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A Groundbreaking Court Decision for Vets with PTSD

From the Pres

October 21, 2009

A jury came back with a verdict this week that could have a significant impact on Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans with PTSD throughout the country, who have been accused of violent crimes. 

I have mentioned in a previous blog entry the work that Dr. William “Bud” Brown is doing in Oregon on Veteran defense cases.   I just finished working with Bud and his team from The Bunker Project, helping to defend a young Veteran with severe PTSD named Jesse Bratcher, from John Day, Oregon, who was accused of killing a man he believed had raped his girlfriend. 

I have been consulting for months on the case and recommended John Keaveney, the Founder of the Veteran Program New Directions, to serve as an expert witness for the defense on the subject of PTSD.  John Keaveney is a fellow Vietnam Veteran who I counseled many years ago in dealing with his own PTSD.   John went on to create New Directions, the most comprehensive treatment program in the nation for veterans suffering from substance abuse, PTSD and co-occurring disorder.

The story of the defendant, Jesse Bratcher, is one of a normal, law-abiding young man whose mental condition was changed dramatically, for the worse, by his experiences in the Iraq war. He was raised by his grandparents in Eastern Oregon, who describe him as a “perfect boy.”  He graduated high school with a B average.  Jesse had no problems with the law before he joined the Oregon National Guard, and was sent to Iraq for a combat tour as a machine gunner for an armored division.  Jesse had a lifelong aversion to guns, which made the military a strange choice, until you consider the lack of options for a poor boy with a high school education from rural Oregon. 

Jesse's unit was sent to Iraq, where he took the U.S. rules of engagement very seriously, even memorizing them. He twice refused to fire on civilians his platoon engaged, even writing up a complaint when men from his unit shot and killed a civilian Iraqi who was armed, but not acting in a hostile manner.  Jesse's best friend was killed during their tour when his Humvee, in front of Jesse, was hit by an IED explosion.  His commanders say Jesse was never the same afterwards.

When Jesse returned from Iraq, his grandparents noticed a significant difference in his behavior.  The sweet, easy-going boy they had raised was now prone to angry outbursts. He had trouble sleeping.  He spent days sleeping in the woods and set up perimeters and establishing fields-of-fire, where he carried, slept with, and maintained his AK-47.

The men in his reserve unit noticed a difference, too.  Jesse began missing formations, when he had never had a problem before.  He had a particular stare that made the other men uneasy.  He complained of flashbacks.  He was angry all the time.  Eventually, a commander suggested he visit the VA in Boise, Idaho 4and get checked out. 

After numerous visits to the VA, and one rejection of benefits, Jesse was diagnosed with PTSD, with a 100% disabled rating, and started receiving treatment.

Things started to improve for Jesse.  He got a girlfriend and they became serious. She got pregnant and Jesse was excited about becoming a father.  They had plans to get married. He was attending his VA appointments regularly and beginning to feel better.

Then, one night, his girlfriend told him something that changed everything.  While he was in Boise for one of his counseling appointments, she had gone out drinking with a girlfriend.  She met a man that night she said raped her.  She was not sure who the baby's father was.

That night, Jesse put the barrel of his AK-47 in his mouth and almost pulled the trigger.  Two days later, he got in the car with his girlfriend with the intention of reporting the rape to the police. He instead ended up on the front lawn of the man his girlfriend accused of raping her.   
He had tried several times to contact the police.  He was unsuccessful.  After confronting the alleged rapist, Jessie experienced a flashback during which he shot and killed the victim.

The defense team argued that he should not be held criminally liable for the killing, as his PTSD, produced by his war experiences, made him legally insane at the time of the shooting.

The jury agreed, and yesterday they came back with a verdict of guilty by reason of insanity.   This is the first time that PTSD has affected the verdict of a soldier accused of a violent crime after returning home from war, and it could set a significant precedence in similar cases popping up all over the country.

Dr. William “Bud Brown is a Vietnam combat Veteran who credits the counseling he received at a Vietnam Veteran Outreach Center, a program I founded and co-authored, with saving his life and putting him on the road towards a university education and the work he is doing today.  He has a PhD in Sociology.  In addition to his work on The Bunker Project, he teaches Criminology at Western Oregon University.  

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