Adan Castañeda was born in the South Texas city of Edinburg, less than 20 miles from the Mexico border. Back then, his mother, Maria Esparza, was married to someone she calls "an abusive man, a pedophile" who sexually assaulted Castañeda.
When he was about four years old, Castañeda's mother fled with her children to the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. By the time Castañeda was eight years old, his mother had married Roy Esparza, her current husband. Things were relatively calm until Castañeda's brother, Alonzo Garza, who was three years his junior, entered middle school. Teachers caught Alonzo bringing pot to school. He once stole a golf cart from a local store, taking it for a joyride in the woods. Maria got worried when school officials began to wonder whether Castañeda, too, was a problem child.
The summer before his senior year, Maria sent Castañeda to a summer camp at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen; she thought he'd enjoy the pilot lessons. Castañeda returned, finished out his senior year living with his sister in San Antonio and, with no other plans for his future, decided to join the military. He was dead set on joining the U.S. Marine Corps. "Real men join the Marines," Maria recalls him saying.
Castañeda insisted on becoming an infantryman. He hated the idea of being stuck in a dull desk job. After he finished basic training, he relished the missions that took him to Guam, Thailand and the Philippines. He started collecting canisters of dirt from the places he'd visited.
Castañeda eventually became a scout sniper, joining the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines Scout Sniper Platoon before deploying to Iraq in March 2007 as part of a surge of U.S. troops onto the battlefield.
The details of Castañeda's deployment became part of a letter he later sent the VA contesting his disability rating. In it, Castañeda gave a scattered recollection of firefights, explosions and carnage that's at points difficult to follow. There are, however, a couple of unifying themes in what he wrote. Whatever Castañeda saw clearly weighed on him, and the overwhelming feeling of imminent danger and helplessness never really dissipated.
"I was repulsed by what I saw...I felt that death was so close, and that I would soon die, but it didn't happen."
Castañeda and his mother spoke regularly before and during his deployment. But after he returned to California's Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in September 2007, he rarely called home. Then, in February 2008, Maria got an unusual phone call from her son.
Claiming he'd been in a training accident, Castañeda wanted to make sure his mother still had him listed on her health insurance. Later that night, Maria got a call from a doctor at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center. Castañeda had been put in a psych ward. "Is he always this paranoid?" she recalls the doctor asking her.
In his letter to the VA, Castañeda wrote he'd been drinking heavily the night before, passed out, woke up and then, in a daze, decided to take his own life. He claimed he'd attempted suicide at least twice before. He'd slashed his arm with a razor, but then had second thoughts, he wrote. He patched his wrist with a T-shirt and duct tape before asking a friend to drive him to the hospital.
Doctors at the California hospital wrote that Castañeda suffered from paranoia and suicidal ideation. Records indicate the hospital told base officials about the episode. In his letter to the VA, Castañeda wrote, "Nobody ever talked to me about having been in the psych ward." Castañeda says that higher-ups did, however, remove all sharp objects from his living quarters.
In the months that followed, Castañeda emailed lengthy paranoia-fueled screeds to Alonzo. "Mom, we've got to get him out of the service," Maria remembers Alonzo telling her. "He's losing it."
Castañeda was honorably discharged in December 2008; none of his discharge paperwork makes any mention of mental illness or his suicide attempt. He drove straight through the night from California to Texas, and moved into an apartment with Alonzo and his two young nieces. Castañeda was, by all accounts, a doting uncle.
Family, however, began to notice that Castañeda's mood had shifted radically since before his deployment. In February 2009, on Castañeda's birthday, Maria brought a cake to his apartment. He was sitting in the dark, sipping from a gallon jug of water. "I don't celebrate birthdays," he told her. He threw the cake in the trash.
Castañeda became obsessed with security. He bought his brother a gun, insisting he needed it for protection. Weeks later, on March 9, 2009, Brendon Ashley Griffin, 24, shot and killed Alonzo Garza in the apartment while Castañeda slept upstairs -- a police report states that upon finding his brother's body, Castañeda grabbed his gun and fired a bullet into his bedroom- door before punching holes in the walls of the apartment. (In 2010, Griffin, who unsuccessfully tried to raise his own insanity defense, pleaded guilty to murder and aggravated assault in -exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.)
Castañeda disappeared after his brother's death. He didn't go to the funeral. Weeks later, he called his mother from the Bexar County jail. Blackout drunk, he'd totaled his car, smashing it into a guardrail. Maria remembers he wasn't wearing shoes when she bailed him out. Castañeda's face was bruised. He'd been in a fight he couldn't remember.