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