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Man involved in Choochokam brawl suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder

Orrin McClellan sits in the back of a Humvee in Afghanistan in June 2005. At that time he had been in the combat zone a little more than two months. - Photo courtesy of Orrin McClellan
Orrin McClellan sits in the back of a Humvee in Afghanistan in June 2005. At that time he had been in the combat zone a little more than two months.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Orrin McClellan

LANGLEY — The man who allegedly attacked Langley Police officers during Choochokam Arts suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And his family says the altercation with police was the result of nearly two years of suffering by a young veteran.

Orrin McClellan, 23, was arrested July 12 after he struggled with officers and threatened to kill them after police tried to stop him from kicking down barricades at the festival site.

“The period between Memorial Day and July 4th was torture for him. He was in Afghanistan,” said Judith Gorman, McClellan’s mother.

“He hasn’t taken off his combat fatigues since Memorial Day,” his mother said.

According to the police report, a Langley officer caught McClellan kicking over barricades at the festival. After a short foot chase, McClellan ambushed officer Corey Mills. A struggle ensued and McClellan yelled at the officer that he would kill him.

He shouted at Mills, saying that he was in the Army and that he was trained to kill people like him, the report said.

When another officer got involved, McClellan allegedly stuck his thumbs in the officers eyes. The officer had to seek medical treatment.

It took several officers to control McClellan.

The young veteran also asked police repeatedly to kill or shoot him, according to court records. Police finally gained control of McClellan and arrested him.

Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg said police later found two large pocket knives and a bayonet in McClellan’s backpack.

McClellan was wearing weathered, cut-off combat fatigues at the time of his arrest.

At his preliminary arraignment, Judge Alan Hancock and deputy prosecutor Colleen Kenimond acknowledged McClellan’s post-traumatic stress disorder, and Hancock released him into his father’s custody to be taken immediately to the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Seattle for treatment.

He has been in at the hospital on a locked floor for more than two weeks. Once a day he gets to venture off station with a fellow patient for half an hour, and on the weekend, depending how he is doing, his parents get to take him into town for lunch and other activities.

“Orrin is still wearing his fatigues,” Gorman said.

Going to war

McClellan joined the Army at 18. He wanted to go to college, his mother said, and the military looked like a good way to pay for tuition.

He reported for basic training on Feb. 3, 2004. A few months later he was assigned as a paratrooper in the 173rd Infantry Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy.

McClellan, a mortar man, joined a highly-skilled three-man team that was sent behind enemy lines.

In April 2005, he deployed to Afghanistan where he was part of Operation Enduring Freedom. For 12 months he was stationed at a forward base in southeastern Afghanistan. There, the soldiers alternated between mind-numbing boredom and high-risk missions.

Sometimes the troops would be stuck for weeks at the small camp, McClellan’s family said.

“They were busy with nothing behind the barb wire,” said his father, Perry McClellan.

Then came mission after mission. Sometimes, they would be loaned out to other military units for operations.

“Repeatedly, one after the other after the other,” Gorman said.

Sometime during the deployment, his parents noticed changes in their son.

Even though McClellan wasn’t allowed to talk in detail about his job, the parents noticed he was different while reading his brief e-mails from Afghanistan.

“They were constantly in the presence of death,” his father said. “If it wasn’t the enemy, it was his friends.”

McClellan struggled to cope.

“People that you know or work with get killed,” his mother said. “They would have memorials in the field.”

In the combat zone, the soldiers didn’t have to talk about it to understand what their fellow teammates went through. They shared the experience. But once they returned to Italy, the unit disbanded.

McClellan was discharged shortly after. He returned to Whidbey Island in late 2006. Nobody at home had any idea what he had seen, and the problems began.

Returning home

“He didn’t have anybody to process this with,” Gorman said. “He said nobody has his experience here.”

Many returning veterans have to cope with feelings of alienation and the memories of war.

According to a recent RAND Corp. study, roughly one in five soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan displays symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, putting them at a higher risk for suicide.

The researchers — criticized by the military for basing the study on a small sample of soldiers ­— calculated that some 300,000 out of 1.6 million veterans of the two wars have suffered some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

More than 22,000 veterans have sought help from a special government-sponsored suicide hotline in its first year, and

1,221 suicides have been averted, the government says.

Within a few months of McClellan’s return, his parents became aware of early symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“One of the first things I noticed, there were things that would upset him that weren’t apparent,” his father said.

“I went to the store about a month after he came home and bought some muffins,

I thought he might like,” McClellan recalled.

As father and son sat on the table, Orrin McClellan’s mood shifted.

“He asked, ‘You like those muffins, dad?’”

It turned out in Afghanistan the Army had cases and cases of the same brand muffins that his father had bought at a local store.

“He never wanted to see these muffins again,” the elder McClellan recalled.

For thousands of veterans across the country, similar occurrences are a reality.

As friends and family try to integrate returning veterans into daily life, many relive the traumatic events — like seeing a close friend severely mutilated or seeing the death of children or civilians — from their time at war. Reminders at home can be as simple as a loud noise.

Gorman added that her son had nightmares and trouble sleeping. She also noticed that he was drinking more than usual.

Self-medicating with alcohol or lashing out in anger are common symptoms of PTSD and lead down a hazardous path, she explained.

Her son also had trouble focusing and couldn’t retain memories. McClellan avoided noise and people, his mother said, slept during the day and was awake at night.

As time went on, his symptoms worsened.

“He would pack his truck like he was going on a mission,” she said.

Getting help

Encouraged and supported by his parents, McClellan filed for disability assistance through the Veteran’s Affairs. During countless evaluations and medical appointments, the then-22-year-old was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If it hadn’t been for two very persistent, self-employed parents, he wouldn’t have made it through the system,” Gorman said.

Doctors also verified that he suffered from hearing loss, likely caused by the thunder of machine gun fire, and had spine and knee injuries from hard landings as a paratrooper.

His disability application was approved in September 2007.

By then he had begun classes at Skagit Valley College, but dropped out due to his inability to focus. He moved to Montana with plans to go to school there.

In the new environment, however, McClellan’s demons caught up with him again. His insomnia returned, and he slipped into isolation.

Anniversaries of deaths and other significant events triggered more crises.

Earlier this year, things spun out of control.

“He called us at the end of February,” McClellan said. “All he said was ‘Help.’”

“Perry left within the hour to get him,” Gorman added.

McClellan realized that he needed help, but taking the first steps to in-patient treatment proved difficult.

He was accepted into a two-week program for combat veterans at the VA hospital.

Getting him there was a different story.

“We couldn’t get him in the car,” his father recalled.

“He walked around the car in circles,” Gorman added.

Once at the VA hospital in Seattle, the struggle continued.

“Walking into the building was more than he could do,” McClellan said.

“His body was frozen,” Gorman added.

After he was done with the program, McClellan appeared better, even though he relied on a plethora of medications.

He returned to the hospital several times for brief stays.

The VA hospital also offers therapy and out-patient treatment, but McClellan wasn’t able to take advantage of it because he lived on Whidbey Island — 90 minutes and a ferry ride away — a trip that is easily overwhelming for a PTSD veteran.

“Driving on the freeway was like driving in a war zone,” his father said.

Then Memorial Day rolled around.

“There were a lot of death dates between Memorial Day and

July 12,” Gorman said. “One of them was this 18-year-old kid he had identified with; went on R&R with. He was killed.”

McClellan’s behavior again began to become more erratic.

His parents said he only left the house a few times during that time. He didn’t talk much, didn’t eat, didn’t work.

“He bought several American flags and put them up. He would religiously raise up the flag and take it down at night,” Gorman said. “It was his only thread between one day and the next.”

His parents tried to get him to check into the hospital again.

It was to no avail. But there was one friend their son would sometimes talk with about what was going on — an Iraq War veteran.

Festival scuffle

On the Saturday of Choochokam Arts, Gorman went to the festival with her son. He wanted her to meet a girlfriend’s dad who shared the same birthday as his mom: July 12.

But they couldn’t find her in the bustle of the festival. Then McClellan met other acquaintances. At some point Gorman decided to go home.

“I should have never left him,” she said.

“It’s the difference between a sick kid and an adult. You can’t tell him what to do,” his father said.

The parents were advised by legal counsel not to discuss any details of the incident with The Record.

The next day, their son called from the hospital asking them to bring his medication to Island County Jail.

His mother said she was worried about his physical and emotional state, but she wasn’t allowed to talk to him. Instead, she got on the phone with the VA hospital and made arrangements.

By the time he appeared before the judge, she had treatment lined up.

“I had a bed ready for him,” Gorman said.

The judge released McClellan into custody of his father so the veteran could be taken directly to the VA hospital.

“We went straight to Seattle without stopping,” McClellan said.

In the two weeks since, his son’s condition has improved, but he is still depressed and anxious, his father said.

McClellan said his son’s treatment is progressing. However, the hospital is in the middle of a remodel, the doctors are busy and consistency is lacking.

His parents said doctors want their son to enter two consecutive programs as part of his treatment; both are based in Oregon. His parents say McClellan is OK with that.

“When he first entered the hospital he felt hopeless,” Gorman said. “He has some hope now.”

Clash with the law

When veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring their troubles home, police and judges often are the first to deal with them. Reports of bar fights, domestic violence, car chases, murder and suicide with veterans are being reported across the country.

McClellan’s parents say that police didn’t recognize what they were dealing with when the Langley incident occurred.

Gorman said that most in the community aren’t prepared for the huge number of veterans with PTSD who will come home from Iraq or Afghanistan in the next few years.

However, she added that her family found support and understanding in Judge Hancock and the prosecutor’s office.

The case is pending in Island County Superior Court. The prosecution has agreed to another two-week continuation of McClellan’s arraignment.

Kenimond, of the prosecutor office, said her office believes it’s the right thing to do.

“The prosecutor’s office is very concerned about public safety,” she said. “In this case the parties may agree that public safety is best served by treatment.”

A team effort

Gorman said it takes an entire community to help veterans to reintegrate.

It’s a team effort by family, friends, the community, the legal system and even the military to be aware and supportive as large numbers of returning vets come back with emotional and spiritual injuries.

“Supporting our troops must include bringing them all the way home,” Gorman said.

“This means attending to the hidden wounds as well as the visible. We must not stop with research and development of the healing of visible wounds and helping the veterans become whole with prostheses for severed arms and legs. We have a responsibility to get just as expert at healing the inner wounds of the body, mind, emotions and spirit.”

She said it’s the military’s responsibility to take care of its own even after their service ends.

“Our military is well-versed at training our sons and daughters to be experts in weapons, combat and killing, and distrust of the other, but they fail to complete their warrior training of our troops by failing to train them in the skills of regulating the emotional responses of the body, mind and spirit after experiencing the traumatic horrors and terrors of war, and in the skill of reintegrating into families and communities,” Gorman said.

Gorman would like to see a support system on the island for veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress, she said, and asked anyone interested to call her at 321-7226 or e-mail

jgorman@whidbey.com.

“Our son, only halfway, came home from the war; half of him is still fighting over there, within his body, mind, heart and soul,” Gorman said. “Every day, all the time.”

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