A Dakota County judge has ruled that an Iraq war vet who was suicidal and hearing voices last year when he carjacked a vehicle and then was hit by a van while running across Hwy. 52 is not guilty because of mental illness.
Blake Uddin, who had served two tours in Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard, was sleep-deprived and hearing voices at the time of his breakdown. He had sought help from the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center four days earlier but was sent on his way after being told he was not a danger to himself or others.
The case was one of several cited in criticism of the Department of Veterans Affairs' handling of mental health cases that prompted the federal agency to pledge to increase its mental health staffing nationwide. The 31-year-old Uddin's struggle was the subject of a Star Tribune story in April.
He had been charged with three counts of attempted robbery and one count of theft from a person stemming from the Aug. 23, 2011, incident. In making his ruling this week, Judge David Knutson supported a finding by a psychologist who said Uddin was suffering from schizophrenia at the time and did not know the nature of the offenses he was committing.
Uddin now faces a civil commitment evaluation, but his attorney hopes that Uddin, a student at the University of Minnesota, will be permitted to continue his studies and stay in outpatient care. Earlier this month, Uddin waived his right to a jury trial and the Dakota County attorney's office agreed to not contest the finding of the psychologist and not pursue the criminal charges against Uddin.
"Our biggest concern with Blake was getting him into the VA hospital for the help that he needs. We successfully did that, and he is now finally receiving that help," said John Baker, Uddin's attorney.
The Wisconsin National Guard had been considering discharging Uddin for misconduct but, Baker said, it is now processing him for a medical discharge, which could significantly affect his ability to seek VA benefits in the future.
Desperate actions recalled
Uddin had packed a bag and fully expected to be admitted to the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center when he sought help last August. He would later report having been unable to sleep for six nights and feeling "clairvoyant."
Instead, after a two-hour exam, doctors said he was not a threat to himself or others, although they called his Guard unit and suggested he not be allowed around weapons. He was given an appointment to come back the following week.
Four days later, with the voices now telling him, "Run ... run ... they're coming," Uddin fled his Inver Grove Heights apartment through a window and tried to steal several cars, eventually making off with a car from the parking lot of Inver Hills Community College. He crashed it and spent desperate minutes rushing across four lanes of morning rush-hour traffic. Footage from an overhead traffic camera shows him stepping in front of a semi-tractor trailer braking to keep from striking him. Then he is hit by a van and thrown 50 feet into a ditch.
Uddin, who initially didn't remember the incident, has pieced together that day and now believes he was trying to get back to the hospital. "I think I was trying to kill myself" when he stepped in front of the van, he said.
The psychologist who would later examine him, Dr. Ernest Boswell, said Uddin was experiencing "an acute, significant, psychotic break." Boswell took the unusual step of criticizing the VA for not admitting Uddin or giving him medication and called the VA's lack of action "perplexing."
Despite a waiver signed by Uddin giving them permission to speak about his case, the Minneapolis VA has declined to discuss how the Uddin case was handled, including whether anyone was disciplined. A notation in Uddin's file, though, indicates the VA believes it handled Uddin properly.
Agency seeking to improve
Even as one in three Iraq vets has sought mental health assistance from the VA, Uddin has never contended that his service in Iraq was a cause for his mental health crisis and he has not been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004-05 and 2009-10, when he maintained communications equipment. Rocket attacks and enemy fire occurred at bases where he was deployed.
Instead, in the weeks before he went to the Veterans Medical Center for help, he said he felt increasingly anxious after missing two weeks of classes. He had just returned from an intensive eight-week language course in California and was facing a weekend of Guard drills and three weeks of make-up Guard duty.
In June it was announced that the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center has been authorized to hire up to 24 additional staff members to beef up its mental health operations, part of an effort by the Department of Veterans Affairs to address concerns that veterans are not getting the mental health attention they deserve. Nationally, the agency is trying to quickly hire 1,600 mental health professionals.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434