HOUSTON - They served proudly, then came home broken and feeling abandoned. Military veterans said it is a true story for many of their brothers who lost benefits for reasons related to mental trauma suffered during deployment.
Their families suffer, too.
“…I REALLY MISS HIM”
Once daddy’s little princess, Isabella Castillo is now his 10-year-old YouTube comedian. She frequently posts videos to make mom and smile and laugh just like Bella’s dad, Donnie, used to do.
As one of her recorded diaries posted online 10 months and three days after her father’s funeral proves, Bella also inherited his passion.
“My father was a veteran and had PTSD and was also an alcoholic. So my father committed suicide on August 18, 2014, and I really miss him,” she said.
“HE WOULD DRINK TO GET OUT HIS HEAD”
Army specialist Donald “Christopher” Castillo of Houston proudly served his country during Operation Desert Storm. Then he came home a wounded soul, wanting out.
“It was kind of like a relationship,” Castillo’s widow Jenepher said. “(You) go into it with these high hopes, but then for whatever reason things go sour.”
Jenepher met her husband years after he came home.
“He was funny,” she said. “That’s aside from being handsome (and) being a gentleman.”
He was also in and out VA hospitals. He struggled with post-traumatic stress and coped with alcohol when counseling didn’t work, Castillo’s widow said.
“He would drink to get out of his head,” she said. “That’s the sad part is (that) once you drink enough, you get back in your head and you get worse. That’s a cycle. By that time, you’re addicted and that’s what happened to him.”
Photos: Donnie Castillo
“I DRANK TO GO TO SLEEP… DID DRUGS TO STAY AWAKE.”
It happened to Justin Bullock, too. He was an artillery man happy to serve his country and fire some of the world’s biggest guns. Then in 2004 while stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, Bullock saw insurgent rockets kill three of his fellow soldiers.
“It was difficult to watch and was a very stark reminder of how vulnerable we were,” Bullock said.
Doctors diagnosed him with PTSD then sent him back to work, Bullock said.
“I was able to go see a psychiatrist a few times who prescribed me three different anti-depressants and two different sleep aids and a migraine medicine,” he said. “That was it.”
So he turned to alcohol and drugs. Bullock later was AWOL at least three times. It cost him his career. After two court martials, Bullock accepted a “bad conduct” discharge.
Per military policy, veterans with less than honorable discharges do not qualify for benefits.
For Bullock, that means no VA help for the PTSD and traumatic brain injury he suffered serving his country.
“When I found out about that, I pretty much lost my mind and went into a real tailspin of alcohol and drugs,” Bullock said.
Since 2001, 125,000 veterans, almost the population of Waco, Texas, do not have access to basic services through the VA, according to Swords to Plowshares.
Photos: Justin Bullock
“…WE NEED LEGISLATION CHANGES…”
“I have right now almost 300 cases,” said Daniel Espinoza, a congressional aide.
Espinoza works through Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee’s office to get discharge upgrades for veterans.
The discharge appeals process takes up to two years, Espinoza said. In that time, he said many veterans lose hope.
“I think we need legislation changes,” Espinoza said.
Last year, President Obama signed the Clay Hunt SAV Act expanding VA mental health services and suicide prevention practices. The proposed Fairness to Veterans Act and the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act could provide treatment to vets without honorable discharges.
Meanwhile, at least 8,000 veterans a year commit suicide, according to the veteran outreach group 22 Until None.
Espinoza goes to funerals once a week.
“I feel that is my responsibility,” he said. “I was a corpsman. My job is to take care of Marines and if I don’t do it, who's going to do it?”
“…MY PATHWAY TO HEALING…”
Donnie Castillo’s around-the-clock drinking eventually caused chaotic fights at home and six years of on and off separation from his wife. Donnie later took his own life.
“He had no hope that it was going to get better,” Jenepher Castillo said.
Isabella Castillo can only hug her dad’s headstone. She and her mom also volunteer with the Lone Survivor Foundation and other veterans’ service organizations.
“It’s called my pathway to healing,” Jenepher Castillo said.
By sharing their story, Jenepher and Isabella try to make a difference for other families and in the process heal their own.
“For all those people who still have a father or their father has passed on, especially if they’re in the Army, thank you.Thank you for being a father.”
If you want to help, you can sign a petition urging Congress to pass the Fairness to Veterans Act.