Nathan Damigo, an Iraq war vet, gives his brother Josh a tattoo. And, below, Nathan's tattoo, memorializing three friends who were killed in Iraq. Photos by Kelly Davis
Nathan Damigo is sitting in the front room of his brother Josh's apartment. A Black & Decker toolbox is open on the floor in front of him. Nathan's fiddling with a tattoo gun, calibrating it, checking the electrical current.
“The more difficult part about tattooing isn't tattooing itself; it's tuning the machine,” he says.
He's only been doing this for four or five months, but the 23-year-old knows he wants to make it his career. In 2008, the year he spent in jail, he realized he had a talent for drawing.
“I had a cellmate who used to draw all the time, and I'd sit there and watch him, and I'd think, 'That doesn't look too difficult.' I sent some of my pictures home to a friend of mine who, in turn, showed another friend who's a tattoo artist, and when I got out, he kind of dragged me over there to meet his friend.”
The guy told Nathan he'd teach him how to tattoo.
“From the very first one I did, I fell in love with it. I'm like, ‘This is what I'm doing for the rest of my life.'”
Last Thursday, Nathan tattooed an image of a vintage microphone on his older brother's upper arm (Josh is a San Diego musician). Then, on Friday morning, he walked into an El Cajon courtroom and accepted a six-year plea-deal prison sentence and was taken into custody.
On Nov. 11, 2007, only a month home from his second tour in Iraq and after a night of drinking, Nathan held a gun to cab driver Changiz Ezzatyar's head and robbed him of $43. Prior to that, he had no criminal record and a military career described in his court file as “stellar.” But he also lost three good friends in Iraq and, on at least two occasions, almost lost his own life. When he returned home, he suffered nightmares and flashbacks and started drinking heavily. Twice he attempted suicide.
“I thought I went over there to do good, to do the right thing,” he told a psychologist who evaluated him shortly after he was arrested, according to his court file, “but what I found was a nightmare and hell.”
Nathan had struggled with ADHD in school and, when he graduated high school, chose the Marines over college. His dad, Mike, was a Marine, but even still, Josh says, “no one saw it coming. He was just a little skater kid.”
Nathan excelled at boot camp and was stationed with the First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Pendleton. He shipped off for a seven-month deployment to Iraq in August 2005.
His problems started shortly after he returned from that first tour. He'd later tell a psychologist that he felt anxious, didn't like being around crowds and kept having flashbacks to Iraq. He felt guilty that he was still alive while three of his friends were dead. Nathan told the psychologist that he tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of muscle relaxants, but a friend intervened, took away the pills and told him to sleep it off.
He was deployed for a second time in early 2007. Back in Iraq, he told a psychologist, he felt like he regained control of his life. He felt needed by his fellow Marines, he said. But once back home, in October 2007, his symptoms returned, only worse than before.
“He'd wake us up screaming,” his mother, Charilyn, recalls. “He startled real easily. He'd make off-the-wall comments: ‘It feels really strange that when I'm driving, nobody will get out of my way.'”
On Nov. 11, Nathan started drinking at around 5 p.m. Then he headed out to a bar. When someone at the bar found out he was a Marine, everyone started buying him drinks.
He returned home to the apartment he'd just moved into with Josh. Josh was on tour with his band, his family was back in San Jose and most of Nathan's friends hadn't returned from leave. It was close to the second anniversary of the death of his bunkmate, Lance Cpl. Jeremy Tamburello. Nathan told a psychologist that he took out a pistol he'd recently received as a gift and thought about suicide but decided to take a walk to clear his head. He took the gun with him because, he said, it made him feel safe.
It was close to 4 a.m. when he stopped at a park bench to smoke a cigarette. That's when he saw Ezzatyar getting something out of the trunk of his cab. Ezzatyar, Nathan later said, looked Iraqi. He pulled a bandana out of his back pocket—one that he often carried in Iraq to keep the sand out of his mouth—and tied it around his face. According to Ezzatyar's statement to police, Nathan put the gun to his head and demanded money.
In an interview with a psychologist less than a month after his arrest, Nathan said that he didn't fully understand, nor remember, why he approached Ezzatyar. He was angry and, as he put it, “felt dead inside.” He later told Charilyn that he had a hard time figuring out whether he was awake or simply having another nightmare. It wasn't until he was in handcuffs that he realized what was happening.
Josh said that when he went to visit Nathan in jail, “the look on his face was just this look of shock: ‘I can't believe any of this is happening.'”
Charilyn says she and Mike decided to not immediately bail out their son. They thought he was covered by a section of the California penal code that allows vets whose crimes are connected to combat trauma to get probation and treatment instead of incarceration. It was her understanding, she says, that if the family waited a couple of months, Nathan would be released into a treatment program “and that'll be the end of it.”
“We were up in San Jose, and he was down in San Diego,” she says. “We were kind of torn. We could get him out on bail, but say something else comes up—we don't know what caused him to do this. For the time being, it seemed like that might be the safest place for him, as cruel as that sounds.”
While California law allows treatment instead of jail for vets who commit nonviolent offenses, how to handle cases like Nathan's is the unanswered question. In the last couple years, several counties throughout the U.S. have started Veterans Courts, though the courts are, for the most part, open only to those who commit nonviolent offenses. Because Nathan robbed Ezzatyar at gunpoint, he wasn't eligible for a diversion program and, instead, subject to California's mandatory-sentencing laws for gun crimes.
“It was as nonviolent a violent crime can be,” says Nathan's attorney, John Cotsirilos, who took over the case in September and secured a plea agreement from the District Attorney. “No one was harmed; it was almost absurd the way it occurred.”
But, Cotsirilos, explains, “it would also be very difficult for the DA to have dismissed the gun allegation, which carries the mandatory prison term, and explained to the court a legal justification under the law as it is written.”
If Nathan had opted to take his case to trial, the jury would have two options: guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. The latter verdict carries a sentence of six months to 15 years in a state mental hospital.
“Either way, I was going to lose,” Nathan says. “I had to take the best offer [the DA] gave me.” With credits for time served and good behavior, he could be out in a little less than four years.
At his sentencing on Friday, Judge Herbert Exarhos agreed to recommend that Nathan serve his sentence at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo and be considered for the prison's fire crew, though the final decision will be up to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Ezzatyar didn't attend the sentencing but gave a statement to the DA. “I was so scared. I was afraid to do my job in the early morning,” he said. “I still think about what would have happened if I was shot and killed.” As for Nathan, Ezzatyar said, “I feel sorry for him. I don't know why he did that.”
Because Nathan committed his crime when he was still enlisted, he received an other-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, which means he's largely cut off from receiving any sort of veterans benefits.
“There was no support from their end,” Nathan says of the military. “A lot of times, that's the way the Marine Corps is. Once somebody gets into trouble, they're pretty much like a leper. Nobody wants to touch 'em, nobody wants to help 'em. They're just—you've tarnished the name of the Marine Corps, you know? At that point, I hadn't even been found guilty of anything.”
Nathan was released from jail shortly before Christmas 2008—a little more than a year after his arrest. Charilyn managed to get him into an inpatient program at Veteran's Village San Diego, which agreed to take him even though he wasn't eligible for VA benefits. “They made a bunch of exceptions for him,” Charilyn said.
In May 2009, Nathan moved back to San Jose to live with his parents. He got a full-time job with a family friend's construction business and saw a private therapist to keep his PTSD in check.
Last year, California Assemblymember Mary Salas introduced a bill that would have created a statewide system of veterans courts. When that bill came under heavy opposition from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), Salas quickly pulled it from consideration. On Feb. 16, she introduced a revised version of the bill, AB 1925. The bill's first hearing is tentatively scheduled for March 19.
W. Scott Thorpe, chief executive officer for the CDAA, says his organization hasn't yet taken an official position on Salas' new bill, but, he says, it's better than the earlier version.
“Nothing is mandated, which provides the counties with more flexibility.”
The CDAA, Thorpe says, is wary of specialized courts for two reasons: “Number one, cost, and number two, the more specialty courts you have, then you start to distinguish more and more—it's this type of defendant and this type of victim…. For example, let's say you're molested by a veteran as opposed to molested by somebody else. What does that mean?”
CityBeat requested an interview with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis but did not receive a phone call by press time.
San Diego County Deputy Public Defender Steve Binder wants to see a veterans court system that's more inclusive.
“Everyone who goes and serves their country and serves in battle overseas is changed,” he says. “Some have greater resilience and coping mechanisms than others, but we shouldn't be giving up on those who have less, and we should try to think on a case-by-case basis what it takes to address the trauma as well as the offense.
“Because, sadly,” Binder says, “when you send somebody off to prison, you are compounding the trauma from battle with a prison mindset.”
Charilyn says she's struggled with how to reconcile crime and punishment in terms of what her son's been through.
“That's been a tough one as a mom,” she says. “Yes, there are consequences. But I think those consequences should be more in line with recognizing who these guys are and what they've been through and getting them the help they need.
“He spent 13 months in custody,” she says. “It's not like we're just, ‘Oh well, no big deal.' Because I'm trying to think, how would I feel if it were me who had been held at gunpoint? Do I care what this guy's issues are? If he's been to Iraq or not? I mean, I've got a gun pointed at my head. So I'm trying to balance those things, but I think that there was a chance here for the consequences to benefit not just Nathan but everybody else.”
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