Veteran in Westboro case looks to move beyond his legal troubles
08/15/2012 9:07 AM
08/11/2014 1:32 PM
Ryan Newell is resting on his three-wheeler in a row of motorcycles in a Wichita garage, its door open to the steamy weather.
Just sitting there, it's hot enough to sweat, but the 26-year-old looks comfortable, calm, wearing his ball cap backward and smiling.
The garage is a refuge for the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. Just being there with his friend and fellow veteran Tony Sparling among the shiny, powerful machines boosts Newell's morale after what he's been through — disabling war wounds, PTSD, and a run-in with a controversial Topeka church that got him in trouble with the law and drew national attention.
People still call him Sgt. Newell even though he's no longer in the Army. He was a sergeant returning from a mission in Afghanistan in 2008 when an improvised bomb detonated.
"We lost everybody in the Humvee that day except for me," he says.
Two fellow soldiers died. Newell — who lives in Marion and grew up in Goddard and loved to race his motorcycle before he went to war — lost both legs.
Psychologically, he has been on a difficult journey since then. It has taken him from being in combat to being arrested in the Wichita City Hall parking lot last November and charged with felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery against members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church —widely seen as more of a hate group than a church.
The situation is almost backward: The person charged with a crime has been seen as the hero, and the alleged victims have been seen as the villains.
On Saturday, two days after Newell pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received probation, he talked about how he got to where he is now — dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and moving forward.
Waiting to get help
By the day in 2008 when he lost his comrades and his legs, Newell had already been affected by the everyday trauma of war after serving in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
By chance that day, Newell ended up on the turret of the Humvee.
If he had been driving, which he often did, he figures he would have been killed by the blast.
Survivor's guilt. "It's a big part of it," Newell says.
People can tell him that it's not his fault, that he shouldn't feel guilty.
But it doesn't change how he feels.
"It goes in one ear and out the other," he says.
After the blast, he wanted to get home as soon as possible. But his injuries "were just so overwhelming."
"And everybody expects you to be just like you were when you left, and that's not the case."
He isolated himself.
"And you really can't do that with PTSD."
He realizes now that he should have gotten help by putting himself with other vets. At the time, "I didn't have the drive to go and get help."
The lesson he learned is, "Don't wait. There's so many resources out there."
'Intent wasn't to harm'
Last November, Westboro Baptist members had protested near Mulvane High School. The Topeka church is nationally known for protesting near soldiers' funerals and for claiming that their deaths are God's punishment for an immoral nation.
Authorities said that Newell had been watching the protest that day, had told officers monitoring the protest that he was an officer and had followed the Westboro members to Wichita City Hall, where he was arrested with guns and ammunition in his vehicle.
Newell says he thinks his PTSD put him in the City Hall parking lot.
"It's triggered by certain things.
"Your brain doesn't realize it."
Regarding Westboro's message, Newell says, "It's clearly not a message that I agree with."
Soldiers fight so people will have rights like freedom of expression, but soldiers should be entitled to have a peaceful funeral, with their loved ones not having to worry about a protest, he says.
"It does trigger you when you lose a friend and a brother . . gets to you deep down."
Speaking of the day of the protest and his arrest, he says, "That day, yes, there was rage about things that were said at the protest."
Still, he says, "the intent wasn't to harm."
"I should have cooled down."
With PTSD, "It puts you back in that fight-or-flight mode."
Focused on the future
Newell spent eight days in jail. "I just took it day by day. Just kept myself up by sitting there and trying to address the issues that I had with PTSD."
As he sat behind bars, people from coast to coast were sending his attorney, Boyd McPherson, messages of support and offers of help.
"It gave me a little get-up," Newell says.
He was released from jail with the stipulation that he get help from the VA.
The case against Newell was resolved Thursday when, under an agreement with the District Attorney's Office, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of false impersonation of an officer. He was placed on a two-year probation.
Asked if he has anything he would say to Westboro, he says, "I'm not really focused on them anymore. I'm focused on moving forward with my life."
His life still has hazards. He is recovering from a May accident where he crashed in a ditch along I-135 north of Wichita after being cut off by a teenager on a cellphone. In the tumble, he broke both wrists —"I depend on my hands" — and one of his prosthetic legs came off.
He knows it could have been worse. "I'm very lucky. I've got a lot of angels looking out over me."
For his psychological injuries, he continues to get help, in one-on-one sessions "with people that understand."
Spending time at the garage, around the motorcycles, is another part of his therapy.
Before he went to war, he used to go to the track and race a Suzuki. For now, he's not able to ride the two-wheeler. But it's running and racing again, thanks to help from Sparling, his friend.
Last weekend, Newell watched as Sparling raced it for him, and seeing the motorcycle being used again — by another veteran — gave him a "huge morale boost," he says.
"You got to move forward, and you got to keep your mind occupied ... not go back to the place that brought up the trauma."