Bringing the Wars Back Home


Buffalo (N.Y.) Veterans Treatment Court

The story told by Russell Whitehead last week in a mammoth ballroom at the Anaheim Marriot Hotel, just outside of southern California's Disneyland, was as harrowing as it was routine to anyone familiar with the ravages of alcohol addiction.

He spoke about the humiliation of being shackled in court after a succession of DUIs, of appearing filthy, smelling and hung-over from the night before, and facing the prospect of days, weeks or months in hellish jails with no hope of getting better.

But what made his tale special was the fact that in his most recent court appearance, he was subjected to none of the humiliation. Thanks to a Veteran's Treatment (VT) Court in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he was given a new lease on life.

The process and the experience was no walk in the park. Facing a possible nine years in prison for his second and third DUI convictions, Whitehead's alternative was the VT Court and wearing a “scram” monitoring device around his ankle that tested him for alcohol every 30 minutes, 24/7 for six months—all of which gave him, he says “a large sense of accountability.”

That, and receiving exactly the right kind of counseling for his severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) condition, turned his life around.

Tall and slim at 28, with a neatly trimmed brown beard, Whitehead served in the second Iraq War as a medic for three years. He was one of thousands of vets who have been given a new lease on life by Veterans Treatment Courts, a problem-solving alternative to traditional courtrooms, targeted at veterans who get into minor brushes with the law.

Whitehead was among more than 400 vets and supporters attending a four-day conference marking the 25th anniversary of the establishment of U.S. drug courts. They were only a small segment of the 4,000-plus attendees at the conference, but they represented one of the country's most poignant challenges.

Veterans Treatment Courts are one of the many offshoots of the problem-solving approach pioneered by drug courts—but as the end of America's post 9/11 decade of overseas conflicts draws to an end, the prospect of thousands of young men and women returning home has put a new spotlight on the need for ways to deal with problems triggered by their combat experiences.

A 'Critical Mass'

“All these Iraq and Afghanistan vets coming home create a critical mass,” said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who spoke at the conference.

“Veterans courts are cheaper and more effective, and they're helping to protect the billions of dollars we've already invested in an entire generation of men and women. It's one of the few things we're doing in criminal justice that actually works.”

The “Vet Court Con” segment of last week's conference was sponsored by Justice for Vets, a partner of the Drug Court movement, and the moving force behind the VT Courts' rapid expansion.

Underscoring that expansion of therapeutic and legal approaches to veterans' problems, participants (including volunteer mentors) were able to choose from a rich menu of over 60 workshops on subjects ranging from “De-escalation of the Veteran in Crisis;” “Working with Justice Involved Female Veterans;” and “The Icy Stairway from Combat Trauma to Substance Abuse.”

Most returning vets of course never find themselves on the wrong side of the law. But there are many whose problems have been aggravated by the recurring traumas of combat.

Up until recently, there was little understanding of their special needs. Now, thanks to Justice for Vets, and its parent body, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, VT Courts are trying to change the dynamic.

150 VT Courts, and Growing

Since the first VT Court was established in Buffalo, NY in 2008, 150 similar courts have sprung up around the country, with several hundred more in the planning stage. Currently, nearly 7,000 ex-service members are participating.

“So many veterans treatment courts are being developed”, says Justice for Vets media spokesman Chris Deutsch, “that we have a long list of volunteer Vet mentors and others waiting to get into the next training session.”

The expansion couldn't be timelier.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 2.4 million American veterans of the years of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, approximately 460,000 are suffering from PTSD or severe depression.

Many others have had traumatic brain injuries. According to a Pew Research Center study many of the vets they surveyed reported “experiencing bursts of anger in their daily lives.” Another survey found that 51 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets personally knew a fellow vet who'd attempted suicide.

Tarantino, a former cavalry captain in Iraq, started working on veterans' issues following his discharge from the army in 2007. He was astonished to discover the number of vets ensnared in the criminal justice system.

Many ended up in jail with untreated mental and physical ailments, and came out worse than when they went in.

Tarantino concedes it's hard to put a number on the problem. In 2004, the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 10 percent of state prisoners were veterans, which is actually a law figure, compared with say, 1986, when the figure was 20 percent.

In 2008, the Bureau reported the same 10 percent figure for jails. But there are so many more – massively more – relatively young vets, that percentage is likely to rise.

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is identifying vets who need help early.

“We need to be able to intervene before their minor offenses lead to major crimes,” Tarantino maintains. “That's why these courts are so important.”

Sitting at the table with Tarantino was Melissa Fitzgerald, the recently appointed senior director of Justice for Vets.

Fitzgerald explains that while VT Courts are modeled on drug courts, there are important differences.

One is that VT Courts are specialty courts with a sub-specialty in military veterans. A second is that by their very nature VT Courts provide a deep well of expertise and focus on aspects of mental health and substance abuse unique to vets, such as PTSD.

They are also particularly devoted to obtaining housing, jobs and other services for the vets in the courts.

In a typical drug court, arrestees are assigned a team that usually consists of a defense attorney, a police officer, a social worker, and a prosecutor.

Mentoring Vets

In VT Courts, however, this team usually includes a representative from the VA as well, a couple of paid vets who coordinate services — and almost always, unpaid veteran-volunteers who serve as one-on-one mentors and assist in a multitude of different ways in getting their fellow vets through the recovery process, and the alphabet soup of veterans' services that can be so difficult to access.

“The most powerful distinction between a drug court and vet courts is the bonding with the vets within the community,” Fitzgerald says.

“This is vet-to-vet in the courtroom; vet mentors are then not only a support but also assist in connecting them to all the benefits they earned.

“If they want to go to community college, vet mentors know how to make things happen. They are resource connectors.”

Assigned in VT Court, the volunteer mentors provide practical, material and psychological support, as well as a communal bond built on military camaraderie – something that's hard to find on the outside.

The scope and ambition of their Boot Camp training at last week's conference was astoundingly comprehensive and detailed.

The goal of Justice for Vets is to build a Justice for Vets Mentor Corps ready, says Fitzgerald, to “serve around the country” with the same dedication they brought to their original military service.

At the end of one session I approached one of the attendees.

He was, it turned out, not a would-be mentor volunteer, but the District Attorney for the Northwestern District of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, named David E. Sullivan.

Sullivan and his staff were attending the session to observe how the mentor-volunteer concept worked, and how he could adopt it and other aspects of the drug court to two courts planned for his district.

Three years ago, when he became DA, Sullivan tells me, he started “Vets Justice Partnership,” a coalition of over 30 organizations working to “get 168 court-involved vets and incarcerated vets through the court process last year alone, and get them rehabilitated.”

“We came here to learn how to help vets in a much more productive way.”

“It's not just about vets getting help,” he went on. “It's about vets giving help to folks going through a tough process.”

Joe Domanick is West Coast Bureau Chief for the Crime report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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