Gilroy murder-suicide: The high emotional cost of combat

Posted: March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized
Posted:   03/16/2012 06:25:03 PM PDT
Updated:   03/19/2012 07:19:47 AM PDT

Like an untold number of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones, Mike Ergo found himself wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder. And while he says he never experienced the dark, desperate impulses that apparently overtook Gilroy’s Abel Gutierrez this week, he got close.

Police say Gutierrez, like Ergo an Iraq War veteran who has been treated for PTSD, shot and killed his 11-year-old sister before committing suicide. Authorities believe he also may have killed his mother, who has been missing since Tuesday.

“I’ve felt myself contemplating suicide before,” said Ergo, a Walnut Creek resident who oversees the Bay Area chapter of the support group Vets 4 Vets. “When I hear about events like what happened in Gilroy, it reinforces my belief that we need to do more for vets who return in addressing PTSD.”

PTSD, known in past wars as shell shock and combat fatigue, manifests itself in an array of symptoms that can include anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, irritability, social isolation, alcohol and substance abuse, flashbacks and nightmares.

Dr. Josef Ruzek of the Palo Alto VA Health Care System said there are three main types of symptoms.

“The first is intrusive thoughts,” he said. “A person is troubled by painful memories of what happened. Sometimes they show up in dreams. They also have a lot of physical tension and what we call hyperarousal — difficulty sleeping, concentrating. The final one isavoidance symptoms. They become more limited in emotional reactions, feel detached and disconnected from other people.”


Ruzek and Ergo, who was treated by VA doctors, say the VA provides the best treatment for those suffering from PTSD.

“I have experienced going through treatment a number of different ways,” Ergo said. “The VA is using treatment called prolonged exposure. It’s very intensive, recounting your biggest traumatic incidents over and over. If you can stay in that situation until the anxiety goes down a little bit, it retrains your body.”

PTSD also is a common side effect of traumatic brain injury, which has become the signature wound of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the widespread use of improvised explosive devices against American military personnel.

Mental health experts say incidents such as the one in Gilroy underscore how many veterans are returning home with unseen psychological wounds and haunting memories of the war. Shad Meshad, president of the National Veterans Foundation, believes PTSD is nothing less than an epidemic.

“I predicted a few years ago that there would be a tsunami of these kinds of cases,” he said. “It’s a repeat of Vietnam, but worse because of the multiple tours and the traumatic brain injuries. It’s a new day, and it’s just very sad.”

Rich Blake, a clinician at the Baltimore VA and a Marine Corps veteran, agrees that a lack of funding for diagnosis and treatment of PTSD “is going to lead to all sorts of problems down the road.” But he is loathe to draw a line between the condition and acts of violence.

“There are 2.3 million Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans,” he said. “Most of them do not have PTSD. And most who do don’t do things like this. It’s wrong to consider these terrible incidents an epidemic.”

“It’s important to point out that many people experience post-traumatic problems,” Ruzek said. “Almost none of them behave like Gutierrez.”

In an attempt to quantify the magnitude of the problem, the Rand Corp. estimated in 2008 that one in five veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — nearly 300,000 in all — had reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression. The Congressional Budget Office said in a February report that one in four recent combat veterans who had been treated at a VA hospital from 2004 to 2009 had a diagnosis of PTSD.

Anecdotal evidence tends to speak louder than data. There is enough of the former to paint a troublesome picture of affected veterans, both at home and abroad, unable to cope with emotions they have experienced in combat.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, suspected of killing 16 Afghanistan villagers this week, was suffering from stress related to his fourth combat tour, an anonymous official told The New York Times. The staff sergeant’s lawyer said Bales saw a comrade’s leg blown off the day before the rampage.

A recent New York Times study found 121 cases of recent U.S. war veterans being charged with homicides. Six of those came during a cluster of violent crimes committed in and around Fort Collins, Colo., from August 2005 to August 2008 by returning members of a brigade known as the Lethal Warriors.

Gutierrez’s family had been concerned he had been suffering from PTSD upon his return from Iraq and had even called police in late February to help because of his erratic behavior. When Gilroy police met with Gutierrez on Feb. 29, officers decided not to take him into psychiatric custody but referred him for help at the VA.

The problem of disturbed veterans is serious enough to have caught the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. It is funding a pilot program where police officers at 15 sites around the country, likely near military bases, will be taught this year skills to verbally diminish possible violent situations involving veterans.

“Police have always worked with people who have various mental disorders,” said Dennis Cusick, executive director of the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute in Minnesota. “Veterans pose a different concern because they are considered to be heroes. So we have to protect public safety and at the same time be cognizant of the sacrifices these people have made.”

“It’s hard to say how this is going to play out,” Ergo said. “Emotions compartmentalized during combat will eventually be experienced. It’s just a matter of when.”

Local veterans or active-duty service members can find help for mental health and PTSD symptoms at these agencies.

  • Menlo Park VA Mental Health Clinic. Call 650- 617-2772 to schedule an initial assessment.
  • Northern California VA. Call 800-382-8387 to schedule an initial assessment.
  • Information about the National Center for PTSD is available at

Rockin Pinups will be presenting Cruzin 4 Luv to benefit Vets4Vets. This benefit will help raise funds for Tucson’s Vets4Vets groups, and workshops. This event will be a car/bike show with a Sock Hop theme . There will be Live Music, Kissing Booth set up, Raffle Prizes, Prizes for the winners, with food and beverages. Please register your car or bike at 12pm, or just come out to show your support. We hope to see you there! Please review the flyer below for further details or call our office at 520-393-8302.

Tucson, AZ – October 17, 2011 – Precision Toyota will present a new 2011 Prius to Vets4Vets as part of the Toyota “100 Cars for Good” program on October 26th at 1pm at the dealership.

The Toyota “100 Cars for Good” program is awarding 100 vehicles over the course of 100 days to 100 deserving nonprofit organizations based on votes from the public. 100 Cars for Good engages the public to help determine how corporate philanthropic donations will be awarded.

Vets4Vets ( is a Tucson-based nonprofit 501C3 organization established in 2005. Vets4Vets enables veterans to interact with one another and provides an atmosphere for healing, camaraderie, and fulfilling actions to be taken.  This positive environment promotes recovery through the interactions between fellow veterans who have served.

According to Abel Moreno, Executive Director of Vets4Vets, and the Tucson 2011 40 under 40 Man of the Year, “This vehicle will be used to help assist veterans nationally by being able to drive to workshop venues.  Vets4Vets hold national workshops and this fuel efficient Prius will make the events easier to get to.  We will be able to cut travel cost to provide more peer-support workshops through out United States because of Toyota.  This car will allow us to pick–up our volunteers in the various locations around the country.  It is a privilege and an honor to accept this vehicle on behalf of the staff and the nationwide veterans we serve.”

In recognizing Vets4Vets, Precision Toyota wanted to further support their positive impact on the community.
“Precision Toyota has been proud to be a part of the Tucson community since 1954,” said Brett Maxwell, General Manager of Precision Toyota. “Throughout that time, we’ve supported the community in many ways.”

The Toyota “100 Cars for Good” program enables 100 organizations to receive a Toyota vehicle to make a greater impact on the community. Since 1991, Toyota has contributed more than $500 million to non-profit organizations, and has always been guided by a strong belief in serving the communities where it does business.  If you’d like to learn more, please visit

Precision Toyota to present a 2011 Prius to Vets4Vets as part of the Toyota “100 Cars for Good” program. The first Toyota initiative that engages the public to determine how corporate philanthropic donations will be awarded, the Toyota “100 Cars for Good” program is awarding 100 vehicles to 100 deserving nonprofit organizations based on votes from the public.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
1:00 pm

Precision Toyota
700 West Wetmore at Auto Mall Drive
Tucson, AZ  86705
Park in front of the new car building

Jason Scott, New Vehicle Sales Director, Precision Toyota
Abel Moreno, Executive Director, Vets4Vets

Photo Opportunity:
October 26th from 1:15-1:30pm

About Toyota
Toyota (NYSE: TM) established operations in the United States in 1957 and currently operates 10 manufacturing plants, including one under construction.  Toyota directly employs nearly
30,000 in the U.S. and its investment here is currently valued at more than $18 billion, including sales and manufacturing operations, research and development, financial services and design.
Toyota is committed to being a good corporate citizen in the communities where it does business and believes in supporting programs with long-term sustainable results. Toyota supports numerous organizations across the country, focusing on education, the environment and safety. Since 1991, Toyota has contributed more than $500 million to philanthropic programs in the U.S.

For more information on Toyota’s commitment to improving communities nationwide, visit

About Vets4Vets
Mission: Vets4Vets enables and cultivates a dynamic support community of, for, & by Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans that provides an atmosphere for healing, camaraderie, and fulfilling actions to be taken.
Workshops: Workshops create the environment for Vets4Vets’ mission to be accomplished. Frequent activities are held throughout the weekend to create a setting for healing to begin camaraderie to be experienced, and set the ground-work for fulfilling actions to be taken by veterans. Participating veterans initiate long lasting bonds as they experience a weekend full of camaraderie, respect, insight, inspiration, practical education, fun, relaxation, and invigoration.
Background: Vets4Vets was founded in 2005 by a Vietnam Veteran and an Afghanistan/Iraq Veteran. The program was created to utilize a simple model of peer support and enable veterans to heal from war experiences, experience camaraderie with fellow vets, and take positive actions in our lives.

For more information on Vets4Vets visit

About 450 community leaders, mentors and others gathered Thursday to honor Tucson’s 2011 class of “40 Under 40” winners.

The annual awards recognize young leaders in the Old Pueblo based on professional accomplishments, leadership qualities and community impact.

This year’s two top honorees were announced, too:

• Man of the Year Abel R. Moreno, 34, co-founder and executive director of Vets4Vets, a Tucson-based nonprofit that provides peer support and trains peer counselors nationwide to help the new generation of vets.

• Woman of the Year Katie Dabney, 33, principal of Vail School District’s Mesquite Elementary School, which has earned the highest attainable “excelling” label from the state for seven years, as well as an A+ rating twice from the Arizona Education Foundation.

All 40 honorees will be showcased in a special section in Sunday’s Arizona Daily Star, along with Mentor of the Year Linda Wojtowicz, senior vice president and chief operations officer at Tucson Medical Center.

The awards breakfast was held Thursday at the Doubletree Reid Park.

The Arizona Daily Star sponsors the 40 Under 40 awards along with the law office of Snell & Wilmer. The Star received 250 nominations for this year’s awards, which were judged by a community panel.

The University of Phoenix sponsors the Mentor of the Year award.

On StarNet: See photos and video at

Read more:

Vets4Vets will be hosting a FREE peer support workshop at Christ the King Spiritual Life Center, Greenwich, NY, August 10-12, 2012. This workshop is open to all OEF/OIF veterans  in the New York area. (If you are not an OEF/OIF veteran, however a veteran, and would like to attend this workshop, please call our office at 520-393-8302 to check availability).

All you need to do is fill out the Vets4Vets Workshop Registration Form and email it to

Unfortunately some websites are unable to download our Registration forms. Please email if you are having trouble downloading our forms and we will email the forms to you.

REGISTRATION FORMS MUST BE RECEIVED BY  July 26, 2012 !  Available seats will fill up quickly so get your forms in ASAP.

Once your form has been received, we will be in contact with you regarding the workshop details.

Again, the workshops are COMPLETELY FREE, which means your  lodging, food and activities are paid for. We want all returning veterans to be able to make positive connections with one another without worrying about the cost.

If you have never attended a Vets4Vets workshop before and would like more information before registering, please browse our website or email us at You can also post a question below.

Thanks, and we look forward to meeting you! Thank you for your service!

Vets4Vets Staff

Dear supporter,

Since 2005, Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans have been making a difference for one another utilizing Vets4Vets peer support model. It is a model that James W. Driscoll, Vets4Vets Founder, utilized to begin his own healing when he returned from Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Platoon Commander. He saw its promise and effectiveness in empowering a new generation of vets to deal with their war experiences.

We commend Jim for his vision and dedication in realizing his dream in having returning vets actively share war experiences with one another to promote healing, facilitate re-integration at the home-front, and take actions in their lives that positively impact what’s important to them (e.g. family, career, education, health, etc…).

We dutifully inform you that Abel Moreno has succeeded Jim Driscoll as Executive Director of Vets4Vets. Abel R. Moreno embodies the leadership of a Sergeant who honorably served two combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and seven years as an Army Paratrooper.

Vets4Vets is fulfilling on its vision of become a common name amongst veterans as a place where we can begin the healing process around war experiences and make positive connections with fellow vets.
All programmatic operations within Vets4Vets remain consistent and continue to grow. Logistically, our new mailing address and number is 596 N. Arizona Estates Loop, Tucson, AZ 85748, 520-370-2883.

Thank you for your support!


Vets4Vets Staff

Watch the video here.