By Lisa Falkenberg
SPRING — Just after Independence Day in 2007, Marty Gonzalez’s picture was on the front page of the Houston Chronicle under the headline “Hometown Hero” for his valor as a Marine, his three Purple Heart medals and his Bronze Star for saving American lives in Fallujah.
Not two years later, the Marine from Spring was standing in the criminal courtroom of Judge Marc Carter, charged with felony DWI with a child passenger.
At first, the judge knew nothing of Gonzalez’s story. He didn’t know that a purple scar snaking past his right elbow was the result of nine surgeries after two bullets from an insurgent’s AK-47 tore into him as he cleared houses during the second siege of Fallujah.
Or, that, in just one day in November 2004, Gonzalez had charged up a stairwell infested with insurgents, braving a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire, not once, but 11 times, while wounded, to help a Marine escape, recover the bodies of comrades and kill several insurgents threatening other squad members.
Or, that, since Gonzalez returned from Iraq, he’d been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. That the pain wouldn’t stop. The anger helped destroy his marriage. The nightmares of buddies dying wouldn’t let him sleep.
Carter knew only that the wiry, 28-year-old before him had risked the life of his 3-year-old son when he drove his truck impaired late one night, falling asleep at the wheel and plowing into a house in Tomball. Luckily, no one was home, and Gonzalez’s son, Adryan, was strapped in his car seat and escaped injury.
In an interview last week, Gonzalez told me he had taken too many pain pills that night “just trying to relax.” His divorce had just become final; he’d gotten custody of his son. A buddy tried to grab his car keys, but Gonzalez insisted on driving.
“Here I was,” he said, “going from a good guy to a felon in one night of stupidity.”
But then the prosecutor, Terrance Windham, a felony division chief, did something prosecutors rarely do. He granted Gonzalez’s request for a pre-trial diversion, an option that would send him to rehab instead of prison.
Two fellow veterans
Once Carter learned Gonzalez’s story, he agreed that the young man with the heroic record and no previous trouble with the law deserved a second chance. Gonzalez certainly had a bit of luck, or fate, on his side. Not only was Windham a veteran, but so was the judge. Carter is a former Army captain and his father was a career Army officer who served in Vietnam.
Carter, 49, a Republican appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003, has made it his personal mission to look out for veterans. About two years ago, he worked with Harris County’s pre-trial services office to flag veterans when they’re arrested and notify the VA hospital.
In March alone, the system logged 350 arrests of veterans, some of whom may have been arrested more than once.
Carter said his experience with Gonzalez convinced him that he needed to do more to prevent wounded warriors from getting lost in the system. “Once you’re a convicted felon, it’s the scarlet letter. The hero designation goes away and is replaced with ‘convicted felon,’ ” Carter said.
Earlier this month, Carter testified in favor of a bill by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, that requires certain judges to establish “deferred prosecution programs” for military service members and veterans whose alleged crime can be linked to a combat-related brain injury or mental illness.
If the prosecutor agrees to a veteran participating in the program, and the veteran completes treatment and other court-imposed conditions, the case can be dismissed and the arrest record expunged. The bill has passed a committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.
Letting the anger go
Carter said veterans would be judged on a case-by-case basis, and the bill isn’t intended for those who repeatedly offend or commit extremely violent crimes.
“Nobody’s in the business of making excuses for crime,” Carter said. “But we have some responsibility, in my opinion, for those who serve.”
Gonzalez appreciates what’s been done for him. He said he’s progressing with treatment and conditions of his probation. He’s starting a new job, working with other wounded warriors. He’s let go much of the anger. He’s forgiven God. He’s found solace in his family, children and a new church.
“I realized ... there’s nothing I can do that will bring anybody back, and I need to stop going down the path that I was going down because it means self-destruction,” he said.
Gonzalez still has a lot of healing to do. A loud sound, a familiar smell can transport him back to Iraq. He still has nightmares that he can’t find his gun. He spends hours watching YouTube videos of Fallujah.
But at least he got a second chance at a normal life that might never have been possible if he’d become lost in the justice system.
There are many others who deserve the same chance.