The New York Times | By Dave Philipps
PORTLAND, Ore. — The DarSalam Iraqi restaurant, with its steaming plates of falafel and kebab, has for years served as a popular community gathering spot here. The Iraqi family who ran it felt welcome in this eclectic city.
But all of that changed one night last spring when a man with a shaved head walked in and took a seat. As other customers chatted, he refused to order, instead staring at photos of the Iraqi countryside on the wall.
After about a half-hour, he got up, walked over to the cash register, began cursing about Iraq, and threw a chair at a waiter’s head, sending him dazed to the floor.
Portland has been on edge over a sharp increase in hate crimes this year. Swastikas showed up on school walls; a mosque received a threatening letter that read “I will enjoy the sight of the blood of you and your fellow vermin running into the streets.” Two men were killed in an attack by an avowed white supremacist on a commuter train.
Determined to take a stand, the authorities came down hard on the restaurant attacker, a 40-year-old California man named Damien Rodriguez. Though similar crimes typically merit misdemeanor charges, lawyers said, prosecutors charged him with felony-level hate crime and assault charges that carry a mandatory prison sentence.
That is where people who know Mr. Rodriguez say the case took a wrong turn. Mr. Rodriguez was a decorated Marine sergeant major who was forced to retire after his arrest. He had spent years in combat. Friends and family say his actions were not provoked by hate but by post-traumatic stress disorder for which, despite repeated efforts, he never received effective treatment.
As the case unfolded over the summer, it raised questions about what constitutes a hate crime and how effectively the legal system treats combat veterans who suffer from PTSD.
Hundreds of cities across the country have set up special veterans courts devised to offer therapy instead of jail time to wounded veterans, recognizing that treating trauma can be the best way to avoid more crime. But there is a catch: Most courts bar veterans who have committed a violent crime. That is the case in Portland. Because Mr. Rodriguez was charged with felony assault, he cannot appear in the veterans court that might offer supervised treatment. Instead, he faces years in prison.
“What he needs is help. That is what he has needed all these years,” said his mother, Roberta Bello. “But they just want to put him away.”
The Iraqi man who owns the restaurant, Ghaith Sahib, said that when his employee was attacked it left him and his staff deeply shaken. A decade ago, Mr. Sahib was nearly killed by a car bomb in Baghdad and became a refugee, fleeing to five countries before landing in Portland. The restaurant attack left him worried that he would never really escape the war’s aftermath.
“My family, they have fear now in everything — we can’t forget this,” Mr. Sahib said. He said the restaurant was targeted because of his ethnicity, so hate crime charges are fitting. “I feel for this guy, but he cannot do what he does. He must face consequences.”
Both Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Sahib are trying to move on from lives upended by war, and both want justice. But they have different ideas of what that means.