Missing Bradenton soldier sought by family

toconnor@bradenton.comMay 23, 2013 

Mason VanKuiken, a Bradenton soldier, was reported missing by his family in March. PHOTO PROVIDED

BRADENTON -- Normally, 22-year-old soldier Mason VanKuiken of Bradenton would be celebrating his 2-year anniversary Thursday with his wife, Lacey.

Instead, the highly intelligent Manatee High School graduate is one of many missing veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to "ghost" themselves in Army parlance, which means to disappear without a trace.

VanKuiken's absence follows a troubling one-month visit home to Bradenton around Christmas last year, an AWOL vacation to see his best friend, an arrest on weapons charges that may have triggered his disappearance and finally, an unusual extended silence with normally close friends and family.

Mason Muldoon VanKuiken, an infantry specialist and translator fluent in Farsi and Pashtun, officially went missing March 18 from Fort Carson, Colo., although his unexcused absence from the U.S. Army actually began four days earlier.

His family had begun fearing for his mental health much earlier during the Christmas holiday.

"During Mason's leave, we all noticed changes in his demeanor that were reminiscent of the way he was when he returned home from his first deployment, yet more exaggerated," said his mother, Dru Anne Love. "He had difficulty sleeping, he seemed quiet, distant, emotionally unavailable. There were episodes where even being in a dark room was difficult for him. He felt it necessary to be armed any time he left the house.

"We figured he needed time to readjust to being back in civilization."

His wife, Lacey, is living in Bradenton with his parents while attending nursing school at Manatee Technical Institute. He promised her he would "talk to someone" when he returned to Fort Carson after the holidays.

Sometime after his return, the Army placed VanKuiken on modified duty, which meant he was assigned to painting jobs around the barracks. He was not to carry arms.

VanKuiken left Fort Carson without permission March 14 and drove to Texas to see Will Vitiello, his best friend since childhood and now a soldier based at Fort Hood. Vitiello encouraged his buddy to get some help.

"We've been friends since we were 12 years old," Vitiello said. "We joined the Army at the same time. I could tell his last tour had really affected him. In my estimation, and I'm no doctor, but he obviously had PTSD.

A lot of his mannerisms, the way he talked about stuff, he was very apathetic about stuff that previously mattered to him. His overall demeanor had changed and not in a positive way. The things he saw overseas definitely affected the way he was thinking. He had not had a whole lot of down time."

Vitiello pushed VanKuiken to seek treatment but said he was brushed off by his troubled friend.

"I said 'Hey man, I think you might have at least a little PTSD.' Honestly I thought it was a bad case of PTSD," Vitiello said.

VanKuiken headed back to Colorado Springs the next day but was detoured on the way by the Sheriff's Department in Goldthwait, Texas, which charged him after a traffic stop with illegal possession of a "modified" weapon and not having proper permits for other "non-modified" weapons. His car was seized March 15.

VanKuiken bonded out late March 17 and went to a motel in Early, Texas, where his debit card was used to stay the night. A female employee of the bondsman picked Mason up the morning of March 18 to withdraw $7,400 for a partial bond. He was allowed to make good on the rest of his $15,000 cash bond later and she drove him more than 100 miles to a bus station in San Angelo, Texas, where he bought a ticket to Abilene, Texas, en route to Colorado Springs.

VanKuiken has not been seen nor heard from since.

There has been no activity on his bank card, cell phone, e-mail or Facebook account.

He has not contacted his wife, parents, brother or any friends.

The family began searching for VanKuiken March 17 and it took two days for the Army to respond to their calls. His mother was not happy.

"Lacey worked her way up the chain of command and, on the night of March 19, we received a call from Mason's captain who was apologetic that we hadn't already been contacted," Love said. "He said Mason had been on watch for PTSD and had been placed on special duty painting barracks."

To the captain's knowledge VanKuiken was not receiving any treatment or counseling, Love said.

"The Army does not have resources to look for soldiers who go missing," Love said he told her, "The Army takes care of the Army."

Love said she has met with Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, asking for a congressional inquiry into her son's disappearance.

"Our hometown Sheriff's Department is the only agency putting forth effort to help our family and a local war veteran," Love said.

Spokesman Dave Bristow said MSO tried to help but is at a loss. VanKuiken has been classified by MSO as missing and endangered and also listed on findthemissing.org.

"We have tried to track him down," Bristow said in an e-mail. "We tracked him up until the bail bondsman picked him up and left him at a bus station."

Executive Director Linda Craig of Manasota Operation Troop Support said VanKuiken and others with PTSD sometimes take off because they feel they just need to get away. She said she'd sent him care packages every month while he was in Afghanistan but had not met him in person.

"I knew him as a soldier that I served," Craig said. "I sent him articles from the newspaper and tried to be a connection from home. If he does have PTSD it can take many forms and is different for every person. Sometimes they don't want people to ask them questions and sometimes they have fears, if they tell people what they have done and how they feel, that they will feel they are not even human beings any more. Things they have seen are not like the things you and I have seen.

"War is very ugly and what do they do with all these images?"

Craig said she spoke with Love before the family made VanKuiken's disappearance public.

"She wasn't sure what to do -- if she should give him space or find him," Craig said. "I reached out to my veterans who have gone through something similar and they all said you need to find him."

Love said she alternates between hoping for the best and fearing the worst since her son went missing. She speculated her son could have been snatched by Homeland Security as a risk after being charged with a modified weapons charge in Texas -- or he could be living off the land in some stretch of wilderness given his advanced survival skills and love of the outdoors.

"He liked to get away and loves to be outside," Love said. "As a teen, he would put his canoe in a truck and be gone for a couple of days. In Colorado, he'd take his dog and go camping a couple days in the winter.

But fear of foul play or other unfortunate circumstances always creep into her thoughts.

"It's very unusual for him to have no contact with his family," Love said of her son. "He was very close with his family. He is a good kid. He really is."

Terry O'Connor, night metro editor of the Bradenton Herald, can be reached at toconnor@bradenton.com or by calling 941-745-7040.

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