What happens when veterans with PTSD can’t re-integrate into civilian life? Screening Friday at the Pasadena International Film Festival, the documentary “Those Who Serve” follows three Southern California defendants in veterans court and features a familiar face: former Pasadena Councilman Bill Paparian.
Paparian, who served as mayor of Pasadena from 1995 to 1997, was the lawyer for the Ricardo Tapia, who on Dec. 20, 2013 reacted to a loud noise by shooting his neighbors. Tapia has a distinguished record in the Marines, serving on diplomatic posts, but was mentally broken by his service.
Writer/director Jeff Werner had been following Tapia’s case for six years. Besides Tapia, Werner looks at Mark Stillion, a former Marine charged with the sale of crystal meth in Los Angeles, and David Anthony Strouth, who in 2015 killed his best friend, Bradley Garner, and attempted to commit suicide.
In a telephone interview, Werner explained, “I had no idea that there was such a thing as Veterans’ Court.” A friend invited him to observe a case in Orange County, and, “It was a very moving experience,” he recalled. “The people had served their country and risked their lives and were facing criminal punishment and were suffering from invisible injuries.”
Veterans Treatment Courts are meant to “target the root causes of veterans’ criminal behavior” according to the California Courts website. “The goal of these courts is to resolve criminal cases through treatment and support.”
The irony of going across the world to defend one’s own community and putting at risk that same community, Werner said, was a compelling issue that he wanted to address. But, although he raises the questions of “What does our criminal justice system do?” and “What happens to our veterans who come back and cannot integrate back into society?” Werner doesn’t offer solutions.
Initially, Werner was surprised. “I found it hard to believe the paranoia,” the fear of noise and the night terrors. “I almost thought they were too cinematic, too dramatic.” Yet, the three cases he followed look at men who seemed to be “regular model citizens and then come back and crumble.”
Paparian, who responded via email, was already aware of PTSD. “My late father was a World War II Marine who had been wounded in the South Pacific. It wasn’t called PTSD in his day but he had it. And I saw it among the Marines that I served with when I was on active duty.”
As a layperson, Werner can’t say what should be done, but notes that if people have six weeks of bootcamp to prepare for warfare, “Why shouldn’t they have six weeks of boot camp to be brought back to a civilian frame of mind?” Werner emphasizes that most men come back and can adjust to civilian life but also that of these three “none of them went overseas to become a criminal.”
“The VA needs to stop responding with only pills and begin to provide the kind of treatment that has been proven to be effective with those suffering with PTSD and TBI,” Paparian wrote.
Paparian also wished the prelude to the Tapia case had been included in the documentary because, he noted, “This is a case that never should have happened.” Paparian wrote, “Approximately 10 days prior, Rick Tapia, who had been found by the VA to be 100 percent disabled, had a mental breakdown. The LAPD had involuntarily detained him and took him to the VA psychiatric hospital where he was admitted. The next morning he was released and told to stop taking the sleep medication Ambien. Under California law and LAPD policy, any weapons in his position should have been seized. There was a Glock handgun in his possession,” Paparian disclosed. “There was a follow up visit by two LAPD detectives. They knew that he had a handgun but allowed it to remain in the home as long as it was kept locked up and his fiancée Elizabeth had the key. Of course, he had a backup key. And when the second mental breakdown occurred he was able to retrieve the handgun.”
While Paparian has experience as a lawyer in the Veterans Court, Werner was surprised and delighted that Veterans Court could be administered “in such a firm, but caring way.” But he was also surprised at how little the jury understood about psychological issue and the effects of PTSD, even in communities close to bases such as Camp Pendleton.
For people attending the film festival screening, Paparian said, “The most important thing to take away from this film is that there are other cases like the ones depicted in the film coming into our criminal justice system all over the country with combat veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI.”
“Those Who Serve” screens at 3 p.m. Friday, March 13, at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd. Werner, Paparian and other subjects of the film will be at the Q&A. For more information, visit PasadenaFilmFestival.org.