Phillip Wynkoop came back from Afghanistan a changed man.
The Navy officer was tortured by nightmares about firefights that wounded several of his SEAL teammates and soon began drinking heavily to calm his nerves.
A month after completing the deployment and returning to Virginia Beach in September 2011, Lt. j.g. Wynkoop did something he says he can't explain: He drove some 70 miles up the Eastern Shore, hitched a Virginia Marine Police boat to his pickup, and took it home.
A day later, he parked the stolen vessel at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where state police confronted the SEAL and charged him with grand larceny.
In Accomack County Circuit Court on Thursday, Wynkoop, having pleaded guilty to the charge earlier this year, told a judge that he wasn't acting in his right mind. His defense attorney argued that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, that he had served his country valiantly, and that he didn't deserve to be slapped with a felony conviction.
The judge, W. Revell Lewis III, labored over the decision, but ultimately rejected the argument.
"I understand and appreciate what you have been through... however, I've heard nothing that legally excuses you from the conduct," Lewis said before sentencing Wynkoop to unsupervised probation and a five-year suspended prison term.
Arguments in the case were emblematic of an ongoing national debate over how the courts should deal with the growing numbers of shell-shocked veterans who are appearing before them.
A recent study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who struggle with emotional trauma following combat are twice as likely as other veterans to be charged with a crime.
Some veterans advocates say the system should weigh the traumas of war when prosecuting combat vets, while many legal experts argue that everyone should receive equal treatment before the law.
"Certainly this defendant had his troubles, and they must have been monumental - monstrous even," Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Agar said at the sentencing hearing Thursday. "But we seldom have defendants who come before this court who are without troubles."
Wynkoop, 25, appeared in the cramped, small-town courtroom wearing a black Navy officer's uniform. His father traveled from Florida to offer support.
Wynkoop was assigned to SEAL Team 2 at Little Creek after completing the rigorous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in 2010. He was on his second deployment to Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011, on what would become America's deadliest day in the decade-old war. A military helicopter carrying 38 U.S. and Afghan troops, including 17 SEALs, was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade. All were killed, including men Wynkoop knew personally.
From the witness stand, Wynkoop said he was haunted by his time in combat, but that he didn't seek help for his emotional problems because he feared he would lose respect among fellow SEALs.
"It's supposed to be a community of hard, rough and tough men," he said. "Seeking help is looked down upon."
Weeks after returning from war, Wynkoop was driving back to Virginia Beach following a trip to visit family in Philadelphia. He pulled off for a bathroom break in Accomack County, where he noticed several unattended police vessels. He made a mental note, he said in a sworn police statement, and a day later, he made the hour-and-a-half return trip to steal one of the boats.
Traffic cameras on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel captured him during his return trip with the boat, and police were notified.
Wynkoop said he was "ashamed" by his crime and acknowledged that it didn't make any sense. He didn't have any plans to sell the boat or take it out in the water, he said.
"It's apparent to me now... I was in a bad place and making reckless decisions with my life."
His attorney, Thomas Northam, argued that a felony conviction would limit his client's future job prospects and asked the judge to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.
Wynkoop submitted his resignation from the Navy and is expected to be honorably discharged next month.
Northam said he understands that the law must be applied consistently. "However, I would say there is a certain smaller percentage of the population who have sacrificed more, have been through more, have done more heroic deeds in protecting the freedom we all enjoy. And that is who Phillip Wynkoop is today."
Distributed by MCT Information Services