“Our Nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines.” Thus wrote the U.S. Supreme Court in Porter v. McCollum, a 2009 case in which it overturned the death penalty for a twice-wounded Korean War veteran who had been engaged in some of the most intense combat in the theater.
Combat in the Middle East has brought its own special horrors. Because of the fondness of the enemy for IEDs, Traumatic Brain Injury has become the signature wound of warfare in the last ten years. Even DoD, which is close to the vest in disclosing statistics such as these, estimates that as many as one in four returning vets suffer from TBI when they return home. Of these, a staggering 40% will subsequently be afflicted by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These are wounds that do not lend themselves readily to traditional therapies, can go unnoticed and untreated until they manifest themselves, and are often suppressed by the veteran who may fear the ridicule of peers. Many, too many, may take to alcohol or other drugs to dull the pain, ease the sleeplessness, and exorcise the demons.
As we in MOAA welcome with open arms our returning warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must be ever mindful of the scars, sometimes deeply buried, that combat can produce. Nor can we ignore that a (very) small percentage of these returning warriors can find themselves in trouble, occasionally big trouble, with the law. When that happens, shouldn’t we, the community of Colorado Springs, take into account the value of that veteran’s service, and the possibility that the very real psychological and emotional effects of that service itself might have contributed to the offenses?
Let me answer that for all of us. Yes. Yes we should. Meet the Veteran Trauma Court — a court specifically set up within the framework of the Fourth Judicial District that is intended to help veterans who get into trouble. The idea is to have early intervention and access to behavioral health resources to address and treat things like PTSD and TBI. These traumas, alone or in conjunction with substance abuse, can suck the veteran into a into the depths of the criminal justice system. Our District Attorney, Dan May, and one of our district judges, retired Army MGEN Ron Crowley, have put such a court into place. What differentiates it from other courts in which vets may find themselves is that the prosecutors and the judge are tuned into some of the special problems that confront a vet, including the potential collateral effects that conviction and punishment might have on the active-duty veteran. The idea is to intercept veterans who are entering the civilian criminal justice system for the first time and get them together with veterans who will mentor them, run interference through the sometimes bewildering array of legal and rehabilitative options, sharply reduce recidivism, and return the veteran to being a productive, law-abiding member of the community.
Even though the program is in its infancy, it’s shown promise. So far, only veterans charged with non-violent, non-sexual felonies who also have been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or any other service-connected trauma disorders have been eligible. Some of our membership, including Maj Gen (ret) Larry Fortner, working in close cooperation with District Attorney Dan May and Judge Crowder, are looking for ways to expand the program to take in misdemeanors, and possibly even some domestic violence cases. The idea is not to afford our veterans “special” treatment, or to exempt them from the consequences of criminal misconduct, but to put them into a rehabilitative fast-track working with people, especially peer mentors, who comprehend what they’ve been through and who can correct their course before it’s too late.
What can you do? A threshold need is to identify those veterans who are in trouble, early, and put them with a peer mentor who can help them navigate their way through an unfamiliar criminal justice system. If you know of such a veteran, you can contact the Veteran Trauma Court Program Manager, Carrie Bailey, at 719 637-8957, or me, for that matter. Even if the veteran does not qualify for the program itself, peer mentoring and understanding the variety of services that might be available can help to nudge the veteran back on track. And if you’re interested in being a peer mentor, you can contact Michael Bryant at 719 306 3593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.