MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Kenneth Middlebrook returned from Iraq a haunted man who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told his family horrific stories of war, including about a ghastly incident where he pulled out the bodies of three, decapitated friends from the inside of a burning armored vehicle.
Middlebrook has been in and out of minor legal trouble since his discharge from the U.S. Army in May 2012, prompting his father, Jeffrey, to plead in vain with judges to force his son into more intensive mental-health treatment.
But he was released every time, left to manage his own affairs and arrange for his own treatment.
Until this week. Middlebrook, 23, was arrested on suspicion of holding two women he didn't know against their will Sunday in separate incidents, keeping them in vehicles during a bizarre series of events that began in San Jose and ended in Ione, about 40 miles southeast of Sacramento.
Middlebrook appeared in court Thursday, formally charged with two counts of kidnapping and one count each of robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and residential burglary, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office.
"I don't want anyone to think there is any justification for what he allegedly did," Jeffrey Middlebrook said Thursday. "If he did do what they allege, it's horrific. I feel deeply for the women.
"But the other side of the story. My son went to war. He left a good, happy, loving kid and he came back a devastated human being."
Jeffrey Middlebrook said the time his son spent in the service as an armor vehicle crewman changed him. He even told his father that he "lost his soul" in Iraq.
Back home, he used drugs and made multiple suicide attempts, according to a police report and his father. Even though Kenneth Middlebrook was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression, he refused to stay in treatment. Middlebrook has been involved in at least six minor brushes with the law -- all misdemeanor infractions such as drug possession and being under the influence of a controlled substance.
"The VA has desperately tried to help him," his father said. "His mental capacity to make rational decisions is gone. Every attempt to help him, he's walked out of every program. It's been a two-year battle since he got back, trying to save him."
Middlebrook grew up in Monterey and enlisted in the Army at 19, to the surprise and fear of his parents, who are divorced.
"Do you realize they are going to send you into combat?" Jeffrey Middlebrook told his son, whom he didn't think understood the reality of war.
Assigned to a cavalry division out of Fort Hood, Texas, Kenneth Middlebrook served in Iraq from February to December in 2011, according to Army officials. During his tour, he suffered two traumatic brain injuries but also had other physical and emotional scars, his father said.
Middlebrook told harrowing stories, including about driving a Stryker armored combat vehicle that was targeted in an improvised explosive device blast -- an attack that killed his three friends.
"My son was ordered to pick up their headless bodies," Jeffrey Middlebrook said.
In another attack, a mortar round landed near Middlebrook, sending him flying into a wall. After he shot and killed suicide bombers in a crowded market in a separate incident, he received a commendation for saving the lives of Iraqi civilians, his father said.
As a scout on another mission, Middlebrook called in coordinators for a missile strike on a suspected Al-Qaeda hideout. A little girl who had waved to Middlebrook died in the attack.
"My son is carrying a burden of guilt that no human being should have to carry," Jeffrey Middlebrook said.
Independent reports of Kenneth Middlebrook's service are unavailable. Army officials only confirmed that Middlebrook served active duty for two years, three months, before being discharged in June, 2012 and served in Iraq, receiving seven decorations.
In February, Middlebrook struck up a conversation with a Santa Clara police officer while he was under the influence of drugs, according to a police report. Middlebrook told the officer he was an Army veteran receiving treatment for PTSD at the VA hospital and was released from jail the previous day on drug charges. Middlebrook said he was having a hard time transitioning back into civilian life. The officer arrested him out of concern for his safety.
He ended up in a San Mateo jail two weeks ago for failing to appear in court for an unrelated incident. Jeffrey Middlebrook said he contacted the judge and asked that his son remain in custody.
But the judge granted bail.
Jason Hansman, of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, emphasized that there is no direct connection between violence and PTSD, though many people assume there is when a story about a troubled veteran becomes news.
"It's the fear of all veterans anytime an incident happens and PTSD is brought up," Hansman said. "That's a tragedy because it labels veterans and discourages them from getting help if they need it."
Middlebrook's behavior allegedly took a menacing turn Sunday. A 19-year-old Alviso woman told police she was approached by a man in her driveway. The man, later identified by police as Middlebrook, persuaded the woman to drive him in his vehicle to Mountain View.
She told KTVU that the man said he had a suspended license and that's why he wanted her to take him to his father's house. When they arrived, she told the station, his father wasn't home. He borrowed her phone to make a call. After that, she said, he "snapped out of nowhere," grabbed her arms and put his hands around her throat and over her mouth as she screamed for help.
He ordered her into the trunk, but she told the station that she was able to persuade him to allow her to drive. He threatened to "snap" her neck in a dispute over the passcode on her phone as she was driving the Nisson Maxima onto Highway 101. She eventually and crashed into a Lexus at about 6:30 p.m. to escape, police said.
She jumped out of the car and Middlebrook allegedly drove away, later abandoning it nearby.
About 8 p.m. he entered the home of a 61-year-old Mountain View woman. Police said he forced the woman into her Lincoln Town Car and made her drive through the North and East Bay for hours before ending up in the city of Ione.
There, he got out of the car, and the woman drove off.
"I'm not dismissing the terror these woman experienced," Jeffrey Middlebrook said. "But I hope my son gets a judge who has compassion and understanding of the situation."
312,000: Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at VA facilities.
7.7 million: Adult Americans who have PTSD.
Sources: Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institutes of Health
What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD may develop to anyone after experiencing a terrifying ordeal involving physical harm or threat of harm. It also can occur after seeing others endure harm. Veterans exposed to combat are at high risk and symptoms often are linked to traumatic brain injury. PTSD can be accompanied by depression, other anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Hyper-arousal: Feeling of always being "on guard" for danger, difficulty sleeping and maintaining concentration, irritability, easily startled by loud noises.
Avoidance: Staying away from people and crowds. If a veteran was in a roadside-bomb blast, he or she might avoid driving.
Feeling numb: Unable to express feelings, lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy, inability to talk about traumatic event.
Reliving event: Re-experiencing symptoms through nightmares and flashbacks. Smells, sounds, sights can trigger memories of the incident.
Sources: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Palo Alto Health Care System's National Center for PTSD