March 5, 2010
It's hard to look at photos that trace the arc of John W. Needham's short life -- a happy blond teenager in his grandmother's Pueblo home, then a proud young soldier and finally a haunted young man in an Orange County, Calif., jail uniform, facing murder charges.
''You can't really understand how something like this could happen," said his grandmother, Mary Celaya, holding pictures of her late grandson as tears ran down her cheeks. "How a sweet young man could go off to serve his country, come home so hurt and then get messed up with that young model and end up in jail. He was never the same after he was wounded. He was so depressed."
John Needham -- "John Wylie" to his grandmother, who uses his middle name -- died on Feb. 19 at his mother's home near Tucson, Ariz. He'd just had back surgery to try to repair some of the pain and damage an enemy grenade did to him in Iraq in 2007. Needham, 25, may have had a fatal reaction to pain medication. His mother, Cindy Northcross, heard him fall to the floor that morning and couldn't revive him.
His early death was just part of the tragedy. Needham, a decorated and honorably discharged soldier, was at his mother's house courtesy of $1 million bail. He was arrested in a San Clemente, Calif., condo on Sept. 1, 2008, in connection with the beating death of his 19-year-old girlfriend. The young man had only been discharged from the Army for a few weeks.
Needham was born in Orange County, but he lived in Pueblo at different times while a young boy. He'd been a student at Carlile Elementary School as well as Pitts Middle School. He'd attended Praise Assembly with his grandparents, Mary and Armand Celaya, along with other relatives. "He was a California surfer who joined the Army because he wanted to do something with his life," Celaya said.
Needham was a soldier in what is now the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team. Deployed to Iraq in 2007, his unit saw hard combat, suffering numerous casualties, especially to roadside bombs. The soldiers became the focus of extensive news coverage after their return in 2008 because an unusually high number became involved in violent crimes after their return -- murder, attempted murder and assault.
Those troops told investigators and reporters that daily combat in Iraq had erased their inhibitions against killing either the enemy or civilians.
Needham received some attention at the time because he'd written a letter to the Army's Inspector General describing atrocities against Iraqi civilians that he'd witnessed.
But he'd also suffered brain injury and shrapnel wounds to his back and legs in a grenade explosion in Iraq. First treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he was then sent on to Fort Carson. He wasn't the confident, easy-going young man that Celaya had seen off to war a year before.
''John was so depressed after he came back," she said. He frequently called for her to bring him to Pueblo when he had a free day. "His paperwork from Walter Reed said he was supposed to get both physical and mental help at Fort Carson but that didn't happen," she said.
Needham moved back to Orange County after his discharge, where his father, Michael Needham, lives. He was in frequent pain and depression from his wounds, according to his family.
On Sept. 1, 2008, Orange County sheriff deputies were called to Needham's condo where they found Jacqwelyn J. Villagomez, an aspiring model, severely beaten. She died shortly afterward and Needham was arrested.
The young soldier's lawyer told reporters that Villagomez had fought with another woman at the condo earlier in the evening, but Needham was the focus of the investigation. It took the family months to raise the $1 million bail.
Opening her Bible, Celaya unfolded a letter that Needham had written her from jail. It was addressed to his "awesome Grandma C." It said he was reading the Bible again and now believed that "God grabbed me and put me in jail" to stop a downward spiral.
''If I didn't have this . . .," she said, smoothing the letter that seemed to comfort her. "If I didn't know that John Wylie was reconciled with Jesus.. . ."
Celaya has six children, 10 surviving grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Their photographs line her stairway. John Wylie's face is easy to spot among them.
His grandmother believes that Needham is another casualty of the Iraq war, felled as surely by pain and depression as any other combat casualty.
''I know I am just a small voice, but I just wish these young men who come back with so much trauma would be taken care of," she said.