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A Mother’s Struggle for Justice: How Failed Systems Jailed My Son Steven

Colonel Gregory Hapgood, Iowa National Guard, Steven Jordal, Nicole Shumate, executive director, Paws & Effect, a non-profit organization that trains service dogs, including dogs for Iowa veterans with PTSD. http://paws-effect.blogspot.com

JUSTICE now holds a whole new meaning for me, a small town Iowa mom. I always have believed in right and wrong and was totally naïve to how things really work. Both my military sons, Army Combat Infantrymen, had plans after their service to be in law enforcement. But for the older of them, Steven, a wounded, two-tour honorably discharged Iraq combat veteran, this dream will never become a reality after spending 635 days in a county jail. If my son would have been taken care of like he should have, when he should have, he, and we his family, would not be where we are today.

Iraq changed my son and my family. Steven came back from war with “Invisible Wounds” - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Even after he was documented to have sustained a head injury, he continued to serve and was in numerous explosions after that. When Steven came back from his first deployment we noticed changes. He came right from the desert to the airport in Minneapolis in his desert dusty camo and boots. We stopped at the Mall of America for a meal and to get clothes. During the two hour ride home Steven said, “They told me it would be like this.” “What?” we asked. He said, “I can’t shut it off. While in the mall I couldn’t stop looking at people’s eyes, where their hands were, if they had bulges and now I can’t stop looking at the sides of the road.” He had never owned a gun in his life, and yet on his “R & R” he had to go buy one.

When Steven came home after his second tour, he was withdrawn and didn’t want to talk to any of his family, including his wife. He didn’t want to go outside their home to eat or go to a movie. He wanted to stay home and play Halo all the time with his battle buddies. He didn’t sleep and when he did, he had nightmares. He had very little tolerance or patience and snapped at the smallest things.

In addition to the TBI and PTSD, Steven also had injured his knee during the war; an MRI from a civilian hospital and report from an orthopedic surgeon stated he had a torn ACL. He finally had it operated on 15 months after the injury, but the Army only fixed the meniscus and refused to fix the ACL. After his surgery, Steven couldn’t run or stride out, crushing his dreams of passing the physical exam to become a police officer.

At one point a letter came in the mail saying Steven’s driver’s license was revoked due to speeding tickets. Steven didn’t have a speeding ticket prior to military service and yet 12 days after return from Iraq he had his first one, and racked up over $7,000 in speeding tickets that we have paid or found receipts for. I called him about it and his reply was, you don’t get it, the only time I feel alive is when I am going 160 miles per hour on my motorcycle, weaving in and out of traffic. I since have learned that the three most common items that a combat veteran buys upon return are a weapon, a motorcycle or a fast car. My son had all three, including multiple weapons and licenses to carry them in several states. After his second deployment, he would not be without a weapon.

His wife ended up leaving him and filing for divorce. His oldest brother and I took turns calling him and on one particular phone call he said to me, “What is this? Suicide prevention?” I said, “You bet it is, don’t you dare kill yourself!” I was sobbing the whole call. I found out afterwards, Steven started smoking marijuana every day to keep from killing himself. Imagine a mom reading reports that her son was playing Russian roulette and would hold a gun to his head, sometimes pulling the trigger, sometimes smoking a joint so he didn’t feel like pulling the trigger.

On December 22, 2008, Steven was arrested and jailed in Oklahoma City on one count of manufacturing an explosive device and one count of possession of a firearm. Our son was playing “GI Joe” in the woods of a friend’s parents, with permission, minding his own business and not hurting anyone, never intending to hurt anyone. A drug dealer with multiple convictions provided information against Steven in order to avoid prosecution. I’d learned in school that if you cannot afford an attorney, you’ll be provided one. But we found out that we were just a “docket number” in an overworked system that pushed for a quick resolution. A few weeks after Steven’s arrest the public defenders educated us on “Oklahoma justice”: “Come on vacation, leave on probation and come back for revocation.” They laughed and said, “Don’t you know you are in the Bible Belt?”

My son’s bond was originally set at $25,000 on the two counts. However, Steven had cooperated with the police after his initial arrest, and consented to searches of his car and home. His reward for cooperation was eight additional counts of manufacturing explosives and an increase in bond to $185,000. The additional counts were based on false affidavits that eight of the items seized at his home were documented explosive devices, when in fact most were legal fireworks and model rocket engines that could be purchased at any hobby store. Due to these stacked counts, Steven spent 635 days in jail, with no medical treatment for any of his war related injuries the entire time.

Our justice nightmare didn’t end with Steven’s incarceration. His car and much of his personal property were seized by police “as evidence.” We later learned that his car was sold by the storage garage in March of 2009. How can a car be evidence and then suddenly be sold? Important items of evidence, including the fireworks, were put in a hole and destroyed with a secondary device without any photographs, audio or video tape to preserve the evidence. We refinanced everything we owned to hire a team of attorneys, John Foley & Robert Mitchell, both of whom were from military families and former prosecutors.

After Steven’s incarceration, I got power of attorney and recovered all his records. I read reports of my son’s attempted suicide while still on active duty. I got a letter in the mail from the VA that he had been screened positive for TBI; I didn’t even know what TBI was. I spent the next almost two years not only fighting to get my son out of jail, but also in educating myself. I talked to so many doctors of every specialty, read every journal and article, attended classes, seminars, webinars, and served on panels with veteran advocates and networked with any families that I could find that knew something or were going through something similar. I came to realize that my son was injured in Iraq and not taken care of, and this was at the heart of how he came to be trapped in the justice system.

Finally, in September 2010, we took a plea deal to get Steven released so he could get medical treatment, as doctors told us he was deteriorating. Our son is now getting medical help for PTSD and TBI, as well as for his other joint injuries, vision problems, hearing loss, severe headaches…the list goes on. The worst, however, is dealing with his memory loss; he forgets to close the outside door even in winter, walks away when cooking and burns meals, or finishes cooking and forgets to eat. Steven did just get a service dog, Fieryo, and that has been a blessing. While he is learning how to re-imprint his brain, we are learning the “new normal.” We see glimpses of our “before the war” son, and I live for those little glimpses. Most of all, I live for the day when my son might volunteer to hug his mom, as I miss that the most.

My husband and I saw changes in Steven after the war, but we were not educated in signs and symptoms. We thought, of course he is changed, how could he not be? We don’t know what he saw or had to do. He was at war. We believed we just needed to give him time and space, not knowing that was the worst thing we could do. Now we are educated and because of that my husband and I have both become veteran advocates fighting to make changes for ALL our veterans. As our attorney Robert says, “It is a simple thing to say, ‘I support our troops.’ It is quite another to actually provide them with the support they need and deserve.”

Rhonda Jordal is the mother of Steven Jordal and had seven family members in this war including two sons. She is the Chairman of (FAVA) Family Alliance for Veterans of America, www.fava.westcare.com. She served as a consumer reviewer for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program for psychological health, PTSD & TBI, and sits on the Jail Diversion Trauma Recovery veteran representative panel. She has helped in the drafting of bills related to veterans in her home state of Iowa. She is working on a book, “A Living Death,” which documents what they went through those 635 days that Steven was in jail. A second book, “The New Normal,” starts with Steven’s release and describes what the family has been going through seeking all the diagnoses and treatments for their veteran. Rhonda can be reached at 641-585-5995 or jordal@wctatel.net.

Posted in Veterans & Justice