Beyond the yellow ribbon: The tragic death of Justin Crowley-Smilek

Posted Wednesday, November 23, 2011 in News

Beyond the yellow ribbon: The tragic death of Justin Crowley-Smilek

Justin Crowley-Smilek

by Gina Hamilton

FARMINGTON — A young soldier lies dead, a family is in mourning. But Justin Crowley-Smilek was not killed on the field of battle, or even in a tragic accident during training. He was shot and killed last Saturday night by Farmington Police Officer Ryan Rosie, a young and new officer only on duty since June, who has not yet received training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.

Crowley-Smilek, 28, returned from duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan six years ago, honorably discharged because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Since then, Crowley-Smilek was on a rocky road. He had had several run-ins with the law, he had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (bipolar disorder) and continued to suffer from the effects of PTSD. Although Crowley-Smilek was well-known to the Farmington police, the young officer did not realize he was walking into a dangerous situation when Rosie left the police station to talk with Crowley-Smilek. 

Within seconds, Crowley-Smilek came at Rosie with a knife, and Rosie responded by shooting his assailant.

According to Chief Jack Peck, Rosie had been trained with the Taser he also carried, but made a split-second decision to use deadly force instead. “It happened within seconds. [Crowley-Smilek] confronted the officer with a knife and came at him,” Peck said. “The incident occurred so quick, he thought it was appropriate to use deadly force.”

The chief said Saturday’s fatal shooting is the first time his department has been involved in an incident involving the use of deadly force by an officer.

Eighty-six percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan vets have known someone who was either killed or seriously wounded in the war. Eighty-nine percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan vets have experienced being ambushed. Ninety-three percent have been shot at. Ninety-five percent have seen bodies that died due to violence.

And 18 percent come home exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These figures are according to the military's own handbook for families of returning vets, "Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Families of Military Personnel."

As a Ranger, Crowley-Smilek would have seen more than his share of traumatic events.

In 2005, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California introduced legislation to increase the amount of money set aside for diagnosis and treatment of PTSD among returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. It was killed by the then-Republican Senate. In the summer of 2007, legislation was passed that suspended the Pentagon's indiscriminate use of “personality disorder” as a rationale for discharging service members who might have been suffering from PTSD, sometimes before the patient was even diagnosed. From 2003 to 2009, over 22,000 service personnel were discharged for “personality disorder” — about 10 people per day during that period. This policy often had the effect of keeping veterans from visiting psychiatrists because the discharge efffectively kept them from receiving VA benefits, including mental health treatment.

Whatever the cause, PTSD has several common reactions:

1.  Re-experiencing. Sometimes, service members experience “flashbacks,” often triggered by sensory input … sights, smells, sounds … of the battle experience. A child crying, for instance, may take a soldier right back to the scene of an IED bombing.

2.  Avoidance and numbing emotions. Individuals with PTSD often go to great lengths to prevent recalling memories or discussing past experiences. They may use alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications to avoid thinking or feeling.

3.  Arousal. The service member may have difficulty letting his “guard down.” Sometimes service members describe feeling jumpy or easily startled. They might closely examine people or places to look for signs of danger or attack. They may be overly protective of children and fear for a child's safety. Feeling keyed up can also make it harder for them to sleep and concentrate, and can cause irritability and aggression.

Other reactions include depression, suicidal thoughts, anger or aggressive behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, and self-blame, sometimes called “survivor's guilt.”

Although the family handbook encourages family members to get help for their loved one returning from the war, it acknowledges, “Getting your loved one to seek help is not always as easy as you may hope. A study of soldiers returning from overseas found that only 40% of those that were having mental health problems said they were interested in receiving help. Many returnees hesitate to receive mental health treatment for fear that it will hurt their image or even ruin their military careers.”

In other words, 60 percent of vets whose nearest and dearest know they are in trouble refuse to go in for treatment, and are not seeking help from a system which is already known to be inadequate to help them in any case.

Luckily for Maine veterans, mostly coming from Maine’s National Guard and the Reserves, the V.A. Medical Center at Togus is well equipped to deal with PTSD, and "subthreshhold" issues such as depression and anxiety, in its PTSD program.

Togus is located in Augusta, about four miles east of the main part of the city, on Route 17. For information about the PTSD Treatment Program, call 1-877-421-8263, Ext. 5405. Like all health programs, the V.A. medical and mental health programs are entirely confidential.

Inpatient therapy is only one component involved in the treatment of PTSD at Togus. Inpatient beds are mostly used for severe cases, for individuals in acute crisis — people in danger of suicide, other self-injurious behavior, or injuring others; however, if a vet believes he or she needs inpatient therapy, he or she will triage with one of the team and the V.A. will get the patient in as soon as possible.

“Some patients need inpatient help,” said Chantal Mihm, Psy.D. “Most, however, don’t. We work with the vets to provide services when they can access them. Some groups meet in the late afternoons or evenings, and twice a week, there are psychiatrists and psychologists who work in the evening.”

Unfortunately, reaching out for help was something Crowley-Smilek had to do on his own during the six years since he was honorably discharged ... and it was a decision he refused to make.

In the days leading up to his confrontation with Officer Rosie, the young veteran was wrestling with seeking help. Michael Smilek, Justin's father, said his son was receiving outpatient counseling at a Farmington center specializing in combat stress, but had stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder. His family could not force him to get treatment unless he was a danger to himself and others.

Crowley-Smilek crossed that line when he attacked a man outside a bar with a flashlight last February, and was brought up on charges. His court date was last Friday, Nov. 18. The judge, at the urging of one of the counselors of the center where Crowley-Smilek was getting treatment, ordered a full psychological profile to be done. The family had hope ... perhaps Justin's severe mental illness could finally be addressed. Smilek said that the order was very welcome news to the family, who had sought help for him since his return from the Middle East. Smilek said he even called Togus following court on Friday to see if there was some way he could have his son committed right then and there.

But Togus said no. Crowley-Smilek was not "immediately" endangering himself or others. An involuntary committal was out of the question.

The next day, Crowley-Smilek attacked an officer with a knife, and was shot and killed.

His father says said that no one could have ever predicted Saturday's tragic turn of events. 

But the trajectory of the tragedy was already in motion. PTSD creates a stigma for veterans, one they are often unwilling to accept for themselves.  But those who suffer from PTSD are often a danger to themselves or others, often on a hair-trigger. Their behavior is often erratic and unpredictable.

In 2005 alone, there were 6,256 suicides of Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans — 120 per week. In the next two years, that number ballooned by 27 percent. There are no good statistics yet on the total percentage of vets who commit suicide, but it appears to be above the civilian average of 19 per 100,000. The VA came under attack by veterans' groups in April 2008, when internal emails sent by the VA's head of mental health, Dr. Ira Katz, showed that the VA was attempting to conceal the number of suicides committed by veterans. Too often, the vet is left to cope — or not — on his own. There have been many cases of vets committing suicide while waiting for one of too-few inpatient beds for the treatment of PTSD. 

Suicide isn't the only issue. There have been numerous cases of Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans killing loved ones as well. In one case, a vet was prevented from committing suicide by the police, told to “get counseling,” and several days later murdered his wife, the mother of his two children.   He is now facing a murder charge. In another, a vet killed himself and his wife, leaving their three small children orphans.

Whether Crowley-Smilek's death was a tragic case of "suicide by cop" or the result of an untrained young officer's overreaction, the result is the same.

A young soldier is dead, and his family is in mourning. 

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