veterans are pending nationwide. But as the war enters its fifth year this month, the conflict is coming home in yet another painful way.

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Criminal law deals with a wide array of crimes. Criminal defense attorneys defend clients who have been charged with crimes that range from minor to major offenses. Such offenses include murder, manslaughter, arson, assault, DUI/DWI, fraud, identity theft, child pornography, sex crimes and a host of other crimes.

Criminal defense lawyers, as do all attorneys, must put aside their personal beliefs and opinions of a person in order to properly and fully defend them of criminal charges. This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do. These attorneys must not pass personal judgment on a client charged with heinous crimes such as murder, rape or even child molestation.

“It’s a brazen indicator, as Iraq war veterans enter the criminal justice system, that there are untended psychic wounds,” said Jim Barker of San Jose, a Vietnam veteran who worked as a psychiatric clinician at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Palo Alto until retiring in 2005. “The coordination of care needs to be sharpened up.”

Military officials and veterans advocates emphasize that the overwhelming majority of returning soldiers are law-abiding citizens who have not run afoul of the law. And psychiatric clinicians such as Barker point out that most people with mental health issues do not commit crimes.

Concern growing

In recent weeks, however, concern about the care that returning soldiers are receiving has intensified. Articles in the Washington Post about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center triggered congressional hearings. Three top Army officials have resigned, and the White House has ordered a review of military and veterans hospitals.

Another Bay Area case in which an Iraq war veteran is a defendant involves Yodi Shembo, a 24-year-old Marine who allegedly attacked a police officer at San Francisco International Airport last October. Shembo, who had recently returned from a full tour in Iraq, tore off his shirt and yelled at other passengers.

“It’s very clear that we are dealing with mental health disorders,” said Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County’s deputy district attorney. “We had a lot of post-Vietnam cases in the late 1970s, and we’re going to begin to see that here.”

Rusanoff faces charges of carjacking and grand theft auto; his jury trial is scheduled to begin June 25. Shembo faces charges of assault with force and assault on a police officer; his next hearing is scheduled April 9.

Diagnosing PTSD

Some Iraq war veterans who have landed in jail have already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Others may have mental health issues that predated their deployment. Despite stepped-up outreach efforts, clinicians acknowledge that thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggle in isolation and are reluctant to seek treatment, often “self-medicating” with alcohol and drugs.

Advocates for veterans say the criminal cases are evidence that returning soldiers are not receiving the mental health care they need.

“This new generation of veterans has experienced combat very recently, and it’s very raw,” said Dick Talbott, who oversees 31 community-based vet centers in California, Oregon, Hawaii and Guam. “They are going to need more intensive and frequent counseling from us, a greater level of care and more staff.”

The Department of Defense, however, says it is aggressively reaching out to troubled soldiers, from placing mental health units in the field in Iraq to conducting mental health screenings three to six months after soldiers return home.

But those who work closely with Iraq war veterans say that while outreach has improved, much more is needed.

Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs for Veterans for America, says it is critical to determine what mental health care any veteran charged with a crime has received.

“If a veteran gets a DUI or is charged with domestic violence or murders his wife, I want to know: What kind of mental health treatment did he get before he separated from the military?” Robinson said. “What kind of treatment is he getting from the VA? Did we do everything we could to help him reintegrate into society? And the answer is usually no.”

Some clinicians talk about a phenomenon known as “pancaking” — that is, when a veteran’s life collapses. The downward spiral often includes alcohol or drug abuse, a fractured family, joblessness and homelessness.

“If you think that society has betrayed you, if you don’t have a job, if your family has broken up, if you can’t get VA health care or benefits, or if you don’t have a place to live, then you may get involved in petty crime to make ends meet,” said Paul Sullivan, a former VA project manager who testified before Congress this month.

Although most of the draftees in Vietnam were young and single, “a lot of the guys who have gone to Iraq are older, married and have kids,” said San Jose’s Barker, an Army intelligence specialist in Vietnam. “Now you have a family in crisis, not just an individual in crisis.”

Wagstaffe, San Mateo County’s deputy district attorney, said his office needs to hold soldiers and veterans, like any other criminal suspect, accountable because the overriding concern is public safety. Still, he said, their service in Iraq and psychological issues will be taken into account during sentencing.

“We are looking at these cases differently than the person committing a carjacking because they just want a car,” Wagstaffe said.

Reach Dana Hull of the San Jose Mercury News at or 408-920-2706.

high-profile CASES

Here are some high-profile crimes involving Iraq war veterans:

• Wardell Nelson Joiner, 25, was convicted of murder after breaking Lance Cpl. Vanessa Messner’s neck and leaving her to drown in a bathtub in her Oceanside apartment in February 2004. The couple met at Camp Pendleton and became romantically involved while deployed to Iraq. Joiner, a former Marine, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

• Brandon Bare, a 19-year-old Fort Lewis Army soldier, was found guilty of premeditated murder and indecent acts for the July 12, 2005, murder of Nabila Bare, his 18-year-old wife. She had been stabbed at least 71 times, and a pentagram was carved into her stomach. A military panel sentenced Bare to life in prison.

• Salvatore “Sam” Ross Jr., 24, of Fayette County, Pa., is accused of setting a mobile home on fire in February and then choking a firefighter who responded to the blaze. Ross lost his left leg while serving in the Army in Iraq.

• In December 2005, Jeff Lehner, 40, a former Marine sergeant who served in Afghanistan, shot and killed his elderly father, then killed himself in Santa Barbara County. He had been in counseling for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

• Jared Terrasas, 24, a former Camp Pendleton Marine, faces charges that he abused his 7-month-old son so severely that the boy died. Terrasas served two tours of duty in Iraq before he was discharged following the baby’s death in October 2005.

• Johnny Lee Williams Jr., 24, a former Marine who served in Iraq, kidnapped a clerk at a Texas Wal-Mart in January 2005. Megan Leann Holden, 19, was later found shot to death in a ditch. Williams pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Source: PTSD Timeline by ePluribusMedia; Mercury News reporting.

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