Early in the morning of May 27, 2011, Adan Castaneda grabbed his .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and called a taxi to drive him from his San Antonio apartment to his mother’s Spring Branch home, roughly 30 miles north of the city. Standing at the end of the dark driveway, Castaneda raised the pistol and peppered the house with gunfire as his mother and stepfather slept inside. He fired 23 rounds into the one-story country home, bullets buzzing through curtains, shattering windows and digging into walls, door posts, and framed family photos. Police found him wandering the streets four blocks away.
Castaneda’s arrest that night marked the unsettling finale of a breakdown that began with his return from the Iraq War more than two years earlier, says his mother, Maria Anna Esparza. Discharged days after Christmas in 2008, Castaneda had become increasingly depressed, paranoid, and delusional, Esparza says. He’d begun to hear voices, violent voices.
Esparza displays a brief smile as she thumbs through old family photos, saying Castaneda was always the clever one in the family, funny with a sarcastic and dry sense of humor. The humor never came back from Iraq, she says, and old photographs of Adan smiling brightly with friends sharply contrast the dull, empty gaze captured in his mugshot following the shooting. Looking at the photos, Esparza repeats, “He’s just not the same person.”
A perfect storm of substance abuse and a horrific family tragedy, the murder of his little brother, pushed Castaneda over the edge, his mother says. He couldn’t hold down a job. He isolated himself inside his apartment, shut out from the rest of the world. Even as his outbursts grew increasingly intense, doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs evaluating Castaneda for VA benefits declared he only suffered from depression, nothing more.
Now after nearly six months in solitary confinement in the Comal County Jail without mental health treatment, a judge declared Castaneda incompetent to stand trial on November 10, the day the Marine Corps celebrates its founding. When he completes a 120-day state hospital stint in the hopes of restoring his competency, Castaneda will likely go back to court to face charges that, if not dropped or reduced, could put him behind bars for over a decade.
Castaneda was deployed during the so-called surge of extra U.S. troops into Iraq, a shift in military strategy meant to quell raging violence on the ground in a war that has now claimed over 4,400 American troops, at least 100,000 Iraqis, and tens of thousands more injured. Now, Castaneda’s pending legal case coincides with what retired Lt. Colonel Hector Villarreal calls another surge. Inside a Northside conference room packed with veterans advocacy groups in early November, Villarreal warned nervously of the coming surge that’s expected to return soldiers like Castaneda, some troubled, possibly undiagnosed, and increasingly isolated from a broader society that doesn’t understand the world at war. With the declaration out of the White House this fall to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by the year’s end, America is set to welcome home some 45,000 service men and women, some fresh from their fourth or maybe even fifth combat tours. With them, they’ll bring both palpable and not-so-visible wounds of a 10-year war: skyrocketing suicide rates, unaddressed mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, joblessness, and, for some, homelessness.
“It’s a surge. It’s a reality, and it’s coming,” Villarreal said.
Villarreal and others worry the complex patchwork of VA services, advocates, and veteran support groups won’t be enough to keep many of this new generation of soldiers from slipping into fates like Castaneda’s. Just look to the streets, Villarreal says, and you’ll see what he calls “the walking wounded” from a previous generation at war, the neglected Vietnam-era vets whose mental wounds went ignored and undiagnosed for decades. “No one ever helped them, no one ever decompressed them,” he said. “We spent months training them to be killers, then they came back on a Thursday and we expected them to just jump back in and go to university by Monday. … I’m worried that’s the same thing we’re doing with this new batch of guys. There’s no decompressing.”
In October 2009, Castaneda, then 23 years old and less than a year out of the U.S. Marine Corps, sat down with his mother in a small San Antonio apartment to finally confront the demons swimming in his head. Enlisting in 2004, fresh out of high school, he requested an infantry assignment, anxious to serve a country at the front lines. A summer program at Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy at age 16 tightly drew him to the Corps, telling his mother: “Real men enter the Marines Corps.”
As a sniper assigned to the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Scout Sniper Platoon, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and by spring 2007 was sent off to fight in Iraq. He came back a starkly different person, Esparza says. He rarely talked about his combat service. He started drinking heavily, growing increasingly paranoid and violent. He once collected dirt in film canisters from his other overseas trips with the Marines — mementos from stations in Okinawa and the Philippines. From Iraq, he brought back nothing but troubled memories and mental anguish he couldn’t seem to shake.
With the help of his mother, Castaneda wrote down his story, detailing his service in Iraq, the killings, the fear, a suicide attempt, and the mental wounds that followed him home, hoping to change the VA’s diagnosis. “He was laying with a pillow over his face for a lot of the time. He couldn’t look at anything,” his mother recalls. “That’s the only time he ever really talked about it to any of us. I think he just doesn’t want to go there anymore, it’s too painful.”
Castaneda’s platoon was deployed to Iraq in early 2007, where he spent nearly eight months carrying out missions in Ramadi and Al-Karmah. He writes of intense firefights, close calls with improvised explosive devices, and clearing mangled bodies from the gruesome scenes of suicide bombings. “I was repulsed by what I saw,” he wrote. “I kept expecting that I would get shot and die.”
When he returned he was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon and Certificate of Commendation for his service. Back at Camp Pendleton, he started to drink heavily, claiming he couldn’t fall asleep otherwise. Superiors complained that he’d report in the morning with the smell of alcohol on his breath. They threatened to reprimand him, but there’s no record they ever did.
One morning in February 2008, after a night of heavy drinking, Castaneda slit his wrists. “I felt that I could have been killed any day while in Iraq. I realized that I was going to die anyway and that all of my friends were going to die eventually,” he later wrote. “I was tired of feeling that at any moment I could die. I decided to end it.”
Yet he changed his mind before he bled out, crudely patching his wrists with T-shirt fabric and duct tape before driving himself to the emergency room. He called his mother asking for the family’s insurance information. He refused to go to on-base doctors, Esparza says, because he was embarrassed, paranoid, and didn’t trust base officials. Doctors at a San Clemente emergency room quickly admitted Castaneda to the hospital’s psych ward. “He of course denied [that it was suicide] at the time, said it was some kind of training accident,” she said.
Doctors at the off-base hospital noted Castaneda showed signs of acute psychosis and suicidal ideation, and hospital records show he was discharged the following day into Marine Corps custody.
Still, according to Castaneda and his mother, base officials never confronted his growing mental health and substance abuse problems, even after the suicide attempt. “Nobody ever talked to me about my ever having been in the psych ward,” Castaneda wrote. The only action his staff sergeant and base officials took was to clear his room of sharp objects and remove his pet bluebird. “My staff sergeant and a lot of people knew that I had been in a psych ward. … The whole thing was just swept under the rug and ignored,” he wrote.
Esparza still recalls the military’s handling of the incident in disbelief. “That was the time they should have caught him. That’s when he should have been put into counseling, should have been treated. Instead he’s been ignored. They’ve continued to ignore him,” she said with a sigh. And to Esparza, her son’s problems are partly to blame on a lack of adequate help early on.
Castaneda’s paranoia grew more intense, and he started filing repeat grievances against his commanding officers for various alleged offenses. Soon after he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in December 2008, he packed up all his belongings and made the long drive back to San Antonio. A military medical exam conducted a month before his discharge, less than a year after his suicide attempt, says Castaneda showed no signs of mental illness.
On the drive back to Texas, Castaneda started hearing voices — voices telling him to hurt himself, telling him to come home and kill his little brother, Esparza says. “He later told me that he kept telling the voices he wouldn’t do it, that he loves his brother,” she said.
Despite their welcome, he refused to move back in with his mother and stepfather. Instead he moved in with his 20-year-old brother, Alonzo Garza. He bought a pistol to better protect his little brother. Yet it would be with that gun that Brendon Ashley Griffin, a friend of Castaneda’s brother, would shoot and kill Alonzo Garza during an altercation inside the apartment while Castaneda slept in his room. The tragedy sent Castaneda deeper into what his mother now calls “the darkness.” Afterward, he disappeared for several days, missing his brother’s funeral.
“When these folks come back from the war, we are seeing an incredible increase in war-related mental and psychological problems,” said Judge Wayne Christian, who presides over Bexar County’s veterans court. The program is meant to catch soldiers in the criminal justice system and set them on the path to treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery. It’s part of a growing wave of such courts, pioneered in Buffalo, N.Y., three years ago and built upon the framework of jail diversion programs that provide treatment for those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness.
About half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the VA have been diagnosed with mental health issues, the most common being combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, which can spark symptoms like nightmares or an overall numbness to the world, according to the VA. Preliminary findings of a new study of active duty Marines released earlier this month point to a leading cause of PTSD being guilt from moral dilemmas faced in combat, so called “moral injuries” that may lead to more severe reactions like family violence or even suicide if left untreated.
In 2009, a staggering 1,868 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans attempted suicide, one every 80 minutes, according to a new Center for a New American Security report, the side effect, some advocates fear, of a military that fails to adequately confront the mental trauma, like PTSD, that comes with combat. Angered over the growing epidemic of veteran suicide — the VA last year admitted that veterans now account for one of every five suicides in the country — the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco this year ordered a major overhaul of the VA, saying the agency’s “unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations.”
“The primary thing we’re seeing in the veterans treatment court is drugs, alcohol, and family violence,” said Christian. “For a lot of these, I’d call them the residual effects of the war.” Eight Texas counties now have such courts, most centered in heavily populated metro hubs. On the Bexar County docket, Christian says he sees an abundance of self-medication, veterans using drugs and alcohol to cope with what they’ve experienced. “I’ve been shocked and amazed at how dramatic the effect of [PTSD] is on a lot of these guys coming back,” he said. “It doesn’t allow them to live a normal life. It’s a demon that’s very difficult to shake, and the vast majority of those with PTSD don’t get help — they to try to deal with it on their own.”
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.
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.
Sitting outside Haven for Hope, downtown San Antonio’s sprawling homeless services campus, Cruz Vallarta remarked, “I’d say 95 percent of the vets I see that come through our sobering program, they’re self-medicating. They’re tired of the life they have. They haven’t hurt themselves or killed themselves because they just haven’t been pushed over that edge yet.”
Vallarta, himself a Vietnam veteran, spends his days in and out of homeless shelters and on the streets looking for former service members long forgotten by society. A caseworker with the Center for Healthcare Services, Vallarta works to connect veterans to substance abuse programs, mental health treatment, and counseling in the area.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that as many as 107,000 veterans sleep on the streets on any given night due to a frustratingly complex set of causes: shortages in affordable housing, lingering effects from PTSD and other mental illness, unemployment or underemployment, self-medication and substance abuse. While vets make up about 8 percent of the general population, they constitute nearly one-fifth of the homeless population, according to the coalition. A yearly Trinity University survey of the San Antonio’s homeless population puts the local number higher — 32 percent of the city’s chronically homeless population are veterans, over half of which suffer from some sort of physical or mental ailment.
“We have a huge problem on our hands. [These soldiers] didn’t volunteer for these ramifications, and almost everybody who was in the combat zone comes back with some sort of post-traumatic stress,” says Judge Christian. “This increases the need in their mind to go out and find a release, and that could be alcohol, drugs. They’re angry, depressed. … This constant deployment cycle, it can destroy people.”
Veterans returning from war only to find themselves on the streets is a problem that’s long nagged at the military, says James Timmons, director of San Antonio’s residential American GI Forum center for homeless veterans. Former soldiers staying at the center range from newly discharged Iraq and Afghanistan vets to those who’ve battled homelessness since returning from war in Vietnam. “When we’re talking about these guys from the Vietnam era, certainly the social acceptance just wasn’t there for a lot of them. … Some just took that and traveled the country, isolated from society,” Timmons said. “For many, travel eventually became living on the street.” Trinity’s survey shows that roughly 80 percent of San Antonio’s homeless veterans served in Vietnam.
Now in his 60s, a man who wished to be identified only as “Anthony” says he’s lived on and off the streets ever since he returning from conflict in Vietnam. Currently living at the GI Forum shelter, he spends most of his days out looking for work. Calm and quiet with long greying hair, Anthony easily recalls scenes from war, of battle buddies killed, the punishing jungle, and the firefights. “It’s not the same when you get back. You’re just different. You’ll never be the same, and you carry that with you for the rest of your freaking life.”
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.
“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.
“Up until just a couple of years ago, we would see purposeful misdiagnoses, or things slipping through that really shouldn’t have,” he charged. And the stigma associated with mental illness of any kind has kept many veterans from pushing the issue, he fears. “Veterans don’t want to be seen as weak,” he said. “I’ve spoken to many who feel their careers would be in danger by seeking PTSD counseling. … For a lot of veterans the realization that they’re suffering from PTSD is a secret that they hold onto very tightly and will prompt them to take a misconduct discharge rather than to acknowledge any type of mental health problem.”
Parrish insists that when a veteran’s actions appear to stem from the stresses of war, the solution is treatment, not hard-nosed prosecution and punishment. “We, as a society, sent them to war. We are responsible for their recovery,” he said. “It’s a very sad state of affairs we’re in,” said Parker. “It’s becoming a lot more than sad, it’s becoming societally dangerous, and [Castaneda’s] case is a very, very good example of that.”
Reacting to Castaneda’s case, Luther remarked, “You know what’s funny, I hear the President and all these other people say the war is winding down. I call that BS. No, the war is coming home.”
Comal County jail guards put Castaneda in isolation soon after he was incarcerated, saying he failed to respond to orders. Esparza worries he was catatonic, caught in a daze. Sometime early into his stay at the jail, he signed papers waiving legal representation. He eventually connected with defense attorney Gina Jones, who said she couldn’t comment on Castaneda’s ongoing case. Esparza fears her son’s mental state continues to deteriorate the longer he languishes in isolation, without mental health care. He’s continued to refuse medication, claiming it’s poison, she says. Within the first week of incarceration, Castaneda also wrote a letter to the magistrate, asking for death by lethal injection. He’s been in solitary for nearly six months, often unwilling to step outside except upon visits with his mother.
And it was a struggle to get Castaneda evaluated inside the jail, Esparza says. Jail administration insisted the DA had to order it. The DA’s office told her the opposite. At one point, jail officials told her a psych evaluation had already been done. It hadn’t.
“At one point, I asked, ‘When do you refer someone to the state hospital for evaluation? At what point do you do that?’” she said. The prisoner has to be having clear behavioral or mental issues, she was told. “Since they put [Castaneda] in isolation, they say he’s a ‘model prisoner.’”
Esparza eventually went to the Texas Jail Project for help, which made its own inquiries into Castaneda’s case and treatment at the jail. The response from the jail administrators, according to Diana Claitor, Jail Project director, was, “The only mentally ill person here is the mother, that there’s nothing wrong with the son. He’s a model prisoner.”
On a recent visit, Esparza says, Castaneda claimed he was taken to his room by six or seven guards, thrown down to the floor and kneed in the testicles. Jail administration later told her a review of the security tape showed Castaneda was unresponsive. “They told me that they pushed him down, and if in the scuffle that ensued he got scuffed up a bit, that was certainly possible,” she said. “I guess it’s a difference of interpretation.”
Asked if soldiers like Castaneda, who battle mental trauma following wartime service, should be handled differently in the criminal justice system, Comal County DA Tharp responded, “I don’t know that we can dictate a blanket policy on how all cases should be handled. … This particular case was evaluated and determined by the court that he was incompetent to stand trial, and at this point in time our office didn’t fight that. We could have contested that,” she said. If he regains competency, she said, he’ll face the same serious charges.
Meanwhile, Castaneda sits in isolation, waiting for a bed at the North Texas State Hospital to open up — hospital administrators tell Esparza it could be well after the first of the year before they find a spot for her son, she says. He’s still not receiving treatment, and his mental state continues to deteriorate, she insists. On a recent visit, his clothes were on backwards and inside out, there was a large slash across his right sleeve. He proceeded to show her a large gash on his back. He’s increasingly paranoid, insisting guards sneak into his cell while he’s sleeping to cut holes in this clothes. He claims they put pubic hair in his food, and he often refuses to eat. Perhaps more troubling, Castaneda’s memory continues to wear away. When Esparza visited him a day after his competency hearing, Castaneda asked why his little brother hadn’t yet visited him. “I just stared at him,” Esparza said. “What do you mean?” Castaneda, not remembering his brother’s death, had added him to his jail visitation list. “He says he’s still waiting for his brother to come visit him,” Esparza said, fighting back tears.
Esparza is fighting for the son she has left, or what’s left of him. Inside her house, pointing to where bullets struck the walls, ceiling, and even a framed picture of her dead son, she says Castaneda never really returned from Iraq.
“I just want him to get the treatment he needs. I just want him to come home.” •
* An earlier version of this story misidentified Parker as a U.S. Army chaplain. The Current regrets the error.