Unlikely pair teams up for vets

Unlikely pair teams up for vets

“You don’t meet people like Hector. They live in this secret world of special operations, as close to meeting Jason Bourne as you’ll ever get.” — Brock Hunter

They seem like an odd couple, in both appearance and experience.

One was a reconnaissance scout who spent 18 months in the Korean DMZ 20 years ago, never shot at and never having to shoot anybody.

Meet Brock Hunter, a hulking lawyer from Minneapolis whose practice focuses on helping veterans who’ve run into legal problems.

The other survived numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, retiring with almost 20 years of active duty service, most of it in the secretive special operations world.

Meet Hector Matascastillo, a chiseled native of Guatemala who earned his social work license after his military service and dedicates a majority of his practice to service members.

Brock Hunter was a reconnaissance scout in the Korean demilitarized zone.
Submitted photo

They are a team that has traveled the country to try to explain the magnitude of the challenges facing veterans returning from war today.

They have been staunch proponents of veterans’ courts and new treatment protocols for what they call a new kind of veteran, a soldier unlike any the nation has seen before.

“We’ve never in our country’s history deployed individuals into combat as much and for as long as we have this generation of veterans,” Hunter said. “And when these folks finally start to come home and start trying to re-adapt to civilian life, buckle in. It’s going to be a wild ride, even if we do everything right.”

Past conflicts relied on drafts that forced young men to fight for their country. Soldiers occasionally returned for multiple tours, but it was rare.

Current conflicts have employed a smaller, all-volunteer force made up of men and women who comprise less than 1 percent of our population, according to Hunter, the smallest per capita force since before World War I, in peace or in wartime.

“With that force, we fought the two longest wars in our country’s history, simultaneously, in the last decade,” Hunter said. “The only way we’ve been able to get away with that is by recycling the same troops into combat over and over and over.”

It’s common to find troops with eight- or nine-year-long deployments, especially for Army Marine ground combat troops who are in high demand, he said. And then there are those who have served shorter, more intense tours; some have been deployed more than a dozen times.

“The ones that really keep me awake at night are our special operations forces, who have been under an incredibly high demand throughout these conflicts,” Hunter said.

Matascastillo was just such a soldier. He was deployed 13 times in an 18-year military career that took him to almost 60 countries. But it was a standoff outside his Lakeville home that changed things for him.

Hector Matascastillo (left) was deployed 13 times to almost 60 countries during his 18-year military career.
(Submitted photo)

It was January 2004 and he was ramping up for another deployment.

He got into an argument with his then-wife and slipped into a dissociative state. In an instant he was back in the Middle East, searching for a high-value target in a series of buildings.

He and a Ranger buddy had peeled off to search a specific house. They had gone through the house and couldn’t find their target, so they were headed back to find their unit. His Ranger buddy left the house first and Hector followed.

As he left the house to go outside, his buddy was gone. It was like he had vaporized right in front of him.

Hector became confused, lost his situational awareness, a no-no for someone in special ops, where being attuned to one’s senses and surroundings is a given among the elite warriors.

He had no idea what was going on or where he was. There he stood, a pistol in each hand, his hands down at his sides at the low-ready position.

He didn’t want to raise them, because he didn’t want to shoot his buddy. But he was in enemy territory and he was doing what a highly trained soldier would do in a situation like that.

He scanned the landscape for targets and, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw an insurgent standing about 20 feet in front of him with his gun pointed right at him.

He’s got the drop on me, Hector thought, I’m a dead man.

But the insurgent didn’t shoot. Instead he started yelling in a language Hector didn’t understand. The insurgent began to back up, and Hector could see the fear in his eyes and the hesitation.

This guy is a cherry, he thought. He’s never shot anybody and he can’t pull the trigger.

He began to think that he might actually survive this.

Hector started telling the insurgent in every Middle Eastern language he knew to put his weapons down. The insurgent wouldn’t drop his weapons, though.

He did, however, continue to back away from Hector.

Hector Matascastillo
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

A total amateur, Hector thought. You don’t back up in combat. When you’ve got the edge on a foe and the initiative, you charge forward, hard.

This enemy continued to back up, until he tripped over the curb and fell onto his backside into the street.

The insurgent still had his gun focused on Hector, but Hector now began to sense that he had the distinct advantage. The insurgent would have to shift his weight to get back to his feet. And that was when Hector would have the advantage.

He tensed up, sensing that any moment would be the opportunity to charge ahead and kill the insurgent.

And then Hector heard a small child crying right behind him in the doorway.

He turned to look him and recognized the voice as his 2-year-old son. Hector started to see stars, experienced auditory hallucinations and felt like he had just been hit in the head, the tremendous pressure of a headache collapsing on him.

Then he heard a woman screaming from a second-floor window of the house he and his buddy had just cleared.

His guns aren’t loaded, the woman was screaming.

Now Hector was really confused. He closed his eyes to fight off the dizziness.

When he opened his eyes again, he realized he was in the front lawn of his house in Lakeville, surrounded in a semi-circle by eight city police officers.

The “insurgent” was an off-duty police officer who had served in Iraq. He later told Hector that he had been sitting in a truck in a parking lot a few blocks from Hector’s house, contemplating suicide.

The only reason he responded to the scanner call was that it was for a veteran in crisis.

Hector put his guns down and was immediately tackled and taken to a squad car.

He begged the officers to kill him, not knowing what was happening to him.

“You have to destroy me. You can’t let me live,” he told them.

It was during the aftermath of that incident that he became aware of the PTSD that was brewing inside of him.

And it was during his attempt to forge a new life that he met Hunter.

Hector wanted to get his conviction for the Lakeville incident expunged so he could pursue a degree in social work to help other struggling veterans.

Hunter thought that Matascastillo could have a greater effect another way, by sharing his story.

And the story isn’t about what he did to help himself, because he only saw one way out.

“My self wanted to die. My self had a plan to die — primary, alternate, contingency, emergency plan to die. My self was going to die before I ever went to prison. And it was community, it was people that I least expected, that actually pulled me out of it,” Matascastillo said. “So for me, I think about people wanting to hear my story, I think of a guy in a dungeon that is the basement of his home right now that’s experiencing the same story. You don’t want to listen to me, you want to listen to that guy. Let’s get him out of the dungeon.”

Hunter didn’t see combat, but spent time as a combat arms scout sniper in the tense DMZ in Korea in the late 1980s.

Brock Hunter
(Photo: Kimm Anderson, kanderson@stcloudtimes.com)

It had an effect when he came home. He spent a couple of years in college hanging around a bad crowd, doing stupid stuff.

“I realized as time went on that I was lucky that I hadn’t gotten into trouble during that period. And it was a blessing that I didn’t,” he said.

Hunter saw vets coming through the court system, particularly from Vietnam, and realized what little experience he had in the military and what an impact it had on him. Obviously, those vets had a lot more transition issues coming home.

Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

It wasn’t long before vets from Afghanistan and Iraq started showing up in court. Hunter’s attachment to vets in the criminal justice system started to grow slowly from there.

“It wasn’t something that was planned,” Hunter said. “It kind of was building, one thing after another.”

In 2007, he helped draft and pass veterans sentencing legislation. That got him involved in advocacy.

He and Matascastillo have criss-crossed the state and country telling his story and giving sobering facts about today’s veterans. Their work is playing out in programs such as veterans courts in places such as Washington County and Hennepin County.

Stearns County has begun a veterans’ protocol, which stops short of being a full-fledged veterans court, but is a process that uses some of the same responses as the courts do, specific to veterans and their challenges.

Hunter recently helped complete and publish a legal treatise on every aspect of veterans involved in the criminal justice system.

Brock Hunter wrote the book on veterans in the legal system.
Submitted photo

It’s great that people are listening now, he said, but he realizes the public’s attention span for the topic will fade.

There’s a window of opportunity to get this message out, he says. Once the wars wind down and we’re moving on to the next thing, that’s when Hunter says he’ll get worried about how this generation is going to look at veterans.

“I see it as almost an inoculation for what’s to come,” he said of the work he and Matascastillo are doing. “The more they understand the underpinnings of this, the less likely they are to react in a knee-jerk fashion two, three, four years down the road when some veteran has done some terrible thing and is on the front page of every paper in the country. And something will happen, even if we do everything right.”

Talk About It

Share stories and strategies for coping in a new online place for Central Minnesota veterans and their families at www.facebook.com/scarsofservice

Follow the #ScarsofService hashtag on Twitter.

And join the discussion as Terry Ferdinandt and Hector Matascastillo take questions from readers on sctimes.com.

About the reporters

Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.

Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.

You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.

The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.

You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.