Overcoming PTSD: Oklahoma County program helps veterans stay out of jail

Brandon Douglas was not hesitant to join the Marines. But his parents were opposed.

“The military is a place for degenerates, people that don't have money,” they told him. “People with no future.”

But he was bored with college. He called a Marine Corps recruiter in the middle of a blizzard to tell him, “I'm ready to join — now.” He met the recruiter at 7 p.m., listened to the recruiter's spiel and two days later was on his way to training.

Douglas joined and stayed in the Marines for 12 years. He had planned a career in the Marines — until post-traumatic stress disorder tried to ruin his life.

Douglas recently graduated from the Oklahoma County veterans diversion program, a program that helps veterans facing criminal charges get access to services they need. Once they complete the program, their charges are dropped.

The program is a collaborative effort among the Oklahoma County district attorney's office, the public defender's office, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Health Administration and NorthCare.

Brandon's wife, Jennifer Douglas, said she has seen a change in her husband since he has been in the program.

“Brandon is a better person now than the guy I married,” she said. “ ... A year later, it's like it gets better. You can work through a lot of things.”

Battle tested

In late 2004, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, the unit Brandon Douglas was a part of, was sent to Iraq. Its sole purpose in Iraq was to aid in the takeover of Fallujah in November 2004, he said.

The Second Battle of Fallujah was one of the biggest military conflicts of the Iraq War. Douglas, a gunnery sergeant, was a helicopter crew chief, serving as a door gunner.

About three years after Brandon Douglas returned from Iraq, Jennifer Douglas noticed him having nightmares. One night, he almost hit Jennifer in his sleep.

“The next morning, I was like, ‘What is wrong with you?' He had no recollection whatsoever,” she said.

She was in nursing school and had recently completely her mental health rotation. She told him she thought he should talk to a doctor about PTSD. At first, he blew it off but ended up going to appease her.

He was diagnosed with PTSD, but the diagnosis was not listed in his files. Military doctors offered him a psychiatric evaluation, but he wanted to take the medication and move on.

“We don't want to be tagged with that — ever,” he said. “ ... It's kind like, ‘You're weak,' and at my rank, I was leading Marines, so there was no way I was going to be weak.”

But the medication didn't help. Instead, it made the nightmares more vibrant, almost like they were in 3-D.

Military members who have not seen combat and the general population have a PTSD rate of about 5 percent, according to federal government statistics.

Meanwhile, military members returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan screen positive for PTSD symptoms at a rate of 20 percent, according to those statistics. Anonymous reporting surveys show rates as high as 40 percent or more.

Life is a challenge

In December 2010, things were getting stressful. Brandon Douglas was the boss at a recruiting station in Oklahoma City, and his bosses were pressuring him to get better recruits. Meanwhile, Jennifer Douglas was pregnant and on bed rest.

“And his PTSD just took off,” Jennifer Douglas said.

He started drinking heavily. The couple were fighting, and Brandon Douglas' mood was unpredictable. He made calls to the base to try and get a mental health appointment, and Jennifer Douglas made calls, too.

“They would tell us every single time that, ‘There's not an appointment,' or ‘There's an appointment in three months,' ” she said. “ ... Especially military guys, by the time they're asking for help, it's kind of far gone.”

At one point, he packed up his personal belongings and kissed his kids goodbye. Jennifer Douglas was worried he was going to commit suicide.

She called his commanding officer, who gave him a direct order.

Brandon Douglas came back home and had an emergency mental health evaluation the next day. But he knew how to trick the system.

He told them he wasn't suicidal, and because he wasn't an immediate threat to himself, he was sent home.

His arrest came later that year.

One August evening, Jennifer Douglas came home from work because their son had texted her to tell her that Brandon Douglas seemed really angry.

She found evidence that he had an affair, and they began to fight.

He had a gun in his motorcycle bags at the foot of the bed.

He got the gun, put it under his chin and told his wife he was done.

“I talked him out of that, and he sat on the gun on top of the bed, and we were fighting some more,” she said.

Jennifer Douglas began to throw the pictures of the couple that sat on their dresser. When she picked up the couple's wedding photo to throw, Brandon Douglas stood up, pointed the gun at her head. “Stop,” he said.

She told him to leave, and when he did, she called the police. He was arrested on felony gun charges.

Before that night, he had never gotten into trouble. Through the Oklahoma County jail diversion program, he was able to get the help he needed.

He remembers that during the time he was in the military people began to talk about PTSD in 2003.

“But you didn't have it,” he said. “Nobody had it. We didn't have problems. We were Marines.”

Rewarding work

In her 23 years as an attorney, Catt Burton has found working with the veterans most rewarding.

Burton, an assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County, helps oversee the diversion program.

For the past two years, it has operated without much of a budget.

And Burton only expects the program to grow more.

“Without the help of NorthCare treatment and day reporting donating over $100,000 worth of treatment and supervision, and without the help many of our veterans get from the Veterans Health Administration, we would not exist,” she said.

“We desperately need funding to help us do more for our veterans.”

Since 2011, about 350 people have applied for the program.

So far, 23 people have graduated from the program. There are currently 90 participants and about 80 pending applications.

There have been some failures. About 10 people have failed the program and had charges refiled against them. Also, three participants were placed in treatment courts, including mental health court and DUI court.

“We strive every day in this program to give our veterans the tools to help them learn to live life on life's terms since or because of their service,” Burton said. “Their needs vary greatly from alcoholism to military sexual trauma to traumatic brain injury to just needing help to get stable and employed. Their issues affect many more than just themselves: their families, their victims, the public.”

Staff Writer Bryan Dean contributed to this report.

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