Editor’s Note: This is first in a new feature in Treatment Before Tragedy’s online magazine, from the frontlines of the lives of wounded warriors and their families. Please submit your story.
by Jonathan Looper
This past fall, veteran Army sniper Omar Gonzalez went on an operation that was, perhaps, for him, his final and most important. He went alone to infiltrate one of the most guarded compounds in the world. He ventured on foot, without air support, but armed. He made it over the fence of the fortress, past infrared sensors and rooftop snipers, finally breaching the entrance. The mission was likely the culmination of his 15 years in the Army and three combat tours in Iraq.
But reports on his failed mission most likely won’t ever refer to him as brave.
In fact, three days following his mission, he appeared in federal district court in Washington, D.C., where prosecutors described his actions as traitorous and said he was “a threat to the president.” Last month, a judge ordered a full mental health competency hearing.
This mission for Gonzalez was different than those in his past, because the orders for this mission weren’t coming from a commander but rather, it appears, from within his own mind. The compound he infiltrated: the White House. The presumed target: his commander-in-chief.
Gonzales, we have come to learn, was battling brain disease, related to PTSD. On this Veteran’s Day, we would be well served to recognize and remedy a sad reality in our country: Omar Gonzalez, the “White House fence jumper,” is yet another casualty of our broken mental health system, a system that has failed both our civilian and veteran populations living with mental illness. The tragedy of Gonzales’s journey from war to jail is a reflection of our failure as a society to address mental health issues in society.
His ex-wife, Samantha Bell, reflected on the tragedy of Gonzalez’s life in an interview with journalist Naomi Pescovitz at WHTR News in Indianapolis, Ind. “I didn’t understand,” she said. “Looking back now thinking, I wish there was something that I could have done to help him.”
In an Associated Press article, Bell’s daughter, Rainie Murphy-Gandy, 24, of Midland, Tex., recalled how “everyone liked” Gonzales.
The so-called “White House fence jumper” tragedy reminded me how close my friend, Dustin DeMoss, an Air Force veteran, came to a similar fate. I grew up with Dustin in Oklahoma, losing touch with him after his family moved to Texas. A couple years ago, I heard from him.
He shared his story with me: while on a humanitarian discharge from the Air Force in 2008 to care for his mother, ill with cancer, Dustin was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Before he was diagnosed and treated, Dustin believed he was on a secret military “mission.” His mission, like that of Gonzalez’s, ended in him threatening the president of the United States. At one point, Dustin thought a stranger on the street had given him “orders.” In his mind, the stranger had pulled up in a vehicle and called Dustin over to give him directions for an important mission.
In a rare moment of clarity in 2008, Dustin realized that whether his mission was real or imagined, it was too much for him to bear. He sought help and was placed in a psychiatric “hold” at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
Two years ago, when Dustin recalled this to me, I asked him linear questions, “Where did the directions lead you? Why did the stranger stop you? Was the stranger even real?” Dustin, treated and doing well, still couldn’t answer these questions with certainty. He couldn’t distinguish between reality and perception.
In hearing about the breakup of Gonzalez’s marriage, as reported by his ex-wife, I thought back to the way that Dustin also lost the support of some of his family and friends, as his symptoms of schizophrenia escalated at a time when he needed assistance the most. His mother stood by him.
Unlike Gonzalez, Dustin’s threat to the president was verbal and, thankfully, his behavior never reached the point of physical violence against another person. He acknowledges that, when the symptoms of schizophrenia were at their worst, things could have easily turned violent.
When Dustin and I reconnected, he asked if I would help him share his story to help others going through similar circumstances. We are now casting a movie, “Light Wounds,” based on the story of Dustin’s courage and his mother’s love and support through the journey from illness to healing. We hope to soon enter into production.
The movie is intended to not only increase understanding of Dustin’s experience, but highlight the challenges that so many veterans and their families face. These brain diseases that veterans are facing aren’t new, but we are at a crossroads, as a nation. This is a moment when we can abandon the Dustins of our country and their families or we can address the systemic problems veterans and service personnel face trying to get adequate and effective treatment.
We need to provide support to veterans and their families, rather than accepting an ignorance that stigmatizes and shames. If we do this, then history will show that we hit a watershed moment and responded to it by providing long-term support and care for veterans and others living with mental illness. We owe this much to Omar Gonzalez and the other military personnel for whom brain health was a casualty of service.
Jonathan Looper is an actor based in Los Angeles and co-writer and a producer of Light Wounds, a film scheduled to be released in 2015, based on the story of Dustin DeMoss, an Air Force veteran who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. For more information, visit http://www.lightwoundsmovie.com.
Categories: Wounded Warriors