Marine claims brain trauma led to fatal DUI crash

by Tamara Lush, Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — It seemed like an open-and-shut DUI manslaughter case. Officers said Scott Sciple drove the wrong way down a Tampa interstate in April of 2010 and plowed head-on into another car, killing the other driver. According to court records, Sciple’s blood-alcohol level was more than three times Florida’s legal limit.

But as the case unfolded, so did the unusual circumstances of Sciple’s life. He was a Marine captain who had earned three Purple Hearts for injuries and the Bronze Star for heroism in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had nearly died from blood loss, suffered severe head trauma and once dug a mass grave for Iraqi civilians.

It’s these mental scars of combat, his lawyer says, that are to blame for the accident. Brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder caused Sciple to blackout in a dissociative episode the night of the crash, said defense attorney John Fitzgibbons. Sciple has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney will offer an insanity defense at trial.

The other driver, Pedro Rivera, left behind a wife, two children and three stepchildren. His widow is broken-hearted and believes the military deserves some blame for the accident for not treating the Sciple’s disorder.

Remarkably, those sentiments are echoed by Marine Corps investigators who examined the case and wrote an 860-page report with recommendations for top brass. The report says the corps should be more thorough in evaluating and treating post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in Marines with brain injuries.

“This investigation reveals a disturbing vulnerability in the support we provide our combat veterans suffering the invisible wounds of PTSD,” wrote Col. John P. Crook of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, in a Sept. 26, 2010 letter. “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.”

Prosecutors won’t comment about the case. Sciple is in a Tampa jail’s psychiatric ward awaiting trial.

In a call to his father after the crash, he said he wished he’d died in combat.

“I don’t know why I wasn’t killed any of the times I was wounded,” Sam Sciple quoted his son as saying. “I wish I had been.

“At least it would have been honorable. And an innocent man wouldn’t be dead.”

Scott Sciple was born and raised near Mobile, Ala. His desire was to be a fighter pilot, but he discovered during officer candidate school that he couldn’t fly planes because of a blood pressure problem.

Still, after the Sept. 11 attacks, he decided to continue in the Marines. What followed was a battle-scarred career, as detailed in the Marines’ investigative report.

— In April 2003, Sciple witnessed “a bus full of casualties and a sea of blood gushing out.” Sciple buried some of the Iraqi civilians — and then dug them up when relatives came looking.

— In October and November 2004, Sciple was wounded in separate attacks while on patrol in Iraq.

— In 2006 and 2007, Sciple rode in convoys that were hit seven times by roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

— In June 2009, Sciple lost consciousness and bled profusely after a rocket attack in Iraq, leading rescuers to believe he had died.

Sciple’s command in Iraq expressed concern that Sciple was suffering from PTSD. About two weeks after the attack, Sciple was found removing sutures from his arm with his Swiss Army knife. An assessment showed he had “mild deficits” in verbal learning and difficulty with attention.

Two weeks after that, he was given a neuropsychological assessment and declared “cognitively fit for full duty.” His superiors then sent him back to a California-based wounded warrior battalion.

Said his father: “He was very different than the person he was when he went into the Marines.”

Sciple’s family noticed troubling behavior: Scott would fall asleep yet continue to talk gibberish. He didn’t remember certain events. He drove to the store to buy sunglasses and woke up in Mexico after he hit a curb on a roadside. Sam Sciple believes his son was suffering from dissociative episodes then.

There were also dizzy spells, flashbacks and headaches — all PTSD symptoms. By November 2009, Sciple was also drinking heavily.

Sciple told friends and family to keep everything quiet because he didn’t want to harm his career or his chance to command a rifle company.

In February 2010, the Marines found Sciple available for “full duty and worldwide deployable,” and weeks later he was ordered to serve at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. But he had never been to Tampa, and he wanted to return to Afghanistan with his battalion.

“The decision to send Capt. Sciple to (MacDill) left him feeling disappointed and abandoned, and exacerbated the symptoms of his PTSD,” Col. Crook wrote.

He arrived in Tampa on April 23. Two days later, before he could even report to his new post, police said he crashed into Rivera’s car and killed him around 4 a.m.

“We believe that he was having a dissociative episode at the time and believed he was on a deployment,” said Fitzgibbons, his attorney.

Rivera, a mechanic, was driving home with his wife after helping a friend whose car had broken down. Carmen Rodriguez, Rivera’s wife, told The Associated Press that she believes the Marines bear some blame in her husband’s death because Sciple wasn’t properly treated for PTSD or brain injury.

“They should have helped him before,” said Rodriguez, who was also injured. “Why did they wait until my husband died?”

The widow says church and her job are helping to sustain her.

Dr. Francis Abueg, a Sunnyvale, Calif. psychologist who specializes in PTSD, said it’s common for those suffering from the disorder to have dissociative episodes, or blackouts. He knew of other cases in which veterans had dissociative episodes that led to criminal charges.

“When you throw in traumatic brain injury, those symptoms are intensified,” he said.

The Marines appear to acknowledge some blame. In the report on the crash, Crook wrote that Sciple shouldn’t have been sent to MacDill due to his untreated PTSD and history of mental instability. Investigators discovered that Sciple was taking prescription medications to treat anxiety, schizophrenia and depression — in addition to drinking.

Cook wrote that separating him from those he had served with “further exacerbated his psychological trauma and reliance on alcohol.”

Cook wrote that the Marine Corps should better screen and treat combat veterans for PTSD, remove the stigma of having the disorder and reduce the acceptability of alcohol.

Fitzgibbons maintains that both Rivera and Sciple are “casualties of war.”

“If Scott Sciple had not served four deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, this never would have happened,” Fitzgibbons said.

If not for the crash, Fitzgibbons added, Sciple probably would have been promoted — and sent on a fifth combat tour.

Image: In this 2003 photo provided by Sciple family, Scott, center, poses for a photo with his mother Lynne, left, and father Sam. When Marine Capt. Scott Sciple was arrested for the drunk driving crash that killed a 49-year-old man in Tampa, Fla, military officials did an investigation of their own on the man who had previously been awards three Purple Hearts and a bronze star for bravery during combat in Iraq. Now his lawyer says the effects of combat have resulted in such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that his client frequently blacks out in dissociative episodes, which is what happened the night of the crash. He plans to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. (AP Photo/Sciple Family)


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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