AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than one week after being found not guilty by a Travis County jury on charges of assaulting a police officer, Marine veteran Gene Vela says he will check himself into a Veteran Affairs clinic in Temple on Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with KXAN’s Sally Hernandez, Vela, 31, says he’ll be getting treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Treatment was something he was trying to do for months before he was shot three times by Austin police during a stand-off in November 2013, the day before Veteran’s Day.
Vela says he remembers bits and pieces and often had flashbacks in jail from the night a friend called Austin police to check on him. When officers arrived, police said Vela pointed a gun at them. Vela’s lead defense attorney Skip Davis — a war veteran himself — successfully argued Austin police did not announce their presence and Vela was protecting his property and was suffering from PTSD. Davis says the acquittal is not only life changing for Vela but should change how Austin police respond to certain calls.
“It’s time for the Austin Police Department to evolve it’s mental health approach in dealing with citizens with mental health in this community,” explains Davis. Vela agrees adding “I think it sends a message, whether they hear it and do anything about it, I don’t know.”
Vela says he wants to move forward with his life by seeking help at the Temple VA Clinic’s in-patient program. After that, he says while turning to his attorney skip Davis, “I want to be able to do for someone else what he’s done for me. So, I’m thinking about going to law school and becoming a criminal defense attorney.”
When asked what his friends and family think of that decision? “They are supportive. I lived through this for a reason and I think I found it,” says Vela.
Adjusting to being a free man after 16 months in jail has been a process for Vela. Vela agreed to talk to KXAN about his future but with one request: that the American flag be displayed in the background during the interview. He says an American flag was with him the night of the standoff, “That’s the American flag that I took with me to Iraq and carried everyday. I told my buddies, ‘if anything happens to me, cover my body with this.'”
When Vela returned home from jail he found solace in the flag. “It was perfect, it wasn’t covered in blood and it’s been hanging on my wall ever since,” said Vela. “In the courtroom also, when I would get really, really nervous, I would just look at the flag. It’s comforting, it’s comforting for me.”
Austin police have yet to respond to our request on whether or not the department will change the way officers respond to mental health calls.