Michael Plemons concedes that he had been drinking before he drove in a dark area along South Arlington Road near his home in March 2011.
He has denied little about that terrible evening.
As he steered his heavy-duty pickup, with its driver-side headlight out, between police cruisers parked on each side of the road — strobes flashing — he went left of center and hit something. It was an officer in a dark uniform with no reflective vest in an area with no street lighting.
He drove a little farther, turned around and, police say, he came back to see what he had hit.
On the pavement was Springfield Township police officer Mark Dodez, then 32, a 12-year police veteran and father of two young daughters. He is now partially paralyzed from the waist down.
Plemons tested positive for alcohol — 0.289, or three times the legal limit. He had previous traffic arrests, including four that were alcohol-related.
But there were aspects of Plemons’ life that generally were not known as his case came to trial.
Television and newspapers covered the trial, showing Dodez as he wheeled up to give his account and as other officers testified.
Plemons, now 35, sat stoically for the three-day trial. He offered no rebuttal. In just two hours, the jury organized, voted and reached a guilty verdict on all charges.
Sentencing was the next morning. Plemons gave a tightly woven emotional speech. He expressed sorrow and guilt and offered apologies to Dodez and other police officers. He said he was particularly upset that he had injured a police officer, since his own father was a retired cop.
But there was something else that was learned during the sentencing hearing that had not come out during the trial.
He was an Iraqi war veteran.
“I took an oath to defend this country, against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he said. “I never thought I would be the enemy.”
His attorney asked for a psychological exam to determine whether Plemons’ combat service might have played any role in the incident.
It was denied.
He was sentenced to the maximum six-year term for two felony convictions — aggravated vehicular assault and hit-skip — as well as two counts of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
And what the court didn’t hear was a man who says he wanted help.
In the service
In previous wars, a draft brought significant numbers of the population into the military. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the nation’s longest — have been fought by a smaller number of men and women.
As the Beacon Journal explores issues that are dividing the country — including war and its long-term impact — the newspaper reviewed the Plemons case.
The former soldier said during an interview at the Richland Correctional Institution that he knew he had a drinking problem.
In fact, he said, he sought help from the Summit County Veterans Service Commission only days before the accident. He said that he even had an appointment to start the process of getting help from Veterans Affairs the following Monday. Instead, he would be in jail.
“This stuff is getting out of hand,” Plemons recalled. “I’m done” with alcohol.
He wanted to know whether post-traumatic stress disorder was a factor.
(Because of patient confidentiality and no pre-sentencing investigation, the appointments with the veterans service commission could not be confirmed.)
One in five with PTSD
The numbers for veterans paint a bleak picture.
By 2008, only half of about 20 percent of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who reported symptoms of PTSD sought treatment, according to a Rand study for the Defense Department.
Rand warned that there was a culture in the military where admitting psychological issues was seen as a sign of weakness, and that needed to be addressed if combatants were to get treatment.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration says that of those with PTSD, three out of four have a substance abuse problem.
At his sentencing hearing in November 2011, Plemons spoke of demons he will have to live with the rest of his life.
“The things I’ve seen and done for my country changed me.”
He told the court that he drank to forget.
Trouble early on
After graduating from Barberton High School in 1995 and with carpentry skills gained at Wadsworth High School, Plemons began working in the Akron area.
But there were challenges.
Over the next six years, he had two speeding tickets, a conviction for driving with a suspended license and having an open container in a vehicle, Wayne County records show.
Barely two weeks after the terrorist attacks in 2001, he had his fifth offense in Wayne County: a DUI. He failed to make a court appearance and found himself in ever deeper trouble with the law, all according to Wayne County court records.
With his mother urging him to straighten out his life, he joined the Army in July 2002.
He became part of a construction unit — Alpha Company, 62nd Engineering Battalion out of Ford Hood, Texas.
He arrived in Kuwait, where troops were positioning for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As combat teams rushed northward, his unit followed, laying a tactical pipeline to fuel the advancing troops.
Driver in war
Plemons said he drove one of the trucks carrying personnel.
One rule for drivers was that when passing through a town, speed was of the essence to reduce the possibility of attack.
If a civilian got in the way, the trucks were not to stop.
“If they got in the way, we ran them over,” he said. “You could literally see their head pop. … As you kept on going, you would see a crimson stain in the sand.”
They were in a war zone in the desert, and had to remain on the alert at all times.
A Marine unit that happened upon them opened fire, thinking they were the enemy.
Night-time guard duty was terrifying.
“There is nothing as far as you can see,” he said. “At night, if the stars and moon are not out, you cannot see anything.
“You make a sound and it is swallowed up in the night. No echo. No nothing. I am looking around and I am like, am I dead?”
He paused to regain his composure.
“It is the weirdest feeling I ever felt in my life, like I’m in a hole, swallowed up,” he said.
As a result, sleep was not something done at will.
“You would physically just lay there and eventually you would pass out from exhaustion,” he said.
Fear of gas warfare
Iraq was said to hold biological gases that would result in a terrible death.
While he was on a construction site, another unit went racing by, saying that there was a gas attack, he said. His group rushed back to its base, but when the soldiers attempted to enter, a sentry threatened to shoot because he had been ordered to not allow them in.
So they sat alone in the desert for hours, waiting to learn whether they were exposed. Their ammunition was confiscated for fear that they would commit suicide. But he and others had each kept a round, swearing that they would end it for each other if indeed they were exposed.
People sobbed. Some threw up.
“The worst thing was when we were out there not knowing if we were going to live or die,” he said.
He paused again to regain his composure.
The final blow
In May 2003, there was another gas attack alert and, in the panic, a 22-foot piece of pipeline fell on his back.
He was flown to a medical facility in Spain, where he was treated for back and kidney injuries.
That hospitalization also had its frightening moments.
Across from him was a Marine who had lost both legs and another who had lost an ear, an eye and several fingers.
“I thought I was in hell,” he said. “I started looking to see if I had all my parts. That was the worst day.”
He was flown back to Iraq and in June was returned to Fort Hood.
Because the pain persisted, he was given a medical honorable discharge in October 2004.
The evening pastime during his stay at Fort Hood — which lasted more than a year — was drinking.
When he got home, he said, civilian life made no sense.
His drinking increased.
Like many veterans facing difficulty, he wanted to go back into the Army.
He lived with his father, Jerry Plemons, a retired Akron police officer, in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.
“Before I went to war, I drank for fun, for something to do, to hang out, party,” he said. “After that when I came home, I started drinking to forget, to sleep.”
He said he would spend entire days at bars, drinking until the early morning hours, then walk home.
But he drove, too.
He received two more DUIs in his first eight months home.
The first was in Springfield Township in March 2005 and the second, two months later in Akron.
He said he drank “to try to get away from everything I’d seen and done.”
The next four years
Between his 2005 DUIs and the March 2011 accident, much happened.
His wife, Helen, said they met in 2005 and married two years later. She said her husband is a good stepfather to her three children. But there were problems.
She said she asked him to stop drinking often, but as time passed, he drank more.
“At home, he was not sleeping,” she said. He was having nightmares and sometimes would swing his arms in his sleep.
One night, she said, he choked her and hit her in his sleep.
“Something triggered it and he started drinking more and more and more and was more distant from the kids and from me,” she said.
The back pain persisted, and Plemons sought help at the VA in Cleveland, his wife said, but he would not talk about psychological problems.
Meanwhile, “it’s affecting, wives, kids and parents,” she said of Plemons and others like him.
Dodez is forgiving
The officer who was partially paralyzed, Mark Dodez, said that he has made peace with the accident.
“I’m not hostile to the guy,” Dodez said recently. “He admitted he has a drinking problem and he needs to get that drinking problem taken care of.
“I forgave him when I was still in the hospital,” said Dodez, who believes God saved him the night of the accident. “I can’t dwell on what happened.”
He has walked 600 steps using forearm braces and hopes to walk more as his physical therapy continues.
Lisa Dodez, as the wife of an officer, said she recognizes the stress of combat and the stress that safety forces endure.
“It is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of,” she said.
“My message would be for people to seek help who need it.”
Not getting help
Plemons said he has had no counseling for alcoholism while in prison and does not attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but he is part of a veterans group.
He acknowledges that he is haunted by the idea that he will drink again when he finishes his term.
At the sentencing hearing after his convictions, his Akron attorney, Walter Madison, appealed to Judge Alison McCarty for an investigation of Plemons’ war experiences.
Madison said he had been informed ahead of time that a request for a pre-sentence investigation would be denied.
“Mr. Plemons is an Iraq war veteran and he suffers most likely from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Madison told the court. “Since he’s been home from the Iraq war, he’s spiraled out of control. He has done work and he’s unable to maintain a steady job. And he does have an issue with the alcohol.”
His Iraq history was not acknowledged during the trial, although one officer testified that Plemons had stated on the night of his arrest that he was a veteran and son of a retired police officer.
McCarty, in levying the maximum sentence as recommended by the prosecutor, told Plemons she appreciated his Iraq service.
“I am aware that you served our country,” McCarty said. “I thank you for that. That is not insignificant to me. And I’m sure that the experiences you’ve had have made it harder for you to deal with your alcohol issues. No question about it. But when your actions threaten others and this community as a whole, they cannot be ignored.”
McCarty said recently that a pre-sentence investigation would not have changed her sentence.
The injuries to the victim, she said, were so severe that, “Mr. Dodez has a lifetime sentence.”
The judge said it was “heartbreaking and it made it sadder for me” to impose the sentence in light of his service, but she felt the sentence was necessary.
Plemons’ attorneys have appealed.
Meanwhile, his mother is reflective about urging him to join the military.
“I thought maybe the discipline and growing up and the routine” would be good for him, Nancy Plemons recalled telling him back in 2002.
And as the nation still reeled from the 9/11 attacks, “he went over there to serve his country.”
She said her son went into the Army with demons and came back “scarred” with even more demons.
Had he been killed in the war, he would have come home a “hero,” even with those problems, she said.
Instead, he came home with the issues he faced and now he is paying the price, she said.
“We need to help” all of the veterans, she said.
“Oh, my God. What are we doing to this generation?”
Does your family have someone who has served in the military or do you know someone who has? What are their most pressing issues? What can or should be done to help our soldiers and their families adjust more effectively?
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Computer assisted reporter Doug Livingston provided statistics for this story.