Interview with Charilyn Damigo
Can you update us on where Nathan is now?
Nathan was sent to Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. We were only able to visit him for the first time on October 8. California has a really backed up prison system, so he was several months getting through the classification process and getting sent to Ironwood.
From February, when the documentary was filmed, through October, we could write letters and we did eventually get phone privileges. It was almost the end of August before we had a phone call so we were living for those letters. We heard from him more often when he was in Iraq than when he was here in California. And to be honest, right at this moment, we don't know where he is. Nathan qualified to be moved and housed out of state and we don't know where. It could be Arizona, Oklahoma, or Mississippi. He's already in transit.
How many more years does Nathan have on his sentence?
Just under four years. June 2014 is his scheduled release, at the soonest.
Nathan began experiencing nightmares when he first came home. Did he receive any kind of treatment when he came home?
All of the marines went through a debriefing in Kuwait, but the attitude I got from Nate and his friends, was, "Yeah, yeah we had to sit through the lectures: Don't beat up your girlfriend." They were taking it as a big joke. To them, it was three more days before they could be home. I have heard from other parents that their kids were told, "Don?t say you have any nightmares or any problems, or you'll be delayed even further." I don't know if Nathan was told that, but those are the stories we heard.
So there was a small attempt at debriefing, but he was very much in denial. I pointed out a couple things about his driving, and he said, "Well in Iraq, we have to drive that way." At one point, he was talking about PTSD as a bunch of baloney, how it was guys who were trying to get out of going back to Iraq, and I casually said, "You know, some of the things that you're doing, the nightmares, the driving, that's what they're talking about." Then he kind of backed down, but he was not acknowledging the fact. We didn't realize the severity of it until after what happened.
The attitude in the Marine Corps seems to be changing, but the attitude Nathan came out with was: If the Marine Corps wanted me to have PTSD, it would have issued it to me in boot camp.
Was his mental health or war experience taken into consideration at his sentencing?
No. At the time, there was no Veterans Court ? San Diego County has one set up now I've been told. But his military service was never considered. California has a mandatory minimum sentence for guns. It's a 10-year enhancement on any crime. So instead of two to five years for his crime, he was facing 12-15. California Penal Code 1170.9 would have allowed for treatment, but we were told it was not usable -- you have to be eligible for probation and he was not because of the gun enhancement.
PTSD has only been used successfully once before, so it's really hard to defense to use. If Nate lost, it would have meant 15 years in prison. Right before trial, the district attorney offered him a six-year sentence and he was so afraid of losing at trial, he went ahead and took it.
You seem pretty well-versed in the law.
There's so much of this we did not know. It was like being dropped into a nightmare. We had to educate ourselves ? I have a full binder of things that we've researched, things we've learned, other case studies. I searched for something for families, parents and could not find anything. There are some resources for spouses but nothing as far as parents or other family members -- and there are a lot of these guys who are single, whose parents have to work on their behalf.
Nathan was in custody for 13 months before we got him out on bond and he had no access to anything. He couldn't have called the VA if he wanted to. We didn't have a clue how to start: How do you find an attorney? What makes a good attorney? We've gotten together with other parents and are in the process of starting a nonprofit. We're hoping that if nothing else, we can help other families so they don't have to start from scratch.
Is Nate seeking treatment for PTSD while in prison?
There's nothing available. He was out of custody for 14 months -- my parents put up a bond -- and we got private treatment for him. We've been back and forth with the VA. First they claimed he wasn't eligible because of his other-than-honorable discharge, then they said we'll give him PTSD treatment and nothing else. He did go in to speak with a therapist but he was so angry when he finished that appointment, he swore he'd never go back. By then he was already in private treatment and he was happy with that therapist. We didn?t want him to have to start from scratch just because the VA would pay for it. We just paid out of pocket.
How is your family doing?
We're doing OK. It varies. When he first went into custody, there was not a day I did not cry. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stay focused. We feel like we're serving the sentence with him. Even to visit ? the whole process is traumatic; I've had my eyes opened to the whole California penal system.
Is taking care of this a full-time job for you?
Now that Nathan's in custody, not as much, although once the non-profit starts, it will take up more time. It's very difficult to do this and hold a job. I was fortunate that I had a job that was pretty flexible. I just talked to a mom yesterday ? she's self employed and she's had to put her business on hold so she's got almost no income coming in. She's taking her son to doctors' appointments each week, dealing with paperwork for the VA and documenting everything. I don't have a clue how other parents are doing it. I'm an organized person, I'm reasonably intelligent, I have a master's degree, but there are some things I couldn't figure out. What about the soldiers that don't have family support?
You keep a blog with updates about Nathan. Does it help to keep a journal?
I started it because there were so many people who wanted to know what was going on. My e-mail list was getting so big, my messages would bounce back as if it were spam. And I had a lot of people hesitating to ask about Nathan because they were afraid of bringing it up. So I keep the blog so everyone can see what the current information is without feeling like they were upsetting me. And it did turn into something that was healing, to be able to put my feelings some place.
Is anyone else in your family in therapy too?
I am in a group session. We meet every other week, and before that, I have a friend who's a social worker that I met informally a couple of times. Life goes on, but we have a new kind of normal: The next four years are not going to include Nathan on birthdays or at Thanksgiving. All of sudden, we're including prison visits when we go on vacation.