Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in trouble with the law

Experts see more soldiers facing criminal time

"I snapped a little bit," he says.

Mike volunteered to go to Iraq again, but it was just as hard coming back the second time. He fell into a depression, unable to motivate himself to find or keep a job. He worked nights for a while with a shipping service, but quit after less than a month.

"Maybe this sounds awful, but the people who were my bosses, I just felt that they weren't worthy because they hadn't seen the things I'd seen or done the things I'd done," he says. "It's really aggravating for us to know that there's no outlet, no way to talk about your experiences because people won't understand."

Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson
Richard Leonard survived his tour in Iraq, but he says his life fell apart when he came home
Dave Fick
Richard Leonard survived his tour in Iraq, but he says his life fell apart when he came home

Mike found himself missing the adrenaline rush of combat, the clarity of purpose, the sense of importance and responsibility. He started driving aggressively, taking turns too fast, chasing danger.

He was also developing a serious alcohol problem.

"All I wanted to do was go to the bar and drink," he says. "Whenever I got the opportunity, that's where I was, at the bar, by myself."

Mike got pulled over for driving drunk twice. Both times the cops let him go when they learned he was a veteran.

"A lot of police have real respect for veterans," Mike says. "It's a double-edged sword. They're looking out for you, and they may cut you a break, but they'll only cut you a break so many times."

Eventually Mike's free pass expired. Late one night last spring, he was about to turn into the entrance to his subdivision when he saw the flashing lights behind him. He was arrested and charged with drunk driving.

Mike hired Attorney John Baker, a lawyer who specializes in veterans' cases. Baker agreed to take his case only on the condition that Mike start getting some therapy at the VA Hospital.

The DWI conviction cost Mike his driver's license, and will stay on his record forever. But he credits his weekly therapy sessions with teaching him to function outside the war zone.

"I wish it didn't have to happen that way, that I didn't have to get in that kind of trouble to get help and turn things around," Mike says. "But I don't know if I would have listened to anyone if it hadn't gotten that bad."

WITH HIS BOYISH face and deep, self-effacing calm, it's hard to believe Hector Matascastillo was one of the deadliest warriors in America's armed forces.

Matascastillo joined the Army in 1990 and excelled from the outset. Within a year and a half, he had joined the elite special operations 75th Ranger Regiment. In the next decade, he was deployed to 13 different combat assignments all over the world.

In 1999, Matascastillo found himself in the Balkans, at the height of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. He and 11 other Rangers dropped in to collect intelligence. What they found was a horror show. From their mountain observation position, they saw the ethnic cleansing unfold in real time through their sniper scopes.

"We were watching civilians getting killed," Matascastillo says. "We were watching women getting dragged into buildings and getting raped. That went on for about 100 days. We had some really sweet weapons systems at our disposal, but it wasn't our mission to intervene. It was our mission to watch."

Returning from that deployment, Matascastillo felt disgusted and dirty. He started drinking heavily. He joined up with the Jesters, an outlaw motorcycle club. But life as a civilian still felt unbearable.

"Imagine getting on a Greyhound bus and the driver drops you off in the middle of nowhere and says, 'This is your stop,'" he says. "It's like that. You don't know what the people around think of you. You listen to your old buddies talk, and you're thinking, 'I can't stand you, I want to choke you.'"

Matascastillo's mother didn't understand what had happened to her sweet son.

"Hector was a normal teenager when he joined the Army," Laura Castillo says. "He loved to play with children. He would talk to me about his life. He used to make a lot of jokes, and tease me all the time."

Now Hector was taciturn and silent. He refused to go to church, saying that God didn't hear him anymore. When Laura asked Hector what happened to the boy who used to hug her all the time, he said, "That son is dead."

In his place was a man who craved war. Matascastillo joined the Minnesota National Guard, attaching to a unit that was soon to deploy to Iraq. But as he waited to ship out, his home life hit bottom.

On January 24, 2004, Matascastillo got into an argument with his wife. She told him not to bother coming home. He came home anyway, and was greeted at the front door by a telephone flung at his head.

At 10:30 p.m. police officers received a panicked call from Hector's wife. He had freaked out, she said, attacking their dog with kitchen knives and kicking her when she tried to intervene.

When the police showed up, Matascastillo appeared in the doorway, holding a pair of handguns. He told his wife, "Now you're going to watch me die."

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