After fighting in the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Kosovo, Ron Portillo was diagnosed in 1998 with post-traumatic stress disorder by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
But he wanted to stay in the military and had no problem re-enlisting a few years later.
“The VA and the military don’t talk to each other,” Portillo said. “My PTSD didn’t come to their attention. Basically they were letting everybody in.”
Now, the Defense Authorization Act of 2008 requires the Pentagon and the VA to achieve full interoperability of electronic records by September.
Portillo’s state of mind became worse during a deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Portillo, a member of the Nevada National Guard, volunteered to go to Iraq as an active-duty special forces soldier. In March 2007, he was searching for trapped Marines under attack in Fallujah when his vehicle was lifted into the air by an improvised explosive device.
Portillo, now 40, was seriously wounded in the blast and later was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
“The brain injury gave me double the issues I had before,” he said.
After the incident, Portillo knew his 22-year military career was over.
He sought relief from the physical and mental anguish of his injuries by starting a nonprofit called Canines for Combat Wounded, a group that provides service dogs for injured soldiers. Inspiration for the venture came while he was hospitalized in Germany, where he found comfort in the company of a Labrador retriever.
Soon after the group was started, bitter realities set in.
Around the first anniversary of his injury in Iraq, Portillo’s 18-year-old son committed suicide, causing the elder Portillo to drift further from his family.
A worsening financial situation and a fight to get benefits from the VA compounded his problems. Before going to Iraq, he ran a successful window-tinting business that earned him about $100,000 a year. Now he was too mentally unstable for any kind of work.
The low point came earlier this year when he nearly lost his home to foreclosure.
As bad as he feels sometimes, Portillo said, it’s worse for his wife and kids. He and his wife plan to file for divorce, he said.
“They have to deal with me and my outrageous outbursts,” he said. “I don’t know what sets me off, and I don’t know how to stop.”
Portillo has trouble thinking clearly, his moods are erratic, and he sometimes thinks of killing himself.
“I don’t feel anymore,” he said. “It’s like I’m a zombie.”
Through counseling, he hopes to feel well enough one day to reconcile with his wife and go back to school.
“I want to be a dog groomer,” he said.
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404.ON THE WEB