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We Are Failing Our Veterans With PTSD: The Life and Death of Sonny Mazon

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 12:46 pm

When I spoke to his mother on the night of February 4, Sonny Mazon's body was still alive. In reality though, Sonny left this world a week ago when he hung himself in his prison cell and slipped quietly into a comatose oblivion. I was aware that Sonny had left the Army in the summer of 2010, but I long wondered about his adjustment to civilian life. No more.

He didn't get the help that he needed to heal the pain of his memories from Afghanistan, and as he withdrew from his friends and family he descended into an abyss of sadness. His relationship with his girlfriend had always been problematic, but it became violent. He hurt her badly in a fit of rage, was arrested for domestic abuse, and chose to end his life.

We shouldn't whitewash over the violence of his actions, but the context of his life story does help us to see his crime in a different light. I met Sonny Mazon when I took over our newly created infantry platoon in 2008. We were a Frankenstein's monster of a unit that was cobbled together from other platoons, but before long we had become something special. Privates like Sonny were a huge part of that.

Sonny had a magic touch as a gunner and we all took immense pride in his skill and courage. Our platoon would eventually become one of the most decorated small elements in the 101st Airborne Division with two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star Medal with Valor, and four Army Commendation Medals with Valor on top of a smattering of Purple Hearts and other awards. Mazon saw plenty of action in those firefights, but ultimately it was the mission that he didn't go on that became a source of such pain for him.

On May 9, 2008 I gave Mazon a rest day while the rest of us went up into the mountains. When his best friend PFC Ara Deysie was killed that afternoon, Sonny couldn't forgive himself for staying home. When he left the Army, he went to Veterans Affairs for help but nothing panned out. It might have been the long lines, the waiting rooms, or the bureaucratic nightmare of the paperwork, but Sonny never got the right counseling. Eventually Mazon's support network shrank to a handful of loved ones. So when even his friends and family became estranged from him, there was no safety net to catch him and he descended deeper into darkness.

The system continued to fail him after his arrival in prison. The media didn't bother to do any research about who he was or the origins of his violence, and so his name has been unnecessarily dragged through the mud by CBS Local Los Angeles. Worst of all, Sonny managed to hang himself on suicide watch. No one can say why a guard didn't stop him, but somehow he must have become a higher priority once he fell into a coma. As the doctors came to harvest his organs this weekend, there were four police officers assigned to guard the empty shell of his body. Heartbreaking.

The tragedy of Mazon's lonely battle with PTSD is that it was so avoidable. For all of our rhetoric of supporting soldiers with PTSD, there is a dense, bureaucratic labyrinth in between soldiers and the help that they need. The VA is far more effective at denying benefits than it is at providing useful services to people like Sonny. Of course, once someone enters our criminal justice system, we act as though they are no longer a person.

Our two-faced politicians are eager to curry favor with religious communities, and yet none of them will stand up for the dignity of prisoners as human beings. Instead, our society tosses people like Sonny into the garbage heap of life. That's part of why we have so many homeless veterans, veterans who can't find jobs, and veterans who are lost in a maze of pain and don't know the way out. This is unacceptable.

When I look at the hollow-eyed mug shot of Sonny that peers at me from the police blotter report, I hardly recognize him. When I think of Private Mazon, I remember a hot July afternoon in Afghanistan when my platoon unloaded a few thousand cases of water into shipping containers. By evening the boys were getting loopy, and we started a huge water fight to let off some steam. Sonny and I ran around like children in our uniforms and poured water bottles down shirts, into pockets, and on heads. The dust of the day gummed up our hair, and in the softening light I have a distinct memory of Mazon's dirt-smudged smile. Sonny, wherever you are, I hope that you have found a bit of that joy again, and maybe a release from your pain.