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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

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

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 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 news report up, which includes interviews with his parents.] Full details in extended.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

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.

In 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 them -- 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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