BRADENTON, Fla. - A Bradenton family is sending a desperate plea for their 22-year-old soldier, missing from his base at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs since March 17.
Classmates at Manatee High School, Mason Van Kuiken and his best friend, Will Vitiello, joined the U.S. Army together as soon they graduated.
Just months after finishing boot camp, Spc. Van Kuiken learned he'd soon deploy to Afghanistan.
"He said, 'I can do it. I'm a warrior. I can do it,'" his mother, Dru Love, remembered.
Van Kuiken's confidence helped calm Love's fears, but she says, his second deployment was different.
She remembers one mission specifically, when Van Kuiken spent 10 days in the mountains. During the day, he'd lay land mines. After sunset each night, the Taliban approached.
"It would glow and all night they would hear the screaming of these people," she said. "It was the first time in his life I remember him saying he was afraid."
When Van Kuiken, 22, returned for Christmas last year, the once happy prankster and loving husband wouldn't go outside to get mail without a gun.
One night, his wife, Lacey, found him huddled up in the shower, refusing to move. He feared sleeping in his bedroom and refused to wear his uniform.
"He just said, 'I can't. When I wear my uniform, people talk to me and I just don't want to talk about it,'" Love said.
According to Love, Ft. Carson placed Van Kuiken on PTSD watch. He spent several days painting barracks until he took an unauthorized trip to visit Vitiello at Ft. Hood. On his return, a deputy arrested him during a traffic stop, discovering assault weapons in his trunk.
Van Kuiken was last seen by a bail bondsman's employee buying a bus ticket back to Colorado and disappeared.
"We just want him home. We want to know that he's safe," Love cried.
Van Kuiken never admitted to PTSD, even though 10-20% of today's combat vets suffer from it. His mother, however, has no doubt that war drove her son's disappearance.
Today, his 2nd wedding anniversary, Van Kuiken is considered AWOL.
He may face a court martial and lose all of his benefits, even if his family still calls him a hero.
"Sometimes these soldiers just fall off. Well, somebody needs to catch them," Love said. "He could've done anything and he didn't. He went and he served."
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