Original article no longer available
Sun Post News
Written by Ben Marrone
Friday, 07 March 2008
MANTECA – A 39-year-old Army sergeant suffering a mental breakdown was killed Feb. 24 when he ran in front of a tractor-trailer on Highway 120.
Sgt. Eric Neil Martinho, of El Paso, Texas, was struck at 2:45 a.m. by a semi-truck traveling eastbound on Highway 120 near Airport Way, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Investigators had initially considered the death a suicide, based on accounts from witnesses and the driver of the truck, who said he saw Martinho run into the road but was unable to stop in time.
However, police later learned that Martinho, an Iraq War veteran, was suffering from a mental breakdown brought on by combat trauma, and was likely unaware of his surroundings, according to California Highway Patrol spokesman Adrian Quintero.
“He wasn’t suicidal. It was more mental,” Quintero said. “He was under the impression that he was still in combat.”
Earlier, at 12:23 p.m. on Feb. 23, Martinho had driven his car off the road on Highway 120 west of Union Road, Quintero said.
Paramedics responding to the crash believed that he was intoxicated, but further tests showed no signs of alcohol or drugs.
Realizing that Martinho’s behavior may have been caused by psychological problems, paramedics decided to take him to nearby Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Manteca for diagnosis, Quintero said.
He stayed there for more than 12 hours, until about 2 a.m., when he fled the hospital.
“When they were going to move him over to mental health, he basically took off running,” Quintero said.
A Kaiser Permanente spokesman, citing the patient privacy law, refused to describe what happened while Sgt. Martinho was at the hospital, but did say that he left the hospital without being discharged.
Hospital staff called Manteca police, who began a search.
But half an hour later, Sgt. Martinho reached Highway 120 where he was killed, more than a mile from the hospital.
Quintero said witnesses to the collision said Martinho moved as if he was in battle.
“From the statement (the investigator) obtained…it seemed like he was weaving in tactical maneuvers,” Quintero said. “They said it was kind of weird, like he was in combat.”
Hospital staff also told investigators that Martinho behaved as if he was in combat, Quintero said.
Martinho, who was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, had served 17 years in the Army, including two tours of duty in Iraq, and had returned about a year ago, according to family members.
An Army spokesman confirmed that Martinho had served at least two tours in Iraq but could not give specific dates.
The spokesman said that Martinho was conducting a training exercise at the Sharpe Army Depot the morning of the crash, and had left in his car to “retrieve some information.”
His brother, Manuel Martinho, who lives in Crescent City, California, said that Martinho had suffered from mental health problems since his second tour of duty in Iraq, and had been prescribed anti-depressants by Army doctors.
“He had trauma, that’s for sure,” his brother said. “He was the kind of guy where he didn’t tell me a lot, but he wasn’t doing well.”
Martinho had driven alone from Fort Bliss to San Joaquin County for the training exercise, according to his brother.
He described Sgt. Martinho as a down-to-earth guy, but also one of the most driven members of his family.
“He was a real easy-going guy, fairly quiet unless you got to know him. Then he was a clown,” Martinho said.
Manuel Martinho said he was honored by the military burial and three-volley salute for his brother, but he also wondered whether the Army could have prevented his death.
“The funny thing, the only thing that did not make sense if the military knew he was on anti-depressant drugs, why would they send him all the way over there by himself?” Martinho said.
The Army expects to complete an investigation of Martinho’s death by the end of April. An investigation into his death by the California Highway Patrol is also ongoing.
Martinho was buried at Grants Pass, Ore., near his boyhood home of Selma.
He leaves behind his wife, Penny Farley, his father, Manuel Martinho, four brothers, three sisters and a daughter.