A Dallas VA Medical Center nurse is on leave and her bosses are in full-blown groveling mode after a gay combat vet, in search of help for her deepening depression, said she was urged to come out of the darkness and to stop living in terrible lesbian sin.
"I was in very vulnerable place," Esther Garatie, a former Marine Lance Corporal, told Unfair Park in a recent interview. "I was finally trying to get help."
The Dallas Voice broke the story late last month: Garatie, 28, had visited the Dallas VA seeking help for severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Instead, Garatie, who is a lesbian, said she was subjected for more than three hours to a bizarre anti-gay tirade from VA nurse Lincy Pandithurai.
Garatie told the Voice that when she entered Pandithurai's office, the nurse's first question to her was, "Are you a lesbian?" Surprised, Garatie replied that she was.
"Have you asked God into your heart?" Pandithurai asked. "Have you been saved by Jesus Christ?"
In her statement to the Voice, the full text of which is here, Garatie writes, "This is when I realized that I was no longer a United States veteran in her eyes, I was just a homosexual." She adds that Pandithurai talked at length about Hell, urged Garatie "back towards the light," and asked her a number of invasive questions about any previous sexual encounters with men. The nurse also allegedly told her, "The reason you are so upset is because you feel the darkness surrounding you, and you feel guilty about being a homosexual and living in sin. I'm going to prescribe you some anti-depressants, maybe they'll help, but I'm not saying that you aren't going to continue to want to kill yourself."
The news has since been widely reported on LGBT-oriented blogs around the country, and a petition on Change.org to fire Pandithurai, begun by Garatie's close friend Jessica Gerson, has garnered more than 13,000 signatures.
In a phone conversation late last week, Garatie was slow discuss the incident. She spoke instead about her time in the Marines, where she enlisted in 2003, when she was only 19. She'd dreamed of joining the military for much longer, she said. "My grandfather served in World War II, in the Navy," she said. "Ever since I was three years old I'd dress up in cami paint. I knew that at some point I was going to enlist."
After boot camp and combat training in South Carolina, Garatie was stationed for a year and a half in Twentynine Palms, a bleak, scorched base in the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree National Park. "It was the most awful place on earth," she said evenly. During that time, she said, she was also given a top-secret security clearance and deployed to Iraq for four months to search female civilians. "It was very hush-hush," she said. The week she got back to the base from Iraq, she went to the nearest town to get a Marine Corps tattoo. "I felt like I had earned it," she said.
But later that evening, while she and three male Marines were crossing a road to head back to camp, Garatie was hit by a car, which, she said, was swerving to avoid the men and struck her instead as she trailed slightly behind them. Her face and arm went through the windshield of the car, and her leg, already weak from an injury during her college soccer days, was broken in four places. Her buddies panicked. "They realized I got hit and they apparently thought I was dead. They ran and left me there," she said. "Apparently the vehicle kept going."
The broken leg was the start of a medical nightmare for Garatie. "I was basically in the worst possible place to be an injured female Marine," she said. Twentynine Palms, she said, is the origin of the phrase "WM." It's supposed to stand for "Woman Marine," but on the base people used it to mean "Walking Mattress." Scorn for women pervaded the culture there, and her superiors were unsympathetic when she needed to leave classes and other duties for physical therapy.
"I could give a fuck if you ever walk again," one instructor told her, Garatie said. "You're a female. If you were a guy I would drive you [to physical therapy] myself. But I could fucking care less."
Things improved slightly when she was reassigned to North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. Her master gunnery sergeant there insisted that she get proper rehab for her injured leg. But it became infected and refused to heal, which Garatie suspects was a result of the mold in the barracks where she lived. She was also relentlessly sexually harassed by a male superior, she said. Then Hurricane Katrina happened, and Garatie, a native of New Orleans, sat in front of the TV every night and watched in a daze as her hometown drowned.
"Look at that, Garatie," another master sergeant would say to her as she watched. "There goes your family. They're all gonna die."
Under the weight of all this tragedy, and realizing her leg would never heal enough to allow her to be deployed overseas again -- her one goal from the time she entered the military -- Garatie decided it was time for her to leave the Marines. She received an honorable medical discharge in 2006, moved back to New Orleans and became working civilian jobs. But her medical issues continued, and new ones sprouted: after months of wrenching stomach pain, she was diagnosed with endometriosis. She started having trouble sleeping.
She had nightmares about the military. She and her girlfriend Dana moved to Dallas in July, so that Dana could take a job here, and the couple could make a fresh start. But Garatie's depression only worsened. She showed up at the VA that October day finally ready to address it.
Instead, she met Nurse Pandithurai. In the three hours she sat in the woman's office, she said, she listened, stunned, tried to defend herself, tried to defend her sexuality, then, ultimately, tried to "find the positives" in what the nurse told her.
"When I finally left, she made me think I not only was living in darkness, but I was bringing darkness upon Dana by being with her and being in a homosexual relationship," Garatie said, starting to cry. "I was like, 'I'm not going home.'" She only pulled herself together enough to drive home, she said, after she called Jessica Gerson (who would later author the petition), who is a graduate student in social work and an old friend from New Orleans. Gerson told her that what the nurse said was "empirically untrue, unethical, illegal and just plain mean."
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"If someone feels free in their professional life to do something like this so blatantly and openly, it seems, one, unlikely they haven't done it before," Gerson told Unfair Park. "And two, that they will not do it again...I'm sure I speak for both of us when I say this campaign has nothing to do with revenge and everything to do with protecting the next guy who walks into her office."
Pandithurai didn't respond to a message left with her daughter at her home in Midlothian. Monica Smith, a VA spokeswoman, told us yesterday that the incident is being investigated. Pandithurai has been placed on "administrative duties" and isn't currently seeing patients. Smith also sent over a formal statement which read, in part: "VA North Texas Health Care System does not tolerate discrimination on any level and takes any allegation of such behavior seriously. ...This allegation is being investigated and if substantiated, appropriate measures will be taken to address the issue." Smith said the VA expects to have their review of the incident completed by the end of November.
Garatie planned to return to the VA recently, after the head of the mental health department called her, apologized profusely, and asked her to come back and find another counselor. Garatie said she wanted to go and seek help again. But she was nervous, knowing that she would have to pass Pandithurai's office to get to the clinic's sign-in desk.
"She's short and small, and I'm a Marine," Garatie said. "And I'm not scared of anything. But I don't want to run into this woman ever again. She terrifies me."