Military veterans keep secrets from the battlefield. But retired Marine Richard Cachola's refusal to reveal details of a traumatic experience he had while serving in Iraq -- and the mental health treatment he received as a result -- put him at risk of losing custody of his children.
“My PTSD has no relationship to my ability to be a father," Cachola said, after declining to provide court-ordered mental health records of his PTSD history in family court.
Cachola's case reflects why child-custody disputes can be complicated, especially if one spouse has been diagnosed with a mental illness resulting from war. Family court judges must balance a parent's right to privacy with the best interest of the children involved.
"I don’t have anything to hide," Cachola said. "But I have my pride and I don’t feel like that (revealing mental health records) was necessary to prove whether or not I’m a good father.”
Court records show Cachola has shown no signs of violent behavior and has not posed a danger to himself or his children. But a a single harrowing event he experienced during one of two tours in Iraq dramatically altered his life and his mental well-being.
It happened during the U.S. military's bombardment of the Republic guard in Baghdad in 2003.Cachola declines to discuss the moment with anyone except mental health professionals at the Phoenix V.A.
"What I will divulge is just to say this: It involved a family of people and it's something no one should ever have to witness," Cachola said, sitting in his Phoenix living room.
Cachola has been diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD. He receives 100 percent disability benefits from the V.A.
He and his wife divorced in 2007 and they shared custody of their three children. But last year his ex-wife filed for full custody of their children, citing Cachola's PTSD diagnosis as one reason. Court records show the relationship became "toxic" last year and that "both parties contributed to ongoing disputes."
Cachola's ex-wife declined to comment on this story through her attorney, citing privacy concerns of her children and the active nature of the court case.
According to court records, Richard was ordered to sign a release of his medical records that would reveal details of his mental health treatment dating back to 2005. Cachola refused, accusing his ex-wife of unfairly using his PTSD diagnosis against him as leverage. Instead, Cachola provided a summary of his diagnosis signed by a V.A. pscyhologist in 2016 stating Cachola did not pose a danger to himself or his children.
But the judge overseeing the case was not satisfied, stating that Cachola "continues to violate the order."
"Father's defiance should not result in an assumption that he is unable to parent his children... Father's refusal to provide records, however, is another factor the Court considered in decision decision making authority," wrote the Judge Thomason.
According to Arizona law, a parent has a right to privacy concerning his or her mental health records unless a judge determines revealing those records is in the best interest of the children.
"The law says in determining a custody matter the court has to consider the mental health of all parties involved," said Phoenix-based family law attorney Annette Burns. "The process can definitely be misused. It's up to the judge to make sure it isn't."
Two weeks ago, Judge Thomason denied the ex-wife's attempt to gain full custody of their children. The two will continue sharing equal parenting time. However, the judge granted Cachola's ex-wife final decision-making authority.
"The parties are not capable of co-parenting and exercising joint legal decision making," Thomason wrote, explaining why it was necessary to grant one parent final decision making authority.
Cachola said even though he retains shared custody of his children, he does not consider the decision a legal victory.
“Financially, this (court proceeding) has been a huge burden. Emotionally, it has been a huge burden,” Cachola said.
He does not regret withholding his mental health records. He says he's speaking out about his case because he's been in touch with other military parents through blog websites who are in similar situations.
“There’s a lot of veterans that are going through the same thing and they’re just divulging their information, because they think they have too," Cachola said. "But it is my stance that my privacy is just as important as yours.”