“I was part of a house cleaning operation on Jan. 24, 2004 in Iraq,” First Sergeant Hector Matascastillo told officials gathered in the Hennepin County Board Room, while downtown on June 19 for a conference on veterans’ justice and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “I was going door to door looking for enemy combatants in residential houses with a pistol in each of my hands,” Matascastillo said.
Matascastillo, 35, a member of the Minnesota National Guard, had been deployed several times and was an infantry company senior NCO in Iraq with the 3-194 CAB, which stands for Combat Action Badge (awarded since 2001 to soldiers performing duties in an area with hostile fire or imminent danger). He works now as a veterans employment representative, assigned for the last five months at the Minnesota Workforce Center at Lake and Chicago.
“I was exiting a house when I saw an enemy in front of me with his gun pointed directly at me. I didn’t raise my weapons because he had the drop on me and any attempt to use my weapons would have been useless. So I was stopped without cover in front of the house, wondering why I didn’t see my partner, and why the enemy soldier didn’t fire on me,” Matascastillo recounted.
“My training had taught me that when faced with an armed enemy, to kill him immediately, and I wondered why this enemy combatant did not do the same to me,” he said, recreating the pulse-quickening tension of the moment. “I maintained my position with my weapons pointed down, still looking for my partner and still with the enemy backing away from me.”
“Suddenly,” said Matascastillo, “the soldier tripped over the curb behind him and he fell backwards. It was then that I heard my ex-wife scream, ‘He doesn’t keep ammunition in the house!’”
Matascastillo said it wasn’t until then that he realized that the enemy on the ground was a police officer, that there were flashing lights all around him and that he was outside his home in Lakeville in the snow.
His ex-wife had called for help during an argument that had triggered a flashback.
He was arrested and charged with a felony. It wasn’t until after he’d appeared in court that Matascastillo was diagnosed by Dakota County doctors with PTSD.
A U.S. Dept of Justice report says that in 1998 there were an estimated 225,700 veterans in prison or jail, more likely for violent offenses than the rest of those incarcerated. The report says in that year an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War-era veterans were being held in state and federal prisons, and that among violent state prisoners, the average sentence for veterans was 50 months longer than the average for nonveterans, even though almost one-fifth were identified as being mentally ill.
“I lost everything. The incident caused me to lose my son, my civilian employment opportunities, my home and my freedom. It almost cost me the rest of my military career,” Matascastillo said.
“I didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. I did not want to believe the doctor’s diagnosis of PTSD,” he said. “I was trained to deal with my own problems. I was trained to run towards battle. It took me a long time, but I finally accepted help,” Matascastillo said.
City, county and state lawmakers came to the recent conference to hear Matascastillo’s story and stories like his from other veterans and veterans representatives about their experience with PTSD and the legal system. New legislation passed this session by Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Minneapolis) and scheduled to go into effect in August calls on the state court system to inquire if defendants are or have been members of the armed services and if so, if they have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“The beauty of the bill is that it can leverage veterans into getting help—into getting treatment,” said Brockton Hunter, a local criminal defense attorney who has represented many veterans facing criminal charges and who was instrumental in helping to move Higgins’ bill through the state Legislature.
National congressional delegates from the offices of Reps. Keith Ellison, Jim Oberstar, Michelle Bachman and Sen. Amy Klobuchar were also conference attendees, part of a push by backers of the new state bill to take PTSD legislation to the federal level. According to Klobuchar rep, Martin Ludden, Klobuchar is preparing to introduce such a bill in the coming months.
In the coming months, Matascastillo will also be ready to take another step in reclaiming his life.
“I’m going for a master’s degree in social work at Augsburg College,” he said.