A Cry for Help: Wife of Man Shot in Roaring Spring Says System 'Failed' Her Husband


August 8, 2019

Alda Jays Messner

Todd Messner holds his daughter Brook upon returning from a tour in Iraq in 2008. After his return, his family began noticing a change in him and fought for years to get him help to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On Friday afternoon, July 26, around 2:49 p.m., Alda Jays Messner talked with her husband on the telephone. A little more than an hour later he was dead.

Somehow in that hour, Todd Messner, 49, made his way from Saxton to Roaring Spring, where he began acting erratically in the parking lot of the Dollar General store.

Witnesses called police and when an officer arrived, Messner was in the parking lot of the Roaring Spring True Value Department Store.

It was there where Messner allegedly produced a handgun and raised it toward the officer, prompting the officer to fire his service weapon, striking Messner in the chest. Messner was pronounced dead at the scene.

It was the end of a long journey of mental health issues that Mrs. Messner said began after her husband, a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, came home from a tour of duty in Iraq in 2008.

A Proud Veteran

Todd Messner was a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, Second Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment.

"Todd loved the military," said Mrs. Messner. "He never blamed the military for his troubles."

Mrs. Messner said her husband's first tour was when he was deployed to Kosovo. After his 18-month tour was over, he returned home before being called to New Orleans to help with the cleanup and policing following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He was then deployed to Iraq in 2008. It was this tour, Mrs. Messner said, that permanently changed her husband.

A Changed Man

Before his final tour in Iraq, Mrs. Messner said her husband was an outgoing man who was always willing to help anyone in need. She said he was a devoted family man who loved to spend time with her and their kids.

"He was very family-oriented," she said. "We always did things together as a family. He was someone people could come to when they needed help."

Mrs. Messner said there was no limit to what her husband would do to help someone who needed it. The family would take children into their home and give them a safe place to live.

"We took in kids who for one reason or another couldn't live with their families," she said. "We took in foster kids for a while. Todd was always trying to help them."

Mrs. Messner said when her husband came home from Iraq in 2008, he was not the same man who left. It didn't take long, she said, for her to realize something was off. There was something different about him.

"You could see it in his eyes when he stepped off the bus," she said. "He just wasn't himself."

Mrs. Messner said her husband began to withdraw from everyone and everything he loved.

"When he came back from Iraq, at first he was quiet, withdrawn," she said. "He didn't like to go out in public at all."

Mrs. Messner said it took months after he came back from Iraq to get him out of the house, and when she did, it didn't go well. Where before he enjoyed the company of other people, he could no longer get comfortable in any type of social setting.

"He would have small breakdowns, like anxiety attacks," she said. "He wouldn't talk about it or say why. He would just say he felt anxious in a crowd."

A Sudden Shift

Mrs. Messner said her husband's behavior started to become erratic, and he was doing things that were completely out of character. He started to become a danger to himself and others.

She said the warning signs started with him getting easily agitated and unable to control his emotions. And then one day in a fit of anger, he loaded his weapons into the car and took off.

"I called the police and told them my husband has PTSD and that he loaded up all his weapons into the car and I don't know where he is," she said.

Because Todd didn't threaten anybody, the police told her there was nothing they could do.

"They said they couldn't arrest somebody on what they might do," she said. "They said he has to do something before they would take action."

About a year after this incident, Todd was arrested after he again loaded some weapons into his car and making threats toward his neighbors. According to reports, he attempted to burn down a cabin.

"These were big red flags that something bad was going to happen if he didn't get help," Mrs. Messner said. "There were other things before that. He got angry very quickly and he would be mean. His behavior was different from before he was deployed to Iraq and it kept escalating."

Seeking Help

When Todd returned from Iraq, the Messners turned to the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Altoona for help. Todd was on a downward spiral that he couldn't stop on his own.

"For 10 years we were trying to get him help," Mrs. Messner said. "Since April of this year, I vigorously tried to get him help."

Mrs. Messner said she ran into roadblocks from the VA at every turn. As Todd's incidents of erratic behavior increased, it became more difficult to convince the VA of the seriousness of his condition.

After one appointment with the VA, Mrs. Messner said the psychiatrist told her that Todd didn't seem like himself, but there was not enough to commit him.

As Todd's behavior got steadily worse, Mrs. Messner made a last-ditch effort to help her husband. A week before he was killed, Mrs. Messner petitioned for, and was granted a 302 involuntary commitment order. Mrs. Messner asked that Todd be taken to the VA hospital in Pittsburgh, but instead police took him to J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital in Huntingdon,

Mrs. Messner said her husband was not seen by a mental health professional at J.C. Blair. Instead, an emergency room doctor examined him.

"The ER doctor refused to sign the 302 warrant and released him," Mrs. Messner said.

Mrs. Messner said they didn't take her husband's past actions into consideration when assessing him in the emergency room.

"I told them about his past, but it didn't matter one way or the other," she said. "They said as long as he's not a concern to himself, there is nothing they can do unless he says he is going to kill himself."

Going It Alone

By the time Todd was taken to J.C. Blair on the 302 warrant, he had long given up on getting himself help. Mrs. Messner said that it was his treatment by the VA hospital that made her husband ashamed to seek help.

"Nobody would commit him unless he admitted to needing it, but he wouldn't," she said. "He had been made to feel ashamed about the way he was feeling so he knew what to say to keep from getting admitted."

Mrs. Messner said an earlier appointment with a psychiatrist at the VA Hospital in Altoona left her husband feeling like he didn't deserve to feel the way he did. It was shortly after Todd returned from Iraq when she was with her husband as he explained to the psychiatrist how he was feeling.

"I was sitting in the room with Todd during counseling and he was telling the doctor how he was feeling," she said. "The guy looked at him and said, 'You are only in the National Guard. You're home now, get over it.' After that it was so hard to get him to go see anybody because nobody took him seriously. They basically told him he was a wimp for having those thoughts."

Trying to get her husband to agree to seek help became a daily battle for her. Mrs. Messner said they made him feel bad for seeking help and that her husband became too ashamed to admit he had a problem.

"He felt completely alone in the illness," she said. "Like he didn't have a right to feel that way. They made him feel shame for asking for help."

Mrs. Messner didn't give up trying to help her husband, but she said it got frustrating because it had gotten too hard to get an appointment at the VA.

"The VA was going through so many doctors," she said. "He would have an appointment, but they would call and reschedule it for three months, and in three months they would call and say the same thing. It was a never-ending routine of hurry up and wait."

His Last Day

Mrs. Messner said she spoke with her husband twice on the Friday he died and although he seemed agitated, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

"He called around 9 a.m. and asked what our plans were for the day," she said. "Our daughter was still sleeping but our son was awake and he spoke with him. They talked about going fly fishing. He told our son he would see him later and they hung up."

Mrs. Messner again spoke with him by phone later in the day, a little more than an hour before he died.

"He sounded agitated, but nothing out of the ordinary," she said. "For the past few months, it wasn't out of the ordinary for him to sound upset."

Mrs. Messner said she doesn't know how he got from Saxton, where Todd had been staying with his mother, to Roaring Spring so quickly.

"He got to Roaring Spring awful quick," she said. "I talked to him at 2:49 and this happened at around 4:00, so I don't know how he got there."

Where her husband got the gun he pointed at the officer is a mystery, also. Due to prior arrests, he was forbidden by law to own any guns.

"After the incident where he tried to burn down the cabin, he had his weapons taken from him," Mrs. Messner said. "I voluntarily gave his weapons up. I let the police come in and I gave them everything we had."

Mrs. Messner said aside from a BB gun rifle and an old 1880s-era revolver that doesn't work, there were no guns remaining in the house.

"Both of those are still here and I know of no other weapons," she said. "I don't know where he got that gun."

A Cry For Help

Mrs. Messner said she believes what happened in Roaring Spring started out as a cry for help that ended tragically.

"I don't know what happened," she said. "I think he wanted to be committed, but after his experience with the VA he just didn't want to do it himself. I do think it was a cry for help."

Mrs. Messner said she does not hold any anger or blame toward the officer who shot her husband.

"I don't fault the officer," she said. "He only had a split second to react. I don't blame him at all. He now has his own hell to go through with this."

Change Is Needed

Mrs. Messner said that although her husband loved serving in the military and didn't blame them for what he was going through, the VA administration is a different story.

"The military isn't to blame, it's the after-care," she said. "Once they come home and initially get them situated, that's it. "The VA doesn't want to hear from them again."

Mrs. Messner said she doesn't want her husband's death to be in vain, and said she wants to work to change the care veterans receive after they come home from deployment.

"I have a friend who is going to work with me," she said. "I don't know what yet, but these guys need help and don't know how to go about getting it. The VA is not assisting with that. These people are paid to help, so why are they not helping?"

Mrs. Messner said she wants to make it easier for families of those who are suffering to get them help and avoid the roadblocks she faced when trying to get her husband committed for treatment.

"Listen to the families," she said. 'If they are making a call, there is a reason."

A Family Hurting

In these first weeks since her husband's death, Mrs. Messner is trying to help her children, 17-year-old Brook and 8-year-old Patton, come to terms with the loss of their father.

She said her son is having a particularly hard time understanding what happened.

"My son refuses to come home. He just doesn't want to be in the house," she said. My daughter is depressed and sleeps a lot. They are both seeing counselors."

The Messners' son is staying with his grandmother less than a mile away, and Mrs. Messner said she sees him every day.

"I'm not going to pressure him to come home," she said. "He will know when he's ready."

Mrs. Messner said it hasn't been easy being in the house she shared with her husband.

"It is hard being in the house," she said. "Going through pictures for the funeral was hard."

The family is taking things one day at a time as members try to make sense of what happened while remembering their husband and father as a good man who wasn't given the help he needed

Mrs. Messner said she wants her husband to be remembered as more than the guy who was waving a gun around Roaring Spring.

"He was a family man," she said. "He loved the military and was very proud of his service. I just think he felt betrayed by them and I think this incident in Roaring Spring was a cry for help and it just ended up being the end for him."

Editor's Note: The Herald will contact the Veterans Administration for comment and response. Any response provided will be published in next week's Herald.

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