Daniel Sandate and his attorney James Branum sit among papers and boxes in what could best be described as an office disguised as a storage room.
It's a small, cramped space in the Joy Mennonite Church, which is hardly known for its architectural style, but for its history of advocating peace in times of war. It's now the home base for the Oklahoma Center for Conscience.
In some ways, it's a strange backdrop to hear Sandate's story, one of a soldier who went AWOL, but not for reasons of conscience. Certainly during the Iraq war's six-year history, stories of soldiers who have defected and headed to the Canadian border aren't new. Nor would it generate much surprise that, once returned to the U.S., an AWOL soldier faces court martial and prison time.
Daniel Sandate doesn't offer excuses for desertion, but instead says the military failed him by refusing proper mental health treatment for problems of which he said Army officials were well aware.
With documented mental illness, including depression, Sandate's troubled past " he had been abused as a child and suffered serious psychological scars as a result " included run-ins with the law and numerous suicide attempts. Needing some direction after having been through hard times, Sandate said he sought out the military.
"I had some legal issues, got out of jail and had nothing to do after that. I thought infantry was the cool thing to do," said Sandate, who was enlisted by the Army as a private and stationed at Fort Carson, Colo.
Despite all this, Army recruiters signed a waiver acknowledging Sandate's legal transgressions and mental illness. Such waivers aren't common, Branum said. And with rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression already high and increasing among combat veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the NeuroPsychiatry Review, someone like Sandate, whom the Army knew was mentally fragile, wouldn't seem like a good candidate to serve in a war-torn area. Yet he did " for a 12-month tour.
Branum said Sandate handled his military duties relatively well. Surviving three IED attacks and small arms fire in Iraq, as well as seeing casualties from his unit, Sandate tried to stay grounded. The Army, however, took a mental and physical toll. For one, Sandate said, he began to experience back problems at the onset of his Army experience, starting in his first overseas location: Korea.
"I was told by my battalion medic, 'Just wait until we get to Iraq, we'll look at it there.' I got to Iraq and was told, 'There's nothing we can do about it " we're here in Iraq. Wait until we get back stateside.'"
BACK TO THE STATES
When he got back to the states in August 2005, Sandate said it took the military three to four months to determine that he had a herniated disc. Once he arrived at Fort Carson, Sandate said he received treatment for his back, including surgery, but had to walk long distances to the command post to pick up pain medication.
That long trek, he said, coupled with memories from Iraq, turned out to be the breaking point. It was during an online conversation with an Internet friend from Canada that Sandate decided to head north to get away for a while.
"We were talking, and she said, 'Come to Canada, just don't deal with it.' And I said, 'All right.' So I went."
Sandate went AWOL in late February 2006, but will readily admit that the decision wasn't the correct course of action. He said he had been struggling too long with the PTSD and back pain to begin to think straight. Once in Brampton, Ontario, he decided to keep a low profile and stay underground, a decision that was in part due to a message he received on his cell phone from an officer in his Army unit.
"It says that I was a deserter and it's a crime punishable by death," Sandate said of the message.
The fact that he was unknown to the Canadian government and not working meant that he wasn't able to take advantage of the country's health-care system " in other words, no medication for his physical or mental ailments. Sandate and the online friend, who was by this time his girlfriend, decided to grow marijuana in their apartment, which he said he used for medicinal purposes.
Sandate stayed in Canada for more than two years. But in May 2008, things changed: The relationship with his girlfriend soured.
"I'm thinking, 'If she leaves, what does that mean for me and the apartment?' "¦ Things are just crashing for me, I just feel trapped up there, so I try to commit suicide," said Sandate, who cut his wrists while in the apartment bathtub. "In my apartment, I'm bleeding out and the superintendents come knocking at my door saying that the neighbors are complaining about my blood leaking through their bathroom ceiling. I didn't answer them or anything and just heard them say, 'Call the cops.' And that's when all of my legal issues came into play."
Sandate spent 39 days in jail for growing and possessing marijuana. It soon became known to Canadian immigration authorities that he was a U.S. military deserter, and while they desired to keep Sandate in custody, they didn't want to turn him over to U.S. authorities because of what they saw as a threatening voicemail message left by an officer at Fort Carson, the one left a week after he deserted, Branum said.
Released from jail with nothing, save the jail clothes on his back and jail papers in hand, Sandate contacted the U.S. embassy and insisted that he be returned to the states. He soon found his way back to Fort Carson and faced a court-martial hearing.
Sandate's case would not have much punch if it weren't for that waiver signed by Army recruiters. While the military's prosecution team argued Sandate made a commitment to the U.S. Army and failed to fulfill it, Sandate's legal team " which included lead attorney Branum, Cpt. Seth Cohen of the Army Trial Defense Service and Colorado lawyer Bill Durland " argued that the Army failed Sandate by not providing proper mental health care. Through the waiver, Branum said, the military had full disclosure of Sandate's past when they recruited him. Sandate's unsworn testimony merely added more weight to the defense's arguments.
"Daniel gave a powerful statement about his whole life history: his childhood through his experiences in the Army and what happened in Canada and what happened to him once he got here (in Colorado)," Branum said. "He spoke to the court very eloquently and explained to them, 'I'm sorry, this wasn't the right approach to take, but I did what I did.'"
The judge, Col. Debra Boudreau, handed Sandate an eight-month sentence (with 137 days already served) and a bad-conduct discharge, a far more lenient punishment than the recommended 20-month sentence agreed upon by the defense and prosecution.
"Given the problems he had, he did extremely well in the Army," Branum said. "If they had given him proper medical and physical care, he probably would still be in the Army."
Right now, Sandate, who was released on Jan. 20 from Fort Sill's prison, is trying to get his life back together. He is living at the Joy Mennonite Church and looking for work. Despite the case essentially being closed, Branum said there is one sticking point with the military: Sandate is owed about $4,000 for the time he served in jail through his sentencing and hasn't seen any of it.
"He never got continued medical care until we sent our own mental health worker, Bev Jahn. That was the only substantive mental health care he got while he was in the Army. They say, 'Your mental health is paramount,' but if we didn't send someone to see him, he would have had nothing," Branum said.
"Our country says we care about the veterans, but they don't care about the veterans. You see what they did to Daniel; he's a combat veteran, and they treated him like dirt." "Deborah Benjamin