EUGENE, Ore. - The son of a retired Eugene police officer, Michael Mason returned from two tours of the Middle East a decorated war hero.
According to documents obtained by KVAL News, the Army awarded Mason with awards for valor and heroism during wartime.
Mason “voluntarily exposed himself to direct and effective enemy fire” to protect his fellow soldiers in 2005, according to award recommendations.
"He was the kind of young man that every family in every community hopes to raise," said Alex Gardner, the Lane County district attorney.
Mason is now mostly paralyzed from the neck down, the result of being shot by Eugene police officers responding to a report of shots fired at a shopping mall.
Hero 'watched firsthand the loss of dozens of his fellow soldiers'
Four years and two tours of the Middle East took a traumatizing toll on Mason’s mental stability.
“He watched firsthand the loss of dozens of his fellow soldiers during his combat service,” said Mason’s sister Sara Mason.
Gardner said Mason witnessed the deaths of at least 26 fellow soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And two Wednesdays before Christmas 2010, Mason went shopping at Valley River Center - and snapped.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a cluster of symptoms that are often seen in trauma survivors, military doctors say.
The more severe the trauma, the more intense the symptoms: irritability, fear - even disconnection with reality.
Lane County's chief prosecutor, Gardner said Mason received some treatment for PTSD through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when he returned to the United States after serving overseas.
Gardner said Mason’s family noted irrational behavior in the weeks leading up to Mason firing a gun at cars in the a Valley River Center parking lot.
“He was making a lot of statements that just didn’t make sense,” said Gardner. “He would give non-coherent answers when his family would ask him questions.”
VA: 72,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD
Mason’s family never expected PTSD would drive him to become violent.
“While we knew he suffered,” said Sara Mason, his sister, “we did not fully understand the depth of his hurt, pain or sorrow.”
The VA has diagnosed over 72,000 retired and active service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan with PTSD, according to a report.
The VA also reports that veterans with PTSD are two to three times more likely to become violent. Usually those outbursts are aimed at a spouse or family member.
Law enforcement blames PTSD for dozens of homicides across the nation. Doctors say the traumatizing experience of war causes stress and mood swings that can lead to violent outbursts.
Unlike physical injuries, mental disorders like PTSD are invisible - and are very difficult for the VA to diagnose.
“Sometimes symptoms like anxiety and irritability don’t manifest themselves for several months,” said Dr. James Sardo of the Portland VA Medical Center. “It’s a really complex picture that our soldiers bring back home that we try to assess for.”