California's Landmark Combat PTSD Case: Former Army Ranger Sargent Binkley Receives Treatment, Not Jail Sentence

Promoted. Originally posted 2009-01-14 14:59:25 -0500. -- GH

If you ever feel less than empowered, if you ever wonder if members of society can actively play a role in shaping how its returning veterans are treated beyond the accolades given at welcome home parades and Veterans Day potlucks, look no further than the citizens of California for one shining example of how its done.

Back in September 2007, I linked to a piece by John Corté that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in my PTSD Combat post Combat Veterans, PTSD and Prison. Corté's article introduced us to a former West Point graduate who served in Bosnia and Honduras who was arrested and facing a possible 12-year stint in jail for holding up two pharmacies to feed his painkiller addiction, the same medication the VA prescribed -- over 15 times -- for injuries suffered while the former Army Ranger was based in Honduras.

Civilian doctors had also diagnosed PTSD.

His watershed case has gone to trial and the verdict was delivered yesterday. [ABC-San Francisco news report is now available online; KTVU also has their news report up, which includes interviews with his parents.] Full details in extended.

There were a number of petitions and videos produced to support Binkley and get the word out on his case, including the one below.

Tormented by nightmares stemming from both his Honduran service and that in Bosnia, where his unit was assigned guard and exhumation duty over a mass grave filled with the four-years-decayed bodies of 7,000 Muslim men and boys cut down by Serb forces at Srebrenica, his downward spiral began.

n Honduras, he witnessed drug smuggler executions that he was unable to intervene in; Binkley also had to open fire on two approaching drug trafficking security guards, killing them both. One turned out to be a teenage boy and, not surprisingly, the incident consumed him long after he returned from deployment.

Binkley had years of struggle ahead of him, including an addiction to painkillers stemming from fracturing his pelvis and dislocating his hip. In 2002, with an honorable discharge making him eligible for full VA benefits, he sought help for his ailments. He was prescribed the highly-addictive Percocet to relieve his pain, but both military and VA doctors allegedly never found anything wrong with his hip. A private civilian doctor, however, was able to find the cause of the pain and perform surgery to relieve it.

Unfortunately, his addiction to Percocet remained.

In addition, he was now embarking upon the journey, one fully documented and endured by so many of our returning veterans, to receive his official PTSD diagnosis from the VA. His battle for proper care and treatment -- benefits he earned full and well through his service to our country -- dragged on for two years of military and VA claims paperwork mess. His addictions continued as well, leaving him unable to hold down a job as he struggled with all of the layers of stress and strain enveloping his life.

In order to feed his all-consuming habit, in 2006, Binkley held up two Walgreen's pharmacies in Mountain View and San Carlos, California. One county was willing to take his previously unblemished police and service record into account for a reduced sentence; the other was not.

At the time of my post, the question I posed was: Did he let us down, or did the system let him down? The trial that determined the answers to that question ended yesterday with a verdict of 'not guilty by reason of insanity.' From a must-read piece (please read it in full) by Tracey Kaplan, San Jose Mercury News:

In a potential landmark case for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a Santa Clara County jury Tuesday found a former Army captain diagnosed with PTSD not guilty by reason of insanity for robbing a Mountain View pharmacy of drugs at gunpoint.

The jury's verdict means that West Point graduate Sargent Binkley of Los Altos will be treated for the disorder in a state hospital or as an outpatient rather than face 12 to 23 years behind bars.

"It's great news he's getting treatment," said Dr. Tom Berger, a leading PTSD expert with the Maryland-based Vietnam Veterans of America who testifies frequently before Congress. "PTSD shouldn't be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, but studies have shown that at least 20 percent of veterans have it, and their problems need to be addressed."

The atmosphere in the courtroom Tuesday morning was tense as the same jury that had convicted Binkley, 34, earlier this month of using an unloaded service revolver three years ago to rob a Walgreen's of prescription drugs, came back in the sanity phase of the trial to announce its decision.

Binkley, who served in Bosnia and Honduras, and his father, a retired Los Altos engineer, both burst into tears as the verdict was read and enfolded each other in bear hugs. Binkley, who has been in a residential drug-treatment program after serving two years in county jail awaiting trial, was immediately taken into custody. He will be evaluated by court-appointed mental health professionals, who will recommend to the judge the duration of his psychological treatment.

What makes the case 'landmark' in my eyes, is that so many supporters -- individuals and groups alike, chief among these -- of Binkley's came forward to ensure that their voices would be heard. And unequivocally, those voices said that Binkley deserved to receive appropriate medical care for his addictions and actions, not jail time. Daniel DeBolt, Mountain View Voice:

Defense attorney Chuck Smith said Binkley now be evaluated by the county mental health department as to whether he needs to be hospitalized. Smith said there is a possibility that Binkley will be set free and receive only outpatient treatment for his post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction to painkillers.

"He will not spend a day in prison, which is just spectacular," Smith said.

Family and friends were tearful after the verdict Tuesday, said Alan Lubke, a Vietnam veteran who has been following the trial. Before the sanity phase of the trial began, the jury had found Binkley guilty of the armed robbery, which he committed in January 2006 at the Walgreens pharmacy on the corner of El Camino Real and Grant Road using an unloaded handgun. Due to mandatory sentencing rules, he would have spent a minimum of 12 years in prison for the crime.

Binkley, 33, is an Army veteran from Los Altos who attended Los Altos High School and West Point military academy. Psychiatrists testified at the trial that Binkley developed PTSD during his time in Bosnia and Honduras and developed an addiction to painkillers after a hip injury that went untreated for years.

I say, kudos to those who worked tirelessly to ensure that the situation was handled with thoughtfulness and consideration of his full record. While breaking the law is certainly never acceptable, nor should ramifications for such conduct be casually tossed to the side, in cases where combat veterans are clearly spiraling downward as a result of their service experiences, society has a duty to try its hardest to ensure fair and equitable justice is done.

Great job, citizens of California.

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Miss everyone here tremendously; I am far too much gone, but you are never forgotten. I do hope to be able to return to my postings and exchanges with everyone here in the New Year.

Hope the whole ePMedia family is doing wonderful!

On PTSD Combat : Moving a Nation to Care :

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  • Great to see you again, Ilona!

    I bumped and promoted this piece, and adjusted the indents on the blockquotes slightly -- hope that's ok.

    Looking forward to seeing more of you, as your time allows -- and a belated but very happy New Year!

    You made my day! And ty for the layout help; so many upgrades here, that I haven't been checked out properly yet on all of them. [wink]

    On PTSD Combat : Moving a Nation to Care :

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  • posting again. Missed you and your powerful voice. 

    Saw this news piece earlier and passed it out.

    This is good news and caught this one as well:

    Illinois county starts new court for veterans

    EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (AP) - With combat duty in Vietnam under his belt, Madison County Circuit Judge Charles Romani Jr. knows veterans often have special issues when it comes to drugs and mental illness. Soon, many of them may be getting his special judicial help.

    Taking a page from a similar program launched a year ago in New York, court administrators in this suburban St. Louis county plan to launch within weeks a new court designed to deal only with military veterans charged with nonviolent crimes.

    The mission: Divert many of the veterans from the criminal courts to a program that, much like popular drug courts, will offer them treatment for underlying issues, perhaps sparing them a criminal conviction if they successfully complete the treatment.

    "There are a lot of services out there; one thing the court will be able to do is get them connected" with veterans, ideally keeping them from becoming repeat offenders, Ann Callis, the county's chief judge, said Monday.

    Looks like after All These Years the Action is moving rapidly, and these Vets will need all the help they can get after the Multiple Tours and More!!

    "The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."

    Woo Hoo, Illinois! Ty for posting this here, Jim. Great news...

    On PTSD Combat : Moving a Nation to Care :

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  • That poor fellow needs to be on Suboxone treatment.  There are hundreds of thousands of people just like him who have no business being in prison for drug addiction--especially addiction that was physician induced.  I hope this heralds the dawning of a new day for our veterans.  Ilona! Good to see you around here!  Drug treatment court is one of my interest areas and I have been working with a great new bunch of judges who really get it.  You just gave me another topic to update my Community Area Resource Team about for Veterans' Services! Thanks!

    If not, this is another I caught early today, have tried to see if any notes are up yet, nothing.

    DOD suicide prevention conference under way

    An Army staff sergeant who had lost Soldiers in the war zone was called a coward, a wimp and a wuss from a leader when he mentioned he might need psychological help.

    It is this type of stigma from toxic leadership that can kill, and that is being examined by scientists, clinicians and specialists in an attempt to eliminate it, said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree K. Sutton, who is the Army's highest ranking psychiatrist.

    Dr. Sutton described the staff sergeant's real experience during her opening remarks of the 2009 Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Annual Suicide Prevention Conference being held Jan. 12 through 15 in San Antonio. More than 750 people -- specialists from the military, VA, and civilian social workers, chaplains, researchers, and family members effected by suicide -- gathered with a common goal of finding ways to reduce suicide.

    "The secretary of Defense and chairman of the joint chiefs have both emphasized, 'seeking help is a sign of profound courage and strength. Truly, psychological and spiritual health are just as important for readiness as one's physical health,'" said Dr. Sutton, who is the special assistant to the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs and Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury director.

    If I don't get back on this, and someone is still doing the timeline, they might want to check after this is over and see if the DoD posts anything up.

    "The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."

    Suicide spotlights troops' mental care

    In 2005, an Army captain in Iraq asked for a mental health evaluation for one of his soldiers, a private first class from North Carolina who was known to put the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth.

    The case was assigned to a psychologist who was unlicensed — a common practice in the early years of the war, when the Army rushed mental health counselors to the combat zone even if some weren't certified or fully qualified.

    The psychologist reported that a screening indicated the 20-year-old private, Jason Scheuerman, was "capable of claiming mental illness" to manipulate his superiors and did not have a mental disorder. Three weeks later, Scheuerman stepped into a barracks closet and shot himself to death. He had nailed a note to the closet that said, "Maybe finaly I can get some peace."

    "The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."

    Hearing on Toxins and Human Cost to the Veterans

    The Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans, a special panel created last May to hear from and give voice to long-neglected veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is coming to Seattle's veterans medical center on Beacon Hill.

    The 14-member panel is designed to look at the human cost to Gulf veterans, who have suffered disproportionately from exposure to a variety of toxic substances in the war, veterans organizations say in urging turnout for the event.

    The panel, which will be in the area Wednesday and Thursday, is making a first of its kind appearance in Seattle. The visit comes two months after a different research advisory committee finally determined that Gulf War illness is real, not an imaginary condition. That committee cited as two likely causes for the illness the pills that troops had to ingest to thwart nerve gas exposure as well as exposure to a pesticide.

    This is taking place yesterday and today!

    "The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."

    ‘Reaching out and connecting — it’s a sign of strength’

    A real warrior will always place the mission first, never accept defeat, never quit and never leave a fallen comrade, according to the U.S. Army Warrior Ethos.

    But what if he does all that, then has problems when he gets back home? What if he has post-traumatic stress disorder or nightmares or feels distant from his family?

    Who are the real warriors then?

    Army psychiatrist Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton is hoping to persuade soldiers that the real warriors are the ones that reach out for help with post-combat psychological issues.

    “Reaching out and connecting — it’s a sign of strength,” said Sutton, head of the Defense Department’s Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

    "The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."