Troubled Veterans Get a Hand

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham speaks on the link between combat stress and crime. The VA is increasing its outreach to veterans who are arrested after service.
Maj. Gen. Mark Graham speaks on the link between combat stress and crime. The VA is increasing its outreach to veterans who are arrested after service. (By Carol Lawrence -- Associated Press)
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By P. Solomon Banda
Associated Press
Friday, August 7, 2009

DENVER -- The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched an ambitious program offering legal intervention on behalf of veterans with arrest records, an effort aimed at preventing repeat crimes among service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA started its Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative early this year -- before public attention intensified on a Fort Carson, Colo.-based unit from which a handful of soldiers have been accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter after returning from Iraq, where they faced intense combat. Most of the soldiers had been arrested on charges of domestic violence, assault, illegal gun possession, or alcohol and drug violations before the slayings.

A July 15 Army report said more study is needed to determine whether there is a link between the soldiers' alleged crimes and their heavy combat duty and lengthy deployments.

The VA is training 145 specialists at its hospitals nationwide to help veterans who are in jails, awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences. Other VA programs target homelessness and help veterans readjust after serving prison terms for serious crimes.

To date, more than 1.9 million U.S. service members have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, the largest deployment since 3.4 million were sent to Southeast Asia in support of the Vietnam War.

James McGuire, the Los Angeles-based director of the VA's incarcerated veterans outreach programs, said some war veterans "are obviously struggling."

"The VA is very attuned to this and received an education about all this after Vietnam, when the whole issue of PTSD came up," he said, using the abbreviation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a typical case, VA specialists would report to a civilian court on an accused veteran's medical history -- and available VA benefits or programs that might help. Prosecutors and judges would decide whether and how to use that information when deciding if a veteran should undergo treatment instead of incarceration.

The VA also is participating in 10 "veterans courts" to help former service members accused of crimes get into treatment programs, in exchange for reduced sentences or dismissed charges. More than 40 such courts are planned across the country, McGuire said.

The courts are patterned after drug courts, where defendants are offered treatment instead of jail.

Part of the challenge in finding out who is in trouble is persuading counties to identify veterans in their jails. Only a handful of U.S. counties -- including Los Angeles; Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Ohio; and Alachua County (Gainesville), Fla. -- track veterans for VA outreach programs, McGuire said.

In 2002 -- before the Iraq war -- the Department of Justice reported that veterans accounted for roughly 10 percent of the nation's jail and prison population. Those are the latest figures available.

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