Wife: Jailed Veteran Suffers PTSD and Mental IllnessSeptember 14, 2016 |
by Kelly Humphrey, Associated Press
VALPARASIO, Fla. —At 9:18 a.m. on April 9, 2015, Aaron Wanless sent an email to his psychiatrist’s office at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic at Eglin Air Force Base.
“This medication is killing me,” he wrote. “My brain is malfunctioning.”
At the moment he sent the message, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran was a fugitive, having spent the previous night eluding sheriff’s deputies following an armed altercation at his father’s house.
Shortly after sending the email, Aaron surrendered and was taken to jail, where he has remained for 17 months without bond as his case winds its way through the judicial system.
Under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in place at the time of his offense, Aaron faces the prospect of 85 years in prison without the possibility of parole — basically a life sentence.
That prospect terrifies his wife, Angela, who is desperate to find an alternative for her husband, whom she describes as “very, very ill” with post-traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar disorder.
“I’m trying to save my husband’s life,” she said. “He doesn’t belong in prison. He needs to be in a treatment center where can get the help he needs.”
‘He was going to die’
Aaron’s legal troubles began on the evening of April 8, 2015, at his father’s house on Yacht Club Drive. He’d moved in a few months earlier when his increasingly erratic behavior caused Angela to ask him to leave the home they shared with their two young sons.
According to an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office report, Wanless and his father, David, had argued over the whereabouts of a gun Aaron owned. Armed with four kitchen knives, Aaron reportedly threatened to slit David’s cats’ throats, and later do the same to David.
When deputies arrived at the scene, they found a distraught David in the front yard. Not long after, Aaron allegedly opened the front door to the house and discharged a 9 mm pistol in the direction of three deputies. None of the deputies was hit, the report said.
“Aaron was yelling he was going to die, and we were going to kill him,” a deputy wrote in the report. “He was flailing his arms around with the pistol in his grip.”
Disregarding the deputies’ orders to put down his gun, Aaron fled the scene, prompting the dramatic manhunt through nearby neighborhoods.
Deputies shut down parts of Beal and Eglin parkways for several hours while they searched for him. Businesses in the area were locked down, neighbors were evacuated, and frightened residents worried that a dangerous criminal was on the loose.
It was Angela who convinced Aaron to turn himself in. While he was at large, she and her children went to stay at her father’s house, and since Aaron didn’t have his cell phone, she wasn’t sure how to contact him.
It suddenly occurred to her to reach out to him via Facebook messenger.
“I posted the Bible verse from Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,’ “ she said.
Aaron had let himself into the couple’s Fort Walton Beach house and was using the laptop computer there.
“I love you,” Angela wrote at 4:56 a.m. on Aug. 9. “Please turn yourself in. It will all be ok. Our boys need you.”
“I’m ok,” Aaron responded at 8:27 a.m.
“Where r u?” Angela asked.
“I dunno know what happened, Angie…I’m so so so sorry…” was Aaron’s reply.
Angela called the Sheriff’s Office around 9:15 a.m. and told them where Aaron was. After exchanging several more messages with him, she convinced Aaron to surrender.
NOT THE SAME MAN
Although David Wanless refused to press charges against his son, because the incident could be classified as domestic violence, the state didn’t need his consent. The prosecutors chose to charge him with five felonies: one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, one count of aggravated assault by threat with fire-arm, and three counts of assault on a law enforcement officer.
According to his family members, the man who was arrested that April morning was not the same Aaron they know and love.
“David claimed the look on Aaron’s face ‘wasn’t him’,” a deputy wrote in the offense report.
Aaron’s older sister, Lluvia Melendez, agreed. In an email from her home in Atlanta, Melendez recalled how her brother had always been loving and kind to a fault.
“Getting the call from Angela (that night) … was unreal,” she wrote. “I thought there had to be some mistake. There was just NO way. Aaron was not a criminal, and always had the utmost respect for law enforcement.”
According to Angela, however, Aaron hasn’t been himself for at least six years.
“Aaron was always a happy-go-lucky kind of guy,” she said. “But his mental health began deteriorating severely around 2010. He had a hard time keeping a job. He had a hard time taking care of the children, he had a hard time in general. He would have panic attacks just asking for a glass of water in a restaurant.”
Angela said the couple repeatedly sought help for Aaron’s mental illness.
“I called the VA hotline, I called his doctors, I called his nurses,” Angela recalled. “We asked for changes in his medication. We asked for CT scans of his brain. Nothing seemed to help.”
On more than one occasion, Angela and Aaron asked that he be hospitalized. Those requests, Angela said, were re-buffed.
“One of his nurses told me, ‘That’s for us (the VA) to decide,’ “ she said.
In the months leading up to Aaron’s arrest, Angela said she began to fear for her and her two sons’ safety. Although Aaron had never hurt them, Angela said his periodic fits of rage and erratic behavior frightened her.
The changes in Aaron’s behavior were in stark contrast to the gentle man she met in 2004, Angela said.
The pair formed a close friendship that slowly blossomed into romance. Aaron invited her to come to church with him, Angela said, “so God could see my beautiful face.”
Two months after their first official date, Aaron asked Angela to marry him. For the first few years, they were happy.
Looking back, however, Angela remembers seeing troubling signs.
“There were times when he’d sleep for days,” she said. “He wouldn’t shower or change his clothes. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.”
Aaron had confided in Angela when they first met that he’d experienced depression. She and Melendez attribute it to a serious motorcycle accident he had while stationed at Patrick Air Force Base near Cocoa Beach in 2001.
“Several bones in his lower leg were shattered,” Melendez wrote. “For a while, doctors thought they may have to amputate his leg. Aaron was in rehab for months.”
Although he would go on to serve with his Air Force unit at ground zero in New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, by 2002, the military decided he was no longer fit for service.
A medical board issued him an honorable discharge after four years and 10 months of service. The loss of his military career devastated him, Angela said, and he would later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“He attempted suicide shortly after that,” she said. “It broke his heart to be out of the Air Force.”
Like many veterans, Aaron struggled to find the right combination of medicines and therapy to deal with his mental health issues.
“He’s been misdiagnosed and given the wrong medication repeatedly,” Angela said. “He’s paying the price for that now.”
LOOKING FOR ALTERNATIVES
The events of April 8, 2015, have had a disastrous impact on her family, Angela said. Pregnant at the time, she said the stress of the situation caused her to have a miscarriage.
The couple’s younger son, who is 3 years old, doesn’t understand where his father is.
“I told him Aaron is at work and can’t come home right now,” she said. “The other day he asked why Daddy liked working more than being with him.”
In her desperate effort to help her husband, Angela has done extensive research on the VA, mental illness and the legal system, and has established an online petition asking that Aaron be released to a treatment center. She believes his illness, and the fact that he had no prior criminal history and no one was injured in the incident, should make him eligible for some sort of diversionary program like Veterans Court.
So far, the legal system has failed to agree.
‘The system has failed him’
At a court appearance earlier this summer, Angela sat in the gallery as Aaron shuffled into the courtroom, his hands and feet shackled. The hearing lasted less than 15 minutes.
Afterward, as a bailiff escorted him out, Aaron turned toward Angela and smiled weakly in her direction. Silently, she lifted her fingers to her lips and blew him a kiss.
She realizes that what Aaron did was serious, she said, and knows that by speaking out before his trial, she is risking public scorn. After months of delays, separation and uncertainty, however, that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
“The system has failed him,” she said. “I can’t be silent any longer.”