Civil Liberties

Why Are We Throwing Traumatized Vets in Jail for Calling 911?

Joe Bangert is being jailed for doing exactly what he was trained to do: calling for backup when he feels threatened.

On March 4, 2011, the Honorable J. Thomas Kirkman, addressed the defendant in Barnstable Massachusetts' Second District Court:  "Mr. Bangert, I see that you served your country honorably. It's time to do that again. I'm asking you to serve your country honorably again by (spending) nine months in the house of correction."  And the gavel came down.  

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Joe's crime? Calling 911.   

Joe Bangert is being punished for doing exactly what he was trained to do: calling for backup when he feels threatened. The problem is that, since September 11, it's not always clear to him whether the threat is coming from outside or inside. His PTSD keeps him constantly on full alert, trying to keep everything and everyone out beyond what vets call the "kiss me/kill me" range.  

No question about it: Joe can be a civic nightmare. When he's upset, things get messy, rules get broken. But that should come as no surprise. We have studies going back 100 years connecting wartime experiences with traumatic injuries that lead to criminal behaviors.

For 30 years we've been experimenting with specialty courts because we know that putting someone with a mental health issue or an addiction in prison instead of treatment is not only cruel, it's much more expensive. For three years, we've been tentatively opening that model to veterans, who often fit into both categories. Since the attack on the Twin Towers, tens of thousands of veterans of previous conflicts have flooded VA facilities across the country, with PTSD by far the most common diagnosis. Ten years later, those old soldiers are being joined by younger veterans, in equally daunting numbers, who are similarly haunted by their memories and overwhelmed by the symptoms of their psychic injuries.  

They use drugs or alcohol to manage their nightmares, red-line their Harleys to feed their addiction to adrenalin, keep guns under their pillows to feel safe, and when they have flashbacks, muscle-memory takes over and they default to combat survival skills. Rages at the terrible images that colonize their minds get misdirected at innocent bystanders, often the people who love them the most—all known symptoms of PTSD, all predictive of trouble.   

Joe Bangert could serve as a poster boy for any veterans' courts. He has all of the above symptoms—except for the firearms. Those, he doesn't touch. Thirty years of treatment reports have swollen Joe's VA file to something he compares to "two metropolitan phone books"-- twice as thick as his FBI file. But he left it out in the yard and it's now swollen with rain so size comparisons are approximate. Nonetheless, the history recorded in that soggy file is one of non-violent progressive activism when Joe was successfully managing his trauma. When not, his police record is an impressive accretion of nuisance arrests that signal not criminal intent, but the self-medication he uses to mask his pain and his panic. When the pain and panic win, he needs a voice on the other end of the phone.  

And Joe is only charged with a misdemeanor. Though some judges have gone so far as to accept violent felony offenders in special veterans' courts, the vast majority are more conservative, accepting only misdemeanor or non-violent felony offenders for diversion.  

The judges who have established veterans' courts are already outside the norm. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, their Honors, in the aggregate, are more punitive when it comes to veterans. Veterans are not only disproportionately represented in the nation's prisons, but they are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans-- on average, more than two years longer -- for the same crime. 

That might explain how a 62-year-old Buddhist bear of a man, a decorated combat Marine with a 100 percent disability rating for PTSD and an FBI file to make any peace activist proud, ended up in a maximum-security prison for calling 911.  

Okay…he didn't call 911 just once. Officer Heath Eldredge sent Joe's brother a list of his police reports, but only a partial list. A complete list, Eldredge wrote, "would be much too voluminous."  

And not all the complaints in his file are for 911 calls. Last fall, he "liberated" four flags from the local VFW ($300) because the bartender closed out the register early. A mailbox was uprooted, a garden reconfigured, and more than a few provocative smart-ass pranks earned him rides in squad cars.  

But nobody really believes this old warrior is gaming the system.   

More than a few of the local cops in his hometown of Brewster, Massachusetts, are veterans themselves. They know his history and his diagnosis, and they have tried to cut him some slack. Still, every call means a car sent out to make sure he is safe. Their reports record, without irony or comment, Joe's insistence that the repeat calls were made by his cat stepping on his phone's redial. 

Unfortunately, the last time he had a bad night, his call was routed to the State Police instead. They didn't buy the cat story. He was arrested and now he's sitting in prison, his life reduced to breakfast, meds, rec, lock-in, lunch, lock-out, lock-in, supper, lock-in, final rec, lock-in, lock-down.   

Joe enlisted in the Marines right out of high school. He wanted to fly planes. They made him a door-gunner and sent him to Vietnam. It was a terrible job: shooting people, often civilians, from the door of a helicopter. Two of his friends were killed, and he began to tune out orders. At one point, he simply refused to shoot any more.   

When the USS Bexar delivered its cargo of homecoming Marines to San Diego harbor in 1969, Joe had draped a huge peace sign over the side of the ship. In 1969, the U.S. military was fighting two wars, one against the Vietnamese and another against mutinous and murderously angry American soldiers, like Joe-- and losing both. He got an honorable discharge, and the Marines were glad to be rid of him.   

Joe became a founding member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, left his medals on the steps of the White House, and helped organize the first Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit in 1971.

Life Magazine reprinted the most disturbing portions of his testimony:

    The last day before I went to the ‘Nam…this staff sergeant came out in front of us with a rabbit, petting it. Suddenly he made a quick move and killed the rabbit.  He pulled out a knife and started skinning it, then disemboweled it, throwing the guts and bones in our faces. Later in Vietnam I saw an American civilian adviser to an ARVN group do the same thing with a dead VC woman, disembowel her. He peeled her skin off and left her there as a warning to the villagers. 

Since then, when his psychic balance permitted, Joe worked within the system. In the '80s, he researched the effects of Agent Orange and managed the Massachusetts Agent Orange Program from 1983-1987. He also worked on any number of Massachusetts political campaigns, including all of John Kerry's. When Kerry ran for president in 2004, his relationship with Joe was fodder for Swift Boat slander

Joe is down on Kerry right now; in fact, he's down on all the politicians who accepted his help in the past, but disappeared when he needed theirs. Ironically, it was Kerry who sponsored the SERV Act, which would have created a nationwide program of veterans' courts. The SERV Act has been languishing in Congress since 2008.  Also in 2008, Massachusetts was one of six states to receive federal grant money to establish a pilot program to divert veterans from prison into treatment. Three years later, there are veterans' courts in 60 communities in 21 states, including Louisiana and Alabama. Massachusetts isn't one of them.   

In 2008, Judge Robert Russell established the first veterans' treatment court in Buffalo, N.Y. with no support from the federal government. He currently has 183 veterans enrolled, 53 have "graduated," and there have been no re-arrests to date. The program requires regular appearances before the court, drug testing, mentoring from trained veteran peer counselors, and a range of social service agency support, including assistance with housing, employment, education, addictions and help accessing VA services. If veterans make it through the program, their record is expunged.  

None of the federally funded pilot programs (there are now 11) have made their data on local veteran arrests public. Only six have reported their diversion numbers, and those as an aggregate. ("Through January 2011, 160 persons have been enrolled.") That reticence may be characteristic of top-down policy initiatives, where implementation is largely in the hands of professionals, but it is deeply resented by advocates whose motivation comes from personal experience and concerns. They are desperate for evidence to convince their local criminal justice establishments that the need for alternatives is urgent.  

Dan Abreu, who oversees the jail diversion pilots for the National GAINS Center points to the long-term, albeit time consuming, advantage of statewide infrastructure building, but he concedes that, "Sometimes a bottom-up approach can work better because you have community people who are already committed to investing their time and their resources."  

Like Joe's twin brother John. 

John is just as big and booming as his brother -- he's a man who doesn't take no for an answer, and he wants his brother out of prison NOW. Since Joe was sentenced, John has called every state and local representative, judge, lawyer, ex-lawyer, veteran service officer, VA official, anyone with any authority, four times a day, at work and at home. "John Bangert here," he announces. "My brother is still in jail. TIC TOCK, TIC TOCK. What are you going to do for him?"   

Then last Friday, John discovered two prize facts: Massachusetts' 2005 House Bill No. 863, and a law that allows individual Massachusetts citizens to petition for legislation. Had the Veterans Judicial Support Act passed when proposed, it would have made Massachusetts the first state in the country to establish a court dedicated specifically to channeling veterans into treatment programs rather than incarceration.  

So John, as a citizen of Massachusetts, started calling everyone on his "Free Joe" Rolodex, from the governor on down, to announce that he would be petitioning for enactment of House Bill #863, or some version of it, in the next election. That was Friday. Monday morning he received an email with House Docket 2300 attached, proposed legislation for a veterans' court. Within hours, John was hearing from legislators, lawyers and judges eager to sign on.   

The Bangert brothers may get their court. Perhaps too late for Joe, but they have started a process fueled by a passion that only life can teach. Its lesson is one that is being learned across the country: Joe is a symptom of a broken system, and not the other way round.