FARMINGTON, Maine — For those who knew him best and loved him most, balancing their memories of the 18-year-old Justin Crowley-Smilek who went off to fight for his country with the 28-year-old knife-wielding man who was shot and killed Saturday by a Farmington police officer is a struggle.
Watching his beloved son spiral into delusions and mental illness likely triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder and severe combat stress was heartbreaking, his father, Michael Smilek, said.
But even more troubling as a parent was the fact that by law there was nothing he could do to force his son to seek help following his return from Afghanistan six years ago.
“He was very, very troubled when he came back from overseas,” Smilek said. “My wife and I spent the better part of a year trying to get him the services he needed.”
Crowley-Smilek was shot to death Saturday morning by Farmington police officer Ryan Rosie after he pulled a knife and menaced Rosie, officials said.
Unfortunately, reaching out for psychological help was the one and only choice the honorably discharged Army Ranger needed to make on his own. Smilek and others who work closely with local veterans all agree — unless an individual is a threat to themselves or someone else — forcing them to seek psychiatric help is near impossible.
Charlie Bennett, district adjutant for the American Legion, said the help is there for any veteran who wants it, but “wanting helping” is key. As a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from PTSD, Bennett said it took him several years to finally seek help from the Veterans Administration Clinic at Togus.
“They know what they’re doing there at Togus and other VA hospitals,” Bennett said. “But the hardest thing for a vet to do is ask for help.”
In the days leading up to his confrontation with Farmington police officer Ryan Rosie, the young veteran was wrestling with seeking help. Smilek said his son was receiving out-patient counseling at a Farmington center specializing in combat stress, but had stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder.
Just one day before the fatal confrontation with police — at the urging of a counselor from the center — Smilek said a Farmington judge finally answered his family’s prayers and ordered his son to undergo a full psychological evaluation. Crowley-Smilek went before the court Friday over a February assault charge where he was accused of beating a man over the head with a flashlight and cultivating marijuana.
“Justin didn’t want to be labeled or stigmatized,” Smilek said of his son’s reluctance to seek help. “Society views you differently, and he didn’t want that.”
Smilek said a judge ordering his son to undergo a psychological exam was welcome news to the family, who had sought help for him since his return from the Middle East. Smilek said he even called Togus following court on Friday to see if there was some way he could have his son committed right then and there.
But — as is the case for many family members seeking help for their loved ones — Smilek was again told that unless his son was threatening to harm himself or someone else, there was no way to have him involuntarily committed.
“The problem is none of them think they need help,” American Legion Post 10 Adjutant Don Simoneau said. “Unless you recognize it and unless you’re with them — sitting on them — they don’t think they need help.”
Like Bennett, Simoneau has made it a life mission to help fellow veterans suffering from PTSD get the much-needed help they deserve. Be it just listening and gently encouraging someone to seek services to personally driving guys to Togus, Simoneau has seen more than his fair share of combat veterans returning to a world that suddenly feels foreign to them.
“It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s sad. It’s just a terrible situation,” Simoneau said. “It’s a really, really tough place. But that first step has to come from them. You can’t force them to drink the water, you can only get them to the water.”
As a father, Smilek knows the feeling all too well. In the days and weeks leading up to his son’s court appearance and subsequent confrontation with police, he said Justin was growing increasingly delusional. Smilek said he recently walked away from signing papers to purchase a home and wrote letters to the Veterans Administration and Social Security requesting that the agencies stop sending him monthly checks because he no longer needed the government’s money.
Smilek said there was no chance his 28-year-old son would ever hold down steady employment because he was left completely disabled from his service in Afghanistan. No one in the family understood Crowley-Smilek’s increasingly bizarre behavior.
But Smilek said that no one could have ever predicted Saturday’s tragic turn of events.
“The only sense I could make out of it was that he was unable to ask for help and his way of asking for help was pretty extreme,” Smilek said. “I don’t think Justin expected to get shot. I think he just expected to get taken away in handcuffs.”
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