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As trial looms, Marine Corps takes some blame in Tampa DUI death

TAMPA — The Marines made Scott Sciple a combat officer and war hero. Did they also help make him an inmate of a jail psychiatric ward, awaiting trial for drunken-driving manslaughter?

The Marine Corps takes the blame for standing by and letting it all happen.

The 38-year-old captain had survived four combat tours since 2003. One of several close-range explosions had blown a hole in his right arm and caused him to almost bleed to death. He wore three Purple Hearts for wounds and a Bronze Star for valor. A Marine Corps summary of his heroic acts under fire is 19 pages long.

He had acted strangely for months. He was in pain from his arm wound and plagued by flashbacks and memory loss. He ducked company, drank alone, often walked in his sleep. He went out to buy sunglasses in San Diego and found himself in Mexico.

Still, the Marines declared him neurologically sound, fit for full duty and ordered him to report in April 2010 to MacDill Air Force Base for a classified office assignment. Soon after landing in Tampa, Sciple drove drunk and killed someone. He could face years in prison.

Sciple's DUI manslaughter trial is scheduled to start Sept. 12.

His defense will include a starkly candid, 860-page report on the accident by the Marine Corps Central Command released on Friday. Sciple should never have been sent to Tampa, concluded the report, signed by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.

Sciple was and is mentally incapacitated, incapable of making decisions, the report said.

"Had Capt. Sciple been referred and treated in a timely manner," the report said, "it would have broken the chain of events leading up to his accident and his arrest for DUI manslaughter."

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet has already said he will not allow a trial of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "Purple Hearts have nothing to do with this case. This isn't about heroics."

But the two wars and the military's treatment of its wounded will be centerpieces of an insanity defense, said John Fitzgibbons, Sciple's attorney.

Fitzgibbons calls Sciple and the man he killed "casualties of war."

• • •

Sam Sciple believes his son's mental illness began with a horrific event eight years ago.

Sciple was recently graduated from Colorado State University, earning a degree in wildlife biology, but hoping to become a Marine pilot. High blood pressure kept him out of planes, but not out of the infantry. He was commissioned a second lieutenant just in time for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the taking of Baghdad.

He was about to learn what "fog of war" really meant.

It occurred as Sciple manned a nighttime road barricade while thousands of Iraqis fled Baghdad. Sciple fired on a dump truck and mini bus that tried to run his checkpoint.

In the wreckage of the dump truck, Marines found a pistol and a soldier's blouse. But in the charred mini bus, they found four dead children. From behind the truck, the bus driver apparently hadn't seen the blockade.

Sciple helped dig graves for the children. He later helped exhume their bodies so their relatives could claim them.

"I believe," his father said, "it was the beginnings of Scott's PTSD."

A few months later, Sciple went home on leave to Alabama. His parents strung a banner in the yard and invited relatives to a welcome-home party. Sciple told them he wanted no party, and no questions about Iraq. They promised just a small celebration.

While the family waited at the airport, he called to say he had missed his flight.

Sciple crept into the house at 4 a.m.

Shortly after the leave, he made a cryptic late-night call from Camp Pendleton in California to a friend.

"The end is near," he told his friend. The alarmed friend called Sciple's father, who called 911.

A police unit failed to find the Marine. He told his dad to never call 911 again.

"Dad, your career is over when you let them know about some weakness," he had said earlier. "You've just got to suck it up."

• • •

Sciple returned to Iraq. He earned a nickname, "The Shrapnel Magnet."

From a citation for heroic acts on Oct. 28, 2004:

"Riddled with shrapnel, completely blown off his feet and temporarily knocked unconscious, 1st Lt. Sciple had the courage and presence of mind to remain calm under his mass casualty situation. Disregarding his own injuries, 1st Lt. Sciple led his platoon to repel the enemy ambush. . . . His actions saved the lives of multiple wounded Marines."

From a citation for heroic acts on Nov. 8, 2004:

"Disregarding his own life-threatening injuries, 1st Lt. Sciple guided heavy machine gun fire into a position that would best relieve the pressure of his pinned unit and also allow the medevac of his two other casualties. . . . Even after a great loss of blood, 1st Lt. Sciple continued to lead his platoon until ordered by the company commander to be evacuated."

For all that, Sciple was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.

• • •

In 2006, he was sent to Afghanistan. IEDs struck his convoys seven times. A rocket exploded 30 meters from him. He managed to complete 80 combat patrols — including being mistaken for an "unfriendly" by an overhead drone — with one "minor" wound.

And then, he rotated back to Iraq, where he began his fourth, final, fateful tour, suffered his worst injury and won his third Purple Heart.

In June 2009, Sciple was writing e-mails in an office when a rocket crashed through the roof and sent him airborne. He flew over his desk, into a wall. The blast laid his right arm open. He could see bone, tendons and nerves. Blood spurted from an artery. Marines saved him with a tourniquet.

A sandstorm delayed his evacuation. One officer thought he had bled to death.

Later, out of his head after surgery, he tried to remove his sutures with his Swiss army knife.

When his parents caught up with him at a Naval hospital in San Diego, they were shocked that doctors were ready to release him.

"Scott was in a wheelchair with literally a large brown grocery bag full of oral medication," his father said.

His parents helped him move into Bachelor Officers Quarters and later took him to dinner. The next day, he couldn't remember most of the evening.

Some weeks later, Sciple called his father to say he'd gone out for sunglasses and somehow gotten lost. It turned out he was in Mexico. He had passed through Border Patrol twice. He remembered nothing, his father said.

• • •

Bouts of memory loss will be a key part of his insanity defense. The Marine report and a defense psychiatrist call them "dissociative episodes," a medical term for breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity and perception. They said PTSD and traumatic brain injury triggered them.

Sciple told investigators he could remember almost nothing from the DUI accident in Tampa.

He told police he recalled going out in the evening to buy Skoal and beer. He remembered getting lost, getting out of the car and trying to orient himself by the moon. He said he couldn't explain how his blood-alcohol level spiked to three times the legal limit, or how he ended up on I-275 near Bearss Avenue, driving north in the southbound lanes.

He didn't remember getting belligerent with paramedics trying to help him before he learned the other driver, Pedro Rivera, 48, was dead.

Sciple wasn't charged with DUI manslaughter until August. But in July — a month before he was charged — police found him stumbling through a neighborhood at 3 a.m. after a woman reported someone breaking a window, trying to get in her home. He was drunk.

Sciple said he had no idea how he got there or how he got drunk. The last thing he remembered was going to bed at 11 p.m. A sympathetic officer drove him back to his apartment. Finding an open 12-pack of beer, the cop warned Sciple not to mix medicines with beer and left.

The judge never heard about it. Prosecutors didn't mention it when he was set free on $25,000 bond.

Then last May, Sciple drank enough beer to fall off a bicycle at MacDill. The incident was reported to Sleet. The judge revoked Sciple's bond and jailed him. For the next two months, the Marine was held in solitary confinement on suicide watch.

"I find it hard to believe brain injuries could cause him to get drunk and ride a bike," the judge told attorney Fitzgibbons.

• • •

Gen. Waldhauser suspected otherwise. He ordered his reserve commander, Col. John Crook, to investigate Sciple's entire service record, his medical history and the DUI accident.

The report listed 114 medical prescriptions for Sciple issued between June 2009 through April 2010. They included the narcotic painkillers oxycodone and morphine, plus Neurontin, a nerve pain medication that the FDA warns can cause depression and suicidal thoughts.

Yet his medical record, the report said, "reflects no limited duty status."

His medical records did note a diagnosis of a "possible but not likely" neurocognitive disorder while Sciple was treated in San Diego. He never got a neurological workup. A psychologist recommended "phone monitoring."

He was sent only to a stop-smoking class.

• • •

The report's most damning finding:

"This investigation reveals a disturbing vulnerability in the support we provide our combat veterans suffering the invisible wounds of PTSD. It is folly to expect a wounded mind to diagnose itself, yet our Marines still depend on an anemic system of self-diagnosis and self-reporting that is susceptible to denial and the fear of revealing a career-defeating stigma. . . .

"The Marine Corps warrior culture suppresses self-disclosure of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other forms of 'invisible' mental or psychological trauma and stigmatizes those that suffer from their symptoms and effects."

Sciple is one of 313,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that the Veterans Administration says it has treated for mental health problems. About 20,000 returning veterans of the two wars have been discharged for behavioral problems labeled "failure to adapt." Almost 300 have committed suicide.

Fitzgibbons said the report could help thousands of returning veterans. "To their credit, the Marines made this report public, and it confirms what we said from the beginning, that this tragic accident was not Capt. Sciple's fault."

A jury will have to balance the Marine Corps' self-indictment against Sciple's personal accountability.

The night of the accident, the Marine called his father from St. Joseph's Hospital to tell him he had killed a man.

Sam Sciple — who had always feared a knock on the door by a chaplain rather than a phone call from his son — described the moment in a personal journal. He said his hands shook as he listened.

"I don't know why I wasn't killed any of the times I was wounded," his son said. "I wish I had been.

"At least it would have been honorable. And an innocent man wouldn't be dead."

John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.


Excerpts from a summary of findings and recommendations signed by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command:

• The Investigating Officer has established by a preponderance of the evidence that Captain Sciple was incapable of making fully informed cognitive decisions; i.e., he was and is mentally incapacitated to some extent. There is substantial evidence that Captain Sciple has been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and the compounded effects of his medication, with and without alcohol consumption, from which he experienced multiple disassociate episodes (memory loss, sleep walking, blackouts) as documented in his medical records and witness statements.

• Navy health care providers and Captain Sciple's chain of command reasonably should have known the substantial risks associated with deferring to the patient's desire to return to the fight while disregarding the clear evidence of repeated trauma and compounded wounds Captain Sciple sustained. As apparent in this case, a screening system dependent on full disclosure by the patient is a flawed system.

• This investigation is forwarded for further review by Marine Corps leadership and Navy medical experts and administrators to examine the issues the Investigating Officer has noted. . . . This may include the effectiveness of screening, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment for PTSD, Traumatic Brain Disorder, alcohol dependence, and other "invisible injuries" by Navy medicine and the Marine Corps.

• I also direct the Marine Corps Forces Central Command (MARCENT) Chief of Staff (to) confirm and/or implement sufficient screening measures and effective support resources for "at risk" Marines attached to MARCENT, with careful attention to Marines with documented exposure to traumatic experiences being processed for deployment.

As trial looms, Marine Corps takes some blame in Tampa DUI death 08/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 28, 2011 1:44pm]
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