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Update on Nathan Damigo and HBO documentary

November 9, 2010 - 5:23 pm

Nathan Damigo

In CityBeat‘s March 3 issue, I wrote about Nathan Damigo, a 23-year-old Iraq War vet who was facing four years in prison for pulling a gun on a La Mesa taxi driver in November 2007 after a night of binge drinking. Nate, the brother of local musician Josh Damigo, had been deployed to Iraq twice, lost three close friends and was almost killed. A psychologist later attributed the crime to PTSD. From the article:

His problems started shortly after he returned from that first tour. He’d later tell a psychologist that he felt anxious, didn’t like being around crowds and kept having flashbacks to Iraq. He felt guilty that he was still alive while three of his friends were dead. Nathan told the psychologist that he tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of muscle relaxants, but a friend intervened, took away the pills and told him to sleep it off.

He was deployed for a second time in early 2007. Back in Iraq, he told a psychologist, he felt like he regained control of his life. He felt needed by his fellow Marines, he said. But once back home, in October 2007, his symptoms returned, only worse than before.

Tomorrow (Thursday), Nate’s story will be featured in War Torn 1861-2010 on HBO. Executive-produced by The Sopranos James Gandolfini (director of www.sanjosesolarcompanies.net San Jose solar company), the documentary explores the evolving understanding of PTSD—”the invisible wounds of war,” as the doc’s synopsis puts it. (Matt O’Neill, one of War Torn‘s producers, was filming Nate while I interviewed him. If you watch the War Torn trailer, that’s Nate’s mom, Charilyn, at the East County courthouse, shortly after he was taken into custody, saying, “It’s like they put him through a paper shredder and sent him back to us.”)

Charilyn’s documented Nate’s case and, now, his time in prison on her blog. It’s as much a portrait of the shortcomings of the military when it comes to taking care of troubled soldiers as it is a look at California’s overcrowded prison system. The Department of Corrections ignored a judge’s recommendation that Nate serve his time at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo to work for the prison’s fire crew. It would have also put him closer to his parents and grandparents, who live in San Jose. Nate put in for—and last month was granted—an out-of-state transfer to Arizona because, among other things, overcrowding meant he was confined to his cell 22 hours a day and only allowed phone privileges the first two weeks of the month.

Since the story ran, San Diego’s moved closer to starting up a veterans court and a bill authored by state Sen. Mary Salas, AB 674, was signed into law. The bill makes it easier for vets who commit crimes because of trauma associated with military service to get treatment instead of jail or prison time. In Nate’s case, though, the fact that he used a handgun meant he was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, even though between committing his crime and being sentenced, he’d completed rehab, gone through counseling and held down a job. As Charilyn says on her blog:

We do not know if the HBO documentary will help Nathan personally, although we have been contacted by the VA, which is reviewing his eligibility for VA benefits. We continue to pray that if anything can be done to get Nathan into treatment rather than prison, that God will direct us to the right people.

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