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Why Are We Locking Up Traumatized Veterans for Their Addictions Instead of Offering Them Treatment?

This Veterans Day, let's get past the bunting and ribbons and look at our returning troops' real needs.

A new report by the Drug Policy Alliance exposes practices and policies that for decades have unjustly resulted in large numbers of psychically injured and addicted veterans landing in U.S. prisons and jails.

The report reflects a year's worth of outreach to veterans and veterans' advocates across the country and a distillation of their most creative, innovative and optimistic responses to the problem.

Gen. Steven Xenakis, M.D., special adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for warrior and family support, brought a message of official support to a teleconference announcing the release of the report:

"250,000 soldiers is a large number of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who have been affected," he said. "It is so important that people are made aware of the issues and that we follow up with the best action plans we can find. … We in this country have a responsibility to assist and support them."

The report recommends changes in state and federal statutes that now prioritize punishment over treatment for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses as a result of their addictions and other mental health issues.

"Courts, as a way of dealing with large numbers of people with substance-abuse problems, are a very slow and expensive way to go," Dan Abrahamson, the Drug Policy Alliance's director of legal affairs, explained. "You need a courtroom and a judge and all the players, from prosecutors to defense attorneys. Providing treatment straight up requires far fewer resources and far less investment for far greater returns."

The report also calls for the adoption of overdose-prevention programs and the expansion of veterans' access to medication-assisted therapies to treat opioid dependence.

Overdose is an ongoing problem among veterans, as are other self-destructive behaviors that inflate the official and unofficial tally of suicides among active-duty troops and veterans. (Veterans, often compromised by alcohol or drugs, are an astonishing 148 percent more likely to die in a motorcycle crash than civilians of comparable age, race and sex.)

Guy Gambill, a longtime veterans advocate who was instrumental in shaping the report, reminded the teleconference participants that "one of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD is the tendency to self-medicate."

"In the aftermath of Vietnam, self-medication and its collateral behaviors landed tens of thousands of veterans in prison," Gambill said. "This time, let's be smarter than the problem."

Gambill is a veteran of nuclear duty forces in Europe and of President Ronald Reagan's South American military ventures. He makes no secret of the fact that he has done time in jail and under bridges, kicked a serious drug habit and managed to live with the mental-health issues that are a result of his service.

For the last decade, his firsthand experiences have fed his efforts to promote the diversion of veterans from incarceration into treatment, and he is convinced that finding ways to deal with addictions is a key part of that effort.

"We are not going to let murderers off the hook, or sex offenders. We're not going to let people who have 16 aggravated DUIs and killed somebody, off the hook. Those guys aren't getting out of jail any time soon.

"So who do we have room to help? People with drug-offense charges.In cases where a veteran has combat-related psychological trauma and nonviolent drug offenses, there is a lot of political will to give these guys a break."

A great litmus test for that political will would be the immediate repeal of the 2002 Veterans Administration directive barring treatment for incarcerated veterans. This almost incomprehensibly myopic policy is, as the report states, "a missed opportunity for the VA to provide critical services and support for veterans to recover from the psychological wounds that caused their criminal activity in the first place."