Longform

The Other American Sniper

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Deputies quickly found Castañeda wandering a dark stretch of road less than a mile from the house. His gait was sluggish. Playback of the police dash-cam video looks as if it's in slow motion.

One deputy muttered "Oh, shit" into his radio when Castañeda reached his right hand into his waistband, pulling out a .45 caliber Glock pistol. Holding it at his side, Castañeda sounded confused during the standoff.

First he told deputies he was just wielding a paintball gun, then a BB gun. "I'm not going to hurt anyone," he said in a low monotone, before grabbing the gun by the barrel with the palm of his hand, throwing it overhand into the nearby trees. Officers eventually discovered the gun some 25 yards away.

The deputies remembered Castañeda. Nearly two years before, some of them had been called out to a standoff inside his parents' home. Castañeda tore through the house, ripping out cabinets, shattering windows and smashing television screens. All because his parents took away his gun after he threatened to kill himself.

After that July 2009 blowup, Castañeda was sent to his first commitment at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital's psychiatric ward in San Antonio, beginning what would become a revolving door of treatment and release. Castañeda would be committed to the psych ward at least two more times. He tried to check himself in on another occasion. Weeks before he peppered his parents' house with bullets, his mother tried to get doctors to commit him once more; they said they couldn't take him.

While it remains unclear exactly why the VA was either unable or unwilling to offer Castañeda and his family more help (a VA spokesperson's only response to questions from the Houston Press was, "We are not conducting interviews at this time"), his case bears an uneasy resemblance to that of another troubled veteran whose violent breakdown dominated national headlines last month. On February 24, an Erath County jury sentenced Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh to life in prison for brutally killing famed Navy SEAL "American Sniper" Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield. By all accounts, both Castañeda's and Routh's families sought help through their local VA hospitals -- Castañeda in San Antonio, Routh in Dallas -- but were turned away days before their psychotic delusions reached their ultimate, violent breaking points.

The cases are dramatic examples of how war, mental illness and an overwhelmed VA can intersect with the criminal justice system. It's unclear how many veterans are currently incarcerated, but the most recent survey, done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, found that nearly one in every ten inmates in American jails had prior military service. Those veterans, the survey found, were more likely than nonvets to have been treated for mental health problems before their run-ins with the law.

Last month, on the same week and in the same state, attorneys for Castañeda and Routh argued their clients were insane when they committed their crimes and were therefore better candidates for treatment than for prison. Only Castañeda prevailed. In court, he grew visibly agitated, wanting desperately to take the stand, to persuade a judge he was simply defending himself against evils that existed only in his head.

The night Castañeda sent bullets flying through his parents' house, the responding deputies sound rattled on the radio call log. "I'm almost to the point where I'm second-guessing, why didn't I shoot?" one says.

He looks like that Marine we've seen before, one of the deputies says as Castañeda's taken into custody. "He won't talk...He's got like a freaking blank stare."

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