An officer on the brink
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 26, 2013
FORT HOOD, Texas — Six months before his deployment to Afghanistan, Capt. Anthony Martinez gravely doubted his ability to lead.
He had post-traumatic stress disorder. He wasn’t sleeping at night and was barely holding it together during the day. He told his boss he couldn’t handle command of the battalion’s largest company. Senior noncommissioned officers asked leadership to remove Martinez.
Six weeks before shipping off, Martinez threatened to kill himself. Then he wrote a formal memo detailing who should take over the company if he had a mental breakdown while in Afghanistan.
The Army did nothing — except send him to war.
No one in his chain of command questioned whether a suicidal officer, hobbled by PTSD and addled by psychotropic drugs, was fit for combat.
Once in Afghanistan, Martinez quickly cracked under the pressure, and the meltdown some had been afraid of became a reality. He isolated himself, had angry, irrational outbursts and, finally, in the culmination of his ruin, threatened two soldiers.
He told one to get out of his office “or I’ll shoot you in the face.” Then, during an argument with his supply sergeant, he ordered a private in the room to load his weapon — an unheard of escalation on a fellow soldier.
Now the Army wants to act.
After ignoring the issues, the service wants to kick Martinez out for the very behavior that medical experts say proves why he never should have been in Afghanistan in the first place.
In 2010, Martinez was one of nearly 15,000 servicemembers with at least one deployment to be diagnosed with PTSD that year, according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Studies have found that almost one in five returning veterans overall suffer from PTSD, and the military struggled to balance their needs with the requirements of fighting two wars over the past 12 years. At large bases across the country, the Army has often drummed out soldiers who had clean records and served admirably in combat before being diagnosed with PTSD and running into trouble.
There is no Army regulation preventing a soldier with PTSD from going downrange, and the service doesn’t track how many deploy or how they fare if they do. However, when it comes to those who are suicidal, the answer to whether they should deploy is clear. “Absolutely not,” said Col. Rebecca Porter, chief of behavioral health for the surgeon general.
But Martinez did. And it was the beginning of the end of his 16-year military career.
Martinez — a once-stellar West Point graduate, a rising star who made the military his life — is facing a general discharge.
After the incident in Afghanistan, his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Calvin Downey, wrote that Martinez “made a series of decisions that led to unfortunate circumstances.”
That statement sums up the choices of all involved. Working backward through the events, there are many points along the way where the Army could have prevented the dominoes from falling the way they did, Martinez’s lawyer, Douglas Cody, said.
“That’s the tragedy of the situation,” he said. “They set him up for failure and now are abandoning him.”
Downey agreed to an interview with Stars and Stripes, but later decided not to comment. Martinez’s brigade commander, as well as the commanding general of RC-South in Afghanistan at the time Martinez was there, also declined to speak to Stars and Stripes for this story.
Martinez’s fate will soon be in the hands of the secretary of the Army. He will decide whether the captain should be medically discharged or kicked out for misconduct.
'I was proud'
For Martinez, 34, who immigrated to America as a young teenager with neglectful parents, the Army was where he found his home.
“I’m attached to it,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “I believe in the Army. It’s been my life since I got out of high school.”
When he first arrived in California from the Philippines at 13, he said he didn’t speak English, and he and his younger brother were left alone with an abusive stepmother who didn’t feed them.
“I know how it is to be hungry,” he said.
He left that all behind when a Filipino Army recruiter came by his house his senior year of high school.
“The Army functions with ideals and values,” Martinez said about why he jumped to be in uniform at age 18. “I saw the camaraderie. They take care of their own.”
When he arrived at his first duty station at Fort Hood, Texas, he looked around, pleased with his new life.
“I had gotten out of that god-forsaken house, was in a new state and had made it on my own,” he said. “I was proud.”
He became a U.S. citizen when he was 19, and although at 5 feet 3 inches tall it took him two steps for every one an average soldier took, he excelled in the military.
“I’m going to work hard in this job. This is me now,” he recalled thinking. “I felt like I was made for the Army.”
One lieutenant was impressed enough with his dedication and ability to encourage him to apply for the United States Military Academy at West Point, but first she had to explain to Martinez what that was. With a recommendation letter from Lt. Gen. Thomas Schwartz, he was accepted, and from the time he graduated in 2004, he was on a fast upward trajectory filled with gushing officer evaluation reports.
He did well on his first deployment in 2006 — 15 months at Camp Taji, Iraq — but while there, a good friend from West Point was killed by a roadside bomb, and his death rattled Martinez. Toward the end of the deployment, he started taking Ambien to help him sleep.
Once home at Fort Hood, he occasionally punched holes in the walls of his off-base home, and he drank more than he ever had before, but “I didn’t think much about it,” he said. Some hallmark symptoms of PTSD — anger issues and alcohol abuse — were beginning to manifest.
In 2009, he deployed again to Iraq, this time as part of an 11-man team embedded alone on a large Iraqi base in Kirkuk as a Military Transition Team. Martinez said he and the others on his team felt unsafe, living in constant suspicion of the thousand of Iraqis around them. The soldiers lived in an abandoned building that they surrounded with concertina wire for security.
“We slept with our rifles loaded,” he said.
When not out on Iraqi patrols, Martinez spent his days teaching Iraqis how to shoot their M-16s, to spot an IED and to gather basic intelligence. Over the course of the year, several incidents sparked an unease in Martinez that he would carry home to Texas.
One time on the firing range, he said he ordered a cease-fire but when he walked up to the targets, an Iraqi fired his weapon down the line near Martinez, the bullet snapping by his head. He was supposed to be among friends, and here he was getting shot at.
“I was shaken.”
About halfway through the tour, the team was together in their hooch when they heard a whistling and then a thud. The mortar, a dud, landed 20 feet away. The soldiers laughed about how they all screeched, but the incident further undermined their confidence in their so-called partners. One interpreter they suspected of not always translating truthfully and who hung around even when he was unwanted happened not to be there when the mortar hit.
“It’s my professional opinion the terp was responsible for the mortar,” Martinez said. “We became more paranoid and couldn’t talk about our schedule or patrols around him.”
Another part of the mission was helping the Iraqis with their interrogations, and one afternoon they asked Martinez’s opinion on whether detainees were being truthful. He told them he thought they weren’t. Although the Iraqis were treating the detainees roughly, Martinez didn’t intervene because he was trying to focus on the mission and building rapport with his Iraqi counterpart.
“I never saw those three again,” Martinez said. “Then three bodies were found in a dumpster.”
He doesn’t know if they were the same people, but the idea that his opinion might have gotten them killed haunts him. He beats himself up for being too mission-oriented instead of doing what he thought was right.
“It weighs heavily on me,” he said.
Throughout the deployment, he performed top notch as always.
He was rated No. 1 of the 27 captains by the bullish colonel in charge of the 12th Division Military Transition Team, who used an exclamation point to mark his enthusiasm.
Martinez was home for only a short time after the deployment before he was off to Fort Huachuca, Ariz, in spring 2010 to attend the Human Intel Officer school, an intensive three-class course.
The schoolwork was difficult, requiring studying through the evenings and weekends. Martinez struggled to graduate the first class. Then the second course focused on mock interrogations in a small room, which stirred panic in Martinez.
Friends took him aside and told him he needed to calm down in class, that he needed to get help.
“Why?” Martinez asked.
He didn’t see the problem.
They told them he was aggressive and often shook with irrational anger. In June 2010, he begrudgingly went to a base psychiatrist, admitting to a racing pulse and sweaty palms in class. The doctor diagnosed him with adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression.
After nearly failing the second class, Martinez dropped out of the third.
Martinez felt overwhelmed trying to control his emotions, was “growing more incapable of putting on a tough facade and [was] on the verge of emotionally breaking down,” he told the psychiatrist, according to his medical records.
By the time he got back to Fort Hood in August with the 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, he was sleeping only two or three hours a night and was seized by anxiety attacks in crowded environments. That month a psychologist at Hood decided “he clearly meets the criteria for PTSD,” and changed his diagnosis.
Martinez started abusing alcohol. Two or three beers at night turned into an entire six-pack and then Jim Beam.
“I would drink to the point that it put me to sleep,” Martinez said.
The depression, the panic attacks, the withdrawal, the anger — those PTSD symptoms ruled his nights and crept into his days.
“I was so ashamed.”
Clinging to who he was before — the Army officer everyone could rely on with the toughest of tasks, who arrived early and left late in constant dedication to the job — he raised his hand when the brigade needed a volunteer to go the Joint Readiness Training Center for three weeks to mentor intelligence soldiers.
“I felt obligated to teach soldiers,” he said.
He immediately had problems there. The open-bay barracks with 200 soldiers had him on edge. Every time someone opened the door, he popped out of bed.
“I could not sleep. I could not function,” he said.
He ended up moving to a hotel for the last two weeks at his own expense.
It was at JRTC he received a congratulatory phone call from his boss saying that he had been chosen to command the Headquarters and Headquarters company. The battalion commander, Downey, had originally received only one application for the open command slot, so leadership made it mandatory for all available captains in the unit to apply, Martinez said. He hadn’t wanted to throw his hat in the ring, much less take command.
Fresh off his first military failure at the course in Arizona and an unnerving experience at JRTC that shook his confidence, Martinez said he went to Downey and expressed his reservations about taking command of the largest company in the battalion. He had just been diagnosed with PTSD, his medication wasn’t stable and he was unsure of his footing.
“I told my boss, ‘I don’t want it. I’m going through problems,’ ” Martinez said.
He said Downey told him he was the most qualified candidate and the battalion needed him.
The first red flag, ignored.
“What can a captain say to a lieutenant colonel?” Martinez said. “I made the best of it.”
On Jan. 6, 2011, he assumed command and soon discovered the company had serious problems, particularly with supply, and he had little time to deal with it — the battalion was deploying in six months. He and the other company leadership tried in vain to get the incompetent supply sergeant replaced, but they were denied by battalion leadership.
Martinez’s careful facade at work began to crack.
“It was harder and harder to control my emotions,” Martinez said.
First Sgt. Malaloa Vaomu worked with Martinez every day and thought the captain was “a very competent officer that really cared for soldiers,” according to his later testimony at a Army board of inquiry held in July 2012.
However, as they got closer to deploying, Vaomu could see that although Martinez’s performance wasn’t suffering, the stress was having a considerable impact on him.
Vaomu knew about Martinez’s PTSD and now with his deteriorating emotional well-being, Vaomu was worried. He went to Master Sgt. Daniel Wrightsman, the acting sergeant major for the battalion, recommending that Martinez be removed from command.
The second red flag, but, again, it was ignored.
Despite increasing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, Martinez couldn’t bring himself to admit how bad his mental state really was. Regardless of the talk from generals in Washington about reducing stigma for mental health problems, at the brigade and battalion level soldiers with PTSD are all too often still deemed dead weight — a stigma Martinez internalized.
During the medical workups before deployment, Martinez persuaded his psychiatrist to let him deploy. He didn’t want to be the loser soldier who let his unit down because of mental problems.
“As a commander, I felt a responsibility to be there,” he said.
Then one night in May, he called his executive officer, as he had taken to doing at night, but this time he was crying. He told 1st Lt. Matthew Truax he wanted to take all his medications and not wake up, Truax testified at the board of inquiry last summer.
“I was so tired — emotionally and physically,” Martinez said. “I just wanted to make it stop. To have everything be over.”
Truax said he had “no doubt that Capt. Martinez was suicidal that night.”
Truax talked to him for a few hours, then the next morning, he said he took Martinez to the chaplain — following the Army’s guidelines for suicide prevention: Ask, Care and Escort.
The lieutenant was the only one to follow through on Army policy for suicidal soldiers.
Martinez talked with the chaplain for about an hour, and he told him he didn’t plan on harming himself but that he was struggling and had serious doubts about his command abilities. The chaplain, who as one of the Army’s designated gatekeepers for suicide prevention is trained to recognize when a soldier needs help, shrugged him off, Martinez said, telling him he considered Martinez his “good commander,” one he didn’t have to worry about. So Martinez told him he would do his best.
When he was later called in to see Downey, Martinez put on his best face and denied being suicidal. He took his bottle of Prozac to the meeting to prove he was coping with his issues.
“As officers we are unbreakable. We take care of ourselves,” he said about how the Army trains its officers to think. How could he tell his boss that he, a West Point graduate, wasn’t living up to what the Army expected of him?
“Martinez assured me [his statement to Truax] wasn’t suicidal anything — that he said he was looking forward to a long sleep and that was misinterpreted into a permanent sleep,” Downey testified at the board of inquiry, noting that Martinez was in high spirits and persuasive. “Tony was one of my company commanders. I had faith and confidence in him, so I took his word.”
It was clear to Martinez that Downey didn’t want to talk about it any more than he did. Martinez said he was left with the strong impression that Downey simply wanted him to deploy.
Another red flag, ignored.
Downey didn’t ask the lieutenant for details about the statement Martinez made to him on the phone, Truax testified, and besides reporting the incident to the brigade commander, Col. Gary Johnston, Downey took no further action.
He later testified that had he known Martinez “was crying on the phone to his executive officer that would have changed my perspective on the situation.”
Downey didn’t notify Martinez’s psychiatrist, whose name was on the bottle of Prozac, or send Martinez to the R&R Center or the emergency room for help, instead making the judgment about Martinez’s well-being himself.
“It seemed Capt. Martinez was not having suicidal ideations,” Downey testified.
Since Martinez was already under the care of a psychiatrist, Downey testified he didn’t think a referral was necessary.
His lack of action was in violation of Army regulations on suicide prevention. In addition to having a responsibility to refer soldiers to help, regulations say that “it is essential that commanders follow through to assure the problem is either resolved or continuing help is being provided.”
Army lessons learned talk about the need for leaders to be proactive, urging them to “take threats seriously” and “not ignore cries for help.”
Martinez had already been medically cleared to deploy by that time, and yet no one in his chain of command informed a doctor of the recent development about Martinez’s mental health. To Keith Caruso, the psychiatrist and former chief of inpatient psychiatry at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center who reviewed the case for Martinez’s defense, that was a mistake.
“It’s unclear why LTC Downey felt qualified to assess CPT Martinez’s suicidal potential without having him seen by a mental health professional as would be mandated under the circumstances,” Caruso wrote in his letter to the board of inquiry.
'Not fit to command'
Martinez told Truax that he was still going to deploy.
“I was not happy about that,” Truax testified. “I felt Capt. Martinez needed more help than he was given. I didn’t think he was fit to command a company into a combat zone.”
Vaomu was also “concerned about going into theater with someone who to me was unstable,” he said.
If Martinez was suicidal from the stress in garrison, Vaomu worried, what would happen in a war zone? Replacing him would be painful — another company commander would have to sign off on the equipment and get up to speed in a short period of time — but the battalion could deal with that predicament stateside or in Afghanistan — and to Vaomu, Fort Hood was obviously the better place.
Throwing up another red flag, he went to Downey to express his reservations about Martinez remaining the commander and asked for someone else to take over.
“No, he stays,” Vaomu recalled Downey telling him. “He is going to deploy with the company.”
“It was a pretty short conversation,” Vaomu said. “He’s a lieutenant colonel, so of course I didn’t ask questions after that.”
Wrightsman, the battalion’s acting sergeant major, testified that he and Downey talked about removing Martinez after the suicidal episode, but because Martinez had denied he was suicidal and said he thought he could handle the deployment, the unit leadership decided they would move forward and just “keep an eye on him.”
The company had already been certified to deploy when Martinez expressed his desire to die, but Wrightsman denied that was taken into account in deciding whether to replace him.
“It would have caused a lot of pain and work to replace Capt. Martinez, but I believe that Lt. Col. Downey and Col. Johnston would have understood if Capt. Martinez said he felt he couldn’t make the deployment,” he testified.
A few days after his suicidal ideation, Martinez issued a memo stating that if in Afghanistan he became mentally incapacitated, then Truax was to take over the company.
The memo mystified the company leadership. Truax turned it into the battalion personnel officer, but no one in the chain of command paid any mind to that red flag. Martinez had also posted the memo on the company bulletin board.
“To me it was kind of odd for something like that to come out before we deploy,” Vaomu said, noting it was his third deployment and he’d never seen anything like that.
“I think someone who has concerns about their mental state is not fit to command,” Truax testified. “I don’t think it was a good decision for Capt. Martinez to deploy.”
From West Point to Iraq, Army Capt. Anthony Martinez excelled in the Army. Then came PTSD and suicidal thoughts. The Army ignored his struggles and sent him back to war. Not until he lost control in Afghanistan did the Army decide to pay attention. Now the service wants to kick him out.
Courtesy of Anthony Martinez