Trauma in Iraq leads to drama in Oregon
By Julie Sullivan,
October 31, 2009
JOHN DAY -- Later, after the defense attorney wept and the judge put away his robe and the jurors drove home in the fading light, the consequences of war hung over this town of 1,845 like wood smoke on an autumn eve.
Fourteen months earlier, a young woman lay down with a terrible burden. She was pregnant. Her fiancÚ, Jessie Bratcher, was so thrilled he kissed the home pregnancy test kit. He researched how a baby develops and what the mother should eat.
But Celena Davis was not sure the child was his.
As Bratcher sat on the foot of their bed, she told him that two months earlier, she had been raped.
He returned for her in his pickup and drove east to Boise. They went to a movie, "The Dark Knight." He had "Celena" tattooed on his arm and they returned home late.
By 9 the next morning, Aug. 16, 2008, Bratcher shook Celena, "Get up, get up." He wanted to confront the man she identified as the rapist. Bratcher drove to Ace Hardware, paid $10 for a background check and bought a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun with extra ammo.
He was shaking.
Back in the truck, as he jammed bullets into the magazine, Bratcher told Celena she had a choice: go to the police or confront Jose Ceja Medina.
But it was Saturday and the John Day police station was locked. Dispatchers inside saw the couple try the door, then leave. Minutes later, they stood in an open doorway of Ceja Medina's home.
His nephew, Fernando Ceja, a Prairie High ninth-grader, was inside messaging friends on MySpace. He fetched his uncle, doing laundry down the hall. Ceja Medina wore only running shorts.
The three adults stood in the yard, shouting. Celena cried uncontrollably. Ceja Medina denied knowing her. Then, he said it was sex, not rape. If there was a child, he said, he would take responsibility.
Bratcher pulled the gun from his back pocket and fired 10 times as Ceja Medina ran, hitting him in the buttocks, hip, waist, shin and, fatally, in the head.
A neighbor heard it: "Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom ... ."
War has changed the Oregon Army National Guard, which has deployed troops on 8,400 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. It turned the state's emergency volunteers into combat veterans.
And last month, a Grant County jury considered how much war changed Jessie Bratcher. For the first time in Oregon, and among the first cases nationwide, post-traumatic stress from serving in Iraq was the defense for murder.
Testimony in the nine-day trial in Canyon City, three miles from the death scene, revealed how years after a soldier deployed, the invisible wounds of war led to the town's first murder trial since 1992.
Bratcher was raised by his grandfather Jerry Baughman in Prairie City. "He's my grandson and my son both. I raised him from the time he was a little boy. I don't ever use the word step. That step, it's a dirty word, so I call him my real son."
Since Bratcher was a boy, he worked, splitting and stacking the wood that his granddad sawed. They hunted together, "though he would rather I do the shooting," Baughman said. "He didn't actually care for killing anything."
At Blue Mountain Alternative High School, "Jessie was a peacemaker. That's how I would have to define him," said teacher Crish Hamilton. "Jessie would not instigate a fight but would try to cool the parties down, and I can say that because he did that fairly often."
Bratcher joined the Oregon Guard in 2002 in a surge of patriotism and a vague plan to get an education. By Thanksgiving 2004 he was in Iraq, one of 400 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 116th Armored Cavalry Regiment out of eastern Oregon. The "M-1 Tankers" retrained for six months as infantry before an 11-month deployment.
In Iraq they policed 96 villages around Kirkuk, patrolling in Humvees and on foot. Insurgents lobbed mortars into their base, which triggered counterattacks by U.S. artillery. Outside the base, roadside bombs awaited, from hand grenades to car bombs.
"It was very difficult to defend against," said Bratcher's team leader, now retired, Staff Sgt. Johnny Torres. "In training, we were told what to look for, but once we rolled into country, the whole country was a garbage dump. It was next to impossible to pinpoint where they were."
Bratcher ran into trouble with his first squad after he refused to shoot at people he couldn't identify as enemies, and filed an incident report that differed sharply from other soldiers'.
"The other individuals were basically trying to cover up," said Martin Castellanoz, his platoon sergeant. "He told us the truth."
After, the others bullied Bratcher, so Castellanoz put him in a squad with his close friend, Oregon corrections officer John Ogburn III.
"They were good-hearted guys," Castellanoz said. "They were the ones going to church together, to chow together, everyone was helping everyone."
On May 22, 2005, an Iraqi truck veered into their patrol convoy, forcing Ogburn's Humvee to swerve. The vehicle rolled. Ogburn, the turret gunner, was crushed as Bratcher and the others watched. Bratcher, who later helped load his friend's casket onto the plane home, withdrew after that, his sergeant said.
Five weeks later Bratcher's Humvee was hit at the same intersection by a roadside bomb. At first the team reported no injuries, though Bratcher and his team leader both had headaches. The team leader learned in 2008 that his recurring anxiety, depression and mood swings were traumatic brain injury from the blast -- symptoms which overlap and mimic post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Inside I don't feel like I've changed, but my ex-wife says I've changed too much," said the team leader, Torres. "That's what she said when she left this year." He described his anger as "almost instantaneous. Almost like a light switch."
Bratcher had problems too.
"He went from 'Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. I Don't Care Whatever Is Going to Happen,'" his sergeant recalls. "The first time I saw him stateside, I said this guy has got some issues."
Such issues led all three soldiers to eventually leave the Guard.
Bratcher could not even get along with his grandpa.
"I hate to say it," Jerry Baughman said. "His attitude was hostile. More or less towards everyone."
His grandfather heard him at night, "hollering, a bunch of mumbo jumbo, like a frightened child."
And, Bratcher wanted guns.
"I didn't like it," Baughman said. "He wasn't peaceful." He asked his grandson to move out.
Bratcher went to the Boise VA for help. But his attempt to collect benefits was denied because his PTSD symptoms were "too mild." His defense attorney later said that as time passed his symptoms worsened.
Within a month, in May 2007, he went to psychotherapist Kathleen Beliveau, who treats Grant County veterans with mental health issues. Bratcher reported having flashbacks of his dead friend Ogburn. He said he was so depressed, angry and irritable that he camped in the woods, setting up military perimeters. As the months passed, he saw Iraqi villages in Grant County.
Beliveau got out a book to show him he had PTSD, a mental illness that people suffer as an result of their exposure to war or other trauma.
"Jessie was raised in a safe, comfortable environment with the church as his cornerstone," she said, adding Bratcher served his country and when he came home, he had no framework to understand or fake what was happening.
The VA evaluated Bratcher for treatment and compensation a second time. PTSD is a tough sell. Though it's widely treated, the number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets compensated for it is fewer than 2 percent of veterans receiving benefits. Nationally, almost 4 percent of World War II and Korean vets and 7 percent of Vietnam vets receive money for PTSD.
Further VA evaluation found Bratcher 70 percent disabled by PTSD. When he lost his job as a stock clerk at the John Day Thriftway, he was found unemployable and bumped to 100 percent disabled, a classification that pays, on average, about $32,000 a year.
He was 25 years old.
No one doubted his PTSD.
And then Bratcher shot Ceja Medina on a bright August morning, and the Grant County prosecutor suggested that perhaps Jessie Bratcher, given the murder charge and money at stake, was faking.
At 41, District Attorney Ryan Joslin looked a decade younger and spoke so softly the judge and jurors cupped their ears when he talked. The Monmouth attorney moved to Grant County, where his wife grew up in Mt. Vernon. They wanted to raise their six children in the security of a small town.
Bratcher would be his first murder trial.
Joslin hired a forensic psychologist to determine whether Bratcher was fit to stand trial or understood his crime. At two interviews at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Bratcher told Anne-Marie Smith that during the murder, he experienced three flashbacks. He wasn't in John Day, he was "in Kirkuk, in combat." He felt an IED blast. He saw dead Iraqi bodies.
Smith, who reviewed his mental health and VA records, concluded: "He was criminally insane, legally insane, at the time of the crime."
The defense's forensic psychologist agreed. And the public defender offered a plea to manslaughter by reason of insanity, with hospital treatment instead of jail time.
The prosecutor said no. The victim had worked 10 years in local mills. A divorced dad, he saw his three children from Burns every weekend and called them every morning. He visited his mom every day. He was killed as his young nephew watched.
The prosecutor contacted a third expert, Richard Hulteng, a Portland forensic psychologist and attorney. His findings propelled the case into Judge William D. Cramer Jr.'s modest Grant County Circuit courtroom.
Psychologist Richard Hulteng found conflicting facts in Jessie Bratcher's reports to the VA and psychologists. Hulteng did not rule out that Bratcher had PTSD. But he found red flags during his evaluation. Bratcher performed so poorly on memory tests as to be suspicious. Other facts seemed to be exaggerated. Bratcher reported every symptom of traumatic brain injury. His flashbacks, rare events in PTSD cases, were to events that never happened:
Bratcher had never fired his weapon in combat in Iraq.
He hadn't been shot at on his first patrol.
And the only body he saw in Iraq was that of John Ogburn.
At least 122 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been charged in or convicted of a killing since those wars began. A 2009 Army study of 11 killings committed by members of one Fort Carson, Colo., regiment concluded that those soldiers were affected by combat in Iraq, alcohol and drug abuse, previous mental health issues and PTSD.
Nine of the deaths were in Washington State.
In Oregon, two recent homicides have been linked to military veterans with PTSD, but neither of the accused served in the current wars.
Whether returning vets are committing more violent crime is not statistically known because the state and the federal government do not track it. An informal e-mail poll of Oregon defense attorneys indicates they have seen more criminal clients who served in combat in the past five years, but the tally is anecdotal.
The president of the National Veterans Foundation said its crisis hot line has received more domestic violence calls. But foundation President Shad Meshad predicted that the full impact of Iraq and Afghanistan lies ahead. Meshad, whose pioneer work in PTSD helped create the VA's Vet Centers, said most violent crime by Vietnam vets didn't happen until the 1980s, well after that war ended. He expects that deploying for multiple tours, common to Iraq and Afghanistan, will drive numbers higher.
"I see a tsunami coming," he said.
In John Day, public defender Markku Sario put military training on trial alongside Jessie Bratcher.
Public Defender Markku Sario argued that "problems arise when these soldiers come back to Iowa, or Idaho or Prairie City, Oregon, and they aren't reprogrammed."That training led Bratcher to automatically respond to perceived threats and "overkill them," said forensic psychologist Robert Stanulis. He testified that the military drills out the instinct to run or freeze by perfecting fighting skills, dehumanizing the enemy and making killing seem necessary with tactics as simple as marching cadences.
"My buddy's in the foxhole with a bullet in his head, the medic says he's wounded, I know he's dead. M1 Tankers lead the way, shoot, shoot shoot to kill," is one Bratcher sang.
The U.S. has nearly perfected that training. William "Bud" Brown, a Vietnam combat veteran and former Army drill instructor is now an Oregon sociologist who specializes in criminal behavior by veterans. He cited research showing that during World War II, only about 25 percent of soldiers aimed their weapons to kill. With revamped training, the military boosted that to 55 percent during the Korean War and more than 90 percent in Vietnam.
Stanulis said returning soldiers are not deprogrammed.
"We don't train people to come back into civilian life," he said. "You're supposed to just come back and make that adjustment." Bratcher, he said, "had trouble doing that at every level."
For the first three days of the trial, the victim's mother sat in the front row with her husband and surviving son, and wept. Jurors watched as the victim's three children, ages 6, 7 and 10, arrived toward the end of the trial and sat next to their grandmother.
Judge Cramer acknowledged their pain at hearing testimony that assumed a rape had occurred. But proving rape was immaterial.
Judge William D. Cramer Jr. did not allow testimony on whether there was a rape. "There are two sides to what happened in that incident," he said. "It is only relevant as to what Mr. Bratcher believed."
Jurors also watched the girlfriend, Celena Davis, 20, who married Bratcher at the county jail a month after the killing. She sat behind him with their infant daughter, Nevaeh -- heaven spelled backward.
The state needed to prove only that Bratcher intentionally killed Medina, a crime that carried 25 years in prison.
The prosecutor scoffed at the argument that "anyone who serves in the military is a trained killer who we cannot trust. That is not the case. The vast majority of young people who serve are good, honorable people who contribute to society."
The defense claimed Bratcher was either guilty only of manslaughter -- unable to stop himself because of an extreme emotional disturbance -- or that he committed murder but was legally insane due to a mental disease or defect, PTSD. The judge could then sentence Bratcher to psychiatric care instead of prison.
Late on the seventh day of the trial, defense attorney Sario stood. At 65, he was almost 25 years older than the prosecutor and on his third career. The son of a Finnish mathematician who immigrated to teach alongside Albert Einstein, Sario had been a forester and an assistant prosecutor before taking the defense job in Grant County. Ninety percent of his cases pitted him against prosecutor Joslin. A community theater director and actor, Sario opened the defense by calling the case a Shakespearean tragedy.
"And it ends as Shakespearean tragedies do: everyone loses."
He closed with the words of 20th-century writer Kahlil Gibran: "The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked."
Sario asked the jury: "Is this what we want to do with the young men who volunteer to serve our country?" The jury quickly split between those who believed Bratcher was guilty of murder and those who believed he was mentally ill.
"It was very real to me, that this PTSD was an actual thing," one juror said. "We could not disregard all the doctors."
"My concern," said another, "was that PTSD would be used for an excuse for murder."
Jurors had watched the boyish Bratcher for signs of distress, wondering, for instance, why he didn't jump as they did when a notebook slammed to the floor.
For two full days, they studied more than 100 pieces of evidence, reread and discounted some of the experts. Some jurors had personal experience with the VA and saw Bratcher's initial denial of benefits as typical bureaucracy. They got a crash course in PTSD.
"We are convinced Bratcher was changed. He became what they wanted him to be," one juror said.
Eventually, the jury found the conclusions of Anne-Marie Smith, the state hospital expert, to be most believable: Bratcher was legally insane. The platoon sergeant's testimony also deeply moved jurors. He was called to the stand to challenge the defense but instead drove home how Bratcher was trained to automatically respond to threats and how decorated veterans still suffered.
"I could live with myself because I knew this boy needed help, and the right kind of help," said one juror.
On Oct. 15, after two full days of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict: guilty, but by reason of insanity due to PTSD. Bratcher was also found guilty of unlawful use of a weapon. Judge Cramer will sentence him Dec. 7.
Bratcher, who turned 27 during the trial, remains in the county jail, where he's been for 14 months.
"I have a whole different opinion for the military who come back and what they go through," a juror said. "It's invisible."
Another juror said: "You wonder what you're asking people to do."