When Matthew Ladd came home in 2008 after serving two years in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was more than ready to embrace civilian life.
He attended the police academy at Palm Beach State College. He landed a job with the West Palm Beach Police Department. Life was good.
Then, in October 2010, after spending roughly nine months patrolling city streets, his superiors said they wanted him to undergo a psychological review.
The review was uneventful. Ladd, the psychiatrist wrote, "is NOT suffering from any apparent psychiatric disorders."
"It is further my opinion within a reasonable degree of psychiatric/medical certainty that there are no psychiatric contraindications that would prevent or preclude Mr. Ladd from returning to full duty and performing the essential functions of a police officer," Dr. Norman Silversmith wrote on Oct. 12, 2010.
Six days later, Ladd was fired. His superiors told him they thought he had post-traumatic stress disorder .
"I thought it was a joke," Ladd said.
City officials said that because Ladd, 26, is suing to get his job back, they can't talk about the reasons for his dismissal. City records show only that he did not successfully complete his probationary period. The reason, according to the affidavit of separation, was "failure to perform assigned tasks satisfactorily."
However, his personnel file is bereft of any mention of problems he had on the job.
But, while they didn't put it in writing, Ladd said his supervisors were clear about the reasons they were letting him go. They told him they were convinced, despite a psychiatric opinion to the contrary, that he had PTSD, he said. Once known simply as battle fatigue or shell-shock, the term was coined in the 1970s to describe severe anxiety suffered by many Vietnam veterans who were psychologically crippled by the horrors of war.
Marked by nightmares, bouts of sudden anger, unexplained phobias and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts, the disorder is difficult to diagnose unless a person admits he has a problem, psychologists and psychiatrists said.
"We can only assess what we know," said Dr. Elsa Zayas, chief of psychiatry at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Riviera Beach. If a patient insists he is fine, without contrary information from a friend or family member, the disease can remain hidden, she said.
While saying Ladd's situation is unusual, veterans advocates said there has been unprecedented publicity about the high rate of PTSD among those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the news coverage has focused on the need to provide more services to returning soldiers. However, some said, it may have had unintended effects.
"There may be a stigma," said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, an advocacy group for 45,000 current or former guardsmen and women. "The morbid joke used to be the crazy Vietnam vet. Now, it may be the crazy Afghanistan vet."
He said there are many theories about why it appears returning veterans are having a hard time finding work. A congressional report in May found that the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans in April was 10.9 percent, compared with 8.5 percent for nonveterans. However, other studies have found that the unemployment rates for young veterans, while in the 17 percent range, aren't that much higher than that of their 18- to 24-year-old counterparts who haven't served in the military.
Still, Goheen argues, in a struggling economy where jobs are hard to find, anything could give one candidate an edge or prompt an employer to pick one applicant over another.
In Ladd's case, his attorney Sid Garcia said city officials perceived he had come back from the war with deep psychological scars, despite assurances from a psychiatrist that their assumptions were wrong. "It would be sad that they're being stigmatized for life because of their service in the war," Garcia said.
And, he said, it is also illegal.
Can't fire for PTSD
Florida law prohibits discrimination based on a handicap. "Even if they have PTSD, it doesn't mean they can't be employed," he said. "Each case has to be treated individually."
However, he said, in Ladd's case, the city didn't have to make any accommodations to keep him on the job. The city's own expert cleared Ladd for duty. "You'd think they'd listen to their own doctors," he said.
Even before the department told him to see Silversmith, Ladd said, he had undergone other psychological tests. The Army requires all soldiers returning from overseas to meet with a psychologist. When he enrolled in the police academy, he had to undergo a psychological evaluation. He had another before he was hired by the department.
He is also a sergeant in the Army Reserve where, he said, none of his superiors has questioned his ability to perform.
Zayas, of the VA Medical Center, said the military screening relies on self-reporting. "Most employers are not going to jump to say you have PTSD unless it is impacting the workplace or other employers," she said.
Ladd said the city's suspicions about his mental health appear to have begun when he had a reaction to allergy medication. He was vomiting and having difficulty breathing, he said, and went to a neighbor's house for help. His neighbor called 911 and became incensed when a dispatcher couldn't figure what agency to send. The neighbor cursed at the dispatcher, who ultimately sent paramedics and two West Palm Beach officers to the house. The officers demanded that Ladd go to the hospital, where he was cleared to go home.
Garcia, Ladd's attorney, said police brass thought his client was the one who had cursed at the dispatcher.
After the incident, Ladd said his bosses told him he couldn't return to full duty until he had a psychological exam. When he told a psychologist he occasionally had bad dreams, he said she sent him to the psychiatrist, who ultimately cleared him to return to work. He said he had no idea the allergic reaction was the beginning of the end.
Hoping he could put his years of training as a military police officer into use, he said he has given up his dream of a law enforcement career. After he was fired, he said he applied to other police agencies. All questioned why he left West Palm Beach after just nine months. When he said he was wrongfully terminated, eyes glazed over.
He is now taking classes to be a surgical technician. But, he said, what happened to him wasn't fair.
"I loved working for the city of West Palm Beach," he said. "They ruined my career."