Longform

The Other American Sniper

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Castañeda moved back in with his parents. He floundered for weeks, unable to keep a job or sleep through the night. A doctor prescribed him Valium; when his parents later found him in a daze, he said he couldn't remember why the bottle was empty. He started drinking large amounts of cough syrup. One night, the cops called Maria saying they had found Castañeda wandering around an H-E-B parking lot, fumbling and attempting to get into cars.

Castañeda routinely kept a pistol by his side. His temper was getting worse. In the middle of the night, he'd bang on the door to Maria's room, demanding the keys to her car. Maria wondered whether the local VA could help. She had a cousin who worked there, so Maria called to ask for advice. She was both confused and unnerved by what her cousin told her: Keep calling, don't give up, don't let them say no to you.

One night, Maria asked Castañeda why he couldn't shake his diet of cough syrup, Valium and Red Bull. He grabbed his pistol and pointed it at his face. "It's what keeps me from doing this," he told her. Maria ran into the garage, and, after she managed to stop crying, called the VA crisis hotline. Someone at the other end of the phone told her she should consider taking the guns out of the house, so the next day, while Castañeda was out on an errand, that's what she and his stepfather did.

When Castañeda returned to find his guns were gone, he went on a rampage through the house, smashing everything in sight. He frantically called 911, saying he needed protection; one report says he used "extreme profanity" with a dispatcher. The outburst was so intense it triggered a standoff with a SWAT team outside. "I'm thankful he wasn't shot," Maria says. One responding deputy wrote in his report that "Castañeda's mental state was very unstable."

Castañeda was arrested and -- after many, many phone calls to veterans' groups and local politicians, Maria claims -- was committed to a VA psych ward in San Antonio. Doctors kept him there for nearly two months, prescribing him antipsychotics such as Zyprexa and lithium, along with mood stabilizers to calm him at night. "He reported that he thought his mother was trying to kill and poison him," according to hospital records.

But once he was declared stable, Maria didn't really know what to do with her son. She certainly didn't think he was ready to be out on his own. He refused to live with his parents, and the VA wouldn't put him in counseling, she claims.

Maria found Castañeda an apartment near the VA hospital so he could easily take the bus there at a moment's notice. But public transportation proved too confusing. Late one day, Castañeda called his mother, saying he'd missed his stop on the way to the hospital. He was too anxious to talk to the driver. He'd been riding around the city for most of a day.

Castañeda struggled to stick to the treatment doctors had outlined for him. Sometimes he'd take none of his medication. Or he'd take too much and throw up; Maria regularly had to bring a carpet cleaner to his apartment to handle the vomit. "He couldn't regulate himself," she says.

By July 2010, a year after his first VA commitment, Castañeda began to isolate himself further. He told his mother he no longer felt safe around her. He sent her delusional text messages in all caps. One day, maintenance workers at Castañeda's San Antonio apartment complex called Maria. They'd noticed the apartment was leaking and knocked on the door. When Castañeda opened up, they saw that parts of the apartment had flooded with water, the treadmill was running full speed and the refrigerator door was open with no food inside. Castañeda was disheveled and dazed. He kicked them out and wouldn't let them back in.

Maria filed for a mental health warrant, and San Antonio cops dragged Castañeda out of the apartment when he started to furiously punch holes in the walls. He was again taken to the VA psych ward; it's unclear how long they kept him that time.

In October 2010, Castañeda started texting his mother that government officials were planting dead bodies all over his apartment. She drove to the apartment where he was staying and found him sitting in the dark in an almost catatonic state. He could hardly speak, so she took him back to the VA hospital. Records indicate he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Two days after he was committed, according to hospital records, Castañeda tried to escape. Maria says he punched through a window and ran to a nearby gas station, but when he looked down and saw his badly mangled hand, Castañeda turned back around and sought medical attention at the hospital he'd just escaped.

Despite three escape attempts, doctors kept him there for less than three weeks. Maria says Castañeda never seemed to stabilize. In the winter of 2010, he even tried to admit himself to the VA psych ward, saying he didn't feel safe at home; Maria told him she was proud of him. One time, he took a taxi from his San Antonio apartment to his parents' Hill Country home, saying he didn't feel safe alone.

"I don't know how to change this," he told her.

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