Scott Merryman threatened to kill Joe Biden. His family blames his PTSD.

Scott Merryman, a combat veteran, has struggled with PTSD for years after mistakenly shooting a child in Afghanistan. His latest mental break brought in the Secret Service.

A portrait of Scott Merryman taken in basic training. The troubled ex-soldier from Kansas, now 37, is facing two federal charges for allegedly threatening to kill the president. (Michael Noble Jr. for The Washington Post)
A portrait of Scott Merryman taken in basic training. The troubled ex-soldier from Kansas, now 37, is facing two federal charges for allegedly threatening to kill the president. (Michael Noble Jr. for The Washington Post) (Michael Noble, Jr./For The Washington Post)
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There is no evidence that Scott Merryman, a 37-year-old war veteran, was motivated by political hatred when he trekked a thousand miles to the D.C. area, vowing to “slay the Anti-Christ,” as he called President Biden on social media.

The former paratrooper, emotionally troubled for more than a decade, had suddenly become delusional, obsessed with the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Believing he was a God-anointed prophet of the world’s final days, he set out, in his words, to “lop the head off the serpent in the heart of the nation.” When Secret Service agents intercepted him in January, he was carrying three bullets, though no gun.

Weeks later, at a pretrial hearing, the burly, bearded ex-soldier from rural Kansas, charged in an indictment with threatening to kill the president, walked to the witness stand in a federal courtroom in Baltimore. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder since 2009, and reportedly recovered from the temporary psychosis that led to his arrest, he moved with a weary gait, clad in a jail-issue orange jumpsuit, white socks and floppy shower sandals.

“Are you feeling depressed?” a defense attorney asked.

“Very much so,” Merryman replied, adding, “I tried to hang myself Thursday.”

To those who know him best, especially his loved ones, Merryman is far less a culprit than a casualty of war — a living reminder of the price of America’s long conflict in Afghanistan. Over the years, in therapy with mental health clinicians in the Department of Veterans Affairs, he has said he is haunted by a firefight in an Afghan village in which he mistakenly machine-gunned a small girl. His doctors call this fatal tragedy his “target trauma,” or the main traumatic event at the root of his disturbance, a horrifying experience that he must somehow come to grips with if he hopes to ever get well.

Testifying calmly, he said he twisted a bedsheet around his neck and suspended himself from the bunk in his cell — but he couldn’t keep his feet off the floor.

“If there was a way to hang from the ceiling, I would be dead.”

The suicide attempt — “a cry for help,” as he puts it now — was just the latest episode in a history of self-destructive behavior by a veteran afflicted with numerous PTSD-related maladies, including major depression, alcoholism and chronic nightmares, resulting from what the Army says were his “multiple exposures to combat.”

Since returning from deployment in 2008, Merryman, like a lot of people with PTSD, has often been in denial about his illness, refusing to go to hospitals in the throes of mental crises, some of them mortally dangerous. Many times, he ignored VA’s outreach, while his family’s desperate efforts at interventions came to naught. Other times, when he was willing to undergo treatment, he encountered bed shortages in VA medical centers or labyrinthine hospital-admissions procedures that left him and his relatives angry and exasperated.

“I’m just — I’m losing hope,” he said.

Facing two federal charges for allegedly threatening Biden’s life, each punishable by up to five years in prison, Merryman has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, asserting that because of his transitory psychotic break, he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time it occurred.

As he sat in the witness box in U.S. District Court in Maryland, he was stuck in a kind of limbo.

The criminal case could drag on for months. In the meantime, Merryman’s lawyers argue, their client urgently needs in-depth care for his PTSD. They say he should be housed in a psychiatric hospital while he awaits a trial. Chief Judge James K. Bredar agrees, but insists that the treatment take place in a locked ward, with Merryman under guard. The problem is, defense attorneys and prosecutors have yet to find a mental health facility that meets the court’s security requirements and also would accept Merryman as a patient. Even VA has declined to help, citing its rules against treating prisoners.

So Merryman, despite his fragile equilibrium and suicidal tendencies, remains behind bars without access to comprehensive therapy.

On the bench that morning, Bredar sounded incredulous. “I’m very frustrated by the fact that this is a mental illness and … there’s just this black hole,” he told the lawyers, none of whom could offer a viable solution.

Prosecutor Michael C. Hanlon said: “I imagined that there were hospitals where you could hold a person pending trial if they had a mental health issue, and it was like detention. … You see this on television.” However, in the federal justice system, Hanlon said he was surprised to learn, “we simply do not have hospitals that hold people on a pretrial basis” who require intensive psychiatric care in a secure setting.

“It just blows my mind,” said Elizabeth “Liz” Oyer, then an attorney for Merryman.

Before moving him to a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Chicago for a 45-day mental evaluation this spring, the U.S. Marshals Service held Merryman in the Prince George’s County, Md., jail. A psychiatrist who examined him for the defense said that late last year, Merryman had abruptly cut back on one of the many prescription drugs he used for his PTSD, a change that might have caused his short-lived psychosis. After his arrest, when he began taking the proper dosage again, his delusions went away, the psychiatrist reported.

But his debilitating stress disorder persists, as ever.

In a video interview from the jail, talking with a reporter about his service in Afghanistan and his years of emotional turmoil, Merryman is lucid, soft-spoken and at times ruefully self-deprecating.

“I started having thoughts of worthlessness,” he says, recalling the night in his cell when he coiled the bedsheet. “Like, now the VA won’t help me. I’m a burden on Liz. I’m a burden on my family. I’m a burden on everyone.”

He says with an empty shrug, “I just started thinking it would be better if I wasn’t around.”

‘Please allow me to be a soldier’

Born in 1984 in the croplands burg of Neodesha, Kan., about 130 miles south of Topeka, Merryman grew up shuttling between there and Nevada after his parents divorced when he was a toddler. His mother, a medical billing manager, moved to Las Vegas, while his father stayed in Neodesha, working as a rural-route mail carrier on the tall-grass prairie.

After earning a GED, Merryman went into the Army in 2005. His mother, Terry Bryant, remembers how excited he was, talking about the military as a career, as “the kind of structure he needed.” Because Merryman had passed two bad checks at a gas station the year before, when he was 19, he had to compose a statement for the Army requesting a misdemeanor waiver to enlist.

“I want to join the Army so I can have a good life and serve my country,” he wrote. “Please allow me to be a soldier.”

As a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, Spec. Merryman was in Afghanistan for 15 months, starting in January 2007. At a sprawling forward operating base called FOB Salerno, in the Afghan province of Khost, near Pakistan, his platoon was assigned to a detention facility, keeping watch on captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, some of whom were brought in by Green Berets from the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group.

The Special Forces soldiers often carried out “snatch-and-grab” missions, ranging deep into the countryside and returning to Salerno with high-value prisoners. Like other paratroopers at the detention site, Merryman says, he occasionally accompanied the Green Berets.

“They would need extra bodies sometimes,” he says. “They’d be in some village, and we’d stay with the vehicles and just be dismounted and give rear-guard for them.” According to his service record, he also volunteered for “numerous missions” in support of a tactical intelligence-gathering team, prowling the Afghan hills and valleys while “knowing full well the hazards.”

In recent interviews, retired Lt. Col. Kenneth Ratashak, who was second-in-command of Merryman’s battalion, was initially skeptical that soldiers posted to the detention facility “would be outside the wire running combat patrols,” given the time demands involved in overseeing detainees. But after he checked with one of Merryman’s former platoon leaders, Ratashak confirmed “that they did do this type of activity,” unbeknown to the battalion staff.

Merryman says one firefight, indelible in his mind since 2007, occurred in Khost’s Nadir Shah Kot district during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which fell mostly in September that year. By then, he and his first wife, whom he had married after basic training, were parents of a baby girl. Merryman had been granted leave from Afghanistan the previous March to witness the induced birth and had returned to Khost buoyed by thoughts of his infant daughter.

The skirmish in Nadir Shah Kot, the shouts and adrenaline and staccato din of automatic weapons, erupted at dusk, he says.

“We were taking casualties. … I had a machine gun, and instead of just doing controlled bursts, I was — I had to cover my area, my sector of fire — and instead of sticking to my training and doing ‘PID,’ they call it — positive identification — I was just dumping rounds at that point.”

He says he was outside a Humvee with an M-249 light machine gun.

“Through the chaos of just spraying rounds, a family was trying to get out of the area where more and more fighters were coming in — where we were taking casualties from my sector of fire. And I started going ‘cyclic,’ they call it. That’s holding the trigger down to where the machine gun would fire all the rounds that you have. And I ended up hitting a little girl who was trying to cross the street. … I mean, she just panicked with all the gunfire going on and just ran out.”

He says she was maybe 4 years old.

“I knew the little girl was dead. After the smoke and everything from the gun had cleared up, I knew. And it had to be me.”

Of the 46,000-plus Afghan civilians who lost their lives in two decades of war, about 12,000 were killed by U.S. and coalition forces, according to political scientist Neta C. Crawford, co-founder of the Costs of War Project, based at Brown University.

In the years after his deployment, Merryman would rarely talk about Afghanistan outside therapy — and even in counseling, he would usually keep the worst bottled up. His mental health records, compiled by his lawyers, date to 2008 and fill the better part of a file drawer. With Merryman’s permission, they gave copies to The Washington Post. There’s the voice of a father in those 2,000 pages, a father who can’t find absolution.

“I took someone’s daughter away from them,” he would say in tears. “I took away someone’s joy.”

In Neodesha (population 2,100), Jeanne Irvine, 84, a self-described Christian “prayer warrior,” remembers the only phone call she got from her grandson Scott while he was in Afghanistan.

“It seemed normal at first, checking on the family and so on,” but she soon realized he was upset. “All of a sudden he said, ‘Grandma, I don’t understand — will God ever forgive me for the things I’ve done over here?’ ”

She said of course God would, and she left it at that, sensing he wouldn’t tell her more.

Plagued by nightmares and suicidal urges, Merryman was hospitalized for acute psychiatric care in 2008 while he was home on leave after deployment, the records show. In 2009, he spent two weeks in an Army mental health ward and was found to be suffering from PTSD, a diagnosis reaffirmed by VA specialists numerous times since. Next came three surgeries for knee and back injuries from his years in the airborne. By the time he was honorably discharged in 2010 and returned to southeast Kansas as a disabled veteran, he and his first wife had two small daughters, but their marriage was ending.

“He was just withdrawn into himself,” Terry Bryant says of her son, who moved in with her. Bryant had left Las Vegas and settled on a small ranch near Independence, Kan., 15 miles from Neodesha. “And so hypervigilant!” She says he went around with his head on a swivel; he had a panic attack in a Walmart.

“If you would walk up behind Scott and he didn’t know you were there, he’d jump out of his skin,” Bryant, 61, says. “He’d stay in his room and not come out. He’d sleep during the day and be up all night.”

Experts in PTSD say people are affected differently by traumatic stress based on myriad personal factors, such as temperament, childhood experiences and genetics. While many soldiers endure appalling violence without losing their mental health, others aren’t so fortunate. For Merryman, the records show, post-deployment life has been marred by depression, guilt, outbursts of rage, “intrusive memories,” alcoholism, opioid abuse, failed relationships and gruesome attempts to escape his suffering. A VA psychologist once described him as sobbing in therapy, slumped in a chair, wondering aloud, “Am I weak?”

From Neodesha and Independence, where he lived alternately with family members, girlfriends and by himself, the nearest VA medical centers are two to three hours away by car, in Wichita and Topeka. Getting him to make the trips was never easy for his loved ones.

In June 2010, a month out of the Army, Merryman was arrested in Independence for tampering with an oxycodone prescription, upping it from 60 pills to 80. He would later say that he had been doctor-shopping at “random ERs,” feeding an addiction to painkillers stemming from his three surgeries. With the criminal case pending, he began meeting with a mental health practitioner at a rural VA clinic, while his mother begged him to get more-intensive treatment. When she tried driving her son to the VA hospital in Topeka, she says, he jumped out of her pickup truck at 40 mph, “tucking and rolling” like a paratrooper on the highway shoulder. Not until May 2011, after he was put on probation for the script forgery, did he finally go through opioid detox.

Which didn’t stop his whiskey drinking.

Bobby Dierks, the Montgomery County, Kan., sheriff at the time, remembers June 16, 2011, when Merryman, “heavily intoxicated,” was holed up alone in his mother’s ranch house, threatening to shoot himself. Dealing with a mentally unstable combat veteran who might have a gun, deputies cautiously surrounded the place. But the sheriff, an old friend of Merryman’s family, decided not to wait.

“I knew Scott wouldn’t hurt me,” Dierks says. He says he strode into the house through an unlocked doorway and found Merryman semiconscious in his bedroom, “bleeding out” from a slashed wrist.

The scene was painfully familiar in America: From 2001 to 2014, an average of 19 to 21 veterans per day died by suicide, according to a VA study. Among younger veterans — those of Merryman’s generation, in the post-9/11 era — the per capita suicide rate was nearly two times the rate for nonveterans.

After Merryman spent the night in a local hospital, Dierks quietly put him in jail for a week without charges to keep him safe, on suicide watch, until a bed became available in a VA psychiatric ward. “If I would have got caught doing that, I’d have been in big trouble,” the former sheriff recalls. But Merryman’s mother was all for it, and Merryman says now he was grateful.

“We all love Scott,” Dierks says. “He’s a good kid.”

From the county lockup, Merryman went to Topeka for six days of acute care, and a couple of months later, in September 2011, he entered the VA medical center in Leavenworth, Kan., for long-term treatment.

Weeks into his stay there, he was stalled in therapy.

“We are approaching his PTSD trauma without being able to talk about it for more than 5 minutes,” psychologist Brandy Ellis noted in a progress report. When she suggested that his anguish seemed associated with a child’s death, Merryman “put his head in his hands” and cried, then got up and paced outside her office. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he kept pleading. “I swear it was an accident.” He said that he felt “like a pressure cooker,” that his nightmares were getting more vivid. Eventually, Ellis recommended that he undergo an emotionally taxing form of PTSD treatment called “prolonged exposure.”

Starting in mid-autumn 2011, in nine weekly meetings with psychiatrist Paul Neal, Merryman closed his eyes and visualized the firefight in Nadir Shah Kot, narrating it aloud, over and over, in the present tense. Some days he curled on the floor in the fetal position during the hour-long sessions. And between meetings, lying in his Leavenworth dorm room at night, he listened to recordings of himself recounting the clamor, the gun smoke and the child falling in the dust. “This little girl was the same age as one of his girl’s now,” Neal wrote. “It is clear he feels a great deal of shame and remorse.”

When he was discharged from Leavenworth in early 2012, having confronted his “target trauma” and begun the long work of trying to put it behind him, “I had some kind of peace,” Merryman says. “ ‘Salvation’ is a good word.”

Back home, “he did great for a while,” his mother says. To her knowledge, Merryman hadn’t shared his worst Afghanistan memories with anyone in the family except his ex-wife. After Leavenworth, Bryant says, “Scott and I were upstairs sitting on his bed, and he just said, ‘I know you’ve been wanting to talk about this, and I want you to know what happened.’ He said: ‘I killed a little girl. … It was an accident during combat.’ ” When he finished his story, Bryant recalls, they embraced, and she thanked him, assuring in a low voice: “Remember, Scott, no one thinks badly of you. You were in a war.”

After that, she says, “he never talked to me about it again.”

On June 12 last year, Merryman tried to kill himself with an electric table saw. Alone and drunk on Irish whiskey (“I was a fifth of Jameson in,” he says), he set up the saw in his father’s living room and held his right forearm lengthwise against the whirring blade — until spurts of arterial bleeding shocked him halfway to his senses. Then he whipped off his belt and used it as a tourniquet.

“I was a fumbling mess,” he says. “I thought to call 911 with one hand as I’m holding the belt on my arm with my feet.”

Nearly a decade had passed since his Leavenworth treatment, and the optimism spawned by his hospitalization there was long gone. The care he got in Leavenworth in 2011 and 2012 was the most comprehensive he has ever received, but he failed to consistently take part in follow-up therapy. “I thought I was cured,” he laments. Losing touch with VA for weeks and months at a stretch, he relapsed into despair, self-isolation and binge drinking, which tended to spiral into calamitous meltdowns. Although he kicked opioids, he twice pleaded guilty to drunken driving after leaving Leavenworth. He also enrolled in online college courses and supplemented his disability income with home-remodeling jobs, yet these were only lulls in the storm.

As he lay covered in blood on his father’s floor a year ago, he thought about his children, he says. In the past, his two girls, plus two boys born more recently, had been the reason he didn’t end his life. The boys’ mothers are ex-girlfriends of Merryman’s; they grew tired of his volatile mood swings and split with him. While acquaintances say he and the women had epic arguments, he was never charged with domestic violence, according to a statewide criminal database. The only assaultive behavior on his rap sheet occurred in 2018, when he got in a drunken tussle with police officers outside Stoney’s Grub and Pub and later made “physical contact with a judge on duty,” which cost him an $824 fine.

That night last June, after doctors in Neodesha stanched his bleeding, he was airlifted 115 miles to Wichita for emergency surgery, and in July, he checked into the VA hospital in Kansas City, Mo., for substance-abuse treatment. When he came home, he looked better, his mother says. In August, he married a woman he’d met in Independence that summer, a Christian pastor and mother of four. The outdoor ceremony, in the shade of oaks and evergreens, was “beautiful,” Bryant recalls. “It was the happiest I’d seen Scott in a long, long time.”

Merryman’s wife, 44, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect her privacy, says she knew early in their relationship that he had extreme PTSD. For most of last fall, he seemed to be holding up pretty well — he helped organize two big cookouts for veterans and their families in Independence and rode in Neodesha’s Veterans Day parade, smiling and waving from a float. But on Dec. 2, with Merryman intoxicated and threatening to kill himself, his wife put him in her Jeep and set out for the Wichita VA medical center.

“I was going 45, 50 miles an hour,” she says, when Merryman, not for the first time in his life, opened a door of a moving vehicle. “He just jumped out,” she recalls, still astonished.

She got help that evening from two of her husband’s buddies. Merryman says the friends, both veterans, locked him in a livestock trailer for six hours until he woke up, hung over, and banged on the walls to be let out. The friends arranged for him to travel to a private addiction-rehab center in western Pennsylvania — and it was there, a week into his stay, that he began having “hyper-religious thoughts,” the records show.

After he walked away from the facility Dec. 13 and was found sitting on church steps in a nearby town, Merryman told his wife by phone that God had spoken to him in chapel, that the Almighty wanted him to abandon rehab and return to Kansas on foot. She persuaded him to take a plane instead. Back in Neodesha, he visited Jeanne Irvine. “He said, ‘Grandma, I’d like to have Bible study with you,’ ” which she considered a blessing at first. In her living room, they turned to the Scriptures. “And then he went off on a tangent,” Irvine says.

In the Book of Revelation, which Merryman fixated on, it’s said that before the world’s fiery demise, God will choose two witnesses, or prophets, to go about the Earth for 1,260 days, heralding Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.

“He asked me, ‘Grandma, do you think it’s possible I’m one of the two witnesses?’ And I said, ‘No, Scott, I don’t believe that.’ I said, ‘Things are bad now — but not as bad as they’re going to get in the end times.’ ” The more they met for Bible study, though, the more he “truly believed” that Judgment Day was at hand, Irvine says.

“And he believed he’d been called to be one of the prophets.”

‘Lop the head off the serpent’

The road trip that landed Merryman in a Baltimore courtroom began Tuesday, Jan. 25, at the Little Bear gas station in Neodesha. Jay McGeary, a freight hauler who lives in town, was leaving for D.C. that morning in his Dodge pickup, pulling a trailer load of steel to a construction site near the White House. His pal Merryman asked if he could ride along. McGeary, glad to have company, said sure, and they agreed to meet at the Little Bear.

“I wished I hadn’t,” McGeary, 47, says now.

On Facebook, Merryman announced, “I’m going on a God led journey to our nations capital,” and urged, “Watch my strategic moves for the coming days,” which worried his family. When Bryant called her son on Tuesday, he and McGeary had been traveling for hours.

“He was rambling about his mission,” she says. “He told me, ‘I’m going to visit Joe Biden,’ ” and hung up.

After Merryman’s wife texted him, urging him to come home, he phoned the Independence police and reported that she was “stalking” him. This led to a flurry of calls among his wife, his mother and a police sergeant, in which the sergeant learned that a mentally ill veteran, a self-proclaimed prophet of the apocalypse, was headed to Washington to see the president. The sergeant alerted the Secret Service.

In the driver’s seat, listening to Merryman, McGeary says, “I let it go in one ear and out the other.” That first day, he kept teasing his friend: “Hey, Scott, you just going to knock on the White House door and ask if Joe’s here?” But the next day, as they were approaching Maryland, the joking abruptly ceased. A Secret Service agent had been trying to contact Merryman, who wasn’t answering his phone. So the agent called McGeary, which “scared the s— out of me,” he says. Soon, Merryman was on the phone with the agent, ranting about a “serpent,” while McGeary thought, “They’re going to throw me in prison.”

The Secret Service said in a court affidavit: “Merryman stated that he had been told by God to travel to Washington, DC, to ‘lop the head off the serpent in the heart of the nation.’ Merryman denied that the serpent was the President.” By this point, McGeary had had enough. “Look, I love Scott to death,” he says — but when they reached Hagerstown, Md., 80 miles northwest of Washington, he pulled into an Exxon station and left Merryman there, then notified the Secret Service.

On Wednesday night, when two agents located Merryman in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Hagerstown, he reiterated that he was on his way to decapitate a serpent “but denied the comment was a threat towards the President,” the affidavit says. Apparently none of his ramblings thus far had amounted to a federal offense. After the agents searched his backpack — finding three .45-caliber bullets in a pistol magazine, but no weapon — they let him go. It wasn’t long, however, before Merryman allegedly crossed the line into making illegal threats.

He got a room at the Sleep Inn & Suites near the Cracker Barrel and allegedly posted lurid screeds on Facebook, warning: “I believe Joe Biden is the AntiChrist now and he will suffer a fatal head wound. I’ll deal that blow in Christ’s name. … And I’m going to do it with bullets and no gun.”

The next morning, Jan. 27, he made similar threats on Facebook and by phone with a White House call-taker and a Secret Service agent, the affidavit says. Then he began loudly “bothering other guests” in the motel lobby, according to a police report. State troopers arrived, a struggle ensued and Merryman ended up in the local jail, charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The Secret Service took custody of him the following Monday.

“Scary, scary, scary” is how Bryant recalls those days and nights when she feared her son would commit suicide-by-cop.

Their last texts before his arrest:

What to do now with a broken war veteran?

“I wasn’t thinking right,” Merryman told defense psychiatrist Ronald J. Koshes in March, after he had been in jail for weeks. Referring to the delusions, he said, “I didn’t come out of it until I restarted my meds.”

Late last year, Merryman had sharply reduced his dosage of Cymbalta, an antidepressant, which could have caused his psychotic break, Koshes reported. Medications aside, experts also have noted a heightened risk for temporary psychosis, including delusions, in people with severe PTSD symptoms.

Koshes, a former chief of inpatient psychiatry at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said that Merryman is no longer psychotic or a danger to the public — that he “shows significant insight with regard to his actions” in January and “a desire to move past this terrible episode.” But his crippling PTSD remains, Koshes wrote, and given his “history of very significant suicidal ideation and attempts,” he needs “a high level” of treatment. “It is my opinion that this cannot be done on a mental health unit in a jail,” where resources are typically scarce, Koshes said. Echoing defense lawyers, he said Merryman should be getting comprehensive care in a psychiatric ward while he awaits his trial.

On the witness stand in Baltimore, four days after he tried to hang himself, Merryman described the care he had been receiving in the Prince George’s County jail. Mental health staffers delivered his meds to his cell, where he was on lockdown, he testified. “They said: ‘How are you feeling today? Are you homicidal? Suicidal?’ Check, check — and bye.”

Even though Merryman isn’t delusional anymore, Judge Bredar has insisted on tight pretrial security for a man accused of threatening to kill Biden. At the same time, the judge acknowledged Merryman’s urgent need for PTSD treatment and implored VA officials “to take the defendant into their care” under strict detention rules set by the court.

But VA said no.

To protect itself from the “untenable situations” of veterans being “transported to VA … from jails and prisons,” the agency said, it long ago enacted regulations barring VA hospitals from treating veterans who are in the custody of the justice system. In the past, the “referral of prisoners to VA … presented potential danger to other patients and VA staff or disrupted operations because of the presence of armed law enforcement personnel,” the agency’s general counsel, Richard Sauber, told Bredar in a letter.

“The VA very much wants to do whatever it can to help Mr. Merryman,” Sauber wrote. “We do, however, have certain legal and practical limitations.”

In searching for other options, the lawyers have come up empty.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, with limited space in its medical centers, said its “primary mission” is to treat inmates who have been convicted and sentenced. The bureau said it has no room for pretrial prisoners who require long-term therapy — except for defendants deemed mentally incompetent to participate in legal proceedings, and Merryman isn’t one of those. As for state-run forensic psychiatric hospitals, and the D.C. government’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, they have no contractual agreements with federal authorities to assist detainees in Merryman’s predicament, defense attorneys say.

And private hospitals aren’t secure enough to satisfy the Marshals Service.

“I’m really almost without words,” Bredar declared from the bench, wondering in an irked tone, “How is it that we have somebody who’s so clearly ill and we’re just not in the position to house him in an appropriate treatment center?”

“Your honor, I share your frustration,” said Hanlon, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland, whose office declined to comment on the case.

That night when he fashioned a noose from his bedsheet, Merryman recalls, he saw no meaningful future for himself. “I was alone,” lying on the bunk, “and I guess I was just thinking about things too much.”

In a cinder-block room at the jail, staring into his lap, he says quietly, “You know, my brain, the way it works, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy.”

Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by Alexis Arnold. Copy editing by Martha Murdock. Editing by Lynh Bui. Fredrick Kunkle and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or visit You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging Crisis Text Line at 741741. Scott Merryman threatened to kill Joe Biden. His family blames his PTSD.

James Brien

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