EXCLUSIVE: Marine Veteran Injured Fighting ISIS in Syria says He Was “Betrayed” by the Service
A former Marine artilleryman says he was neglected and unjustly treated by the branch after suffering brain injuries during a 2017 campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria
Original Article in The EPOCH Times here. [reprinted with permission.]
By J.M. Phelps Updated: May 9, 2023. This is part two of a two-part series.
In Part one of this series, to make his wrongs right, Sergeant Javier E. Ortiz reported the use of cannabis to his healthcare providers. Because a “cocktail” of prescription medications was not working, and worsening his quality of life and health, Ortiz made the regrettable decision to self-medicate with cannabis to fight the demons inside caused by the trauma of war.
As a result, Ortiz was “blind-sided” by administrative separation proceedings in February 2021. This occurred without a positive urinalysis, and only with a self-report. He does not believe his separation from the Marine Corps was “a just punishment.” He would have preferred to be disciplined by non-judicial punishment for what he considered a minor offense.
“While I would have lost rank, I would have stayed in the fight,” he told The Epoch Times. “All I wanted was a chance to make my wrongs right—and be a good Marine.”
Instead, his superiors, he said, labeled him “a junkie” and a “disgrace” to the Marine Corps. He was even told that eventually he would end up homeless. And after four months of therapy, in April 2021, a behavioral health provider at Naval Health Clinic Quantico, VA, determined that Ortiz’s poor decision had nothing to do with PTSD, stating in a report viewed by The Epoch Times, “The presence of PTSD/TBI in this service member may not reasonably be considered to be a contributing factor in the behavior or activities which now lead to the recommendation for involuntary administrative separation.”
Shortly after in June 2021, his rank was reduced from Sergeant to Corporal.
Legal options were limited for Ortiz, as there was never a trial. While he had the right to request a court-martial, he refused. He owned up to what he had done, hoping for a positive outcome that never came.
It wasn’t long before Ortiz was encouraged to reach out to the Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group (USJAG), a nonprofit organization that provides legal, forensic, and investigative services in administrative and judicial proceedings for members of the military. The organization acts as a rapid response team, inserting itself between the Department of Defense (DoD) and injured active-duty service members to ensure both policy and procedure are being followed during the discharge process.
According to USJAG, Ortiz’s story differs little from thousands of others seen by the organization who have allegedly been held victim to abusive discharge practices. According to Robert Alvarez, USJAG founder and COO, policy and procedure were not being followed—and Ortiz’s rights were being violated.
What behavior health was doing, Alvarez said, is what many would call “hand jamming” – in short, “they grabbed Javier’s file, took a look at it, and authored a short line saying that his conduct had nothing to do with his injuries.” Alvarez argues nothing could be further from the truth.
Within three days of the previous assessment, a nurse practitioner and a clinical social worker at the same Quantico clinic assessed that Ortiz’s diagnosis of PTSD “may have been a contributing factor for his conduct resulting in the basis for separation.”
“[His] misconduct,” they wrote, “was secondary to attempts to manage intrusive memories and flashbacks, and to avoid thoughts and negative emotional states arising from his combat traumas, which are components of his PTSD symptomology.”
“If this was indeed the case,” Alvarez said, “it should have been the reason for Javier to be put into a medical retirement process, but that never happened, even though that’s what the law says needed to happen.”
Instead, as his life continued to spiral out of control, in September 2021, Ortiz was threatened with deportation. He said he was informed by command that “any naturalized service member separated with an other-than-honorable conditions discharge may face deportation proceedings.”
Ortiz was dismayed by the threat because he had already become a U.S. citizen and had renounced his Dominican citizenship to renew his secret clearance. In addition, his wife of six years was pregnant with their second child at the time he faced each of these challenges.
Nearing a breaking point, Ortiz was discharged from the Marine Corps in October 2021, receiving an other-than-honorable (OTH) discharge and losing all benefits.
“Getting discharged was incredibly hard on my family,” Ortiz said. “I was on a salary that was going up every year, and now I’ve been completely stripped of a salary I earned.” In addition, he said, “I would have preferred being incarcerated on false charges than see my family go hungry for so long.”
His son was born three months after his discharge and he had acquired thousands of dollars in debt, he said. “My credit score has dropped because I can’t pay the debt I’ve accumulated, and I feel like I’ve been completely buried on purpose,” he added, describing the experience as “unbearable.”
“Veterans organizations were making promises they couldn’t keep,” Ortiz said. “I was unable to get the behavioral health treatment I needed, and I started to feel really alone. Under all this stress, I was to a point I could barely communicate—and I needed advocacy.”
Ortiz shared that he still has issues—which he describes as “a long list of untreated, so-called non-service-connected disabilities.” While attempting to resolve those ongoing problems that he says were clearly caused by the horrors of war, Ortiz was advised by a Veterans of Foreign Wars director that he should be happy with a 90 percent disability rating, as opposed to a 100 percent rating which would have entitled him to free healthcare.
That advice, he admitted, caused a fit of rage during which he “tore apart the house, punched walls, and threw things.”
“My life feels like it’s ending,” Ortiz said. “I’ve submitted for unemployment benefits, because I have been unable to work due to PTSD and the obvious ongoing pain,” he explained. Through it all, Ortiz said he has maintained a “happy family” with his wife and two children. “But they are exposed to all my episodes, and it’s heartbreaking.”
By the end of August 2022, following a separations board hearing he described as “unjust”, Ortiz once again found the advocacy he needed through USJAG. And by September, Ortiz was finally recognized as a combat-disabled veteran and service-connected disabilities have been compensated at 90 percent. USJAG was instrumental in helping with this rating.
Prior to USJAG’s intervention, Alvarez described Ortiz’s case as “a classic example of how you sweep your dirt under the rug.”
Pointing to the Marine Corps’ own report (pdf) in 2019, Alvarez said, “they knew that these men and women who fired an excessive amount of artillery rounds were going to be exponentially damaged compared to other groups.”
“USJAG cannot find a single shred of evidence that they sought out the men and women who served on these teams, damaged by the excessive number of artillery rounds fired,” he said. “No one sought them out to make sure they were being taken care of or being treated fairly. In my opinion, they just didn’t give a damn about these men and women and what they were subjected to.”
“This was willful negligence,” Alvarez added. “Willfully ignoring that some of their men and women were injured.”
Far More Than PTSD
According to Dr. Robert Beckman with TreatNOW.org, the military classifies traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD in solely the “mental health arena.” While it is true that brain injuries lead to mental health problems, he said, “inflammation from injury can reduce or shut down blood flow, which obviously affects the brain’s ability to process information for mental and physical utilization.” In other words, the ability to think, remember, and respond, as well as the ability to balance, hear, and see, can be affected by inflammation associated with a brain injury.
But confining TBI and PTSD to the mental health arena is a “critical” mistake, Beckman said. If the military continues to categorize TBI or PTSD as a mental health problem, he said, the problem inevitably becomes the soldier’s problem to deal with.
“And when a soldier gets back to his life, he often withdraws and loses hope,” he said. “With the loss, the will to live goes away time and again.” This is exactly what happened to Ortiz: a label of PTSD, but no assessment or diagnosis of his other serious health problems.
“The DoD and VA [Veterans Affairs] deal with symptoms, and when it’s all broken down, each symptom has a drug,” Beckman said.
“There’s a drug for depression, nervousness, frustration, sleeplessness, pain, even lack of memory—but they’re all temporary fixes.”
And as a result, Beckman said, many soldiers begin to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs “because nothing the DoD or VA has done for them has led to a cure.” To find the cure, he said, “it must be recognized in the medical and military community that a physical injury often manifests itself as a behavioral or psychological problem in soldiers.”
Ortiz’s behavior was exactly as Beckman said—and should have been a sign of a need for help rather than a reason to punish him.
“All of the symptomology, including bad balance, confusion, frustration, and anger, can lead to violence, road rage, death by cop, arrests, incarceration—essentially all of the behavioral and psychological actions we see particularly in combat veterans,” he said. “Taking pills just to function does nothing to cure what’s going on internally, because the brain is still broken.”
Thousands of active-duty soldiers have not been diagnosed with TBI because, according to Beckman, “there’s a conspiracy not to find TBI.”
He added, “On the one hand, there’s a reluctancy for soldiers to report injuries or problems when they occur; and on the other, there’s an unwritten rule just to get these guys back in the field as soon as possible regardless of the injury or problem.”
Drawing from his experience, Beckman said there is “a cultural resistance to accurately diagnose TBI” because military readiness is all too often the priority. “This, too, becomes intertwined with a culture of cover-up,” he added.
And that works well for the military, he said, because “these guys don’t want to leave their unit; they are committed to their battle buddies—all while their injuries are seldom reported.”
But Ortiz was an exception to the rule. He sought help, reporting not only his mental issues but also his physical injuries. He met with Dr. Mary Lee Esty for the first time in August 2021.
Esty’s clinical experience treating the symptoms of concussion/TBI began in 1996 when she was asked by a rehabilitation hospital to provide neurofeedback treatment to people who were at least three years post-concussion without expectation of further recovery. The results were positive, allowing people to return to school and their places of employment, as they regained physical and cognitive skills.
This study led to research treating military personnel living with the aftermath of blasts and other injuries. In a recent study, Esty collaborated with the Walter Reed Traumatic Injury Research Program and results have been exceptionally positive. Esty continues to treat veterans.
“The shape he came in was extraordinary,” she said of Ortiz. “He was in emotional turmoil, like a tug of war. On the one hand, it was clear that he had always wanted to be a Marine—but on the other, he was struggling that [the Marine Corps] treated him so casually painfully. I could tell that he just wanted to scream it all out, but he wouldn’t do that.”
Light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, loss of sleep, fatigue, pain, memory issues, headaches, and dizziness were all symptoms experienced by Ortiz.
“As he shared what he went through physically, how he came out able to walk and talk and alive is pretty amazing to me,” Esty said.
Esty administered CNS Vital Signs, an assessment procedure used to evaluate neurocognitive status, to develop a baseline of Ortiz’s many symptoms. She considered him to be “a smart and articulate guy,” but over half of his computerized test battery scores were far below average.
Esty also recorded his brain wave activity from 21 standard sites on his scalp. Because Ortiz was taking Zoloft, Clonidine, and Wellbutrin at the time, Esty said the medications affected the results of the test.
“Even so,” she said “the data are consistent with Javier’s history of trauma. Javier’s service experience with blasts is possibly extreme, but such history of injury tends to be downplayed because there are no visible scars,” according to her.
“The symptoms of damage are invisible, unavoidable, but explainable,” she added, and therefore the Marine Corps should have physically addressed these problems.
Esty saw Ortiz, who was showing improvement, for the last time in January 2022 because he was relocating to Florida to be closer to his family.
Cost of Brokenness
According to USJAG’s Alvarez, Ortiz’s story is one of many. “Like so many others, he has a lot of invisible scars,” he said. “Javier was masking a lot of his issues because he wanted to stay in the Marine Corps.”
Alvarez argued Ortiz isn’t at fault for pushing himself to the limit. “It’s what he was trained to do,” he said. “Javier did not fail the Marine Corps; the Marine Corps failed him.”
“Everybody in the service knows that when you finally come up on the radar as being broken, the right thing to do is to send you home, to get you to the VA, to get you to focus on your health—but that’s not what happened,” Alvarez, a former Marine, pointed out.
“When you’re no longer functioning as a competent soldier, and your skills as a warrior are diminished, there often remains a nagging inner drive for continued perfection,” he added.
But this, he said, is part of a larger problem for soldiers like Ortiz who do whatever it takes to remain in the Corps.
“Javier wanted to stay in the service,” Alvarez said. “He didn’t want to admit he was broken, but that becomes a double-edged sword because a lot of times you end up malfunctioning along the way, like Javier and so many others.”
According to Alvarez, the Marine Corps should have moved Javier to an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) treatment at the very least—“especially since he was having some hallucinations.” IOP treatment can be provided to service members as an alternative to more restrictive inpatient measures, but still require robust behavioral health treatment.
“The alcohol issue that was growing as a result of his mental health was not apparent to his command and his other Marines because he was hiding it,” he said. “Javier was being treated and the Marines knew how severe his symptoms were—and for that, I fault them for not ratcheting up his treatment.”
Ortiz’s intentions were to serve his country with honor, Alvarez said. “[But] everything Javier was exposed to and how it was handled by the Marine Corps ended up costing himself his retirement, his family’s financial security, and his career,” he said. “Javier was left with a big black eye from the Marine Corps.”
Alvarez emailed a forensic report, seen by The Epoch Times, about Ortiz’s circumstances to his commanding general, now-retired Major General Julian Alford—the same general who was allegedly ordered by the Commandant of the Marine Corps to “keep his mouth shut” about an injury he sustained after taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
“[General Alford] would have had the opportunity to look at all the evidence about Ortiz—which was likely reviewed by his Staff Judge Advocate (SJA)—and make a fair and decent decision for this man,” Alvarez said. “He also had the evidence from the [blast overpressure] report (pdf),” he added. “With both reports in hand, he can’t deny he knew that the Marine Corps was well aware Javier was a casualty of the very operation they studied.”
Instead, Alvarez said, “he was thrown out into the street like yesterday’s garbage.” And for him, “it’s unforgivable what they’ve done to Javier and his family, and I can’t give the Marine Corps a pass on that.”
The Epoch Times was unable to reach Alford for comment.
Nic Gray, CEO of USJAG, describes Ortiz’s situation as the entrance to the “valley of death.” The valley of death is a term used to describe an injured service member’s journey from serving in combat, sustaining injuries, and being wrongfully discharged from the military under other than honorable conditions.
The five phases of the valley of death, according to Gray, are deployment, medication, behavioral issues, wrongful discharge, and suicide.
“During deployment,” Gray said, “service members go off to war and many come home damaged with TBI, PTSD, and/or missing limbs.” The military’s solution, he said, is to place these injured service members on medications, which often results in adverse side effects.
“All too often, the adverse side effects of the medications manifest themselves in behavior issues, which results in the injured service members acting out and being reprimanded under UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice],” Gray said. “And punishment under UCMJ results in injured service members being wrongfully discharged and stripped of all benefits.”
Referring to potential acts of suicide, Gray said, “injured service members without proper medical care or access to VA benefits face a grim future and a possible death sentence.”
Gray went on to say that “with an other-than-honorable discharge, the injured service members are unable to work or qualify for unemployment, and are often unable to seek medical care and mental health services to improve their situation.”
Additionally, he said, “without an improved medical and mental health situation, they’re unable to gain meaningful employment – and without meaningful employment, they have no purpose or mission.”
“Sadly, without a purpose or mission,” Gray said, “the end result is pretty much a death sentence through suicide and/or overdosing on opioids.”
Additionally, he said, the ramifications extend beyond injured service members and directly impact their families and the communities in which they live.
“It creates a heavy fiscal burden on state and local governments along with non-governmental entities,” he explains. “It also places a stain directly on the Department of Defense and associated branches of the military.”
Gray said, “The discharge process is rigged by insiders within the Department of Defense; unqualified individuals are making judgment calls that require a level of expertise that they do not possess resulting in fraudulent separations.”
According to Gray, the only way to prevent these “fraudulent separations” is for a third-party oversight body to be established, ensuring both policy and procedure are followed in the discharge process of injured service members.
“Ortiz’s situation is a classic example as to why a third-party oversight body is needed,” Gray said, concluding that “one could view this problem as the root cause of the many issues within the veteran community.”
For Gray, “it begins with how injured active-duty service members are treated before leaving the military … and it’s preventable.”
A Caution to Other Warriors
While Ortiz is no longer dependent on alcohol, he remains scarred from his experience. Others from his battalion can say the same. One has resigned from the Marine Corps after returning from Syria. Others have attempted to commit suicide; unfortunately, one was successful. Others have gone on to commit crimes, such as child abuse and homicide.
“Doing impulsive things that would not ordinarily be done is not uncommon after TBI,” Esty said. “TBI does not make people do criminal acts, but it can make people very impulsive.” To that end, she said, “TBI often causes the loss of cognitive brakes, [and] impulsivity wins.”
While the after-effects of participating in a deadly conflict have clearly taken their toll on Ortiz and others, Ortiz refuses to criticize the Marine Corps. “Now, could they have handled my situation differently?” he said before adding, “Yes.”
“I never feared death and was more than willing to sacrifice all to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and what it truly stands for,” Ortiz said. “But personnel should also be informed that they could experience harm and damage to their bodies for simply doing the task they’ve been assigned to do. [They should know that] if you’re going to be in artillery, some bad things might happen.”
Because of the toll it has taken on his mind and body, Ortiz shared “my life has not been easy, and I never want any Marine to be in my shoes—and I sure as hell don’t want to see the future families of America in a situation like mine.”
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, sacrificing my sanity and potentially my life, and this be the outcome,” he said. “I feel disregarded and still have a big fight ahead of me.” On Ortiz’s behalf, USJAG continues that fight.
“We conducted a forensic investigation, including statements from the Marine Corps’ own Blast Overpressure Report, submitted a detailed report about Ortiz to his command, and they still disregarded it,” Gray said, “The Marine Corps knew exactly what they were doing, damaged Ortiz and others, and didn’t do anything about it.”
“Ortiz’s story is going to open up a can of worms the DoD doesn’t want you to see,” Gray added.
Today, Ortiz is 90 percent disabled and unemployable, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to Alvarez, this “vindicates” Ortiz’s injuries and is evidence he should have been medically retired. As a result, Alvarez said, “We are appealing for 100 percent and will apply for a reversal of his separation, asking for the Marine Corps to medically retire him.”
As for Ortiz? “It would mean a lot to have my discharge corrected,” he said. “I would no longer have to hide my [discharge documents], a constant reminder of my past.”
“In my heart, I know I’m a good person and gave all I had,” Ortiz added. “All I wanted was to be the best example to my family, and be a good Marine.”
The Marine Corps didn’t return multiple inquiries from The Epoch Times.
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