It is estimated – and some would say UNDERestimated – that 30 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The studies are out there:
- Mental Health Injuries Scar 300,000 Troops
- One In Five Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Suffer from PTSD or Major Depression
- Thousands of Veterans Return With Mental Illness
Thousand of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines returning from war suffer from the effects of PTSD and turn to drugs and/or alcohol to help numb the pain and keep the flashbacks at bay. A study conducted in 2005 by the Pentagon shows approximately one quarter (24.5%) of soldiers (in the Army) considered themselves to be regular heavy drinkers – consuming five or more drinks at a time at least once a week. In 1998, that figure was only 17.2 percent.
Thousands of those servicemembers find themselves in court, facing the legal consequences of their behavior. In Buffalo, New York, Judge Robert Russell has implemented the Veteran Treatment Court after counting more than 300 veterans in the local courts the year prior.
“The reality is, we knew we had to do something now … because soon we’re going to have 400,000 coming home,” says Hank Pirowski, who heads Judge Russell’s staff. He says a lot of the veterans they’ve seen got into trouble because they were dealing with the aftermath of combat. (Court Aims to Help Vets With Legal Troubles, NPR)
The Veterans Treatment Court does not let offenders off lightly. According to Russell the court handles primarily non-violent offenses. Veterans required to get mental health or addiction counseling, find jobs, stay clean and sober and get their lives back on track. They are required to report back on a monthly basis to update the court on their progress. The judge says that the typical veteran will remain in the treatment court for a year or more before their progress is deemed sufficient and their charges reduced or cases dismissed.
Each defendant in the Veteran Treatment Court is assigned a mentor who is also a veteran. Currently, there is a waiting list for those positions. The mentors are primarily made up of Vietnam vets who are more than willing to do for current veterans what was never done for them. Each defendant is also assigned a public defender that expects them to be actively involved in their own case.
In addition, the courtroom also has present a substance abuse treatment specialist from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA specialist has a laptop that allows instant access to defendants’ records, appointment tracking, and access to government benefits and services that the defendant may not know exist.
The program has been so successful that Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have introduced the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act to create veteran drug treatment courts to support veterans combat the cycle of alcohol or drug addiction. The SERV Act is modeled on the Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo.
“For those who have given so much for our country, we should address the serious issues of drug and alcohol addiction in an appropriate forum that recognizes that some veterans fall victim to substance abuse as a way to handle post-traumatic stress. It’s well past time we offered our veterans services worthy of their sacrifice.”
“War exacts a tremendous psychological toll on the warrior and unfortunately some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol for solace,” said Patrick Campbell, Chief Legislative Counsel for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “As a grateful nation, we must honor the service of our fighting men and women by providing them alternatives when they run afoul of the law. The SERV act will offer struggling veterans a lifeline through the darkness. Veterans will still be held accountable for their actions, but will be given an opportunity to heal and find their way home.”
It is the least we can do.