For years, Ryan Broderick has been trapped inside his mind, watching a constant reel of explosions that rocked the Army vehicles he had scrubbed of blood during three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since January, Broderick has been stuck inside a real jail, fortified by cinder blocks, surrounded by barbed wire. The government that Broderick upended his life to serve locked him up in Edgecombe County, about 75 miles east of Raleigh.
In the eyes of federal officials, Broderick posed a threat to America and should be treated as a criminal.
Broderick, 31, of Fayetteville, is being prosecuted for comments he let fly during a call to speak with a counselor at the Veterans Affairs suicide crisis hotline. He was frustrated and sleep-deprived.
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His words were clear: If he didn’t get the help he needed for his post-traumatic stress disorder, he would bring a gun to the VA hospital and Fort Bragg and start shooting.
Little more than a day later, a dozen or so agents swarmed around him in the parking lot of his son’s day care center. He will stand before a judge on Monday in Raleigh to learn his fate on a charge of communicating threats. Over the last month, Broderick prepared to make a plea for mercy before a jury. Court filings late Friday show the government and Broderick have reached a plea agreement, though the terms are not clear.
“I was just trying to get help,” said Broderick, a native of Canada who enlisted in the Army after high school. “I had no intentions of hurting anyone.”
Like so many of America’s soldiers returning from combat over the last decade, Broderick has tried to swallow unspeakable memories. And like thousands of others, he has tried in vain to get swift and needed care from a beleaguered VA medical system.
The lucky find a way to cope. Others, such as Broderick, have struggled to live with all they saw and did. As the wars wound down in 2011, as many veterans were killing themselves as soldiers were dying in combat.
To help, Congress ordered the VA in 2007 to set up a 24-hour crisis help line to talk veterans off the edge. Since 2007, veterans and their friends have dialed the suicide hotline about 1.7 million times to have a counselor coach them through a crisis.
But for some, that call to the crisis line triggered an unwanted response. A search of federal court records across the country found charges against at least six other veterans whose rants on the crisis line or to a trusted VA medical provider brought arrest and imprisonment.
A spokesman for the VA said crisis hotline staff try to keep the veterans’ calls private. But if the caller makes a threat against the VA or its staff, VA police are notified. From there, crisis counselors have no say; the veteran’s fate is in the hands of law enforcement and federal prosecutors, a spokesman said.
The decision to prosecute Broderick was made by lawyers in the office of Thomas Walker, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Walker declined to comment on Broderick’s case, as did a spokeswoman for the FBI.
The crime of communicating a threat is a felony that carries a sentence of up to five years. For Broderick, now in the Army Reserves, a possible conviction felt like a death knell. It would mar his military record and complicate his chances of good employment. It would also jeopardize his service in the reserves, a commitment he had hoped to fulfill until he could retire.
“I felt like I sacrificed so much, lost friends, gave up my whole 20s to help people and fight for this country,” Broderick said. “(The least they could do) is give me a sit-down with a counselor once a week. That’s all I wanted, to vent and talk to somebody about what’s going on in my day.”
Randy Cargill is a West Point graduate and a federal public defender whose client was arrested after a call to the VA crisis line in 2011; the case eventually was deferred while the client got psychiatric help.
“It is wrong to offer confidential help with one hand and throttle those who accept the offer with the other hand,” he said.
Broderick found himself at a breaking point on Jan. 29. He hadn’t slept in three days, and just a month before, he had thought about killing himself. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see the ground and buildings shake around him from another mortar attack.
After months without steady work, he finally had a promising job interview the next day. He hadn’t seen a therapist and had no medicine to help with anxiety or sleep.
“The weight was too much,” he said in an interview from the Edgecombe County jail. “I felt like I was crashing.”
In an instant, he went from revered veteran to accused criminal.
When Broderick enlisted in the Army, he knew the next several years would be turbulent. The twin towers of the World Trade Center had fallen; America’s leaders had launched a war on terror, and soldiers by the thousands were in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Still, to Broderick, an Army life seemed ideal. It promised structure, stability and role models absent from his childhood.
Broderick’s first combat tour came quickly, about a year after joining. Broderick was responsible for maintaining the Army’s vehicles in Iraq, a seemingly benign assignment. But as soldiers traversed desert regions littered with improvised explosive devises, cleaning vehicles was a grim duty.
Broderick scrubbed Humvees and tanks stained with blood left by the wounded. Sometimes, he would find severed limbs or chunks of skin.
The next five years brought two more deployments, another to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. During his final tour, Broderick got word that his best friend, deployed separately, had been killed by a mortar attack.
In three tours, Broderick spent 41 months in war zones.
The last assignment delivered a bright spot. Melanie Delgada, a buoyant Puerto Rican native, was working at Kandahar Airfield base in military intelligence. In a war zone, their intimacy grew quickly. Several months later, Delgada learned they were having a baby.
When Adrian was born in August 2011, Broderick tried to push aside the misery of combat and angst of readjusting to life in Fayetteville. For a little while, life made sense.
Not better at home
Broderick’s hopes for calm quickly ended. In late 2011, a friend in his unit was shot and killed by another soldier. Weeks later, a comrade hung himself. Soon, another suicide at Fort Bragg.
Army officials were worried, too. They spread the word about the crisis line, posting stickers and pamphlets around bases.
Broderick never thought he’d need it. He was delighted to be home with his young family. His end-of-service date approached, and he was trying to figure out his next move.
The answer became clear in the summer of 2012. Broderick and several hundred soldiers from his unit were standing in formation during a safety briefing when another soldier opened fire on a commanding officer. The superior was killed; the soldier then turned the gun on himself.
“Everyone around me was dying,” Broderick said. “I had no one to talk to, no one to vent to. It was just weighing on my soul.”
Before his discharge that August, Broderick, too embarrassed to admit to commanders he was having a hard time, saw a private psychiatrist. He described the night sweats, the constant violence in his dreams, the relentless paranoia.
He told the psychiatrist it felt like a weight around his neck. The doctor had a name for it: post-traumatic stress disorder.
Each week in the summer of 2013, Broderick sat in a circle with generations of veterans, connected to each other by the diagnosis of PTSD. America’s wars had given each of them an invisible injury. Even for the veterans whose combat days were decades behind, those memories robbed them of sleep.
For the first time in months, Broderick felt like he wasn’t alone.
“These people could really relate to what was going on with me,” Broderick said.
He had enrolled in classes at Fayetteville Community College with the hopes of becoming a respiratory therapist. His grades were good. He and Delgada reveled in their time together with Adrian.
Two months later, the sessions ended. Broderick said it was designed to be a short-term group. He asked to be enrolled in another group, but all the VA could offer him at the time was an anger-management class. Broderick knew his anger was rooted more deeply, in his combat experience. Soon, with no support, he started to unravel.
Broderick said he couldn’t get the VA to understand how urgent his needs were. He saw another VA psychiatrist. Another confirmation of PTSD. She apologized for what he was enduring.
He told her he really needed to see a therapist on a regular basis. Instead, Broderick said he was given another appointment: an intense physical to figure out if he had a traumatic brain injury. Broderick said he constantly badgered the VA with requests to meet with a therapist; he said every time he called, he was scheduled for another appointment for something unrelated to his PTSD.
“I thought they would do more,” he said. “After the diagnosis, I thought they would jump into action, but that was it. I was just lost.”
A threatening call
When Broderick picked up the phone on Jan. 29, he hadn’t slept in days. Nightmares greeted him each time his eyes shut. A month before, right before Christmas, he’d thought about killing himself.
This day, though, he was just angry he hadn’t gotten the help he needed. He felt betrayed, forgotten. He wanted to talk to a counselor.
A VA employee in the health resource center in Kansas took Broderick’s call. Within minutes, Broderick lashed out.
“I’m telling you, every day that goes by I get angrier and angrier. I want to (expletive) kill people,” Broderick said, according to a transcript of the call in court records. “So this is what I’m going to tell you, if I don’t get no (expletive) help soon, I will come through the (expletive) VA and start shooting that (expletive) up.”
Broderick’s rant continued for 10 minutes before he got what he wanted: a crisis line counselor medically trained to understand his condition. She reminded him that he had an appointment set up with a psychiatrist at the VA on Feb. 3; it had been arranged when he called on Dec. 23 contemplating suicide.
During 56 minutes on the phone with the crisis specialist, Broderick calmed down. He told her he didn’t mean what he had said and thanked her for listening, according to court documents.
The crisis specialist was worried, though. The crisis staff reached out to colleagues in Fayetteville, initiating an involuntary commitment, a court order that would require Broderick to be checked into a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
Broderick said he was never told that a commitment order had been taken out on him. He said he would have welcomed the treatment and would have reported to the VA voluntarily.
A crisis specialist from the VA called him the next day to ask how he was feeling. According to court records, the specialist noted in her records that Broderick was not homicidal or suicidal. She noted he was “thankful for the contact,” according to court records.
Broderick spent the next day oblivious to the case brewing against him. He and Delgada had lunch and ran errands, including one on Fort Bragg’s base. The couple then went to pick up their son.
Delgada saw the blue lights first. She recalls thinking there must have been a terrible crash.
Broderick and Delgada soon realized they were the emergency. At least 10 uniformed officers, federal and local, swarmed around them with assault weapons.
A hundred memories of guns drawn and shots fired raced through Broderick’s mind as the officers ordered him and Delgada out of the car and onto their knees.
Broderick willed himself to be calm, thinking if he made any unwanted movements or comments, someone might open fire into his son’s day care.
Federal officers searched the car but found no weapon. Broderick had pawned a handgun weeks before to pay some bills. After the officers cleared the car, Delgada was released.
Broderick’s arrest came 31 hours after his frantic call, according to court records. His arrest came less than 10 minutes after the order for psychiatric commitment lapsed.
Life ‘on hold’
For 120 days, Broderick has lived like a criminal.
He is allowed to see sunlight once a day. He shares a bunk room and showers with men accused of doing things he finds despicable.
He has seen Adrian, 3, several times through a thick bulletproof window. He feels ashamed each time he visits, but he’s afraid his son will forget him if he suspends the visits. At the mention of his son, Broderick cries.
“I had to put my whole life on hold,” Broderick said. “No school, no work. I do not know what the future holds.”
Jail is aggravating his PTSD. He can’t sleep in the bunk he is assigned for fear of being caught off-guard by an attacker. He drags his mat to the wall, instead, and presses his back against the concrete wall.
One benefit to being in jail is that he was prescribed medicine to help with anxiety and depression. He has yet to see a therapist.
Over the last several weeks, federal prosecutors filed motions to block Broderick’s attorneys from telling a jury anything about his PTSD. They have also asked a judge to bar any evidence about recent problems with the Veterans Affairs administration’s ability to see and treat patients.
Until late last week, Broderick said his lawyers prepared for trial, having been unable to negotiate a manageable plea arrangement.
He knew going to trial was a gamble. So was going to Iraq and Afghanistan.
For months, all Broderick wanted was for the courts to see in him what he sees in the mirror: a man broken by war.
Threats, or calls for help?
These veterans were also prosecuted after calls for help, court records show:
▪ Sean Duvall, a Persian Gulf War veteran with PTSD, wanted to kill himself so badly that he fashioned a homemade explosive device to help him finally end it all. Homeless, unemployed and depressed, he wandered the streets of Blacksburg, Va. In June 2011, he called the crisis line and confessed to the counselor that he wanted to kill himself and had a way to do it. He asked her to send the police to get the bomb from him and to help. The police came and took Duvall to the hospital. Within weeks, though, federal prosecutors decided to charge Duvall with possessing a destructive device. He eventually received a deferred prosecution for getting treatment.
▪ Alphonso Wynn is a Vietnam veteran who battled homelessness. His life started to turn around, though, when he was admitted to a VA program that provided employment and housing for veterans. One day, Wynn, mentally and physically exhausted from his workload, called the VA crisis line to confide that his boss’s demands were killing him and he might need to kill his boss first. A day later, federal officers arrested Wynn and charged him with communicating threats. A jury in Arkansas found him guilty. He spent nine months in federal prison before being released on supervised probation. “I wasn’t going to carry out that threat,” Wynn said by phone. “I was just blowing off some steam. They took it too far.”
▪ Dennis Ruble and fellow Gulf War Marine Frank Harmon called the VA crisis hotline in October 2010, drunk and angry. Ruble had been unable to get the care that he needed for his PTSD. On the call, he told the counselor that they were trained killers and threatened to come down to the VA Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, and start shooting. The crisis counselor talked the men down and urged Ruble to go to the VA hospital and check himself in to get the help he needed. When the men arrived at the hospital, federal investigators arrested them. Lawyers for the men negotiated sentences that involved several months in a treatment facility, followed by supervised probation.