The Veterans Village of San Diego campus is shown on June 3, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Former Navy SEAL Nathanael Roberti is on the run.

The 38-year-old was born in Thailand to Baptist missionaries and moved to the U.S. as a child. In 2005, as a member of Navy SEAL Team 10, the Taliban opened fire on his team’s helicopter, leaving 11 of his friends dead.

Roberti survived — he was ordered off the aircraft before it was shot down, because the load was too heavy.

Why this matters

State and federal regulations require Veterans Village of San Diego to keep its rehab center free from drugs and alcohol for the safety of residents and staff.

As time passed, flashbacks from the war, coupled with anger, depression and childhood sexual trauma led to drug addiction and a series of arrests. In 2013, Roberti entered Veterans Treatment Court, which offers alternatives to incarceration for former military personnel, and was placed at the highly regarded Veterans Village of San Diego for treatment. 

After graduating from the program, Roberti decided to pursue his business ventures in New York, where he relapsed. He was arrested in Long Beach in 2015 on assault charges.

The combat veteran found his way back to San Diego, but he fell into addiction again. He was homeless for two years.

A warrant for Nathanael Roberti taken from San Diego Superior Court records is shown in this photo.

“Being homeless was both a blessing and a curse; my ego and my shame were peeled away like the layers of an onion and I finally hit what I believe to have been my absolute bottom,” Roberti wrote in a statement to the treatment court this year.

While homeless, Roberti was rushed to the hospital when a MRSA infection caused his face to swell and eyes to shut. Soon after, he hit a curb while riding a scooter downtown and knocked all of his front teeth out. Then, he witnessed a friend’s death, which brought back unresolved trauma from the war.

Roberti pleaded guilty to stealing a U-Haul truck in September and was accepted back into Veterans Treatment Court, which required him to stay sober as a condition of his release from jail. In February, with the court’s support, Roberti applied for admission to the substance use treatment program at Veterans Village.

Roberti told the court he wanted to tackle his addiction.

“I’m a work in progress,” he wrote on April 3. “I know I’m a 40-year-old man now but I know I can do this. I am doing it now and I’ll continue to fight for my life and the lives of those around me who I love and cherish dearly.”

A San Diego Superior Court record describes former Navy SEAL Nathanael Roberti’s conditions for release from jail.

“I’m starting to like to be alive and that’s a good thing for me,” he added, “because I haven’t felt that in many years.”

The conditions at Veterans Village have changed drastically since 2013, when Roberti first went through the program. Residents and staff today describe widespread drug use on the campus and leadership that is not responsive to concerns.

Two weeks after writing the letter, Roberti was found unresponsive in his bathroom at Veterans Village, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. He was revived with the emergency opioid treatment Narcan and taken to the hospital.

Then, he disappeared. A warrant is still out for his arrest.

Roberti’s friends knew him as a sweet spirit — the kind of person who handed out cash to single mothers — and an inspiration to other veterans in the program. His overdose was difficult for them to process and triggered a resident’s post-traumatic stress.

“It’s by my own sheer will that I’m sober today, not anything that has to do with that program,” the resident said.

The resident described finding methamphetamine in his room on his first day at Veterans Village, and he said he has been offered drugs by many other residents.

“I needed help and the help I got was laughable,” he said.

inewsource chose not to name the resident, because he fears his ability to find housing and employment would be at risk if he were identified.

Roberti’s friends said they believe a growing presence of illicit substances on the campus contributed to the combat veteran’s overdose.

“If Nate came back tomorrow, where would we put him? Back at VVSD? No. How can we take the chance now?”

Pat Russell, retired District Attorney investigator

“So here’s a guy trying to save his life, a man, one of America’s greatest heroes, having to get exposed to a substance that now puts his own life at risk and may have to suffer legal consequences because VVSD couldn’t clear campus of drugs,” resident Victoria Cloyes said.

Cloyes, a registered nurse and combat veteran, said she asked leadership to use drug dogs to find substances on the campus, but it has yet to happen.

“Do people on campus think the campus is safe?” Cloyes said. “No, absolutely not.”

Addiction is a complicated disease with many factors influencing the success of treatment, and the likelihood of relapse is high. Overdoses and deaths are on the rise inside and outside treatment centers, largely due to the opioid epidemic and the potency of fentanyl.

One way treatment centers reduce the risk of relapse is through their drug-free living spaces, which keep people away from common triggers, like the sight of illicit substances or people under the influence.

In fact, state regulations require treatment programs, including Veterans Village, to keep their facilities free from drugs and alcohol for the safety of residents and staff.

Veterans Village has pointed out the importance of this philosophy in its internal documents. The nonprofit’s manuals describe the presence of substances on the campus as “a safety issue” that must be addressed immediately if it occurs.

But rehab centers are not expected to be perfect. Like with any residential treatment center, staff at Veterans Village said relapses and overdoses have occurred throughout the nonprofit’s history.

The difference now, they said, is that a severe staffing shortage has made it difficult to monitor clients’ behaviors, which has allowed substance use on the campus to flourish.

The Chief Executive Officer of Veterans Village, Akilah Templeton, said drug use is prohibited on the campus and any reports of substances in the program are addressed. She said the nonprofit has dedicated workers who ensure quality care is delivered.

She also doubted the validity of descriptions of drug use on campus that residents shared with inewsource.

“We put the health and safety of our residents and the staff above nearly everything that we do,” she said. “We do that because it’s the right thing to do, but we also do that because we are actually held to a set of pretty high standards by our funders and by various regulatory agencies.”

A garden at the Veterans Village of San Diego campus is shown on June 3, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Veterans Village has been offering addiction counseling, employment and housing services for more than 40 years. It also created Stand Down, a multi-day event connecting homeless veterans with public services. The nonprofit has been lauded by dignitaries and featured in the national media for its work in the veterans community.

According to National Public Radio, Roberti was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, which honors military personnel for their heroism and achievements.

Pat Russell, Roberti’s former mentor in treatment court, said the information he has learned about Roberti’s overdose has led him to believe Veterans Village is no longer a safe place to send people for addiction treatment.

“If Nate came back tomorrow, where would we put him?” Russell asked. “Back at VVSD? No. How can we take the chance now?”

Russell, a Vietnam veteran and retired District Attorney investigator, described Roberti as a “big, strong, goofy kid” looking for a home.

“Nate was doing all this so he could try to start his life again,” Russell said. “Why? Because we don’t leave anybody on the battlefield.”

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....