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Saturday, Mar 22 2014 10:47 PM

Attorney, family wish troubled veteran had received help sooner

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Tim Birdsong, pictured, who himself struggled with PTSD after serving in the Vietnam War, is convinced his son-in-law, Steven Cordova, needed similar treatment to overcome the problems he faced upon his return home from Kuwait.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Steven Cordova rose to the rank of lieutenant in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and served in the U.S. Navy and later with the U.S. Army Reserve in Kuwait. He never had trouble with law enforcement until the day last November he told his family to leave the house and held a gun to his head.

A standoff with Kern County sheriff's deputies ensued. Both Cordova and deputies fired shots.

Related Info

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after a person experiences a terrifying event, such as combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, sexual or physical assault, and serious accidents.

Most people undergo some stress-related reactions after a traumatic event; not everyone develops PTSD. Whether you develop PTSD depends on:

* How intense the trauma was and how long it lasted, and whether you were injured or someone close to you died.

* How close you were to the event, how strong your reaction was and how much you felt in control of events.

* How much help and support you got afterward.

There are four types of symptoms of PTSD that usually start soon after the event, but may not surface until months or years later.

* Reliving the event.

* Avoiding situations that remind you of the event.

* Negative changes in beliefs and feelings.

* Feeling "keyed up" -- jittery or always alert.

People with PTSD may also experience feelings of hopelessness, depression, drinking or drug problems, physical symptoms or chronic pain, employment issues and relationship problems.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD

Cordova, 40, was eventually taken into custody and charged with four felonies, including assault with a gun on a peace officer. Bail was set at $185,000.

He was released from Lerdo Jail after about three months. He received counseling and attended court hearings.

His attorney filed a request for Cordova to be admitted to the National Center for PTSD in Palo Alto. Cordova never made it.

He killed himself March 7.

Cordova became a statistic, one of the 22 veterans committing suicide across the country each day, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures. Now, his family and attorney are hoping others who return from war and are suffering can get help before they lose hope.

A 2008 study done by the RAND Corp. found that 18.5 percent of U.S. service members who returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. About half who need treatment seek it, but only slightly more than half of those who received treatment got minimally adequate care, according to the study.

California Penal Code 1170.9 allows the court to provide treatment instead of incarceration for veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance abuse, mental health problems and other issues as a result of serving in the U.S. military. It encourages treatment as early as possible.

Randall Dickow, administrator of Kern County's Indigent Defense Program and an Air Force veteran, helped start a local veterans justice program about two years ago, and he said to date at least 100 people have gone through it. The program's mission is to divert PTSD-suffering vets from the criminal justice system to a treatment program.

If a defendant is found eligible for the program, his attorney can submit a report to the court that outlines the available services he might obtain. The attorney can then argue for sentence mitigation, probation or diversion, whichever best fits each particular case.

Dickow said at least two other veterans have killed themselves in Kern County in the past 18 months after being charged with crimes. He said he could not name the men because of confidentiality issues.

Troubled by the war

Tim Birdsong will never know if the program would have been a good fit for his son-in-law, or if it would have spared him a felony conviction. He wishes Cordova hadn't given up.

The man Birdsong knew for 18 years was a caring husband and father who often took the kids to the park to play games. Cordova and his children swam together, and he was involved with their school sports.

Evelyn Sprouse, Cordova's grandmother, said he was "very good" with animals and especially had a soft spot for dogs. He was a talented photographer who snapped numerous photos of his wife and daughters.

"He took a picture of his youngest girl, all black and white except a bright red rose she held by her chest," Sprouse said.

Cordova enlisted in the U.S. Navy following graduation from Taft Union High School. And, years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11.

"I guess he felt a duty to his country," Birdsong said.

Cordova's reserve unit was eventually activated, and he spent a year in Kuwait. The man who returned was not the same man Birdsong knew.

Formerly outgoing, Cordova was now aloof. He didn't talk to anyone unless they spoke to him first. He'd come home from work and just sit in the corner, watching TV.

Cordova drank heavily the day of Nov. 10. Then he began calling his daughters, and his comments caused them so much concern they went home to him.

He pulled out a gun and told his family to leave. He planned on killing himself, he said. One of the daughters called 911, and deputies soon arrived. What happened next is under dispute.

Birdsong said Cordova fired his gun only at the interior walls of the house during the standoff, never aiming or intending to shoot at deputies. But deputies said in a news release that Cordova opened the front door and fired several shots at them. SWAT responded, and deputies said Cordova continued firing at them from inside his home.

Nearby residences were evacuated and traffic on Highway 33 between Cloud and Derby avenues was diverted.

More than 21/2 hours after the incident began, Cordova left the house armed with an assault rifle and handgun, deputies said. Deputies opened fire and hit him in the hand. Cordova was treated at a hospital and then taken to jail.

Prosecutors charged him with recklessly discharging a gun, assault with a gun on a peace officer, threatening with the intent to terrorize and exhibiting a gun to resist arrest. Cordova spent the next three months incarcerated, crying much of the time.

David A. Torres, Cordova's attorney, said Cordova "cried profusely" at least three or four times when he visited him. Torres said Cordova was remorseful for what happened, for what he'd put his wife and children through.

It became the family's mission to get Cordova out of jail so he could be evaluated for PTSD and receive treatment. Torres, a veteran himself, lobbied for Cordova's release so he could be examined.

They were successful. Cordova was taken to the Bakersfield VA Clinic. He filled out paperwork and was examined by doctors. A psychiatrist diagnosed him as suffering from PTSD.

Prosecutors offered him a six-year sentence if he pleaded no contest to assault with a gun on a peace officer. Or, he could get out in four years and eight months but would have two strikes on his record if he pleaded no contest to that charge and recklessly discharging a gun.

Cordova faced as much as 20 years and four months in prison if convicted of all charges.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pafford said the DA's office generally doesn't consider a defendant's status as a veteran at the time they file charges. Judges, however, can consider a veteran's PTSD diagnosis and determine whether they'd be a good fit for a program instead of jail, or maybe a program following some time in custody.

In some cases, Torres said, prosecutors may consider a veteran violent and a threat to society because of the type of offenses they've allegedly committed.

Veterans who are charged with a crime are "not all ... given consideration for the veterans justice program," he said.

Birdsong said Cordova, a correctional officer who knew in detail what an inmate's life is like, couldn't fathom spending years behind bars. Instead, he overdosed on prescription medication he'd been given to address his PTSD issues.

If anyone could understand what Cordova was going through, it was Birdsong. He wishes Cordova had revealed what pressures or demons were gnawing at him before choosing the overdose as his escape.

Birdsong knows those demons well; Cordova's path was one he himself could have followed after returning home from Vietnam.

Nightmares

Birdsong remembers when his sleep first became troubled. He was 21 years old and reliving the horrors of his combat experience in Vietnam in 1967.

He was first haunted remembering when his company was loaded into helicopters for an assault on North Vietnamese Army forces. His company was flown to one side of a river, while another company landed on the opposite side.

The NVA soldiers were trapped on the riverbank between the two sides. Huey gunships kept the NVA contained while the American soldiers swept the riverbank, ultimately killing more than a hundred enemy soldiers.

"As we swept (through) we just kept killing the NVA, and there was just a lot of bodies," Birdsong said.

The nightmares began soon after.

Upon his discharge, Birdsong returned home to Taft. He got a job at a bank, and was transferred to Porterville, Barstow and San Diego in different capacities with the company.

Something was always off. The pressures of the job easily got to him, and his home life -- he'd since married -- wasn't good. He quit the bank.

"I had no idea what I was going through," Birdsong said.

He didn't start to get to the root of the problem until 1994, when he met a veterans' advocate in Bakersfield who persuaded him to see a psychologist. Birdsong was diagnosed with PTSD and began attending a weekly support group.

"I can deal with this a lot better now," he said.

Birdsong is convinced his son-in-law needed similar treatment to overcome the problems he faced upon his return home from Kuwait. He said Cordova wasn't a bad person, just a troubled one.

"He often looked at me and said, 'I'm not a criminal,'" Birdsong said.

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