By Debbie Gregory.
There was a perfect storm brewing in Portland, Oregon’s DarSalam Iraqi restaurant.
Suffering from unsuccessfully treated PTSD, Marine Sgt. Major Damien Rodriguez was allegedly inebriated, a common self-treatment for PTSD, when he and his companion, a retired Marine, took a corner table in the restaurant. He sat where his back could be against the wall, typical behavior of a veteran with PTSD.
His four deployments to war zones had taken a heavy toll.
According to witnesses, after several minutes of not ordering, Rodriguez said that he had to get out of the restaurant. He tried to go through a side door but found it locked, so he stood, wringing his hands. Rodriguez began slinging racial slurs and profanity. Then suddenly, he picked up a chair and hurled it at a waiter.
Ghaith Sahib, the owner of the restaurant, said the incident left him and his staff deeply shaken, especially the employee injured by the chair.
Authorities came down hard on Rodriguez. While this would have normally been a misdemeanor, prosecutors charged Rodriguez with both assault and a hate crime, felony charges that carry a mandatory prison sentence.
Rodriguez was forced to retire following his arrest.
And while special veterans courts have been set up throughout the country to offer therapy instead of jail time to veterans who commit minor crimes most of them bar veterans who have committed a violent crime. This means Rodriguez now faces years in prison.
“What he needs is help. That is what he has needed all these years,” said his mother, Roberta Bello. “But they just want to put him away.”
Raised by a Nigerian stepfather and married to a Guatemalan native, Rodriguez will tell you he is not prejudiced.
“How can they say I hate Iraqis? I gave my soul for Iraq,” he said.
Rodriguez said he did not know what caused him to hit the waiter. It is a blank. “All I can remember, honestly, is being handcuffed by the police,” he said.
After his arrest, Rodriguez entered an intensive program for substance abuse and PTSD. He is saddened that after years of service, he could be conviction for a hate crime.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” he said. “But no one tries to understand what we went through.”
The trial is scheduled to begin December.