A judge in Fairfax wants to help Virginia’s veterans

Petula Dvorak
Columnist June 2

Every month or so, in the parade of offenders coming before her in court, she’d spot a military veteran.

Usually it was for a misde-meanor, a squabble, assault and battery, something petty.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Then Penney S. Azcarate, chief judge of the Fairfax County General District Court, would see the same guy in court again. For something more serious.

And in each of her six years on the bench, Azcarate saw more and more veterans unravel before her in just this way.

“It’s probably up to a few every week now,” said Azcarate, 48, who served in the Marines in the 1991 Persian Gulf War before going to law school and becoming a county prosecutor.

In a county that has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of veterans — about 85,000, according to George Mason University law professor Laurie Neff — the cost of war is on gut-wrenching display in the courthouse every day.

Azcarate and the nine other judges in her court see the patterns. They’re getting a stream of veterans who had no criminal record before they went into the military rack up rap sheets as they battle post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or the fallout from sexual assault.

The spiral often ends in one of two ways:

First is serious prison time. There are so many vets at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake that the Virginia Department of Corrections has created two special dorms for them decorated with murals of the Navy’s Blue Angels and other military logos and insignia.

In Fairfax, 76 veterans are jailed, said Neff, who also served in the Marines and is director of the law school’s Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans. About 10 percent of the nation’s prisoners once served in the military.

Second is suicide. Every day, about 22 veterans kill themselves. That’s one almost every hour.

Seth Masterson, 29, was on a fast path to one of those outcomes.

He served in Iraq during the bloodiest year, 2006-07. In a photo with 15 of his friends, five are circled in red. All of them have severe PTSD, most have been locked up, one killed himself.

Masterson came home after seeing his best friend die and had a difficult time slipping back into the life that the other 99 percent of Americans were living — shopping, rush-hour traffic, child care.

As a Fairfax police officer, he was getting written up a lot. He lashed out at co-workers, and on the day he was denied treatment for PTSD, he threatened to kill his wife.

He was relieved of his duties and divorced by his wife. He lost custody of his son.

All of it could have been avoided if his PTSD had been caught and treated early, he said at a meeting last month with judges, fellow vets, social workers, advocates and court officials.

The damage — psychological and physical — we’re seeing in our nation’s veterans is historic.

“With only 1 percent of our population wearing the uniform, you have a system of military personnel going out on deployment four or six times,” Azcarate said. “This has an amazing impact on your mental health, and it’s unprecedented in our history — 22 suicides a day. We have to learn how to deal with this epidemic.”

Azcarate thinks she knows one way to begin. At the meeting, she outlined her plan to create a veterans treatment docket in Fairfax, much like the veterans treatment courts already operating around the country. The way the system works right now, there’s no way to know who is a veteran.

“Sometimes, if they’re at parade rest, I see it,” Azcarate said. Or they’ll throw out some jargon. But unless they identify as a veteran or an attorney points it out, it’s not so easy for a judge to consider the possibility that combat-related syndromes could have been a factor.

“And maybe we can address those issues before they escalate, prevent recidivism,” she said.

Once a defendant is identified as a veteran and is placed on the special docket, the court would connect the offender with the kind of services or treatment he should be getting.

Sometimes, the guy who just got locked up for a bar fight needs to be in a psychiatrist’s office, talking about the wartime trauma he witnessed rather than cooling his heels in a jail cell.

Azcarate’s plan is to get this up and running by January. “I just want to catch them early enough before it turns deadly,” she said.

These kinds of courts are becoming increasingly popular, with at least one in nearly half the nation’s states.

And it’s about time Virginia begins acknowledging the special needs of its huge veteran population with more than monuments, memorials and meal deals.

The state is the nation’s 12th-most populated, but it has the sixth-largest veteran population, with nearly 850,000 who’ve served, and it’s the only state with a growing military population, Neff said.

Azcarate doesn’t like to quote Hillary Rodham Clinton much but said it takes a village to return a military veteran to society.

A court that catches veterans when they begin to fall is an important step.

We’ve lost enough people in battle on foreign turf. The least we can do is end the battle they face at home.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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