Judge Robert Russell of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court shakes hands with military veteran Justin Smith, who completed the court program's requirements. (Photo: 'The Christian Science Monitor'/Getty Images)

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Traumatized Vets Are Finding Hope in Special Courts

Self-medicating their untreated PTSD, many veterans get in trouble with the law after military service. But some say they're not the only ones facing jail who deserve a second chance.
Mar 6, 2015· 12 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

The first sign it’s not a typical courtroom is when Judge Joe T. Perez, middle-aged, with thick black hair and glasses, looks up from his Dell laptop and greets everyone: “Good afternoon,” he says, to which everyone, from those he’s about to judge to the friends and family there to support them, responds in unison, “Good afternoon!”

“Outstanding,” Perez replies. “Good to see everybody.”

The second sign this court is a little weird: The judge then raffles off some $25 gas station gift cards. “What’s this, your fourth time?” he asks one man, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, who has indeed won a gift card for the fourth time.

The Orange County Combat Veterans Court, in Southern California, is not like other courts by design. It was one of the first of what are now more than 220 “collaborative courts” in the United States established to deal with former members of the U.S. military who get in trouble with the law. Everyone in the courtroom, including the judge and the prosecutor, is ostensibly focused on helping the veteran get to a better place via treatment and rehabilitation, rather than on guilt and punishment, as in the traditional, adversarial court setting. Even when a participant violates the terms of the program by missing a court date or a drug test, the judge’s tone tends to be supportive, more like that of a counselor invested in the accused’s future than an uncaring arbiter of the law.

That veterans deserve special treatment from the legal system stems from the idea that their training to overcome the natural human aversion to harming strangers and repeatedly being sent overseas to do just that may have caused the mental illness and substance abuse that led to their standing in front of a judge. Every war produces veterans who struggle to readjust to civilian life, but the wars since Sept. 11, 2001, have arguably produced veterans who are more troubled than those of previous generations. Over the last decade more than 100,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army—20 percent of those on active duty, according to The Christian Science Monitor—have been deployed at least three times, each deployment an opportunity to witness new horrors. Thanks to improvements in armor and medical care, more of these soldiers are coming home damaged instead of dead: Roughly the same number of soldiers were deployed to Vietnam as have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, but while a little over 47,000 died in combat in Southeast Asia, fewer than 5,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the wars since 9/11. Nearly a third of those who survived, however, suffer from a mental health condition or traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to a study from the RAND Institute: 300,000 of today’s vets “suffer from PTSD or major depression,” while an additional 320,000 “reported experiencing TBI during deployment.”

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reviewing more than a dozen studies from the U.S. and U.K., found “a small-to-moderate association between combat exposure and post-deployment physical aggression and violence”—even controlling for the fact that some who enlist in the military may be predisposed to violence. Their report, published in January, further states that the post-deployment problems are worse in proportion to the “intensity and frequency of exposure to combat ‘traumas.’ ”

Only a small fraction of returning veterans go on to commit crimes, but they are more prone to criminality than the general population. Just under 7 percent of the U.S. population, vets make up about 10 percent of the people in U.S. prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The majority of veterans behind bars served during wartime, with one in five seeing combat. As of 2004, the last year for which figures are available, more than half of the veterans locked up were convicted of a violent crime, with 15 percent behind bars for murder and 23 percent for sexual assault.

*Click/zoom on interactive map above for more information about veteran treatment courts.
For many veterans, the trauma of combat creates a path to the criminal justice system, as
sufferers of untreated PTSD self-medicate with alcohol and street drugs. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, one of every nine people in American jails and prisons is a veteran. In response, many states are establishing alternative courts for veterans. They are based on drug treatment courts and tailored to address the unique needs and experiences of veterans to keep them out of prison. The map above shows where veterans treatment courts operate, and characteristics particular to some of them. (Data: Justice for Vets)

—Rebecca McCray

Veterans are also more likely than non-veterans to have been sexually assaulted themselves, usually by other members of the military: In 2014 alone, 5 percent of women and 1 percent of men in the armed forces were estimated to have been victims of “unwanted sexual contact,” which, like combat itself, can be a trauma that leads to mental health disorders or illnesses.

But an awareness that putting troubled people behind bars only makes things worse is spreading, and beginning to effect changes in policy. “When combat veterans—steeped in violence and stress—become involved in the criminal justice system and are sent to jail or to prison,” notes the Orange County court’s 2013 annual report, “it is nearly certain that, upon their release, their withdrawal, their repressed anger, and their alienation will have gotten worse, not better.”

An outgrowth of the more established drug treatment courts, which for years have been offering people with substance abuse problems the option of treatment instead of prison, veterans courts are not without controversy: The ACLU of Nevada’s general counsel, Allen Lichtenstein, has argued against creating what he sees as a separate tier of justice for ex-military, arguing the same reasoning could be used to justify special courts for police. Others point out that the courts often avoid the most serious crimes, which are often the clearest manifestations of trauma related to military service, and choose arrestees with the best chance of success. Still, most critics of the criminal justice system, including most chapters of the ACLU, argue that a flawed alternative to incarceration for some is better than no alternative for anyone.

The first veterans court was set up in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, followed a few months later by the one in Orange Country. Today they can be found in at least 37 states, though even where they do exist the majority of veterans go through the same system as everyone else: Some states have just one court, and, limited by law and politics, it doesn’t just accept any veteran or any case.

So the new trend is creating courts for people who have suffered war-related trauma. To be admitted, veterans must plead guilty in a regular court and request that their case be transferred to the vets court. A panel composed of the veterans court judge, the district attorney, the defense counsel, the probation officer, and a representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs then reviews the case. If the panel reaches a consensus that the veteran committed a crime as a result of military service, and that he (they are almost all men) is unlikely to offend again, the vet then begins an 18-month program that, in lieu of a prison term, requires regular drug and alcohol testing as well as treatment for whatever substance abuse and mental health issues the convict might be saddled with (alcohol is the primary drug of choice for more than half of those in the Orange Country program, while nearly half of those who get kicked out are addicted to methamphetamines). The participant is paired with a representative from the VA, a parole officer, and a fellow veteran who serves as a volunteer mentor to help guide him through the recovery process. For the first couple months, the veteran must attend court once a week to make sure he meets the program’s requirements, with the VA rep providing context on why that might or might not be. Court appearences ratchet down to one a month near the end of the program. At the end of it all, the successful graduate’s conviction is expunged, meaning it won't appear on his record and he does not have to tick the box on a job, loan, or rental application indicating conviction for a crime.

300,000 vets today experience PTSD. Another 320,000 suffered Traumatic Brain Injury.

RAND Institute

Most of the veterans in court the day I visited were in their early 20s, almost all having fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Unlike many veterans courts, the one in Orange County only admits those who have seen combat. In some cases, war’s effect on these young men is obvious: a missing limb, for instance. But the majority are wounded on the inside. Rather than seeking to impress the veterans with the stern majesty of the law, Perez, a former public defender, treats the young men in his court not like criminals, but like patients in a drug and alcohol treatment facility—people who are to be encouraged for what they’ve done right, not just condemned and continually reminded of what they’ve done wrong.

“Listen, you’ve come a long way,” Perez told one young man who missed a court date. “Don’t slip on me. I want to see you continue to do well. Every guy in here is pulling for you.” His punishment was eight hours of community service. Another man, who missed a treatment session, was ordered to write an essay on “what happens when I stop putting personal effort into my recovery.” Those who were in full compliance were congratulated. “What’s really great is to see you turn into the sailor I knew you could be,” Perez told one of the older veterans. “You provide hope to a lot of people.” He received a round of applause from friends, family, and sheriff’s deputies alike.

By the end of 2013, fifty-three people had completed the Orange County court’s program. While 65 percent of people released from California prisons are arrested again within the next three years, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the figure for those who have completed the Orange County vet court is 11 percent. That fact is heralded by advocates of the program, but it’s also a bit misleading: Between 2010 and 2014, nearly a third of those admitted to the court were kicked out for violations such as a fresh arrest or a repeated failure to show up for treatment, court, or drug and alcohol testing. Another factor in the low recidivism rate is that while participation in the program is said to be voluntary, the only other option is prison (treatment has been shown to be much more effective when people seek it out themselves). Perez is generally lenient when a person violates the terms of enrollment once or twice, but the threat of incarceration looms.

Judge Joe T. Perez of the Orange County Combat Veterans Court.
(Photo: Courtesy JusticeForVets.org)

Eric Gonzalez, a 24-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps who fought in Afghanistan, says the choice was easy for him: Facing multiple felonies resulting from a failed attempt to evade a DUI arrest, including a charge of assaulting a police officer, he faced nine years in prison—or 18 months in a treatment program. “What would you do?” Gonzalez asked me. “I didn’t buy into it,” he admitted. “I milked it. But if it wasn’t for that treatment I wouldn’t be where I am at today, honestly.”

After 18 months living with other veterans at a treatment facility, Gonzalez is a full-time student and a part-time engineer. He says he’s no longer prone to impulsive anger. The key, he says, was being around other combat veterans who knew what he was going through.

“You have problems that other people have, and you can actually talk to them about it,” said Gonzalez. “My neighbors don’t know anything about what I’ve been through. But if I talk to another person who’s in the court, we can create a bond.” That in turn creates a healthy sense of competition: Who can advance to the next stage of the program the fastest?

Even if the recidivism rate were the same for veterans who go through the program as for those who go to prison, advocates see it as a victory if vet courts spare anyone the indignity of incarceration. “The impact is enormous,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, a former actor on The West Wing who now is the senior director of Justice for Vets, a group that advocates expanding the veterans courts system. “Today,” she told me, “11,000 veterans who would otherwise be incarcerated are receiving life-changing treatment in veterans treatment courts around the country.”

Fitzgerald’s organization considers the Orange County court a model, providing grants to officials from across the U.S. to come and see it operate in person (there was a delegation at the session I attended). Though among the most restrictive in terms of accepting only combat vets, it is one of the more liberal in that it will accept cases involving everything except rape or murder. The O.C. court seems more conservative in practice: Most of the people I saw in court looked to be there for possessing drugs or driving while drunk, the judge himself suggesting that taking on the more serious cases was politically problematic. Facing an accused arsonist diagnosed with PTSD, Perez noted, “With these types of cases it’s just very, very difficult” to get everyone on the panel that admits arrestees to vet court to agree that prison is not the appropriate response. Courts can be reluctant to admit even eligible violent offenders for fear they might offend again and give the courts a bad name.

Melissa Fitzgerald, senior director of Justice for Vets.
(Photo: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

“One of the problems with these courts is cherry-picking,” said Michael Perlin, professor emeritus at New York Law School and director of the International Mental Disability Law Reform Project. “Everyone wants the courts to succeed, so they only take the lowest risk candidates.”

Perlin believes anything is better than mass incarceration and he understands “people have to do a lot of things for political reasons.” But, he told me, “I just think…if you have the courts, they should be open to any [veteran].” Ultimately the same concern shown to vets should be extended to all—victims of child abuse, for instance, or anyone with PTSD—mitigating circumstances not being limited to those who joined the military.

Brock Hunter believes that at the least, all vets courts should be open to noncombat veterans. Before representing veterans as a lawyer in Minneapolis, Hunter served as an Army cavalry scout along the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea and says the experience affected him for years. “It had a psychological impact on us,” he said. “Just being spun up constantly to go to war, told, ‘You’re going to fight today,’ ‘You’re going to die today,’ and then ‘Oh, never mind.’ ”

The return to civilian life was a difficult adjustment for Hunter. He did a lot of stupid things in an attempt to recapture the rush he experienced while serving, he told me. Now he represents men and women who were deployed multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan and came back not just reckless but broken.

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The ability to impulsively deploy extreme violence is an attribute on the battlefield that’s not so desirable anywhere else, or so easy to eliminate. That poses a problem now that the military has gotten so much better at turning young recruits into reliable killers. In his 1947 book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, Brig. Gen. Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshal claimed that fewer than 25 percent of soldiers who saw combat fired their weapons at the enemy; many chose to shoot in the air or at the ground rather than take the life of a stranger, even if that stranger was a Nazi. That figure has been disputed, but the claim unquestionably caught the attention of the military, contributing “to analysis and improvements in infantry training designed to increase rates of fire,” notes John Whiteclay Chambers II, a history professor at Rutgers University. Now it’s down to a science: By the time the war in Vietnam came around, 95 percent of soldiers fired their weapons, leading to PTSD in roughly half of Vietnam vets. That’s “far higher than in previous wars,” according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. He attributes the rise to the emotional consequences of taking a life.

This increasingly effective training has not, however, been paired with a similarly intensive effort to deprogram soldiers once they come back home. After World War II, returning soldiers at least spent a few weeks on a ship with other men who’d shared their experience. Today’s veterans are expected to go from fighting the Taliban one week to picking up their toddler from day care the next. It’s largely left to them to figure out how to adjust, and it’s not hard to see how some might turn to self-medication.

Hunter fears civilian society hasn’t seen the worst of the effects of the post-9/11 wars. “There’s kind of an incubation period” of trauma after returning home, he told me. Troubled veterans who don’t get the help they need may give in to despair and violently lash out years later when their problems don’t just fade away. Some of the most battle-hardened, Hunter points out, aren’t even home yet. “A lot of the folks I’m most concerned about are still deployed in our Special Operations Forces and other more elite units where they just keep reenlisting because they don’t know anything else,” said Hunter. “They feel more comfortable in the combat zone than they do back here.” But most will come back eventually. “We’ve got a public health crisis coming,” Hunter told me. “The next five to 10 years are going to be a shit show.”

Benjamin Brashear, of Palm Springs, California, fought in Iraq and said that between deployments, alcohol helped him cope with his PTSD. “It wasn’t until I got out of the military that [the PTSD] really started to affect me,” he said. “I think it’s good that [veterans courts] acknowledge the fact we’re not the average citizen,” he told me. “We’ve seen and done things that the average citizen hasn’t.” Like Hunter, he just wishes more veterans were admitted into the courts, telling me he has friends who would have benefited from treatment but are sitting in a prison cell instead.

For the veterans who can get in, it seems clear treatment courts offer a superior experience to the traditional criminal justice system, although they aren’t altogether separate either: I saw man handcuffed to the bench he sat on for having been arrested while in the program; others were kept in a holding cell next to which was a sign informing those on the outside that it was against the law to communicate with those held within. Still, whatever the court’s flaws, most who saw Judge Perez that day probably left in better spirits than the tens of thousands of veterans who are in prison cells. They were surrounded by people, mentors and other participants, who knew what they were going through—who could show them that achieving peace with the world is still possible after seeing the horrors of war—and were rooting for them to succeed, not just waiting to catch them when they fail.

“Take ownership of what you’ve done in the past,” I overheard one man counseling a veteran with a prosthetic leg. He wasn’t court staff or one of the older, volunteer mentors but, like the man he was trying to help, just another 20-something veteran who was in the program. “But don’t let [your crime] define you,” he stressed. “Don’t lose sight of how far you’ve come and always remember, I’m really proud of you.” Whatever its imperfections, veterans court allowed two people who would otherwise be in a prison cell to have that conversation.

This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film That Which I Love Destroys Me.