Afghan deployment was the beginning of the end for captain’s career
Part 2: Red flags add up as Martinez heads downrange
By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 27, 2013
FORT HOOD, Texas — Capt. Anthony Martinez arrived in Afghanistan in June 2010, in command of a 230-person company.
At Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, a base with a couple of thousand servicemembers in southern Kandahar, Martinez was appointed “mayor” of the facility, meaning he was in charge of keeping the place running. If a septic tank burst, for example, Martinez was the go-to officer to arrange for it to be fixed. In all, he was responsible for $141.6 million worth of equipment.
First Sgt. Malaloa Vaomu, the top enlisted soldier in the company, said he and Martinez were stretched thin, and “the level of stress amplified [Martinez’s] issues.”
Martinez, a West Point graduate who by all accounts was an excellent Army officer, started to struggle when he got home from his second deployment to Iraq. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, had insomnia and eventually deteriorated in mental health to the point of suicidal thoughts.
About a month and half before deploying, Martinez threatened suicide, but the gesture and other red flags were largely ignored by his commanders. Vaomu had asked for Martinez to be replaced as company commander to no avail.
As the summer in Afghanistan progressed, Martinez increasingly had angry outbursts at soldiers, often ordering counselings for them that his company leadership disagreed with as unnecessary. At one point, for three days Martinez “shut himself in his office and only came out for meals and to use the latrine,” Spc. Brandon Petty testified at an eventual board of inquiry for Martinez’s elimination as an Army officer.
The first week of August, Martinez hit a wall. He decided to quit not just command but the whole Army. He went to his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Calvin Downey, to resign his commission.
Martinez said Downey told him he would send his resignation up to legal, but nothing came of it.
Yet another red flag, unnoticed.
Martinez recalled Downey told him to “keep his head up and drive on.”
“I was so overwhelmed,” Martinez said. “On many nights I would go to my [room] and I thought about killing myself. Even loaded my gun.”
On Aug. 19, a particularly busy day, Staff Sgt. William Kelso twice went into Martinez’s office because a local national had a business proposal for the base. After the second time, Martinez yelled, “Get out or I will shoot you in the face!” and then slammed his door, according to witness statements.
Kelso said he felt threatened enough to stay away from Martinez for a day or two, and Petty went to a senior NCO and told him he was concerned Martinez would hurt himself or another soldier.
Nothing came of it.
On Aug. 24, Martinez had a damning outburst with his company supply sergeant.
The problems the company had with her at Fort Hood were intensified in Afghanistan. Vaomu said he didn’t think the staff sergeant had the skill set to handle the large job and she often lied about having completed tasks.
Things came to a head when four of her five children at home were placed with social services. Martinez had warned the battalion before deploying that her family care plan was going to be an issue and asked to leave her with the rear detachment, but she was deployed because of manning issues, according to Army documents.
When the problem arose like he predicted, Martinez ordered the staff sergeant to fly home to deal with the situation, but she disobeyed his direct order and refused to take her R&R leave to help her kids.
Martinez, with the support of Vaomu and a judge advocate general, fired her as supply sergeant. Vaomu was concerned she’d access the computer system and deliberately sabotage the company, so Martinez ordered her to collect her things and leave the office, asking a lieutenant to escort her and prevent her from using the computer.
In her office, she started aggressively yelling at the lieutenant, disobeying his orders, which eventually brought Martinez into the room, according to multiple sworn statements. She started yelling at Martinez and gesticulating with her arms, saying she wasn’t leaving until she got a phone call she was expecting.
Martinez ordered her out of the office, and she refused again, according to sworn statements.
At that point Martinez couldn’t see her hands, and he said he felt panicked and in danger. Instinctively he reached to touch his M9 pistol at his side, but he had left it in his office.
He started to walk away and ordered a nearby private to go amber with his weapon, surprising everyone in the room.
“Really? Seriously, am I a threat now?” the staff sergeant yelled at him as he went.
When Vaomu asked about it later, Martinez told him, “Top, I felt threatened.”
The battalion suspended him from command and launched a 15-6 investigation.
The officer in charge of the investigation, Maj. Thomas Adkins, found that Martinez’s medical history was “important to this case.” The doctors who examined Martinez reported that his level of Prozac was too low. When the incidents were taken in context with his PTSD and inadequate medication, “the reasoning behind why these events occurred becomes clear,” Adkins wrote in the 15-6 memorandum of findings and recommendations.
Maj. Michael Villanueva, a psychologist who treated Martinez in Afghanistan after the incident, wrote in a sworn statement that Martinez’s “PTSD significantly contributed to his reactions and behaviors that night.” Had his dosage of Prozac been higher “the odds of this event happening would have been low.”
Martinez’s decision to order the amber status “was directly affected by both the stressors of [the supply sergeant’s] current and previous behavior, described as a ‘history of distrust and misunderstanding,’ and severely aggravated by ... Martinez’s PTSD, which was not fully under control given his dosage of Prozac and lack of psychological counseling at the time of incident,” Adkins wrote.
As far as telling Kelso to get out or he’d shoot him in the face, Adkins found that Martinez “was increasingly getting out of control and his threats were escalating,” but “put in context of ... Martinez’s medical situation ... his reaction does seem less unreasonable.”
Several enlisted soldiers said they believed Martinez was serious in his threat to Kelso. However, some of the company and battalion enlisted leadership disagreed.
“To me that language is a part of the Army culture. We say things like that but we don’t act on them,” now-1st Sgt. Daniel Wrightsman, who had been acting sergeant major for the battalion, testified at the later board of inquiry.
Vaomu also testified that he didn’t think Martinez had intended to shoot anyone and that soldiers make comments like that simply to show urgency. Adkins testified that he thought “they blew the statement made to Staff Sgt. Kelso out of proportion.”
Adkins recommended that Martinez remain in command and receive a letter of concern in his local file, noting that if anything along those lines happened again there would be disciplinary action. He also recommended the brigade perform PTSD awareness training to recognize the symptoms.
The brigade commander, Col. Gary Johnston, tossed out those findings. He did not provide any written documentation of doing so, and he declined to comment to Stars and Stripes about why.
Downey testified that the results were tossed out because Johnston thought Adkins’ findings and opinions were beyond his scope.
The first time Adkins turned in his report, the legal team said his findings weren’t supported by the evidence because he didn’t have sworn statements from the doctors, so he went back and got that.
“I don’t understand why at that point my findings would not be legally sufficient,” he testified. Because there was no written record of Adkins’ work in the case file, Martinez was unaware those findings existed until more than a year later.
Johnston assigned a new investigator “to give them different findings and recommendations,” Adkins testified, noting he thought it was unusual to be replaced. “The new [investigating officer] came in, took everything I had done, and made new findings.”
The new investigator, Maj. Brett Blair, recommended that Martinez be subject to the UCMJ and “receive a punishment that ensures he is never allowed to serve in the United States Armed Forces again.”
He also recommended, in what appears to be a shot at Downey, that “the unit take steps to know their leadership and make deliberate decisions on whether an individual is fit for command before placement in a position.”
Johnston asked the commander of RC-South, then-Maj. Gen. James Terry, to handle the situation at brigade level, where he planned to relieve Martinez of command, write a relief for cause officer evaluation report and issue a brigade letter of reprimand.
All those things would have hurt Martinez’s career, but he likely would have been able to stay in the Army. Both he and Downey wrote in Army documents that they thought Martinez still had the ability to lead once he had time to recuperate and rest.
Terry, working off Blair’s 15-6 findings without knowledge of Adkins, denied Johnston’s request and instead issued Martinez a general officer memorandum of reprimand. Terry, who until recently was in charge of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan, declined to comment to Stars and Stripes on why, or whether he knew the extent of Martinez’s mental health problems.
“I am highly disappointed by your careless actions and poor judgement,” Terry wrote in the GOMAR. “When faced with frustrations and changes, you must remain calm under pressure and implement a sound decision-making process. You failed in these basic leadership tasks at a time when Soldiers deserve your highest level of performance. You have discredited yourself, the Officer Corps, and the US Army. I seriously doubt your potential to hold a position of leadership now and in the near future.”
He said he would file the GOMAR in Martinez’s permanent file, which would end Martinez’s career.
A month later, a lieutenant found Martinez in the shower trailer crying with his weapon in hand. He was escorted to combat stress, Wrightsman said, and then out of Afghanistan back to Fort Hood.
Before he left, Martinez claims he was told that if he rebutted the GOMAR — Terry said he would consider arguments before taking any action with it — that he would have to stay in Afghanistan while it was sorted out instead of being immediately medically evacuated where he would get more significant psychiatric care.
Martinez said he was too distraught to stay. He accepted the GOMAR.
Troubles back home
Back at Fort Hood, Martinez steadily deteriorated over the winter. He hid at his house with the curtains closed tight and tape over the peephole. He said he’d order Chinese food or pizza and pay by credit card with instructions for the delivery man to leave it outside his front door.
In mid-February 2012, his unit couldn’t get him to pick up the phone or answer the door, so eventually the police were called to take him to the base hospital. He had an aggressive, angry breakdown in the emergency room, threatened suicide again and ended up hospitalized at a civilian treatment facility in San Antonio for a 30-day PTSD program with other servicemembers.
Patients there, who were mostly enlisted, didn’t wear uniforms or use ranks. They were on a first-name basis and encouraged as part of their healing to openly share with and support each other. The environment was one of intimacy without the formalities and restrictive boundaries of the military.
“You are curing each other,” the therapists told them.
Naturally, patients gravitated toward those with whom they had the most in common. The Army paratrooper clicked with the Marine grunt, for example, Martinez said of two members of his group therapy. Martinez developed a friendship with Pfc. Derreck McClintock as they bonded over a shared childhood of neglect and a dependence on alcohol. McClintock understood Martinez like no one else did.
“I didn’t have to explain,” Martinez said. “He would say, ‘I know what you mean.’ ”
While he was there in March the Army began the process of kicking Martinez out of the service.
After he left the treatment facility, Martinez was doing better and had been sober nearly three months when he fell off the wagon in May and bought a six-pack of beer at 7-Eleven, he said.
“I went downhill from there.”
He relapsed into numbing the PTSD symptoms with alcohol, and then decided to meet McClintock at Fort Leonard Wood where he would pick up a therapy dog and hang out for the weekend. He bought wine for them to drink, and at McClintock’s barracks room they got drunk and talked about their struggles with PTSD like they could only with each other.
At Fort Hood, “I’m alone,” Martinez said. That morning, McClintock took Martinez’s car while he was sleeping and was pulled over for drunken driving. When Martinez went to the military police station to report his car stolen, he was told McClintock was underage. Martinez was charged with fraternization, buying alcohol for a minor and making a false statement.
“I didn’t know he was 20,” Martinez said. “He got to know me as Tony. I got to know him as Derreck. It wasn’t Capt. Martinez and Pvt. McClintock.”
To Keith Caruso, the psychiatrist and former chief of inpatient psychiatry at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who reviewed the case for Martinez’s defense, Martinez’s actions, though not allowed in the military, make sense.
Martinez returned from Afghanistan viewing himself as a failure, Caruso wrote, and “whether real or imagined, he felt himself a pariah among officers at his command.”
“His treatment program, which had blurred boundaries such as rank, implicitly encouraged him to continue relationships with co-patients. His judgment was ultimately blurred further by his alcoholism, but also, to a degree, by his history as a prior enlisted man, making him more likely to identify with enlisted soldiers than most officers.”
The incident resulted in Martinez getting another GOMAR.
Martinez was hospitalized again, this time at a 30-day program in Austin that focuses on alcohol dependency as well as PTSD.
That summer, Martinez began the medical evaluation board process for his PTSD and simultaneously the Army held a board of inquiry into the incident in Afghanistan and the one at Fort Leonard Wood.
It concluded that Martinez should be separated from the Army with a general, under honorable discharge.
The disciplinary action is on hold until his medical evaluation is complete. At that point, by Army regulation, it will be up to Army Secretary John McHugh to decide which way Martinez leaves the service:
Honorably with a medical discharge for his chronic PTSD?
Or with a separation for misconduct?
If he’s kicked out under Chapter 14, Martinez wouldn’t be eligible for GI benefits and wouldn’t receive a pension like he would if he medically retired.
For now, Martinez is in limbo. There is about a 4,000-case backlog in the Texas region with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department’s system for determining a disability rating department for a servicemember who has been deemed medically unfit for duty. Martinez checks into the Wounded Transition Brigade at Fort Hood each morning and goes to his therapy.
“I never thought I’d be afflicted with all this,” Martinez said about his PTSD.
He thought he’d be in the Army for his entire career. Facing the end of it all, he reflects back with some guilt on the officer he was before PTSD. Behind closed doors, he used to call soldiers with his kind of troubles “worthless.”
“Now I’m on the other side. It’s heartbreaking to be called that,” he said. “I never thought about the stigma around it. Until you have it, it’s hard to imagine.”
Two doctors who examined his case, including one retained by the defense, said looking at his history — no violence or legal problems, only glowing reviews — that the outbursts that got him in trouble were unlikely to have happened without the PTSD.
The irritability, hypervigilance, anger and other behavior that characterized his deployment to Afghanistan are hallmark symptoms of PTSD, multiple doctors said in sworn statements and testimony.
In his statement to the board of inquiry about the incident with the supply sergeant, Caruso wrote that “PTSD patients frequently are in a state of hyperarousal that makes it difficult to discern the degree of threat posed in a given situation.”
Adkins, the original investigating officer, testified that despite the unacceptable nature of what Martinez did, “I thought it would be unfair to judge [him] too harshly for a problem he got from his military service, especially since Capt. Martinez was not properly medicated at the time.”
Martinez’s lawyer maintains the captain shouldn’t have been in Afghanistan to start with, saying the command was willfully blind because it wanted him to deploy as scheduled. “He made a genuine suicide threat and his commanding officer ignored it,” Martinez’s lawyer, Douglas Cody, said. “There were so many red flags, and they just dropped the ball.
“The Army has given a lot of lip service to how it’s supposed to handle suicides and suicidal gestures,” he said. “They failed this young officer, because they didn’t want to replace him a month and a half out from deployment. They put everyone in harm’s way by that decision. Rather than own up to it, they swept it under the rug to avoid responsibility for their decision-making.”