For months, Richard Suarez says he had been battling post-traumatic stress disorder that began during a nine-month combat deployment in northern Iraq and continued after he returned to Mandeville, La. in October, where his wife and four children noticed a troubling change in the Louisiana National Guard captain.
“I kept thinking, if I could just make it home, it would all be fixed, with my wife and my children, in my own bed, I could get some rest,” said the 39-year-old Suarez, whose problems began with sleeplessness when he and and his comrades were under fire from rockets and artillery. As a helicopter pilot, medication options were limited.
He went from fears that his children would never see him again and graduated to suicidal thoughts that they’d be better off without him.
But when Suarez woke up on Dec. 13, there was a terrifying change.
“A threshold had been crossed,” Suarez, who is now a patient at a mental health facility, said. “My heart was beating out of my chest, I was sweating, my hands were shaking… I just broke down, like uncontrollable weeping.”
But the panic attack was not the worst of what was to come that day.
As he and his wife, Morgan, prepared to leave for the VA Hospital in New Orleans in hopes he would be admitted, they stopped at a busy, crowded Mandeville shopping center where his wife wanted to drop off a Christmas package at a UPS store.
What followed, captured on cell phone video, has been widely circulated on social media. An angry, cursing Suarez is seen in the parking lot yelling at a woman driving a vehicle and then cold-cocking a stranger who scolded him for his behavior.
Suarez can be heard on the recording telling the man, “I can get violent with you because you’re a guy,” and “I will (expletive) crush you.”
His wife came out of the store and found him parked some distance way, shaking. She was afraid to make the drive to New Orleans with him, and ultimately his mother drove him to the VA Hospital where he was admitted.
That’s where Mandeville Police, armed with a warrant, came to arrest him and take him back to the north shore. He was ultimately booked into the St. Tammany Parish Jail on a felony count of second degree battery, and two counts of simple battery, two counts of simple assault and one count of disturbing the peace by language, all misdemeanors.
Margaret Burns, one of his lawyers, said he is scheduled to be arraigned in February.
The man he punched, Mike Pennington, had been at the shopping center that day trying to find out how to send gumbo to friends in Arizona. Pennington said he is healing but still has pain from the assault. His ribs were injured when he fell, making it painful to breathe, and he still has knot on his jaw.
Pennington can’t remember what happened immediately before he was struck but when he regained consciousness, people were standing over him, telling him not to try to get up. He was treated at a hospital and released with orders to rest for 10 days before returning to work as a chemist on the south shore.
Since the attack, Pennington said, he’s had problems sleeping. “My mind races. I’ve caught myself thinking about him, what had happened.” He declined to comment on Suarez’ claim that he has PTSD.
But the 60-year-old doesn’t regret stepping in because he says he thought Suarez was going to hurt someone.
“Everybody’s seen the film clips,” Pennington said. “He was aggressive.”
Suarez said he is also disturbed by what he sees of himself in that video.
“The things I was saying, it’s terrifying to me,” Suarez said. “Prior to this deployment, I would never had said something like that.”
When he went through demobilization, a process where service members are checked out physically and mentally before returning home, he says that he held nothing back concerning his thoughts of impending doom, sleeplessness and hallucinations. He said he was diagnosed with PTSD and put on a 90-day no firearms order. He was sent home and told to contact the VA.
“I did, over and over and over, begging for an in-patient appointment,” he said, but due to COVID restrictions, he was only able to get Zoom appointments.
“We knew it wasn’t going fast enough,” his wife said.
Suarez has since learned from his chain of command that others who were on the deployment have committed suicide.
Suarez, whose bond was set at $250,000, knows that he faces legal issues.
But he said he’s finally starting to get rest and treatment. And while this marked the second Christmas in a row that he couldn’t be with his family, “I also don’t want to die.”
He said he’s heard second-hand that Pennington is doing better and is expected to make a recovery. “I’m very thankful for that,” Suarez said.
Suarez said he decided to talk about what happened partly for the sake of his family, who’ve been subjected to a social media backlash and threats.
“There’s just more to this story than was being told — if not for me, for the next veteran…the 22 that commit suicide per day, I understand that now. I didn’t understand before, but I do now.”
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