Slow recovery: A veteran who heard 'voices' works to get out of jail
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The unlikely meeting that took place Wednesday at the Virginia Beach Courthouse said a lot about Navy veteran Ted Olsen, both the good and the bad.
In November, Olsen, 38, landed in jail after being accused of a vandalism spree in his Virginia Beach neighborhood. He had been acting strangely for some time, according to his parents and neighbors.
He kept hearing voices. He thought terrorists were out to get him. He changed the locks in house multiple times.
A former Navy Seabee who served 14 years, he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression. He's also been diagnosed with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a chronic pain condition that has required multiple surgeries.
The impromptu meeting took place outside a courtroom between two vandalism victims and Ted's mother and stepfather. One victim, A.J. Sanders, put it succinctly when he spoke about Olsen.
"It's really sad for me, because we were such good friends," he said. "But he really needs to go somewhere else. Jail is not the place for him."
For several months, Olsen was among the more than 6,000 jail inmates in the state with a diagnosed mental illness, several hundred of whom have post traumatic stress disorder.
The other victim, neighbor Tom Weber, described his quandary: He knows Ted has mental problems, but the vandalism spree was downright scary. He's concerned about his own family should Olsen decide to do something more serious than vandalism.
"Ultimately, I have no hatred for him," Weber said. "But I will literally move if this doesn't work out."
At one point, he leaned over to Ted's mother, who is battling cancer, and said: "I'm sorry for all this, ma'am. My heart goes out to you."
A long process
Months or maybe years from now, Friday's court proceeding might stand out as an important step on the road to Olsen's recovery.
It was ruled that Olsen could be transferred from the Virginia Beach Jail to Poplar Springs Hospital in Petersburg, a behavioral health facility that has a specialized treatment track for veterans suffering from PTSD and other problems.
After completing a 28-day program, he will return to court and is expected to answer the vandalism charges by pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.
Olsen has been evaluated at Eastern State Hospital and deemed incompetent at the time the offense occurred, defense attorney Arthur Ermlich told the court. Ermlich himself volunteered to be responsible for transporting Olsen to the Petersburg facility, but a prosecutor requested the sheriff's office handle the job, and the judge agreed.
For Ted's parents, the verdict is so far, so good.
His stepfather, Ward Phelps said Ted is not a violent person, but has had "no end of health problems." Last year, he and Mary Olsen, Ted's mother, watched in despair as their son's mental condition began to spiral out of control. He had suffered from depression for some years, but in 2012, his behavior turned bizarre.
In one episode, Ted called his parents and said "terrorists threw a canister" into his house. Another time, he pointed to screws in the wall and said terrorists installed them as "antennas."
His parents implored him to seek psychiatric help, but he would not commit himself.
'Voices' seemed real
In an interview with the Daily Press, Olsen said his condition improved while at Eastern State.
"As far as the psychotic problems, they're fixed," he said. "I'm on my medication. I don't need any more hospital time or jail time. I feel, as if for vandalism, I've served my time."
Looking back on it, he said the voices in his head seemed authentic at the time.
"The thought path, it seemed so real. It's weird," he said. "I would think after being in the military for 14 years, I would be mentally strong enough to fight back and know better. But the thought process seemed so real that you don't know any better."
Olsen's parents would like to see him in a supervised, structured setting, where someone could make sure he keeps appointments and stays on his medication. The 28-day program at Poplar Springs is only the start of a longer road.
Phelps laments the lack of a veteran's court in Virginia. Other states have specialized courts that deal with non-violent veteran offenders, but the Virginia General Assembly has resisted establishing one.
The courts connect troubled veterans with government treatment programs and counseling, and have sprung up in several states with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with a myriad of mental problems.
Olsen served two deployments, one in Afghanistan and another in Albania. The latter was a humanitarian mission, but it no less stressful. He recalled drilling wells near where people were dying.
"When they would amputate limbs," he said, "they would throw them out the window."
Olsen served in the Navy from September 1993 to October 2006. He served in a support role with Navy SEALS, but was not a member of that group. Sanders, the neighbor, said he's known Olsen for years and noticed his deteriorating mental state last year.
"He just has to be somewhere," Sanders said.
"Well," Phelps said, "we're on our way with it."