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Army vet struggles with PTSD behind bars

Apr. 13, 2013 - 04:10PM   |  
Army veteran Justin York stands in the Adams County, Ind., jail, on March 27. Arrested in late December on a felony charge of resisting law enforcement with a weapon, York is desperate to get the charge reduced to the misdemeanor and to get back to treatment for his PTSD.
Army veteran Justin York stands in the Adams County, Ind., jail, on March 27. Arrested in late December on a felony charge of resisting law enforcement with a weapon, York is desperate to get the charge reduced to the misdemeanor and to get back to treatment for his PTSD. (Samuel Hoffman / The Journal-Gazette)
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DECATUR, Ind. — The tattoo on the inside of Justin York's left arm is hard to discern. Glancing at it one way, you can see the word "Life." If you look at it another way, it reads "Death."

If you look at it without knowing how to read it, it looks like an ornate, inky blue blur.

Life and death blurred together for the 25-year-old U.S. Army veteran to such a degree that he left his beloved Army with an extreme rating for post-traumatic stress disorder, making him unable to continue wearing the uniform.

Now he finds himself trapped inside an Adams County Jail cell, in an unwanted uniform of a different color.

Arrested in late December on a felony charge of resisting law enforcement with a weapon, York is desperate to get out, to get the charge reduced to the misdemeanor he feels is more appropriate and to get back to treatment for his PTSD.

In the four months he's been in the small windowless cell in the jail, York's symptoms have raged back — with auditory hallucinations of people crying out in pain or yelling his name. His wiry physical frame practically hums with the rage he's trying to contain — anger at the system that has put him somewhere he does not believe he belongs and his inability to get free of it.

It started just after 1 a.m. Dec. 28. York had been out drinking and came home to his mother's house in the 100 block of North 11th Street in Decatur and drank some more.

At some point, he realized that his brand new, legally owned handgun, a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson, was missing from its locked box in his room.

It was his "safety," the thing that kept him feeling secure in the darkness of his PTSD. And it was not where he'd left it.

"When someone takes (your safety), you flip out," York told The Journal Gazette ( ).

And that's what he did — raging at his mother who had removed it, angry and demanding she return it, he said.

She did not return it, and while he was threatening to smash her television, his mother, Pepper York, called Decatur police.

(Page 2 of 3)

When police came, Justin had the gun tucked in his back pocket. Pepper assured them the gun was unloaded.

According to police reports, Justin pulled the gun out and faced the officers in a "manner that was not aggressive." He refused to drop it, by his own admission, because he was standing on a hard tile floor and did not want to damage it.

"I was drunk, in my own house, with my own gun," he contends. "I'm within 100 percent of my legal rights to have a firearm, even if I'm drunk, in my home."

Instead, he and the police reports agree, he pulled the slide back to demonstrate it was unloaded. The officers saw it was unloaded and took it out of his hand.

And this is where their reports differ — police reports say he turned himself to them as if he wanted to fight. York said he did not.

But again, both police reports and Justin agree, they had possession of the gun when they decided to fire a Taser at him and take him into custody.

In years, months and weeks leading up to that December encounter, Justin had lost a lot — a wife to divorce, control of his finances to a bankruptcy, and later, a girlfriend to death in a car accident. He'd lost friends to drugs and fellow soldiers on deployments.

He was living off unemployment, going to treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and looking forward to reducing the symptoms of his PTSD so he could re-enlist.

"I was doing everything I could to get treatment and get help," he said.

But now he's here. York said he begged Adams County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tracy Heltz Noetzel to let him transfer to Delaware County's Veterans Court — where he can get treatment alongside the criminal intervention. When it seemed like he would get his wish, Adams County officials reneged, he said. They insist on keeping any potential term of a probation sentence in Adams County.

That would be inconsistent with the practices of a problem-solving court, such as a veterans court. The period of supervision is handled by the judge overseeing the case and includes frequent check-ins with the court and its staff.

(Page 3 of 3)

Adams County Prosecutor Christopher Harvey could not comment specifically on York's case, being prohibited from doing so by the state's rules of professional conduct for prosecutors. Those rules, Harvey said in a statement, prohibit any discussion or comment on York's character or any potential outcome in the case.

"Furthermore, as I always state while a criminal case is pending, the charges against Mr. York are merely an accusation and that Mr. York is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty," Harvey said in his written statement.

"It is my duty to file and prosecute crimes allegedly committed in Adams County. It is a charge that I take seriously. I am also charged by the ethical guidelines of my profession to not prejudice the rights of Mr. York by making comments about his pending case outside of the courtroom."

York worries, though, about the prosecutors' insistence that he resisted with a weapon, which moves the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. A felony makes it impossible for him to ever legally own a handgun and would make it harder for him to get a job when the criminal case is resolved.

York is scheduled for trial later this month if the case doesn't move to the veterans court. He said he will not plead guilty to the felony.

His mother, Pepper, also worries about the effect of a felony on the rest of his life.

"There's so many people that are like him, too. He feels like there's no worth to his life, like he'll be a felon and he won't be able to get a job," she said.

In the police report, officers told Justin he came really close to getting shot.

"Justin shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't care," the police reports read.

He knows he was angry that night.

"You don't send someone to war and expect them to be OK," York said. "You don't train them to kill and put them back in society.

"I would take a misdemeanor. Maybe I did resist a bit," he said. "I've been shot at for the past six years, on and off."

His mother is worried, not just for his PTSD but because he's being treated like a criminal. She too wants to see him head to Veterans Court.

"He would actually get help, which is really what he needs," she said. "He needs help."

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