Personal Health

Think Vietnam Vets Were Screwed? Wait Until You See How Many Veterans of Bush's Wars End up in Jail

Far too many soldiers end up behind bars while the rest of us are free to ignore the human evidence of what our military ventures really cost.

As all the other justifications for the U.S. invasion of Iraq have fallen by the wayside, it is ironic that the one that remains is "freedom," because in the name of someone else's freedom, we train our own soldiers to behave in ways that may very well cost them their own.

Gordy Lane is a retired Syracuse police detective who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. As a cop, it was his job to put lawbreakers behind bars, but as a veteran, he understands that when you go to war, "you come back a little different than when you went over there."

"Listen," he says, "you pop up out of a foxhole, and you blow a guy's head open like a watermelon. The other two guys in the foxhole start patting you on the back and saying, 'Good job!' because you just did the worst thing that you can do to another person. How do you translate that into civilian life?"

For far too many soldiers, the simple answer is, you don't.

But with them behind bars and out of sight, most of the rest of us are free to ignore the human evidence of what our military ventures really cost. Even putting issues of compassion and justice aside, any number of alternatives to prison have been shown to save taxpayer money.

For example, the average annual cost of incarceration in New York state in 2008 was $44,000 a year. But a 2009 report by the Legal Action Committee found that for every individual diverted from prison into community-based treatment programs, the state would save between $62,492 and $88,892 a year.

The LAC calculated those savings by subtracting the average cost of treatment (for addiction or mental-health issues) from the cost of incarceration. It turns out to be cheaper, both in the long and the short run, even considering expenditures such as program administration and court supervision, if projected savings in health care, public assistance and future criminal justice involvement is also considered.

With that in mind, as these new wars drag on, and as more and more service members find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system, it seems worth asking, in whose interest is the status quo maintained? Especially when there are more humane and even more rational solutions available.

Jim Strollo, who directs the veterans program at Groveland Prison in New York, has "a group of veterans that meets on Thursday nights that addresses PTSD, among other things.

"But I'm not a trained counselor. We have the Office of Mental Health, but they are not equipped to do a lot of counseling because crisis intervention keeps them so busy. Veteran inmates rely in the counseling of their peers. They do the best they can."

Even 10 years ago, veterans at Groveland and other New York prisons had more support and treatment options than they have today.

Don Little, who coordinated the NYS Department of Correctional Services' Veterans Programs from 1986 until December 2004, when he retired, told me sadly, "We had good results. We made the department look good, and we weren't even spending the state's money. I just don't understand."

Reintegrating Vets into Civilian Life

After the war in Vietnam, when veterans began showing up in the nation's prisons in large numbers, Vietnam Veterans of America was the first organization to respond with rehabilitation programs specifically designed to help returning troops reintegrate into civilian life.

NYDOCS adopted VVA's design and did perhaps the best job of implementing the program.

"We even had the VA involved, " Little says proudly. "They provided trained substance-abuse and PTSD counselors, and the NYS Division of Parole and Department of Labor had signed on as well."

By 1993, NYSDOCS could boast a recidivism rate (five years after release) of 8.9 percent for veterans who had completed the program, compared with 51.6 percent for non-veterans.

In 1999, 19 facilities in NYSDOCS offered veterans programs. Then, for the sake of "efficiency and effectiveness," those programs were consolidated. There are now three. And since the consolidation, program participation no longer counts toward certificates of "earned eligibility," which make an early parole more likely.

"Our program was undermined at the highest levels of the department," Little recalls with bitterness. "They said vets were getting preferential treatment. But I believe they just didn't want it to succeed. Vindictive, that's what it seemed to me."

What happened to those demonstrably successful programs makes no sense in human or even in fiscal terms. But even while various agencies of government appear content to keep veterans behind bars and out of sight, an array of creative and compassionate -- not to mention economically rational -- solutions continue to emerge, put forward by concerned individuals.

The Syracuse police force, for example, like police departments in communities across the country, includes a lot of Reservists and Guard members. In the past, they went right back to work when they came home. But Gordy Lane came up with a program designed to help the department and its officers with the entirely predictable re-entry issues they face following a deployment.

To that end, Lane has involved local professionals, including representatives from the police department, the mayor's office, the district attorney's office, the Vet Center and the VA, in a plan to make sure they are not sending a liability out onto the street.

"After all, this guy's got life and death strapped to his hip."

Now when these veterans/cops come home, the department gives them two weeks paid leave, during which time they are walked over to the VA to make sure they understand the services and benefits to which they are entitled, and then on to the Vet Center, where they must sign up for one-on-one counseling with a PTSD expert.

The PTSD expert decides when the cop/veteran is ready to go out on the street. And when he or she does get the green light to go out, he or she is  paired with an Iraq or Afghanistan vet, who determines when/if he or she is ready to carry a gun.

Lane calls it a "commonsense approach" and, he adds, "It's free."

Programs like Lane's are cropping up across the country, but helping veterans/officers with re-entry issues only takes pressure off one side of the equation.

There is still the issue of what happens when symptomatic behaviors bring other veterans into contact with police.

"A vet won't back down," says Lane, "and neither will law enforcement. They are like two rams. What we have to do is help law enforcement understand these guys."

Training to Recognize Signs of PTSD Vets

Last year, Steve Darman, a Vietnam-era vet and an adjunct professor of sociology at State University of New York Institute of Technology in Utica, did a countywide study of prisoner re-entry issues that convinced him that health care, human services and crisis-intervention workers, as well as law enforcement, need to be trained to recognize the characteristic behaviors and needs of traumatized veterans.

"These new vets, just like the vets from Vietnam, they do perimeter checks at night so they can feel safe. And sometimes they do it with weapons. They don't sleep at night like most people, so they are out there walking around their property at 2, 3 in the morning, and local law enforcement can roll up and misunderstand. The cops need to learn to think twice."

Darman says he imagines "front-line responders all over the country are having similar problems with vets in crisis," and adds that he "would also guess that the outcomes for our vets are not good."

The accumulation of tragic stories in Oneida County alone -- stories like the Utica police officer who was fired last year for severely beating a verbally abusive Vietnam vet with a PTSD diagnosis while the vet was handcuffed to a gurney in a hospital psychiatric ward -- those kinds of stories impelled Darman to develop a one-day training workshop for local law enforcement, which he hopes will help keep similar future confrontations from escalating into prison sentences -- or worse.

But he fears that a crisis is looming, that the numbers will be daunting. The problem "goes way beyond the cost of incarceration," he warns. "PTSD, addiction and homelessness reinforce each other, producing a downward spiral that is almost always accompanied by incarceration. When we try to 'manage' veterans without helping them heal, there are costs attached everywhere."

Guy Gambill, director of research and policy at the Veterans Initiatives Center and Research Institute, predicts that the number of veterans of today's conflicts who will have run-ins with the criminal justice system "will exceed those of the Vietnam generation by a long shot."

To support that claim, Gambill points to a whole slew of "emendations and additions to our criminal codes since the Reagan administration. Laws requiring mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws enhance sentences for a panoply of lower-level offenses and will bring unprecedented numbers" into the justice system.

Furthermore, large numbers of service members have "volunteered" for economic reasons. They come from the working class, and according to Gambill, "the well-documented inequities in our legal system make it far more likely that when this generation of soldiers transgress, they will do time."

And he notes that the "signature" wound of today's war, traumatic brain injury (TBI), which "in those cases where there is co-morbidity for substance abuse and/or where PTSD is present, there is an apparent link to violent behavior. That psychological component is often misinterpreted by law enforcement."

Gambill has been instrumental in getting a version of California's alternative-sentencing law -- which gives judges the option to take military service into consideration at sentencing -- passed in Minnesota this year, and he is working on getting a federal version passed.

Alternative "Veteran Court" Model

Another optimistic response has come from Buffalo (N.Y.) City Court Judge Robert Russell, who parlayed his experience with the successful drug- and mental-health-court concept into the first "veteran court."

Instead of prison, a veteran who has gotten himself or herself into trouble with the law is introduced to a court-supervised support community tailored to address the many readjustment issues specific to veterans -- from simple life-maintenance issues, to addictions, mental-health issues, housing and legal problems. The approach is holistic, the staff are largely veterans, and the focus is on recovery, not punishment.

More than 100 veterans have been admitted to the court in the past year. Their retention rate is 91 percent, and they predict a recidivism rate on a par with the mental-health court's, somewhere around 4 percent. Those numbers are particularly impressive when compared to the 60-70 percent national average.

Greg McClure, who is the project director at the new veterans court in Rochester, N.Y., sounds optimistic: "It's easy to spend money to punish, more of a challenge to find programs that work. This works. Our recidivism rates in the drug courts are way below the national average, and the veterans court is a little lower than that.

"I think it will be very difficult for anyone to say this isn't a good idea. It's taking care of people who have taken care of us."

Brock Hunter, a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer who worked with Gambill to draft the state's alternative-sentencing legislation, is less sanguine.

"We have like 2 million folks who have served now in the current conflicts, and well over half of them are still in the military. These are the folks who have done four or five or six combat tours. When they finally get out, that's when the shit is really going to hit the fan."

Although Gambill and Hunter are quick to point out that they have nothing but the deepest respect for Russell and his court, they fear that such courts can only handle a relatively small number of cases. And they are further limited, at least as currently conceived, because they are proscribed from handling anything but "nonviolent" crimes. That language, Gambill says, is "simply too vague to be reasonable."

"In lots of states, Minnesota for example, any offense involving a controlled substance is considered violent. Add disorderly conduct, driving intoxicated, illegal gun possession, and we've ruled out a large percentage of the guys we are talking about. If what we are trying to do is not send as many veterans to jail as we did post-Vietnam, that's a colossal stupidity."

Hunter adds: "It is exactly the cases involving violent crimes that are the ones we should focus on. These are they guys who need help the most. They are likely going to be the veterans who are suffering from the more severe cases of PTSD, and if they go untreated, they are going to pose a greater danger to society when they get out than when they went in."

What Hunter has found to be a useful legal strategy is what in Minnesota is called "a stay of adjudication." Hunter says this is when a veteran enters a guilty plea that the judge does not accept. The process in effect puts the veteran on probation. The judge can then order him to seek treatment from the VA, or even to serve a few days in jail, if he thinks he needs to get the guy's attention.

Still, the justice system retains some leverage, some insurance that this troubled veteran is going to get the help he needs to get his life back in order. And if he complies, the charges are dismissed, and he has a clean record.

Like the veterans court, Hunter's solution requires that the mechanism be worked out on a case-by-case basis. That can only succeed if an adequately funded legal system has access to an adequately funded support network, including accessible VA treatment, housing, education and employment support.

Any solution that is going to work will be expensive and will require a very different set of priorities from those responsible for the policies that are now in place.

But, Gambill warns, "The way we are doing things now will ensure one thing: We will end up with the same numbers of veterans who 'fell through the cracks' as after Vietnam ... they may get there via different routes, but get there they will."

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam War veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day 2006. Her Web site is Flashback.
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