They were two Marines from Texas in western Iraq, taking part in some of the worst fighting in the early stages of the insurgency.
Both left the battlefield early — and ended up with Purple Hearts. But one didn’t earn it.
Casey Owens was critically injured and lost his legs when his Humvee hit an anti-tank mine. He committed suicide in 2014 after a decade of suffering from numerous surgeries, brain injury and severe pain.
Brandon Blackstone went home after about a month, his military records show. His medic said he got appendicitis and did not return. The Arlington man ended up in a Dallas federal courtroom last month, where he pleaded guilty to two felonies for claiming he was “blown up” in a Humvee in Iraq in order to profit personally.
Owens’ Marine buddies say they believe Blackstone took key details of Owens’ combat injury and made them his own so he could bilk the government and charities out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“He’s living off a fake story. It’s disgusting,” said Nick Sowers, 38, Owens’ best friend in Iraq who also was wounded in action.
In his guilty plea, Blackstone, 35, admits that he lied about earning a Purple Heart in Iraq to qualify for a mortgage-free house in Fort Worth from a wounded warrior charity. He also received monthly disability checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs for about nine years, officials said. Blackstone did so by forging two witness statements from Marines who he falsely claimed witnessed his war injury, federal court records show.
Federal officials have not yet publicly said how much money Blackstone stole from the government and charities. He faces up to 21 years in federal prison when he’s sentenced in February for wire fraud and fraudulent representation about the receipt of a military decoration for financial gain.
For Owens’ still-grieving family and friends, the news of Blackstone's deception came as a shock, leaving them angry and in disbelief. His sister, Lezleigh Kleibrink, called it a “slap in the face.”
“These were supposed to be your brothers, and you steal valor from one of your brothers?” said Kleibrink, who lives in Trophy Club. “My mom and I just feel so sad for this guy. For someone to do this, you are not a Marine.”
Blackstone was born two months before Owens, in 1981. The two Texans ended up in the same U.S. Marine Corps unit in Iraq during the war. When Owens’ Humvee hit the double-stacked anti-tank mine in 2004, Blackstone was about 400 yards away in a different platoon, witnesses said.
But Blackstone told reporters, charities and others that an explosion left him with a brain injury, ruptured appendix, leg injuries and other physical and psychological wounds. He said he required multiple knee surgeries and an ankle reconstruction. He told reporters he’d earned two Purple Hearts.
“I suffered some pretty substantial injuries and had to be flown to Germany,” he told an interviewer for a British television production about the Iraq war. “I spent several years going through many surgeries.”
Jerome Smith, 34, who was in a vehicle directly behind Owens at the time of the blast, said Blackstone showed him a photo of Owens’ destroyed Humvee and said he was in it.
It was false, the government said. Blackstone was never wounded in Iraq. Andrew Rothman, his former platoon medic, told the FBI that Blackstone actually left about four weeks after his deployment began due to appendicitis.
Blackstone and his attorney declined to comment or answer questions. Justin Sparks, the attorney, released a short statement that said his client “served our country in Iraq suffering several injuries at the time and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and seizures.”
Blackstone’s case is at least the second in three years involving a North Texas Marine who profited off faked war injuries. Michael Duye Campbell, who lived in McKinney, was sentenced to four years in federal prison in August 2013 for falsely claiming to have battle injuries in a scam to raise money to become a professional golfer.
Stolen valor cases involving veterans who actually served in wartime are rare, experts say. Usually, such cases involve civilians who claimed military service they never had.
Christopher Frueh, a research director at the Menninger Clinic psychiatric hospital in Houston, said the easiest lie to tell is one about which you know something. He said it sounds like Blackstone embellished his war experience using some details that were actually true.
“Then it can take on a life of its own,” said Frueh, who is also a University of Hawaii psychology professor.
Owens, a Houston native, was in his second year at the University of Texas at San Antonio when terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
The event jolted him into action. He dropped out and joined the Marines, said Kleibrink, his sister. “He had been searching for what he was meant to do,” she said.
Owens took part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His sister says he was in Baghdad, watching as a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down. The moment signaling the fall of the dictator was captured for audiences around the world.
The following year, Owens was beginning his second tour of duty with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the town of Husaybah in far western Iraq, on the Syrian border. An insurgency had begun months earlier, and U.S. troops were being attacked daily.
Blackstone, a 2000 graduate of Martin High School, was managing a rent-to-own store in his hometown of Arlington when he joined the Marines in January 2004. He was a rifleman with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, according to his military records.
When Blackstone arrived at Husaybah in August 2004, the Marine camp was a dangerous place.
Smith, a machine gunner from Michigan who was in Owens’ platoon and a close friend, said his company was taking enemy mortar fire or gunfire daily. Improvised explosive devices were everywhere, and snipers fired at them from buildings.
Smith and others said their unit had been taking casualties regularly.
“It was bad. It was bloody,” said Sowers, who was Owens’ best friend at the time. “We were targets.”
About three weeks into their deployment, a reconnaissance unit was conducting operations in Husaybah when a Marine was shot in the head by a sniper. But he was still alive.
Owens’ platoon was ordered to help evacuate the wounded Marine to a landing zone in a field outside town where a helicopter would meet them.
They were a quick-reaction force for anyone who needed help. Owens had already risked his life numerous times to help injured Marines.
But while they were en route, they were told to return to base. Owens was in a Humvee in front of Smith’s on a small dirt road known as “Trash Road” when a “massive explosion” went off.
The blast knocked Smith away from the machine gun he had been manning on the Humvee and left him in a disorienting orange-yellow “dust cloud.” His ears rang. Debris rained down on him. Insurgents had buried two mines stacked on top of each other in the road, Smith said.
The explosion tore the right front half of the vehicle off, where Owens sat. Owens took the brunt of the blast and was thrown to the ground.
Smith saw a large black object on the ground when the smoke cleared. “I had no idea what it was,” Smith said.
It was Owens. He appeared to be covered in a black, sooty residue. He had over 200 shrapnel wounds, including a metal shard buried in his throat. A part of one leg was blown off. Both legs were “severely mangled.”
Shortly after, Blackstone told his platoon medic that he had blood in his urine. He was sent to Germany to get his appendix removed. Rothman, the medic, said everyone expected to see Blackstone back in Iraq in about six to eight weeks. He never returned.
Owens woke up in the hospital in Germany, his sister said.
He had about 100 stitches alone in his neck, two collapsed lungs, perforated eardrums and burns across his body. His jaw and collarbone were broken. Doctors had removed his right leg below the knee. He had fractures in both legs, and blood clots nearly killed him.
“It is not Casey. He is swollen, everything is broken,” Kleibrink wrote in an online journal after she and her mother flew to Germany to be with him.
“His mandible had been broken and wired shut; therefore his face is twice the size of what it was. His nose is black with tubes coming out of it. … He had several hundred stitches all over him, tubes on both sides of his lungs, exterior rods in his right arm and left leg to stabilize the fractures, and his right leg is gone below the knee.”
Owens was soon moved to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Several days later, he learned he would lose his left leg. His pain medication caused hallucinations. At times, he thought the Iraqis had captured him. Or that they were at the door, Kleibrink said.
“Please continue to pray for Casey's pain levels,” Kleibrink wrote in her journal. “There are moments when I don't think he can take it anymore, and we don't know what else to do for him!”
About a month after his September 2004 injury, while undergoing physical therapy at the Walter Reed medical center, Owens was awarded his Purple Heart. He also received a Bronze Star and was promoted to corporal.
President George W. Bush and Laura Bush visited Owens at Walter Reed in November 2004, as did top generals and celebrities such as Billy Joel, Jon Stewart and Adam Sandler.
A famous photograph taken of Owens saluting during Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 was published nationwide. He is in dress uniform in a wheelchair.
Cpl. Owens saluting during President George W. Bush's second inauguration.
Kleibrink said her brother was able to use prosthetic limbs. But he had problems with painful nerve bundles that grew on the ends of his stumps that forced him back into a wheelchair. He could feel pain as if his legs were still there. These phantom pains — a common condition for amputees — would continue to torment him for the rest of his life.
Despite his injuries, Owens told people he wanted to go back to Iraq to be with his buddies.
Kleibrink said her brother was “crushed” knowing that he wouldn’t be a lifer in the Marines.
“It was the loss of his dream,” she said.
He competed in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington in 2005 and was the first wheelchair competitor across the line.
But he was soon back in the operating room. The muscle and skin on his amputated legs failed to heal properly, leaving him with painful raw wounds. Additional amputations reduced the size of his right leg.
Owens was still having surgeries to repair problems to what was left of his right leg when Blackstone left the Marines in 2006 as his enlistment period ended.
Blackstone’s life went downhill after he left the Marines.
His wife moved out in October 2006 and later filed for divorce.
He applied for VA benefits in 2006. He was 100 percent disabled and “unemployable,” he said years later in a video for a veterans’ charity. He said in an interview that he became homeless for a while and started using methamphetamine.
Blackstone told a television news station that he drank and used drugs to “cope and try to deal with people.” He said he received inpatient drug rehab for several months and became isolated from his friends and family.
Blackstone said he was hoping to do another tour in Iraq but that the Marines told him he “was no longer needed.”
“I felt cast away. I was angry at myself,” Blackstone said in the promotional video for wounded veterans. He said he wondered “why I was still here when others weren’t.”
Blackstone said he locked himself in his house. He said in an online biography that he had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Germany. It said he also suffered from major depressive disorder, insomnia, anxiety disorder, loss of hearing, and knee and ankle injuries.
He worked briefly as a mental health counselor, according to his Linkedin page, and he began taking classes in 2010 at Tarrant County College. “I had no self-esteem, I had no motivation,” Blackstone said in the promotional video.
He learned about a charity in St. Louis called the Focus Marines Foundation and enrolled in the program in 2011. He said it changed his entire mind-set.
Walt Suhre, chairman of the foundation’s board and a former Marine, said Blackstone was a model participant in the program, formed by veterans in 2010 to help those with “invisible wounds of war” like traumatic brain injury. Participants go through classroom training and mentoring in a remote wooded location. Blackstone was such a success that the foundation videotaped his testimonial and posted it on the website, said Suhre.
Smith, Owens’ Marine buddy, said he met Blackstone in 2012 when Smith was going through the Focus Foundation program. Blackstone had been invited back to help after taking the class. While chatting, Smith and Blackstone learned they both served in the same unit in Iraq. They exchanged stories, but to Smith, there was something not right about Blackstone and what he was saying.
“His stories were not matching up,” Smith said.
Blackstone mentioned the explosion that injured Owens. He showed Smith a photo of Owens’ damaged Humvee and said he was in it. He pointed to scars on his body that he said were from shrapnel. But they didn’t look like shrapnel wounds, Smith thought. Blackstone said Owens was on fire and that he put him out with an extinguisher. None of that happened, Smith said.
Smith said he didn’t say anything at the time because he didn’t want to disrespect the foundation. He asked some of his Marine buddies about Blackstone, but no one knew who he was, which also seemed odd.
“Our units aren’t big. We all know each other,” Smith said. “There’s a few people you don’t know. But nobody can figure out who the dude is.”
Blackstone used his Focus Marines connections to branch out, and things were suddenly looking up.
He formed a charity in 2012 called The Fight Continues with Eric Calley and James Sperry, two former Marines he met at the foundation. Their organization raised money to help veterans and their families. Blackstone and his two partners organized a widely publicized Veterans Day event in 2013 to read the names of more than a million fallen service members.
“We are the next generation going forward, and it’s time for us to give back,” Blackstone told a reporter at the time.
Blackstone traveled across the country as a motivational speaker for veterans. He got engaged in 2012 and flew to Michigan to receive a donated puppy — a cross between a St. Bernard and a Great Dane — to be his service dog. News reports said the puppy would be trained to help warn Blackstone about oncoming seizures caused by the frontal lobe injury he received in Iraq.
The lieutenant governor of Michigan presented Blackstone with a commendation certificate. The breeder, Cliff Brunner, said the dogs sold for $800 at the time.
“Who would do something like that?” Brunner asked about Blackstone’s made-up war injuries. “A disturbed person. … I hope he gets help.”
Blackstone’s medical records are private, but he did tell a judge that he suffers from PTSD and seizures when he entered his guilty plea.
In late 2012, Blackstone received a $150,000 mortgage-free house in Fort Worth from Military Warrior Support Foundation, a San Antonio-based charity. A photo was taken of him accepting the keys with his fiancée and pro golfer David Toms.
Andrea Dellinger, a spokeswoman for the charity, said applicants must have had a combat-related injury to qualify. After three years, the foundation deeds the homes to the veterans. But that didn’t happen in Blackstone’s case, she said. Some former Marines called to tip off the charity about Blackstone’s phony war injuries.
When confronted, Blackstone admitted to making up the story, Dellinger said. It was the first and only stolen valor case the charity has had, she said, after giving out 742 houses since 2010. Blackstone left the house this year, she said.
In 2012, Owens’ depression continued to worsen.
He had moved a few years earlier to Aspen, Colo., so he could continue skiing, using a special mono ski. He told CBS News in 2012 that skiing was the only activity that allowed him to forget the bad things. To a point.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be free,” he told the network. “I don’t think the burden of war is ever gone.”
The former high school football player competed for a time as a Paralympics skier in Colorado. But his brain injury ruled his moods, and the lows were crushing.
Owens tried to return to college but had trouble concentrating due to his brain injury. He was self-medicating with beer and liquor. He still had phantom leg pains.
“He’d call me up drunk in the middle of the night,” Smith said. “He was in so much pain.”
Owens had trouble with his medical treatment. He told CBS News in 2009 that VA doctors wanted to perform another surgery on his leg to repair nagging amputation complications. But the procedure had failed three times before. Each time, more of his right leg had to be amputated.
“I didn’t have much more of my leg to give,” Owens said.
He did his own research and found a doctor who could perform a different procedure, but government approval took six months. Owens said he also couldn’t get help for his brain injury. When he told the VA about his symptoms, he was told they were sinus headaches or migraines, he said. Owens later testified about the VA’s bureaucratic delays before Congress.
Owens got a special needs dog named Harold to help him with panic attacks and depression. He tried to put on a good face.
“I have my bad days and my good days, but when I’m having my good days, I definitely know I’m lucky to be alive and to experience this,” Owens told CBS News on a segment that aired in 2013.
But Owens became more and more withdrawn, his sister said. He had stopped driving using special hand tools. And he was back in his wheelchair. He would forget conversations they just had.
“It was the lowest moment of his life,” she said about his final decline.
He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. A friend found his body in his home in Aspen on Oct. 15, 2014.
Blackstone had built a new life for himself. But the videotaped testimonial about his Iraq experience got around. Owens’ Marine buddies had seen it, and they were comparing notes.
The Focus Marines Foundation got an email from someone accusing Blackstone of being a con man and a fraud, but the nonprofit wanted concrete evidence.
Smith said he and his friends did some investigating and found the letter Blackstone forged to the VA. He said he spoke to the person who supposedly signed it. That person denied writing it.
Someone alerted a federal law enforcement agency.
Blackstone was charged on Sept. 15. He appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Irma Ramirez in federal court in Dallas on Oct. 20, dressed in a dark suit, and pleaded guilty to the two felony charges. The second charge falls under the federal Stolen Valor Act of 2013.
As part of the agreement, Blackstone’s attorney handed over a Purple Heart, enclosed in a small box, to the prosecutor. The defense attorney did not say where his client got the medal.
Blackstone received monthly disability checks from the VA from November 2006 — several months after his discharge — until December 2015, court records show.
In late 2006, he was examined at the Dallas VA Medical Center. He told the doctor he received “multiple lacerations and physical injuries” from the explosion, according to court records.
Calley, who started the veterans’ charity with Blackstone after meeting him at Focus Marines Foundation, said he “disgraced our military and people who are trying to help veterans.” Blackstone, he said, was effective at fooling everyone.
“He convinced hundreds of people he was a decorated war hero and he wasn’t,” Calley said. “Anyone who is willing to do that is horrible in my mind.”
© 2016 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.