By P. Solomon Banda
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.
Advocates say some war veterans facing lesser charges may be self-medicating or acting out as a result of untreated PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
"It's a whole cluster of issues," said Robert Alvarez, who works with injured soldiers at Fort Carson through his affiliation with the National Organization on Disability. He is helping set up the local veterans court. "Some of these guys carry guilt: some remorse for what they had to do, some remorse about the friends they lost, the comrades who they watched die," he said.
Police encounters and pretrial proceedings are often missed opportunities to connect with mental health services, wrote Bradley Schaffer, director of the veterans housing program at the VA hospital in Butler, Pa., in an article to be published in the American Jail Association's magazine this fall.
An evaluation last year of a VA outreach program Schaffer started in Cincinnati found 399 veterans in jails and prisons in southern Ohio and a corrections center in northern Kentucky from 2003 to 2008.
About 80 of the veterans served in the Persian Gulf War, Iraq or Afghanistan, and 160 served during the Vietnam War. As a group, the veterans' crimes ranged from probation violations to murder; their ages ranged from 20 to 80.
Schaffer, a former psychiatry professor at the University of Cincinnati, warns against veterans automatically blaming problems on their military service.
"Someone who says, 'I'm an alcohol and drug addict because I'm a veteran,' during noncombat periods, I find that very suspicious," Schaffer said in an interview.