Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in trouble with the law

Experts see more soldiers facing criminal time

RICHARD LEONARD WAS at a Lake Street gas station buying a soda and cigarettes when he snapped.

Ordinarily, Leonard is something of a gentle giant. A former defensive lineman at Mankato State, he's a calm man with a quiet demeanor. But on this afternoon in the fall of 2007, it all changed in an instant.

"There were a couple of Middle Eastern fellows at the counter," Leonard says. "I can remember seeing them talking, speaking Arabic, and then they both looked over at me and started laughing."

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
Hector Matascastillo’s post-traumatic stress led him into an armed stand-off with police. Now he’s a social worker trying to help other veterans.
Dave Fick
Hector Matascastillo’s post-traumatic stress led him into an armed stand-off with police. Now he’s a social worker trying to help other veterans.
Defense lawyer Brock Hunter helped establish the new veteran’s court in Hennepin County
Dave Fick
Defense lawyer Brock Hunter helped establish the new veteran’s court in Hennepin County

Convinced they were mocking him, Leonard flew into a rage. He dropped his soda, bolted behind the counter and threw himself at the nearest antagonist. Pushing him up against the plate-glass window, Leonard braced his forearm against the man's throat and began screaming at him.

Leonard doesn't remember what he was yelling—it was like he was possessed. "I had tunnel vision. I was shaking," Leonard says. "My buddy had to yank me off him. He dragged me back behind the building and said, 'What is wrong with you, dude?'"

A year and a half earlier, Leonard was in Iraq with the Minnesota Army National Guard, manning the turret gun on a Humvee escorting a supply convoy of 30 trucks south of Baghdad. It was his first mission—a dry run with the unit his team was replacing. As the convoy rolled south through the dark desert night, Leonard's Humvee brought up the rear, making sure no one got too close.

Suddenly, he saw headlights behind him—far back, but closing quickly.

Leonard activated his radio and alerted his truck commander. "Sergeant, there's a car to our rear, over 500 meters out."

"Keep your eyes on it. If it gets closer than 500 meters, let me know."

The car loomed larger in his view. "Sergeant, the vehicle is 500 meters out."

"Start your escalation of force."

Leonard flashed the floodlights on his turret on and off at the car. It kept closing. He fired a flare from his grenade launcher across its path, then a warning shot from the turret gun, but the car didn't slow down.

"Sergeant, the vehicle is now within 100 meters, it has not complied with our escalation of force."

Even before the response came back, Leonard knew what he would have to do next.

"Disable the vehicle."

Leonard gripped the 240 Bravo mounted machine gun, aimed for the headlights, and pulled the trigger. In two quick bursts, dozens of bullets rattled out, sounding like a whole box of Black Cat fireworks set off at once.

The car veered off the road and into a ditch, tumbling over and over before coming to rest back on all four wheels.

"That fucker flipped three or four times, Sergeant," Leonard said. "He's stopped by the side of the road."

The convoy paused briefly. Another Humvee dropped back to take rear guard duty while Leonard's vehicle backtracked to check on the sedan. A hundred meters away, Leonard and his Sergeant took off on foot, approaching carefully with their rifles up.

The hood of the sedan was gone, the roof badly crumpled. The windshield was completely spider-webbed, but somehow still intact. Leonard peered through the driver's side window, using his gun light to illuminate the cabin.

The driver, a middle-aged man, was clearly dead, his face awash in blood. In the passenger seat was a dead woman with blood dripping from her nose and ears. In the back were two boys, not more than 11 or 12. One had been killed by a bullet that tore away his face. The other was crushed when the car rolled--his neck wrenched 180 degrees so that his face now pointed backwards.

Leonard and the Sergeant searched the trunk, but didn't find any weapons or explosives. Within a few minutes, the convoy was rolling again.

In the following months, Leonard's team ran convoys in and out of Baghdad, across the desert, encountering plenty of small-arms fire and roadside bombs. Leonard was awarded a Purple Heart after a roadside bomb nearly killed him just before Christmas.

The unit was supposed to come home in March, but in late February, they learned their tour would be extended through July. Morale plummeted. The unit requested transfer to a slightly less dangerous posting. The request was denied.

When Leonard finally did make it home to Wyoming, Minnesota, he tried to settle back into a life with his wife and their son. But the idyllic home he'd left behind just wasn't the same upon his return.

Collection agencies were hounding him for overdue student loans. Dogged by suspicions of infidelity, Leonard divorced his wife and moved in with his mother.

Then he assaulted the Middle Eastern man in the gas station.

"When I got home, I was having a hard time functioning," Leonard says. "I came back from Iraq and things went to shit."

NINE YEARS AFTER the invasion of Afghanistan, with the Iraq war winding down, the consequences of these conflicts are finally reaching U.S. shores.

"Across the country, people involved in criminal justice are seeing recent veterans picking up criminal records," says Tony Tarantino, a policy expert with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association. "There's no question, this is one of the biggest challenges we're facing as a country when it comes to reintegrating veterans."

National statistics on veterans committing crimes are hard to come by, but the few studies that have been done produced startling results. A year ago, a survey in Travis County, Texas, found that 82 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were booked into county jail over a three month period. In Colorado Springs, a recent study found 300 veterans had cycled through jail in a single month.

A 2008 report by the New York Times identified 121 homicides committed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but the majority of crimes are far less dramatic. Many of the infractions are related to drugs and alcohol. In 2006, one in four veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 met the standards for a substance-abuse disorder.

"DWIs and drug offenses make up a big chunk of the crimes we're seeing committed by veterans," Tarantino says. "A lot of that starts on deployment, where they hand out painkillers and Ambien like it's frickin' candy."

Another reason for the crime surge: untreated psychological trauma. A 2008 study estimated that more than 300,000 veterans of recent wars are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another 320,000 sustained Traumatic Brain Injury, which is like a severe concussion. The study found only half were receiving treatment.

This generation of veterans is also returning to an economy mired in deep recession. Unemployment for veterans in April rose to 15 percent, at a time when the same figure was 10 percent for the general population.

"There are a lot of factors there, but one of them is that HR directors are worried that these guys all have PTSD," says Chaplain John Morris of the Minnesota National Guard.

Compounding the problem is a macho military attitude that makes admitting weakness the toughest thing a soldier can do.

"Veterans often have a real superman thing," says Dr. Ernest Boswell, a clinical psychologist with experience in treating veterans. "They feel like they survived combat, so they should be able to overcome the challenges of civilian life without having to reach out to anyone. They're wrong. That attitude gets them into more trouble."

Military officials are quick to point out that veterans returning from combat and committing crimes are the exception rather than the rule. But an increasing number of local courts are seeing enough of a problem that they are looking into diversion programs.

Following a model pioneered in Buffalo, New York, Hennepin County opened an experimental court this July designed to intercept veterans on their downward spiral. The court lets qualifying veterans avoid jail time if they agree to conditions set by the judge. That often includes treatment through the Veterans' Administration, which has a representative in the court whenever it's in session.

In his courtroom on the 8th floor, Judge Richard Hopper presides over cases involving vets. His job is to drive home that the recommended treatment regimen is not something they can blow off.

"This isn't a design-your-own-treatment court. This isn't optional," he tells one veteran accused of drunk driving. "By taking part in the veteran's court, you're agreeing to follow through on all of the recommendations."

Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in defending veterans in criminal cases, began to see the surge in his practice several years ago. Checking with other colleagues, Hunter came to the conclusion that this is only the tip of the spear.

"I saw a problem that was getting worse," Hunter says. "If we don't do something about this, I'm worried we're going to see a generation of veterans building up criminal records that keep them from ever getting back on their feet."

MIKE DOESN'T WANT to talk about how hard it's been for him to come back from war. At least, not while using his real name. After some abortive efforts to find his place in civilian society, Mike has decided it's easiest for him to stay in the military, and his job there could be jeopardized if they found out about his legal record.

In 2004, Mike was on his first of two Iraqi tours, running patrols with his guard unit. The road from the Baghdad airport to the city's Green Zone was a notoriously dicey run, plagued by improvised explosive devices and snipers. Mike's unit was a first responder—when something blew up or looked like it might, they got the call. The assignment entailed regularly getting shot at and mopping up blown-apart bodies.

"I don't think that stuff actually bothered me that much," Mike says. "I could see how it could for someone else, who wasn't ready for it, but I was ready."

Yet Mike found coming home to Minnesota to be even more difficult.

"It was tough because I'd been gone 22 months, so there was this shock of change," he says. "You feel like you've got to catch up to the world because you've sort of been on pause."

He found he was jumpy, especially in crowds. One night he went to a nightclub with a friend, but found himself feeling uneasy and tense on the busy dance floor. When another patron got too close, Mike violently shoved him out of the way. Then he just kept shoving, pushing a dozen people off the dance floor. Someone called the police, and Mike was soon facing assault charges.

"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."

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."

As eight officers surrounded him, Matascastillo stepped out into the yard, waving the guns, looking confused and agitated.

"Shoot me!" Matascastillo called to the police. "Go ahead and kill me!"

After he was finally convinced to surrender, Matascastillo was inconsolable. In the back of the squad car, he told one officer it would have been better if he had been killed. At the jail, he was put on suicide watch.

The county attorney wanted to put Matascastillo away for a very long time. He was facing charges of making terroristic threats, domestic abuse, cruelty to animals, and more.

With prison time looming, Matascastillo finally began to see a therapist, Dr. Ernest Boswell, who was a Vietnam vet himself.

A year of therapy later, Matascastillo was able to persuade the court to be merciful. He negotiated his charges down substantially, ultimately pleading guilty to animal abuse and making terrorist threats. He paid a $575 fine, got two years probation, and served 45 days in the workhouse.

Boswell had a counterintuitive cure for Matascatillo's demons: The psychologist suggested deploying with his unit to Iraq.

"Ernie told me, 'This is going to be good. This is going to close the deal for you,'" Matascastillo says. "And he was right."

Driving his men hard, Matascastillo brought every one of them home from the tour safely. When he took attendance for his unit for the last time before leaving Iraq, Matascastillo shook with emotion.

"Afterwards, a chaplain came up to me, and said, 'Hey, you don't look so good.' I said, 'No you're wrong. I just realized that I came out of my crucible, I came out the other side.' It represented finishing the mission for me. I'm the only one who came back from that deployment looking younger."

Now back in Minnesota, Matascastillo has remarried, and this summer he received his social-work degree from Augsburg College.

Last week, he moved into his new office in Brooklyn Park, where he will be counseling veterans in the same system where he first met Dr. Boswell.

"This is full circle for me," he says. "I came through hell, with a lot of people's help. Now I can help people in the same place I was."

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