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A 9-Year-Old Witness|
It was a little before dawn on Feb. 20, 2006, in a bedroom in Edwardsville, Ill. Carol Trevino and her 9-year-old son, sleeping deeply after watching “Wayne’s World,” were startled awake by a series of booms. “What was that?” Carol Trevino asked her son.
In seconds, Sgt. Jon Trevino, her estranged husband, barged through the door, according to a police report. Mrs. Trevino had just enough time to reach for her pepper spray before he shot her five times, the last time in the head. Then he shot himself.
Their son, wide-eyed, sat in bed watching his life explode, bullet by bullet.
Few details escaped the boy’s notice. His father used a silver gun and it “didn’t have a wheel on it, like the cowboys used,” he told the Edwardsville police. The boy could even name the precise time of his mother’s death: 4:32 a.m., as the glowing clock read.
Outside in Mr. Trevino’s car was the immediate motive for the murder-suicide: divorce papers, evidence of a marriage destabilized by multiple deployments to war zones and by Sergeant Trevino’s own increasing instability.
T. Robert Cook, his brother-in-law, said he believed Sergeant Trevino’s domestic violence was triggered by his combat trauma. “I’m 100 percent sure it was the war,” said Mr. Cook, who is raising the Trevinos’ son along with his wife, Cheryl Lee, who is Carol’s sister. “I don’t have any doubt their marital problems placed a burden on him, but I am quite sure that, but for the war, he would have taken a different approach. When you see people being shot every day, death is not a big thing.”
Sergeant Trevino, who had endured childhood sexual abuse and a difficult first marriage, suffered psychiatric problems long before he was dispatched to war zones to perform the highly stressful job of evacuating the wounded.
And the Air Force knew it.
Air Force mental health records show that Sergeant Trevino, who was 36, had been treated twice for mental health problems before the war: once in 1995 for serious depression as his first marriage crumbled, and then in 1999 for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the childhood abuse and marital problems with his new wife, Carol. He was counseled and treated with medication both times.
As a result of these problems, the Air Force insisted that he secure a medical waiver for a promotion that he sought to become an aeromedical evacuation technician. And military doctors certified that he could handle the job, despite research that shows that pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder is exacerbated in a war zone.
Col. Steven Pflanz, a senior psychiatrist in the Air Force, who was not involved in the Trevino case, said the Air Force considered the stress disorder to be treatable and therefore was willing to deploy an airman with a history of it. But the decision is not taken lightly, he said.
“It’s not an exact science,” he said. “You try to make your best prediction. We spend a lot of time with our customers.”
In Sergeant Trevino’s case, the prediction was wrong. He had trouble shaking off the carnage that he experienced so viscerally while evacuating injured service members. After one deployment to Afghanistan and two to Iraq, his mental health and his marriage deteriorated. When he returned from his second tour in Iraq, Sergeant Trevino acknowledged in a health assessment that he had “serious problems” dealing with the people he loved and that he was feeling “down, helpless, panicky or anxious.”
The Air Force acted quickly. He was abruptly restricted from “special operational duty.” An Air Force doctor diagnosed “acute PTSD,” calling it a reaction to the war and marital problems. Sergeant Trevino began taking a cocktail of antidepressants and underwent therapy. According to doctors’ notes, he did not express thoughts of homicide or suicide. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, he was considered well enough to be deployed domestically.
But his wife’s family, which had taken him under its wing, found the once affable, quick-witted sergeant to be profoundly altered. His temper flashed unpredictably, white-hot. He acted threatened and paranoid, his behavior so erratic that he frightened his son. One late night, he took his son on a rambling drive to nowhere, ranting to the boy about his mother.
At least one time, he struck his wife. A friend gave Carol Trevino the pepper spray that she reached for the night of her murder. But she never considered his abuse serious enough to report him to the authorities.
Four days before the murder-suicide, Sergeant Trevino bought a gun.
“This is just one of those things that unfortunately happens,” he wrote to his son in a suicide note. “I love you, and I know I let you down.”
The Pentagon task force had one overarching recommendation: that the military work hard to effect a “culture shift” to zero tolerance for domestic violence by holding offenders accountable and by punishing criminal behavior.
There was, members believed, a core credo that needed to be attacked frontally: “this notion that the good soldier either can’t be a wife beater or, if they are, that it’s a temporary aberration that shouldn’t interfere with them doing military service,” as Dr. Campbell put it.
The way the military handled several cases involving the deaths of babies and toddlers indicates that this kind of thinking has been difficult to demolish at a time of war.
In October 2003, four months after Jose Aguilar, 24, a Marine Corps sergeant, returned from the initial invasion of Iraq, his infant son, Damien, wound up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital with bleeding in his brain and eyes.
Sergeant Aguilar, a mechanic based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, acknowledged to the local police that he had been rough with the 2-month-old baby, shaking Damien to stop him from squirming during a diaper change. He said that he had been abused himself as a child and that he did not mean to hurt the baby.
After the marine was charged with felony child abuse, he and his wife completed a parenting program.
The following summer, while the felony charge was pending, Sergeant Aguilar was deployed once more to Iraq, this time for nine months. His court case was delayed, which did not surprise local prosecutors.
Michael Maultsby, the assistant district attorney in Onslow County, N.C., who prosecuted Sergeant Aguilar, said that such frustrating delays in justice sometimes occur in his county, home to Camp Lejeune.
“It depends on the needs of the unit,” Mr. Maultsby said. “We can’t overrule them.”
In April 2006, a year after Sergeant Aguilar returned from Iraq but before his felony case was resolved, Damien, who by then was 2, died of a brain injury. His father claimed that the boy had been injured by a fall in the bathtub. The medical examiner disputed that explanation. The marine was arrested, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and felony child abuse, and was sentenced last fall to 28 to 35 years in prison.
Marine officials would not comment on individual cases. Elaine Woodhouse, a Marine Corps social services program specialist, said that “the family advocacy program does not recommend or advise deployment of a marine when domestic or felony child abuse charges are pending.” Still, that decision, she said, is left to the discretion of the commanders.
A conviction for domestic violence, unlike pending charges, almost always renders a service member ineligible to go to war, but that restriction has not always been considered binding, as is clear in the case of Sergeant Terrasas, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton.
One night in late December 2002, Sergeant Terrasas, drunk and angry over a telephone conversation about the looming war in Iraq, vented his anger by punching his wife, Lucia, in the face.
“He seemed to just lose it,” Mrs. Terrasas told the police in Oceanside, Calif., who arrested him on misdemeanor charges.
But Sergeant Terrasas was deployed to Iraq before his case was heard. It was not until his return seven months later that he pleaded guilty, was placed on probation and was ordered to complete a 16-week batterers intervention program run by the Marine Corps.
Sergeant Terrasas attended a few classes. But the Marine Corps, facing a runaway insurgency in Iraq, pulled him out of the batterers program and shipped him off to war for a second time in early 2004.
This deployment was illegal. A 1996 law bans offenders who are convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from carrying firearms, with no special exception for military personnel. The ban is referred to as the Lautenberg amendment after its sponsor, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey.
Army and Marine regulations, formulated in response to the weapons ban, explicitly prohibit deployments for missions that require firearms, and extend the policy to felony domestic violence offenders, too. The Marine Corps would not comment on Sergeant Terrasas’s deployment, citing confidentiality rules.
When Sergeant Terrasas returned from war, he completed his batterers program, said his lawyer, Philip De Massa. But his anger, tested by two tours in Iraq, still surfaced. In September 2005, when the police responded to a domestic argument, he broke down crying and told one officer that he suffered from “postwar traumatic syndrome.” There is no record that he sought or received mental health help.
Nearly two weeks later, the Terrasases’ 7-month-old son, Alexander, died from a powerful blow to the head. Mr. Terrasas was charged with murder. Last August, after a deal with prosecutors, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for felony child endangerment.
He never admitted to abusing his child.