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From PTSD to Prison: A Killing at the Hands of a Combat Veteran

Posted: 7:29 AM, Apr 30, 2017
Updated: 2017-05-11 18:03:29-04

PTSD REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

In the early morning hours before the murder, Cody and Austin, who he knew for about two months, had been drinking with another friend – a witness. He told Pima County Sheriff’s deputies that Cody pulled out his gun at his apartment and began “dry firing” it while it was unloaded. Austin asked him to stop, but Cody loaded his gun and fired about two rounds.

Detective: Do you recall you and Austin having any altercation or you being mad or frustrated? Do you remember shooting your gun off in the parking lot of your apartment?

Cody: No. I mean Austin’s a pretty nice guy so there’s not much reason to have hate towards him and the fact, especially for the fact that I haven’t known him that long.

As the witness walked away, he saw Austin climb into the front seat of the PT Cruiser, while Cody positioned himself in the back seat.

A short time later, the witness received a phone call from Austin, concerned that Cody was pointing a gun at him. He heard Cody laughing in the background as he shot a round through Austin’s windshield. Cody grabbed the phone and told the witness he and Austin were going “off-roading” and Austin would call him in five minutes. But Austin never did.

Cody told detectives he felt threatened as his friend reached for the center console. “I remember his shuffling around in the center, whatever the center console exists of a PT Cruiser and I remember getting an awkward feeling. That’s not the first time I’ve been drunk and gotten a feeling in my stomach to where I know in my head something is up, something is not right and people.”

Nothing was wrong with Austin, rather something wasn’t right with Terra’s son. Terra noticed Cody had become hyper-vigilant. “Always scanning everything and no one was allowed to get behind him. He will stand to his side so he can see. He will not put his back to anyone.”

Cody continued to tell the detectives his account of what happened in the car. “And so I remember getting this very awkward like, very awkward gut feeling in my mind, my mind and stomach thinking there’s something wrong, there’s something out of play here because I usually don’t get that. I’m not that kind of person unless you really like intentionally kind of poke and prod at me that way. I get very uncomfortable.”

A LITANY OF DENIALS

After Cody left the Crisis Response Center, he called the VA’s Ironwood Clinic to set up an appointment. “And they told him it would be 6 months before he got an appointment. And I grabbed the phone and said you don’t understand. I just had him committed because I was worried about him. And you’re telling me it’s going to be 6 months and they said, “Yes, ma’am.”

MENTAL HEALTH WAIT TIMES WERE A SERIOUS CONCERN AT THE TUCSON VA FACILITIES IN 2014, ACCORDING TO AN OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL ASSESSMENT REVIEW.

Desperate for help, Terra called a friend -- a colonel in the Air Force. “He made some phone calls. 10 minutes later, they called my son and he had an appointment the next day.”

The VA medical records show Terra told staff that Cody was involuntarily hospitalized at the Crisis Recovery Center. Cody’s father called the Tucson VA “concerned about his son’s behavior and making a bad choice while intoxicated.” He felt “his son needed mental health support.”

Cody had three appointments at the Ironwood Clinic before the killing. During each visit, he saw different social workers and even an intern, but no doctor.

Cody admitted to bar fights, hypervigilance, pulling his weapon when feeling threatened, excessive drinking that leads to violent aggression, things getting out of control, black outs, sudden outbursts of anger, financial stress, struggling to find a job, and extensive combat trauma that included the killing of the young Afghan boy. He told VA staff that he was able to tell himself he was doing his job and feels comfort in knowing the other soldier took the same action – there was no way to know if the gun was loaded. Cody told the staff he spoke to few people about it, but avoided advertising his military service. Terra said he had planned for an entire career in the Army, but he refused to return after his 4 year commitment.

Cody expressed he was concerned about his behavior the night he threatened to kill his family and himself, but denied he was distressed or had any mental health issues.

He told staff that "PTSD is for wusses" and that it's "the attitude most of his military buddies have."

Terra explained, “He's does not want to be labeled as a veteran with PTSD. You have to understand all veterans their biggest fear is that people think they're crazy when they come home.” A reason, experts say, many veterans suffer in solitude – unable to put behind them the moral and mental conflicts experienced on the battlefield.

Cody underwent PTSD screenings each visit. 4 test questions were given and Cody gave the same answers each time -- yes to only one question. A score of 1 out of 4 would not trigger a full PTSD evaluation.

1. Have you had any nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to?

Cody: Yes

2. Tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that remind you of it?

Cody: No

3. Were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled?

Cody: No

4. Felt numb or detached from others, activities, or your surroundings?

Cody: No

Alcohol screenings turned up positive – scoring 9 out of 12 – and staff encouraged him to participate in a substance abuse program, but Cody refused treatment.

Terra was concerned reviewing Cody’s records that there was no consistency in care and the VA didn’t take her or Cody’s father’s pleas for help seriously. Staff told Terra that Cody had to admit he had a problem. At the VA, treatment and services are voluntary. But Terra argues, “When a parent has their child committed that's serious. That means there's something wrong. They dropped the ball. They seemed to be more concerned about his alcohol abuse and he needs a 12 step program more than this mental health.”

Though staff knew he had just been involuntarily committed at the Crisis Recovery Center, documented during his first two VA appointments on October 24 and November 5th, the social worker wrote “No history of a Psych Evaluation” after his last visit on November 13th.

On November 5th, a social worker scheduled a non-urgent Mental Health Evaluation within 14 days and noted he did not have “suicidal and homicidal ideations.” 8 day later, Cody underwent a Mental Health Assessment that again the social worker concluded he had no “suicidal or homicidal ideations.”

Terra said, “Everyone focuses on the suicides. Nobody wants to talk about the homicides.”

Cody was a “no show” for his 4th appointment on December 10th. The social worker wrote he was “not a high risk” and there was no need to follow up.

THE PERFECT STORM

Three months later, the day of the killing, Cody sat in the backseat of the car with a gun pointed at back of his friend’s head.

He told detectives, “(Austin) didn’t word threaten me, but the fact that he was reaching in that center console for the longest time reaching for something or going for whatever was in there, that put the switch in my mind. The fact that he had knives all over his house’s basement that we were messing with all night long and I could only imagine what was in the center console. It could be nothing, but in my head at that point in time, this is it cuz it’s me or you.”

Cody said he told Austin to stop reaching into the console or he would shoot him, but he says Austin didn’t stop. “I shot him out of my fear of my life and I ran.”

Tressa believes the VA failed her son by not providing adequate care. “They never evaluated him fully for his PTSD. They didn’t pay attention to the guilt Cody felt for killing the boy. They basically told him get rid of your gun and stop drinking. There again, we didn’t get to the mental part.” Terra said.

His treatment plan included: Start school, find a job and maintain sobriety.

Not a day goes by that Terra don’t think about her son and Austin. She believes the system is broken and is now pushing for change that will improve the care of veterans when they return home from war. “I had to walk it. I had to live it. I had to watch him destroy himself slowly. And there was nothing I could do about it and it has to change for the next one that comes along. Nothing I do right now is going to help my son. And I realize that, but maybe it can help other families not have to go through what my family and the Gann family have had to go through.”

Now Cody sits in prison. Terra raised her children to know there are consequences for their actions.

“He went into all of this saying I'm ready for whatever punishment comes my way. I always told him it could be really bad. It might not work in our favor. And he said, ‘Well mom I'm ready.’”

Veterans or family members in need of assistance can call the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, a toll-free confidential resource that connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at http://veteranscrisisline.net/chat ... or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.

KGUN9 reached out to the Tucson VA requesting an interview on how staff handles PTSD and veterans who commit violence. We received this response: "It is our policy not to comment publicly on specific treatment of any Veteran or whether or not they are receiving care from the Tucson VA. However, we would like to extend our condolences to the families and individuals affected by these tragic events."