Gayle Weiss still suffers flashbacks from last February, when her ex-boyfriend, an Iraq war veteran, choked her to within an inch of her life.
In photographs, Army Staff Sgt. Rahsaan McLellan exudes professionalism — a stocky soldier with a crew cut and an intense gaze. But that night he showed up at Weiss’ Winooski apartment and flew into a rage, smashing picture frames, punching holes in the walls and toppling the flat-screen TV.
McLellan clutched Weiss, leaving bruises on her forearms. When he wrapped his hand around her neck, Weiss says she struggled to pry it off. Gasping for air, she bent McLellan’s thumb back until he released her.
When she finally got him out the door, Weiss scrambled for the phone and dialed 911. Police subsequently caught up with McLellan — who admitted he grabbed Weiss but denied choking her — and charged him with aggravated domestic assault.
Only later would prosecutors learn what fueled the attack: McLellan, 33, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from a traumatic brain injury he sustained while serving in Iraq.
Weiss is telling her story to shine a spotlight on PTSD and the need she sees for returning combat veterans.
“There is just not enough support and help for these soldiers,” says Weiss, a 53-year-old high school science teacher who dated McLellan off and on for two years after his return from Iraq.
As Vermont prepares for its largest troop deployment since World War II — the first of 1500 National Guard soldiers began shipping off for Afghanistan, via Indiana, on December 6 — mental-health professionals are warning of large numbers of soldiers coming home with combat-related illnesses.
With the Afghanistan war entering its ninth year, studies suggest that as many as one in three combat vets exhibit symptoms of PTSD, including alcohol and drug abuse, nightmares, and depression interrupted by bursts of rage.
As was the case with McLellan, PTSD is also a contributing factor in some crimes committed by veterans. Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan says he’s seen more soldiers coming through the courthouse lately — including some soldiers who haven’t yet deployed. The charges range from drunk driving to assault, Donovan says.
The numbers are significant enough to justify a special court to deal with veterans — and nonveterans — whose brain injuries and trauma-related illnesses contributed to criminal acts. A pilot program will launch within weeks at Chittenden County District Court.
Like Vermont’s existing treatment courts for mental illness and substance abuse, the veterans court will employ clinicians and case managers to direct offenders, whenever possible, toward jail-diversion programs and treatment instead of prison.
Dr. Tom Simpatico, who directs the Division of Public Psychiatry at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, is heading the group creating the special-court project. It’s called the Mental Health Interagency Service System Interactive Online Network — MHISSION-Vermont, for short.
The program will work to identify defendants with military backgrounds and determine whether PTSD or traumatic brain injury was a factor in the crime. Then, using advanced health IT systems, the court can tailor punishments and treatments to address the root cause of the offense.
Simpatico stresses that the project is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for veterans guilty of serious crimes, but rather a system that can respond to the circumstances unique to combat vets.
“This is not special treatment,” says Simpatico, noting the court program will be available to nonveterans with brain injuries or trauma-related illnesses. “It’s meant to be cognizant of reality. It’s a safe bet this is happening more than we know about. My hope is we could have a more empirically based understanding of how often.”
The MHISSION-Vermont project is a partnership between UVM and the Vermont Department of Mental Health. The program is funded for five years through a $2.1 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Last year Vermont was one of six locations selected by SAMHSA to receive money for a veterans’ jail-diversion program. In recent years, Vermont has seen several combat veterans accused of violent crimes, a number of which are being blamed in part on post-traumatic stress. At least one vet appears, at least on paper, to be a chronic offender.
Daniel Desautels, 23, a private first class with the Vermont National Guard, racked up a string of criminal charges after serving six months in Ramadi, Iraq, and coming home with PTSD.
In the most serious offense, an intoxicated Desautels broke up a fight in downtown Winooski in 2007 by pulling a 9-mm handgun from his waistband and firing into the air.
He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, and ordered to undergo mental health counseling. But less than two years later, Desautels found himself back before a judge, pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in a late-night fight outside a Burlington bar. He was sentenced to five days on a work crew and fined $36.
Marine Capt. Charles Blount of South Burlington, who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving stints in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, was charged with simple and aggravated assault following an episode at home in December 2004. According to a Burlington Free Press report, Blount suffered a panic attack when his father cut his head open on a piece of exercise gear.
His father went to console him, but Charles started throwing punches. The family called 911 expecting paramedics, but police arrived and, ultimately, charged Blount criminally.
More recently, Stephen LoPinto, a 27-year-old combat medic from Vergennes who reportedly served 13 months in Iraq, turned himself in to South Burlington police for attempted rape.
LoPinto allegedly told police that on November 6, he tried to rape a female friend following a night of hard partying in celebration of his 27th birthday. When she refused his advances, LoPinto allegedly told police he jumped on her, pinned her down and reached for a pillow to muffle her screams.
Based on his confession, police charged LoPinto with aggravated domestic assault, unlawful restraint and attempted sexual assault — a crime punishable by up to life in prison. LoPinto is a former specialist with the Vermont National Guard but was reportedly deployed to Iraq with a Tacoma, Wash.-based Army unit.
Whether post-traumatic stress was a factor is uncertain. LoPinto allegedly told police he was beating the woman for five to 10 minutes until “all of a sudden he realized what he was doing and immediately stopped,” according to the police affidavit. The victim wondered aloud to police whether LoPinto was “having a flashback” from Iraq, according to the same official report.
Medical privacy laws make it difficult to know what sort of psychiatric treatment LoPinto, McLellan or any of these soldiers received or turned down. Reached by phone, McLellan politely declined to discuss his situation because he has not yet been sentenced.
Court records show McLellan was admitted to a Veterans Administration facility in Bedford, Mass., in March following the attack, and was receiving inpatient treatment there as recently as October 20. But the nature or duration of the services remains unclear. McLellan’s lawyer, Richard Goldsborough, said he could not provide that information.
Gayle Weiss says McLellan served in Iraq with a New Jersey-based Army unit before later joining the Vermont Guard. She recalls McLellan receiving medication and counseling for his PTSD on the National Guard base in Colchester. Weiss says the military should have recognized McLellan’s apparent need for inpatient treatment before he assaulted her.
Identifying veterans returning from war zones, and screening them all for PTSD, is hard enough. Ensuring they stay in treatment programs can be next to impossible, says Jim MacIntryre, a Vermont National Guard chaplain who until recently headed the Guard’s Outreach and Intervention Team.
“You’d find some who were in denial that something was wrong,” says MacIntyre, himself a Vietnam veteran. “Or they could keep one appointment, then they’d blow the others off. We’d offer to take them there, and most times that intervention would help people get back on track.”
On October 20, McLellan pleaded guilty to aggravated domestic assault in Chittenden County District Court in Burlington. He will be sentenced December 29.
As part of the plea deal, the state promised to recommend probation, not jail time. McLellan, in exchange, has agreed give the Vermont Department of Corrections access to VA records of his traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
Gayle Weiss doesn’t want McLellan in prison. She wants him to get the help he needs. State’s Attorney Donovan agrees. He’s sympathetic to the role that wounds of war play in criminal behavior, and wants to steer military defendants toward rehabilitation whenever possible.
“With mental health issues, you’ve got to address the root cause, or we’ll see it 10 times over,” Donovan says.
Gayle Weiss, meanwhile, still suffers from nightmares and has trouble concentrating as a result of the abuse she suffered. She is in treatment now herself — for PTSD — living proof that, when left untreated, combat-related illness can be contagious.