State courts ease up to help war veterans in trouble readjust to life at home
By Logan Nakyanzi Pollard 05/24/2012
When Larry, my uncle through marriage, came back from Vietnam, everyone knew he wasn’t quite right, but few in our family were prepared to help him.
His life following that war had taken a downward turn from which he never quite recovered. Loitering, bouncing between the homes of relatives and church shelter programs, he would sometimes get arrested for public drunkenness. He would often ride the subways, and that’s where he killed himself one day.
Stories such as this are not uncommon among families of combat veterans. Across the country, scenarios like this play out each day. That’s partly because the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were times during which people gave little, if any, thought to such problems as post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Today, however, that situation has changed dramatically, with no shortage of information available about both types of conditions, thanks to news coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. And with that information comes a stronger sense of urgency to deal with the problem proactively.
“Studies have shown that about 35 percent of homeless vets are suffering from alcohol or drug addiction and about one-quarter had these issues before they committed crimes,” says Peter Gravett, secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet).
“California being the most populous state has over 2 million veterans — the vast majority located in LA and San Diego — LA because it’s our most populous city and San Diego because of its great weather,” Gravett explains.
For these reasons, a new judicial processing system, veterans’ courts, has been set up across the nation to help wayward soldiers find a path they can take to get their lives back on track.
“I was in the military, and I was in law enforcement several years ago. We had veterans returning from Vietnam and we didn’t recognize [their symptoms] — they did not get the help and assistance needed,” Gravett said.
Veterans’ courts, according to Gravett, are a hybrid of government and mental health drug court models which address the unique issues presented by those who served in the military and may be suffering from serious mental health problems or other recurring illnesses.
Started in Buffalo, NY, in 2008, veterans’ courts have been established in several states around the country, including California, which has nine such courts statewide, most located in Southern California.
There are approximately 23.4 million veterans, 1.7 million of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan. As much as one-third of the nation’s homeless population has served in the armed forces, according to estimates from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Nearly half of all homeless vets suffer from some sort of mental illness, and 75 percent struggle with substance abuse.
Unable to cope with life after the military, Gravett explains that veterans often wind up homeless or on the street, or pulled over by police for committing simple misdemeanors, such as jaywalking. These courts are there for those offenses.
But, unfortunately, many vets don’t know they have that option available to them, says Judge Michael Tynan, who presides over the veterans’ court established in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system by Judge John Lonergan, a US Army Reserve colonel. Making matters even more complicated, “A lot of them do not want to acknowledge that they have PTSD,” Tynan observes.
What’s more, Tynan says that some vets have trouble finding work — even without having a criminal record — because some potential employers view them as liabilities, making reintegration into society all the more difficult.
“It’s also a geographical problem,” Tynan says of his court located in downtown LA, which may not be perceived as accessible to those who live in outlying areas. A veteran from Pasadena would be eligible to go to the LA court, but Tynan says that many vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have not found their way to him. Instead, he’s seeing many vets from earlier wars — most from Vietnam and even a man from the Korean War.
Other veterans’ courts operating since December are in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Tulare and Santa Clara counties. San Mateo County Superior Court, according to courts.ca.gov, the Web site of the California courts system, is set to open a veterans’ court this year. More courts, according to the site, are in the planning stages.
Some 150,000 local veterans are among the returning soldiers surfacing in courts around the country, former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian, an attorney and a Marine Corps veteran, told the Weekly last year, while the present LA vets’ court was still in the planning stages. As a member of the City Council in the late 1990s, Paparian helped fellow veterans erect the Vietnam War Memorial, now located in Memorial Park in Old Pasadena.
“Veterans court provides an alternative to the criminal justice system for veterans whose offense arises from disorders arising from their combat experience. These include traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other psychological disorders,” Paparian tells the Weekly.
“Veterans court gives military veterans a chance to get their lives back on track by addressing the problems underlying their criminal behavior,” he says.
“Nobody treated these guys for years. They’ve been self-medicating. Now they’re getting treatment and they’re rectifying their ways,” says Tynan.
Gravett is quick to note that certain criteria must apply before a vet can qualify to have a case heard in veterans’ court.
“These courts are not open to those who’ve committed violent crimes, a major felony or a murder. They are for minor offenses — trespassing, drunkenness in public or being on drugs,” Gravett points out.
Each of the state’s 58 counties has the option to establish a court for veterans. The strains on the economy, Gravett says, is the reason why the governor did not mandate that every county establish one. But, considering that incarceration ends up costing thousands of dollars a person, “I can tell you it has saved an enormous amount of money for people,” Gravett says.
There has been some opposition to veterans’ courts, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has gotten behind the idea. That’s largely because the veterans’ court concept actually shows how the criminal justice system could do so much better in dealing with nonviolent offenders — pointing out the expense involved with the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach, which costs taxpayers thousands of dollars per person, millions a year and incalculable suffering on many levels of society.
“It’s not about carving out specialty justice for veterans, but rather about putting similar systems in place that help divert vulnerable populations who require services rather than incarceration,” an ACLU representative wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The larger questions about failings within the criminal justice system need to be addressed, but they do not speak to the immediate and pressing needs of veterans, many of whom are pouring back into American society in large numbers.
As Americans prepare to honor fallen veterans on Memorial Day weekend — a holiday often more thought of as the unofficial start of summer than a sober remembrance day for all of America’s war dead — “My hope and dream is that at some given time these conflicts will end and we will bring our military home,” says Gravett.
But since wars have been fought almost since the beginning of time, what we need today, Gravett adds, is for veterans, “to be treated with respect according to what service they gave to their country, and now their country has to take care of them.”
People who knew my Uncle Larry say he was a very sweet and likeable guy. When he came back from Vietnam, he was quiet, withdrawn, haunted. Today, a kind of sadness fills the room when his name is mentioned. I can only wonder what might have been had there been help like this for him.
For more information about veterans’ courts, visit justiceforvets.org and courts.ca.gov, or email CollaborativeJustice@jud.ca.gov.