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The War Within
A decorated marine, Archie O’Neil came back from Iraq saddled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he’s in prison for murder. With thousands of veterans like him in L.A., agencies are gearing up to help former troops struggling on the home front
They begin making love in Kim O’Neal’s gold BMW at the far end of a Camp Pendleton barracks parking lot. But the car is cramped for 33-year-old, 225-pound marine gunnery sergeant Archie O’Neil Jr. and his girlfriend. Kim, uncomfortable anyway under the parking lot lights, drives Archie to Deer Park, a picnic area about a mile away on the sprawling San Diego County base. The wooded park is empty on this moonless night of February 29, 2004. Though the couple share the same last name, just one vowel separating the two, they are married to other people.
Archie, a handsome African American man with boyish features, is about to be redeployed on his second Iraq tour the next morning. Earlier in the day he drove with his wife, Monique, and their eight-year-old son to lunch at Sonic, then to a Burlington Coat Factory in Fullerton and to McDonald’s for ice cream. Archie left his two Ruger pistols at home and took a Heckler & Koch .45 along for the ride. Whether tooling around Oceanside near the base, or driving up to Los Angeles for a day of shopping in the Fashion District, hanging out at the Santa Monica Pier, or grabbing a bite at Roscoe’s, he always has a pistol with him. Monique argues with him about the guns.
Things have been this way ever since he returned from his first tour of duty in Iraq. Feeling the constant need to be armed is a symptom of his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder; he says he doesn’t know how many guns he would need to feel safe. There have been other changes as well. Archie turned the garage of their home on the base into a bunker, stocking it with military rations and alcohol. Monique finds dozens of bottles, all types and sizes, hidden in coolers and empty ones in the garbage. She knows her husband roams the house as the family sleeps each night. He’s jumpy in crowds, too, but Archie won’t seek help.
Archie has been seeing Kim, a 39-year-old Department of Homeland Security immigration examiner, for more than a year, the affair carried on by e-mail when he was in Iraq. In her messages Kim told Archie that she wanted the spelling of her last name to change—she wanted him to leave Monique and marry her. He was her king and she was his queen. “I am your future and don’t forget that I will have all of you,” she wrote. “Easy on that drama,” Archie would tell her. Trying to control him, he wrote, was like taking a bite from a sea snake: “no cure and the poison kills within a matter of hours.”
Kim stops the car toward the back of Deer Park, close to a stand of trees. Before she and Archie make love in the night air, he drops the HK45 in the grass so Kim won’t see it. Afterward he heads for a Porta-John across a narrow clearing near a fence, scooping up the gun and tucking it into his jeans waistband. He emerges expecting “I’m going to miss you.” But Kim, who has been growing more desperate about the status of their relationship, laughs at him. “You’re just like all the rest of them dumb, stupid motherfuckers,” he’ll remember her saying. “I can’t wait to kill your bitch and your bastard-ass son while you’re in Iraq.”
That’s when Archie pulls out the HK45 and fires. “I can’t believe you shot me,” she says, backing behind the car. He changes magazines, shoots several rounds into a ditch, and shoots again at Kim—11 bullets hit her—until she lies down, silent. He paces, knowing he should call 911 or try to stop the gushing blood. Only when he spots the lights of an approaching Humvee and hears a distant voice shout orders does he hop a fence and throw himself into a patch of roadside weeds. Five cars pass before he flags down a silver Mitsubishi and, sweating, hitches a ride to the barracks, where before driving his van home, he asks another marine to hold his gun overnight.
Archie runs a scalding bath and scrubs, trying to feel clean. Dry and dressed in camouflage, he stuffs his civilian clothes in a garbage bag, dumps them in a neighbor’s trash bin, and loads his van. Six hours from now he’ll ship out with Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, for a Kuwait stopover en route to Iraq. Heading with his men for the bus that will take them to March Air Reserve Base and then a plane, he waves good-bye to his wife and little boy, who watch proudly from inside their van. The HK45 is in his seabag and will never be found.
By the time the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are over—troops will be out of Iraq in 2011, according to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—some 150,000 veterans will have returned to California. No state has a larger population of veterans, and no county has more than Los Angeles. A University of California, San Francisco-led study found that more than 40 percent of Veterans Affairs patients from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with psychological or behavioral problems. Twenty-two percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not unreasonable to expect PTSD cases to triple, and we have to be prepared to treat cases of that magnitude,” says Colonel Kathy Platoni, a psychology consultant with the army’s Medical Service Corps. But true numbers may be impossible to tally. Troops are often reluctant to report PTSD symptoms to the military. Those heading home after deployment can be detained for evaluation if they do, and active-duty troops go uncounted if they seek private care to avoid career damage. Moreover, symptoms—insomnia, nightmares, anger, flashbacks—can surface months or even years after battle.
The long and repeated deployments of the current conflicts only heighten the odds of developing PTSD. Advances in field surgery and rapid evacuation have kept more troops alive. But they’ve also increased the ranks of veterans who have survived traumatic brain injury, which can overlap with PTSD and bring with it confusion, sleep disturbances, mood changes, and other difficulties.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Police Department started tracking radio calls from worried families asking for help dealing with veterans. Unable to cope with their PTSD or brain-injury symptoms, some vets become suicidal or violent; others shut down emotionally, refusing to care for themselves. Homelessness too often follows. In fact, there are between 14,000 and 30,000 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, depending on who’s counting. Many fought in Korea and Vietnam, but local agencies report that veterans of our current wars are beginning to show up in need of food and shelter.
Anticipating an overflow of patients from the swamped Veterans Affairs, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health has brought in Lieutenant Colonel Valvincent Reyes to train its therapists to better understand the culture of the armed services. Reyes is the commander of Garden Grove’s army reserve 113th Medical Company and a clinical associate professor at USC’s new military social work program. (Researchers at USC are also developing a virtual-reality PTSD therapy, with scenarios that can be tailored to individual combat experiences.) “These programs are the first line of defense,” says Reyes, who commanded a stress team of mental health techs and a psychiatrist in Afghanistan.
This afternoon he is teaching crisis negotiation to SWAT team supervisors at the LAPD’s training center in Westchester. Dressed in army green, his chest ablaze with ribbons, Reyes tells the supervisors that troops learn to react to threat on a moment’s notice; when they come home, conditioned psychologically and physiologically, they continue to behave as if they’re at war. “Individuals on the street will still be experiencing adrenaline surges,” he says to his class. Of course, the individuals he’s talking about have extensive combat training, too, and SWAT wants to be prepared.
Moving through a PowerPoint presentation, Reyes notes that veterans respond well to acknowledgment of their service and to direct orders. Ask if the vet has a weapon and disarm him, he says; ask if he has ever harmed himself or others. “Say ‘To hurt your own dishonors you and your unit,’ ” the lieutenant colonel advises. “Say ‘You worked hard to get home safely. Don’t jeopardize your life now.’ ” It’s important to establish hope. As an LAPD psychologist sitting in the class notes, negotiations can hinge on a single word said the right way.
Teresa Irvin, a detective with the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit, has arranged today’s session. Her 23-year-old son has done several Iraq tours with the army’s 101st Airborne. One of his military friends committed suicide, and two of his buddies were killed. Before the LAPD established its Case Assessment Management Program, Irvin had observed that oftentimes veterans afflicted with PTSD or traumatic brain injury would resist arrest. Now through the program, which Irvin has run for three years, an investigator and clinician follow up on calls involving mental illness, making sure the person is referred to services and is taking any necessary medication. “When vets return from the war, they don’t like to take their meds. They’re concerned about stigma and appearing weak,” Irvin will tell me later. “We’re trying to educate officers.” The LAPD’s goal is not only to de-escalate a crisis, but to keep veterans out of the legal system. Rather than lock them up, the police aim is to refer ex-soldiers and marines to nonprofit agencies like the Soldiers Project, in L.A., or New Directions, on the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs.
On March 12, 2004, Archie O’Neil signed a statement admitting that he had killed Kim O’Neal two weeks earlier. He was being held at the Camp Arifjan confinement facility near Kuwait City in a shipping container with a cot inside and a hole cut out for the window. Friends had alerted military police to Kim’s affair with someone named Archie, and they homed in on O’Neil. “I love you,” he had written to his wife before making the confession to investigators. “I would give my life in order to preserve yours.”
Fourteen months later O’Neil faced court-martial proceedings at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps’ biggest West Coast base. Lieutenant Commander Gerald Donovan, a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist with the offices of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Rockville, Maryland, testified that he diagnosed O’Neil with post-traumatic stress disorder. Donovan told the jury panel of marines that a variety of different traumas—childhood abuse, witnessing violence, being in an accident, or exposure to dead bodies—could lead to PTSD. Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can be so vivid that the person feels as if the trauma is happening again and struggles not to think about the event. “They can just have a constant sense of feeling on guard, feeling threatened,” he said. “We use the term ‘hypervigilance.’ ”
Donovan did not, however, conclude that PTSD was what caused O’Neil to kill his lover. To use PTSD as the sole defense, O’Neil’s lawyers would have had to prove that he was mentally incompetent, and an evaluation had concluded he wasn’t. (“If he had thought Kim O’Neal was an Iraqi insurgent, they could have had an insanity defense,” Jonathan Strasburg, one of O’Neil’s prosecutors, tells me.) Even so, the defense hoped the jury would at least see O’Neil as a hypervigilant veteran who responded impulsively when he thought Kim O’Neal threatened his family. This could have resulted in a verdict of involuntary manslaughter, but the jury panel found O’Neil guilty of premeditated murder, adultery, and unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon. Because of the military justice system the jurors were obliged to sentence him to life in prison, with or without the possibility of parole, but they couldn’t agree on either of the legal sentences, deeming them “too harsh.” They recommended sentencing O’Neil to 30 years instead, prompting the judge to declare a sentencing mistrial.
In May 2006, in a small courtroom with a view of Camp Pendleton’s lush hillsides and red tile-roofed buildings, a new panel convened to hear evidence. After two years in the brig, O’Neil appeared to have shrunk inside his crisply pressed uniform, his trousers gathered at the waist under his belt. He spoke to his lawyers in a soft murmur. “He would see me in court, and he’d say, ‘Good morning, sir.’ And I’d kind of think it odd that he’d be greeting his prosecutor like that,” Strasburg remembers. O’Neil was in his 15th year with the marines. He was the recipient of 13 medals as well as numerous commendations and ribbons, among them four good conduct medals. A superior officer described him as a “model” and “extremely selfless” marine.
Proceedings lasted a week. The jury did not hear of a plot O’Neil was said to have concocted from inside the brig to have the judge and five witnesses killed before this second sentencing hearing; the informant who reported the remarks committed suicide before he could testify. “Obviously, when someone gets put in the brig and you’re found guilty of premeditated murder and you’re staring, you know, down the barrel of life in prison, all control had been removed from him,” says Strasburg. “And I think this somehow empowered him, or psychologically made him feel better, to think he was in some way reasserting control of the situation.” O’Neil’s lawyers offered PTSD as a mitigating factor for the jury to weigh when deciding his penalty. The panel’s decision: life without the possibility of parole.
The California penal code allows civilian judges to order veterans into treatment if they can prove they committed their crimes because of PTSD, but the law only applies to nonviolent offenses. As the doors of the army’s Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, prison closed behind O’Neil, whether he could be rehabilitated may have ceased being debatable. But not the question of whether he deserved to be. Did we owe him, a respected veteran soldier made unbalanced by war, any more than we would any other out-of-control philanderer who killed his mistress? Where does our obligation as a nation end when it comes to rehabilitation? Does it extend to a drunken spree, a punch in the nose, one bullet, two, or three?
A 59-year-old Vietnam veteran with mournful eyes and a metal plate in his face, John Keaveney has experienced PTSD and homelessness. He founded the organization New Directions, which operates out of two buildings on the Veterans Affairs grounds in West Los Angeles, and treatment facilities elsewhere in the city. New Directions’ van plucks veterans from the streets of downtown, but the nonprofit also takes them in when they’re referred by the VA or dropped off by distraught families tired of their drinking, their drug abuse, their repeated arrests. For the $35 a day per patient the VA pays it, New Directions tries to dry out vets, dispenses therapy for the PTSD that often underlies their self-destructive behavior, trains them to get along with others, assists them with legal problems, and helps them find jobs.
The program gives vets 21 days to become sober, then follows with in-patient therapy to cope with thoughts that send them spinning into panic and anger or plummeting into despair. Former troops learn anger management techniques, and some go through cognitive therapy to reframe their thinking. Counselors gradually expose them to sites and sounds that can conjure memories of their time overseas—helicopters, sand, and even on occasion the Persian-inflected sidewalks and restaurants of Westwood Boulevard. “There’s not another program like this in the nation,” Keaveney says, “not set up by a clinician but by someone who lived on the streets.”
Keaveney was born in Scotland—he still has an accent—and came to America as a teen. It’s difficult to picture him as a drug-addicted drifter. Sitting behind his desk in a corner of a refurbished WPA building, dressed in a brown pin-striped suit, satin tie, and wing tips shined to a military polish, he tells me he started using heroin to dull the fear that arose during the months he crawled through Vietnamese tunnels with explosives on his back. He spent time in jail on drug charges, then stabbed a guy in a bar fight and landed in a Georgia prison. “I didn’t know what I had. It was undiagnosed,” Keaveney says about his PTSD. “I had a lot of problems with anger.”
After being released, Keaveney returned to L.A. and continued to waft about before checking himself into the VA in 1981. “I could smell the human feces and the urine from the front door,” he remembers. He staged a hunger strike over the conditions and held a knife to the throat of an official trying to negotiate with him. A judge committed Keaveney to a program called New Directions. He sobered up, went to work as a janitor. The program ran out of funding, though, so Keaveney used $3,000 he’d saved and in 1992 started his own version of New Directions. Today it serves 230 or so patients at any given time and operates on a budget of $7 million a year.
PTSD was only recognized as an official psychological diagnosis in 1980. When Keaveney left the military, it was called “combat neurosis”—and before that, “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” No one thought to treat it. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its seriousness began to gather weight with the press and the public. Since then extreme PTSD-related crimes—cases involving the murder of wives, girlfriends, children, fellow soldiers, and the occasional husband—have made headlines. Grieving families quoted in the stories sound much like Monique O’Neil when, in her soft Texas drawl, she says of her husband, “You could tell when he came back he was not the same. You could tell he was dealing with some major mental health issues.”
New Directions’ clinical director, psychotherapist Monica Martocci, is slim with spiked hair and multiple silver rings. She’s 42, and her small office sits in another building off a corridor permeated with the smell of polished tile floors and institutional food. A Zen garden, decorated with candles and a plump Buddha statuette, perches atop a bookcase filled with diagnostic texts.
Martocci was brought in two years ago when Keaveney and others noticed that younger veterans couldn’t relate to the Korean and Vietnam vets limping around the VA grounds or sitting on the patchy grass smoking beneath the pittosporum and pepper trees. One look at the grizzled oldsters and they would head out the gates to hitch a ride on the 405 back to Palmdale or Long Beach or wherever else they’d come from. “Most of them don’t know why they’re here,” she says. “They don’t know why they’re addicts. They may know they have flashbacks and nightmares, but they don’t know it’s PTSD. When they get here and we start working, they start having some hope that their lives don’t have to be that crazy anymore.”
Since arriving Martocci has changed the rules. Hypervigilant vets who go to bed with their boots on, one foot holding the door shut against a nonexistent enemy, are allowed to pace the hallways rather than lie rigid and sleepless in their rooms. They can gaze at the building’s bubbling fish tank to calm down or even get permission to go outside for a quick cigarette.
“They’re a bit of a different breed. They’re younger, they maybe haven’t been on the streets, maybe haven’t been homeless yet, maybe haven’t lost as much as some of the older guys, but they’re doing it real quick,” Martocci says. “They’re losing their wives. They’re losing their families. They’ve lost their house. They may have friends or family they can still stay with—they haven’t exhausted all that yet—but it spirals pretty quick. And the severity of their drug use is a little different. It’s more meth and coke. It’s more wanting to stay up all night so they’re not having the nightmares and the flashbacks. With the older guys, it’s more heroin and crack.”
Martocci says it can take as long as a year to untangle the web of problems affecting her clients; one challenge is to distinguish traumatic brain-injury symptoms from PTSD, as the two can require different treatments. Along the way she often becomes frustrated with how difficult it is getting the military to acknowledge her clients’ diagnoses. “They say, ‘Well, these guys were already, you know, messed up before the military, so don’t try to blame it on the military—it’s not the military or combat trauma making them go around killing people.’ Well, bullshit,” she says. “They train them to do these things, so this is how they’ve been programmed. Then they come back to society, and we’re trying to tell them, ‘Everything you’ve been taught to survive, we’re now telling you is wrong. And everything that we as a society are telling you to do is what you were taught would get you killed.’ Meaning, having emotion, being compassionate, having feelings, slowing down.”
Archie O’Neil was about seven when his father left home, plunging the family into poverty. Living in Houston’s crime-ridden Third Ward ghetto, O’Neil helped feed his four siblings by recycling cans and mowing lawns. He was sexually abused by a relative (an incident he declined to discuss with psychiatrist Donovan). At age nine or ten he ran errands for a drug dealer until his mother whipped him all the way home and made him promise to stop. Though two of his brothers went to prison, Archie learned to stay out of trouble, becoming a high school football and track star.
By 18 O’Neil considered his greatest achievement the fact that he wasn’t dead. “I saw the pimps and prostitutes. I saw the extreme violence. I saw how people made money any way they could, whether it was carjacking a vehicle or anything to make money to eat,” O’Neil said during the first sentencing hearing in an unsworn statement. He joined the marines after a year and a half at community college. “I felt like I was on cloud nine,” he told the court. “I felt like my life was changing for the better. I had beat the streets of [Houston], and I was on my way to not just being a man but being a better man.”
O’Neil was his unit’s radio chief, a take-charge staff noncommissioned officer. During his first deployment his duties changed: In Umm Qasr he was picked because of his maturity to go from foxhole to foxhole, dig out dead enemies, prep them for burial, round up healthy ones, and march them to a POW camp as firefights erupted around them. O’Neil became depressed and robotic and angry, a sergeant major told the court. “It was like he was operating on an empty battery,” he said. O’Neil told Kim in an e-mail that he was practicing martial arts and meditation to calm himself. “I just came off major ass drama,” he wrote. “i gotta get it together before i get back to cali.”
Autopsy photos of Kim O’Neal show an attractive African American woman with high cheekbones, a generous mouth—a pleasant face. (The question would arise later whether showing these photos prejudiced the jury.) A life-size foam dummy was hefted into court to represent her body, but it looked more like a bizarre art installation, with yellow arrows depicting the multitude of entrance and exit wounds. Forensic pathologist and deputy medical examiner Steven Charles Campman couldn’t say for sure which bullet killed O’Neal. One gunshot penetrated the top of her skull and came to rest on the right side of her brain. Two others went through fatty tissue and muscle on her upper right arm and forearm. Another penetrated her belly in a downward angle, ending near her tailbone. Others went through her thighs and exited her buttocks. The doctor didn’t know which shot was fired first or whether O’Neal was “sitting, standing, or hanging upside down.” Blood loss and direct brain damage were probably what killed her.
To prove its case that Kim O’Neal’s murder was premeditated, the prosecution pointed out that months before the killing, Archie O’Neil had started asking his barber, Alfonzo Rushin, to get him a “throwaway gun”—a gun that didn’t eject bullet casings. (Casings can be used as evidence. The HK45 he used did leave casings.) Rushin, a former marine and veteran of the first Iraq war as well as the military’s missions in Somalia and Rwanda, had known O’Neil for a couple of years. He suggested to a superior officer, who was a customer, that he talk to O’Neil, because something was wrong. “He was normally happy, but his patience was short,” says Rushin. “He didn’t conversate anymore. He was grinding his teeth all the time. All the time. What happened was, she pissed my man off, and he snapped,” Rushin says about Kim O’Neal. “He can shoot hell out of a gnat’s ass a mile away. If he wanted to kill her, he could have given her one shot in the head.”
O’Neal had told a friend that her marriage was ending, that she had become attached to Archie and wanted a commitment he wasn’t giving. In his testimony, Donovan described Kim and Archie’s relationship as “deeply pathological…. It seemed to be a huge power struggle interspersed with sexual activity.” In a Fatal Attraction-style scenario, Kim told Archie that Monique was having an affair with her husband, Greg. She then tried to get Monique fired from the Camp Pendleton community center, where Monique was Greg’s supervisor. There was no affair. “A lot of things she set up to play my husband against me,” says Monique, who once counted Kim as a friend. “She was doing everything from sleeping in my house and eating my food to taking my son out and bonding with him.” One day when Monique was mailing a letter, Kim nearly ran her down with her Excursion. Monique tried to downplay it, but she was scared. At trial the defense offered a $25 receipt to show that two days before the murder, the O’Neils had changed their locks. Archie believed that Kim had copied their house keys.
One of the great challenges of treating PTSD is the raft of underlying issues that often go along with the disorder. “It’s not just post-traumatic stress. It’s not just a concussion or a traumatic brain injury,” says Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton. “It’s not just someone who’s recently lost a buddy. It’s a 21- to 22-year-old American whose brain is still in the process of maturing, who perhaps over these last several years has been deployed downrange three, maybe four times, has family issues, financial strain, has lost several buddies, has been exposed to the atrocities of war, has perhaps experienced numerous concussions, and may be having post-traumatic stress issues in adapting back to life on the home front.”
Sutton is director of the Department of Defense’s Centers of Excellence and the highest-ranking psychiatrist in the army. One of her goals is to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum for a presentation of the Philoctetes Project, in which actors portray Sophocles’ suicidal warrior, Ajax, and Philoctetes, who was abandoned by his fellow officers. After the presentation, a panel (one in Greenwich Village featured the widow of a Vietnam veteran, Sutton, and a West Point professor) would take questions from the audience. “People are drawn in because it’s safe for them. It’s 2,500 years ago, for gosh sake,” Sutton says. “But then you realize, ‘Oh, my soul, nothing’s really changed.’ ”
The Centers of Excellence was funded following the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal. Appalled by the neglect of wounded veterans, Congress appropriated $900 million for research into traumatic brain injury and PTSD and for improvements to existing programs. The VA’s disability system, for instance, hadn’t been overhauled since World War II, and the bureaucratic brick wall veterans have to knock down in order to obtain benefits only increases stress, so at New Directions and other veterans aid organizations, teams of lawyers help patients work through red tape.
But Monica Martocci worries that too many people are slipping through the system. “The stats that we have are high, but the reality is higher,” she says. “People aren’t reporting that they have PTSD. Individuals do not know they have PTSD, and it’s only going to get worse.” I ask her to introduce me to some of the veterans she’s worked with. I want to try and understand what they are going through. She tells me about Travis Hunt, who doesn’t show for a scheduled meeting in Martocci’s office. “That’s what happens to these guys with PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” she says. “They forget things. They write stuff down, then they lose the notebook.” When Hunt does finally show, I’m greeted by a slender 31-year-old man, his arms pocked with deep scars. Serving as a sergeant with the army’s 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, he took enemy fire every day in Iraq and once looked on as a pregnant woman blew herself up along with three young children and three of Hunt’s buddies.
He snorted Valium to settle his nerves. Nine months into his tour, Hunt sustained brain damage and massive shrapnel wounds from an improvised explosive device. He spent nearly a month in a coma. Back at his base in Killeen, Texas, Hunt took a crowbar to the head of the officer his wife, the mother of his son, had been sleeping with. A court-martial followed, and Hunt’s drug use worsened. “I just didn’t care no more,” says Hunt, his voice slightly slurred. He was going 80 miles per hour in Barstow when he crashed his Dodge Neon. “I wanted to die and everything,” he says, “then when the accident happened to me, I was happy to be alive.” It was only after someone broke Hunt’s jaw in a bar fight that he went to New Directions. “I decided I wanted my life back,” he says. But since the army maintains Hunt’s records don’t indicate his injuries were service related, he isn’t getting the disability payments he should be entitled to. So Hunt ended up moving north, closer to his son, and found a job at Lowe’s.
Chris Romine had been at New Directions for three months when I met him. Thirty-three years old, he is blue eyed with a comic-book-hero jaw, a dark widow’s peak, and thick upper arms—evidence of his Mr. Muscle Beach 2005 middleweight title. He angles his chair so that his back isn’t directly to Martocci’s office door. An elite soldier in Iraq, Romine talks about driving an armored Suburban and carrying an MP5 machine gun as part of the entourage protecting four-star General Tommy Franks, who had led the Iraq invasion. He says his PTSD came from the stress of daily air raids, from trying to spot the armed men disguised in burkas, from witnessing the carnage as medevac choppers brought back the bodies of soldiers hit by rocket-propelled grenades. Dysentery kept Romine out of commission for a week, and the buddy who took his route back and forth to Basra burned to death when his vehicle struck a mine. Romine saw his friend’s remains embedded in the seat after the SUV was towed back to base.
He tried numbing himself with Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker sold by the clamoring kids outside the base. He switched to smoking opium to avoid the brutal hangovers. “That’s what I did when I went on a mission,” he recalls. “And I was doing it when I came back, too. All the fear went away.” On his second tour Romine was attached to a Special Forces unit in Iraq. “We would go in in the middle of the night, all in our black gear, go in these guys’ houses, snatch ’em up, put a black bag over their head, and throw ’em in a vehicle and take ’em back to, I think it was the CIA guys,” says Romine. “There were rumors that they were being tortured and questioned.” He loved what he was doing. But like Archie O’Neil, who wrote to Kim that he had done “some very fouled f*cked sh*t” (exactly what fouled, fucked shit, O’Neil didn’t specify), Romine couldn’t square his values with his actions. “We’re snatching people up and killing people,” he says. “Nothing made sense.”
Somewhere along those dusty desert roads, Romine became addicted to Percocet, gulping 15, 20 pills a day. The drug use continued back home, where he was still enlisted, hoping to train for the Special Forces he had fought alongside. He was kicked out of the military once the army’s Criminal Investigation Command confronted him about marijuana use. An aunt helped him get a job checking oil well heads near Pismo Beach, but Romine began skipping work to hang around Lopez Lake with a shotgun and a bunch of ammo, teaching his cousin how to move down a hillside, combat style, shooting at the same time. “I was, like, gonna live like a madman in the hills, getting fucked up all the time,” Romine says. “I’m like, ‘If someone wants to come and fuckin’ chase me in the hills, we’ll see who wins, you know? ’Cause I got guns and knives. I can make explosives.’ ” He pauses. “Insane thinking pattern.” There’s another pause. Then he adds, with a touch of pride, “I could have done it.”
That was before detox and therapy and anger management. Living in transitional housing run by New Directions, Romine started getting his life back in order. He even enrolled in classes at Santa Monica College. After I first met Romine at New Directions, however, things fell apart when he placed second in a Mr. Muscle Beach bodybuilding contest this past summer. He left transitional housing, and rumors swirled at New Directions that he was drinking, taking steroids, and panhandling. Romine denies it all. “I wasn’t out going crazy doing drugs,” he says. “I went out and had a few drinks with friends.” But on July 16 he was arrested in Santa Monica for burglary and transferred to L.A. County jail on an old warrant for public drunkenness and then to Orange County because of an unpaid seat belt ticket. Less than a week later, released on time served, he got in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital for two weeks with a bruised liver.
Martocci wanted him to reenter detox for four months, but Romine wouldn’t. “They want me to go back to prison camp,” he says, noting that he’d lose four months of his GI Bill payments. Instead Romine got a room in a VA transitional housing unit, where he could stay for three weeks. He tells me he plans to rent an apartment. “He’s homeless,” says Martocci. “He’s in denial. It’s hard not to get emotional because of having to sit and watch it happen. Sometimes with PTSD they have to keep making bad decisions and keep coming back to see if you’re going to be there. It may take a few more run-ins with jail.”
After the murder, Monique O’Neil moved from Camp Pendleton back to Houston. The military had impounded the family’s computers, the van, and much of their clothing. Cut off from most of Archie’s benefits and forced out of her military housing (people were throwing rocks, she says), Monique was hurting for money. This year she moved to Virginia, where she coordinates programs for special-needs children. She and Archie had lived there before they relocated to California, and it’s almost as if she wants to start over at the point before her life disintegrated.
Monique was not oblivious to her husband’s philandering (according to prosecutor Strasburg, evidence showed Archie was involved with other women besides Kim O’Neal in the two years before the murder), but she was oblivious to that particular affair. Even had she not been, she most likely would have put up with it. “Every family has its share of dysfunction,” she says. “He was a great marine and a great dad. He was at all the games. He always tried to do his best.” She doesn’t go very far criticizing Kim O’Neal, either. “We were opposites,” says Monique. “She drank. She popped gum. She cursed. But I feel sorry for her, I really do. She was basically stalking me. But she didn’t deserve to die. Without a doubt, she was a victim. I want to grab him and say, ‘Look what you did.’ ”
She has seen Archie only once since he’s been at Fort Leavenworth. They didn’t discuss what happened in Deer Park. Monique talks to him about everyday matters when he calls. “There isn’t anything I can say that wouldn’t make him feel worse,” she says. “I tell him about how I burned the pizza.” He said to Monique that he’d like to talk to me about his PTSD for this article, but the prison doesn’t allow press phone calls or visits, and he didn’t respond to letters.
Last year a navy appellate court denied Archie O’Neil a new trial. That decision was affirmed this June by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Brian Mizer, O’Neil’s lawyer, now with the Alexandria, Virginia, office of the federal public defender, proclaims the case “the most error riddled” he’s seen during his ten years in the navy. A marine who sat on the second sentencing jury considered some PTSD sufferers to be malingerers, and Mizer believes the judge shouldn’t have nullified the first jury’s recommendation of a 30-year sentence. “The Marine Corps failed terribly at a time when the corps was reluctant to see PTSD as the serious illness it is,” says Mizer, who has offered to take the case pro bono to the Naval Clemency and Parole Board. “We know the effects that it can have,” says Mizer, “and the effects that it did have in Gunny O’Neil’s case.”
Whatever happens, Monique O’Neil says she still loves Archie. “He was my knight in shining armor. The man of my dreams. I wake up in the middle of the night, and he’s not there. It sounds stupid, but I would put my butt in his back, and he would wake up and say, ‘Get your butt out of my back.’ I miss that.” Monique believes Archie to be a good person who did a very bad thing. “Heaven forbid,” she adds, “that his experience in the military made him do it.”
Illustration by Guyco
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