The Vets Courts

March 1, 2013

Across America, one in 10 criminals is a US military veteran, according to 2004 US Department of Justice statistics—the most recent year for which statistics are available. Because so many combat-experienced vets have a difficult re-entry into civilian society and get into trouble with the law in predictable ways, dozens of special courts are popping up around the country to deal with their unique problems. These courts help steer them back toward productive lives.

Between 2008 and 2012, in the wake of the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 100 of these special courts were established, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of VA officials say they expect the number to double in the next year alone.

The goal is to “really project the VA’s treatment capacity into the criminal justice system’ said Sean Clark, the VA’s national coordinator for the Vet­erans Justice Outreach Program. That means “trying to catch veterans as early as possible in their ‘justice careers,’ if you will.”

Retired TSgt. Ronal R. Bassham volunteers with the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in New York, the first of its kind in the nation, serving as a model for the others. A Vietnam vet, Bassham got into trouble in 1971, when he returned from near-constant combat.

“When you come back out of combat you have three things you get to deal with,” Bassham said. “One is anger, one is anxiety, and the worst one is guilt.” The guilt, he explained, is “about what you couldn’t do, what you wanted to do, what you did do—the people you left, or something that happened to them. It’s something that rides on your shoulders.”

Act Locally

He struggled with alcoholism on his return home and came close to getting into legal trouble. “You’re restless, you have anxiety, you need sleep and you have to work in the morning,” he said, admitting, “I smoothed the edge with alcohol.”

He brings that background to his volunteer work at the Buffalo court, working with fellow veterans wrestling with experiences similar to his own.

Typical crimes committed by combat vets include drunk driving, drug abuse, and even domestic violence—many the result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their wartime service. The court aims at providing treatment and discipline for those who have broken the law. Another goal is to prevent homelessness. Among male veterans, incarceration is the biggest predictor of homelessness, Clark said.

In the mid-I 970s, Bassham went to work for General Motors and saw fel­low Vietnam vets having trouble with work on the assembly line.

“Something drops or backfires and you’ve got a guy jumping off the line, crumpled on the floor,” thinking that he heard shots fired, Bassham explained. “And they want to blame him because he’s held up the line.”

Bassham gave up alcohol and started the first successful veterans group within the United Auto Workers. Today he works with younger troops who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghani­stan as well.

“I think the veterans courts are long overdue,” he said. “Many courts have no idea they’re dealing with a raw person reacting to the situations they’ve seen.”

Though supported by the VA, vet­erans courts tend to be highly local enterprises, driven by individual judges and former military service members who see a need within their community.

In the heart of downtown Buffalo, former US troops charged with mis­deeds stream one after another to the front of Judge Robert T. Russell Jr.’s courtroom. While their crimes vary, they have two things in common: They have served in the US military, and they have run afoul of the law.

Russell enters and ascends to the bench with a call-and-response greeting that more closely resembles an Army formation than a court of law.

“Good afternoon!” Russell says to the assembled vets in his courtroom.

“Good afternoon, Judge!” they yell back all together.

The first order of business is a sort of graduation ceremony for offend­ing veterans who have completed a rigorous 12-month program including intensive counseling, mentoring from fellow vets, frequent random drug tests, and job training.

“When we go to serve our country, sometimes we don’t realize that the sacrifice continues when we come home,” says Philip Ippolito, a mili­tary veteran and team leader for the court’s mentors. “And because of that sacrifice, we struggle.”

Ippolito presents one of the gradu­ates with a challenge coin, while Russell cautions the others before him “to be mindful” of—and here, the veteran mentors chant along with him—”the people, places, and things that put us at risk.”

Russell reminds the graduates, too, that though their presence is no longer required in court, they are welcome back anytime to visit and socialize—whatever it takes to help them stay “clean and serene.” He then comes off the bench to give them a hug.

“I’m going to stay straight,” one graduate declares. “No more drinking, no more gambling.” The unison reply from the others: “Good boy!”

From Travis County, Tex., to Tulsa, Okla., local police have reported the arrests of roughly 150 veterans per month.

In Buffalo, veterans’ crimes tended to stick in Russell’s mind, and that led him to create the court in January 2008.

“I started seeing vets from the most recent conflict—young people, 23 or 24,” he noted. “They looked good physically—sharp, brush cut—but they were being arrested for differ­ent things.”

One day, a veteran came into court on a drug offense.

“When I asked him where he lived, he said, ‘Well, judge, I’m homeless.’ That blew me away. How can a guy who served in Iraq come home and say, ‘I’m homeless?’ It was just un­conscionable to me.”

Russell and others believe the rates of incarceration among veterans tie closely to their experiences in war. A 2008 Rand Corp. study found that 11.2 percent of all US military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report grappling with post-traumatic stress or major depres­sion. Slightly less than half of these former troops said they have never sought treatment, either for fear it would harm their careers or because they have trouble navigating the mili­tary medical bureaucracy.

The Line to the Left

For this reason, when they walk into the courtroom today, veterans have immediate access to local VA officials—right at the front of the courtroom, on secure computers—who can refer them on the spot to services such as counseling, benefits, or job training.

“Many of the vets have claims that have been pending for years,” reported Jack O’Connor, the coordinator of mentors for the Buffalo Veterans Treat­ment Court. “When you think about it, the vet [is] getting more done in his first day with the judge than he’s gotten done with the VA in his whole life.”

When word of these services spread, however, it did not sit well with some other vets, who wondered whether they would have to commit a crime to have access to care they’d been patiently seeking through the VA and Pentagon bureaucracy seemingly forever.

One afternoon, a former US troop came into the court, yelling. He wanted to know why those who were arrested got immediate services, but as a law-abiding citizen, his claim had been languishing with the VA for years. His behavior led him to be “immediately taken to the ground,” said O’Connor. “But we all heard what he said.”

The VA’s Clark said such complaints are common. “‘Why do I have to get arrested?’ You hear this from a lot of communities,” he observed. “In a way, it’s unfortunate that it’s only after someone has been arrested and charged that they’re targeted for ser­vices from so many different providers at the same time.”

In response, the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court established what they call their “line to the left.” Anyone who wants help with a mentor of the court can come before court and meet with them, to get advice and help on their claim.

There are few things the veterans at the Buffalo court won’t do to help those who need it. They drive their comrades to counseling appointments, sometimes hours away, and help them line up interviews and find housing.

Retired Lt. Col. James Germain is the director of Airman and Family Readiness at the 914th Airlift Wing at Niagara Falls Arpt./ARS, N.Y. He volunteers with the veterans treatment court in Buffalo and refers many of his clients in Niagara Falls to the court as well.

“A lot of these guys are vets who have been through a lot” Germain said. “In one sense, we as a country broke a lot of these guys, and we have an obligation to fix them, I think.”

The vast majority who end up being referred to the court “have some sort of substance abuse problem which a lot of times is the symptom rather than the disease,” he said.

“The underlying theme seems to be that they have substance abuse problems or PTSD or some sort of underlying issue that they can’t deal with without help,” Germain explained. “You could send them to jail [but]… that’s an opportunity to meet more bad people or learn more bad habits; hardly anybody gets better in jail.”

The program is no casual undertak­ing, however. Veterans who take part in the court must agree to abstain from drinking for the duration of their time in the treatment court and submit to regular drug and alcohol testing as well.

“It’s labor intensive. It’s more than just doing time in jail for 90 days for your crime, but in the long run it’s a bargain,” said Germain. “For the ones who make it through the program, they see this as their last best chance to turn their life around.”

Mentors for the veterans court of­ten understand what those who come before the courts need because they have often fought mightily with it themselves.

Trueman Muhrer-Irwin was a private first class in the National Guard when he deployed to Iraq as part of the invasion. On security for an explosive ordnance disposal unit, Muhrer-Irwin was in the gun turret of his Humvee when it was hit by a roadside bomb. The assistant gunner in the passenger seat, a close buddy, was killed. Muhrer-Irwin spent four months in the hospital.

During his recovery, Muhrer-Irwin saw “a lot of veterans going through struggles, just dealing with the system. There are a lot of places where people need an advocate.”

Justin Smith, for example. He de­ployed to Iraq as a private first class during the height of the war, serving as a gunner on Route Irish, widely known at the time as the most dangerous road in the world.

“We did patrols almost every day,” he recalled.

After he returned from war, Smith felt angry and lost. “I knew I had a problem: my temper. I never really sleep,” he said.

Zero Recidivism, So Far

Then, he found himself homeless. “Luckily, it was summertime. It was warm outside, so I could wander.”

In July 2011, Smith attempted to flee the police, resulting in a high-speed chase. He could have been charged with a felony, but instead was referred to veterans court. “That basically kind of saved me,” he said. “It was a relief—I was thinking I was going to be in jail for quite some time.”

Mentors helped Smith apply for VA disabilities.

“I didn’t even know I was supposed to be receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress,” he said. Now, he has a home, cares for his two young sons, and gets anger management counseling. “I can buy a house. I can do almost anything I want.”

The court and the camaraderie it provides create “a pretty welcoming environment,” Smith said, explaining that his mentor “told me about his symptoms, the stuff he dealt with. We went through the same stuff.” That said, “I always kind of feel alone, anyways,” he added.

It was Russell’s hope to tap into the culture of the US military in an effort to help turn around the lives of those who come into his court.

“Is there something we can do to take advantage of the military culture?” he wondered. “To capture that experience of discipline, integrity, pride—that team relationship?”

The answer was to provide some struc­ture for participants. However, the court is no boot camp. The key is to find mentors “who are sensitive enough not just to get in people’s faces:” Russell said. “Someone who’s going to have a degree of empathy as a coach, as a motivator. It’s not their role to be a disciplinarian. The court, if necessary, will do that.”

The Buffalo court program has had to let mentors go in the past for being overbearing.

“I remember one said, ‘Forget the VA—you need to get yourself together and be a man,” O’Connor said. “What the hell kind of a statement is that?” In other cases, O’Connor said he lost men­tors when he asked them to do too much. “I remember we had one guy spend the entire day at the VA, helping to get his benefits ironed out. You know what hap­pened? He quit.”

Today, the Buffalo mentor program, which includes 40 mentors, raises its own funds, separately from the court system, to buy challenge coins issued at graduation, gas money, and bus passes for participants to get to their court appearances.

The results, according to the mentors, speak for themselves. Of the 285 vets who have come through the court, roughly a dozen have opted out, choosing to go back to the traditional court system, because the vet program was too rigorous. Ninety have graduated from the program. None have been re-arrested.

“It’s going to happen” predicted O’Connor, and when it does, he admits he will be slightly relieved. Right now, “there is disbelief that the program is this good.”

As an Air Force veteran who works with domestic violence cases, he ad­vocated for collaboration between the veterans court and the local sheriff’s department and later became a team leader, helping to match up mentors with vets in the court system.

Chudoba increasingly sees the court system as vital to helping integrate vet­erans back into society when they return.

“The biggest issue I’m seeing for the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq is that when they come home, they see the sense of entitlement that us Americans have, versus people in Afghanistan who are fighting for their lives just to get a cup of water,” said Chudoba.

“We’ll complain that we didn’t get enough fries at the drive-through win­dow. Guys will look at me and say, ‘I don’t know why, Joe, but I’m so angry at this.”

On many occasions, being a mentor means simply listening to the frustrations of returning troops, said Chudoba, often with former service members helping each other, regardless of branch. He recalled a marine whose case was as­signed to the court.

“When he first came in, he just looked like hell had won him over. He was struggling with addiction which then led him into myriad familial issues; name something, this poor guy went through it” Chudoba said. “He was a marine, and you just don’t ask for help as a marine. He sucked it up, until finally he said, ‘I need help.”

The man graduated from the veterans court program, “turned his life around, got off drugs,” Chudoba said. “We have this sense of pride in the military: You do your job, and you don’t boast. But I just know I put him in the right hands of a great mentor, and it’s such a validating and fantastic feeling, because a year later, this guy was completely different.”

A Blank Check to Uncle Sam

Chudoba and others worry that ever more veterans will need help in the months and years to come. “A lot of brave young men and women are going to be coming back from war,” he said, “and what we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. Trust me.”

Yet O’Connor and others acknowl­edge a wider undercurrent of criticism, too, along the lines of: Why do veterans deserve special treatment

In the beginning, “some people didn’t like the idea of the vets courts,” he said. “They thought we were doing way too much for vets. The word ’boutique’ was thrown around a lot.”

The rapid proliferation of veterans courts raises some legal questions as well, noted Michael C. H. McDaniel, a retired brigadier general in the Michigan National Guard and associate professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich.

“There are a couple of really in­teresting issues from a public policy standpoint,” McDaniel said. “When you get the judicial branch involved, it says ‘Equal protection under the law.”

He said this means there has to be “some limits on veterans’ treatment courts.”

For example, should veterans treat­ment courts be limited only to ser­ vice members who have committed misdemeanors, or should they be available to admitted felons as well? And if there is some assumption that combat stress causes former troops to commit crimes, should there then be a requirement that those who come before the special courts have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Vietnam

On this point, courts across the country differ. In Michigan, vets courts are only open to those who have served on Active Duty under certain circumstances. Russell and the mentors of the Buffalo court feel differently.

“Combat or no combat doesn’t affect us if you’ve signed that line that says, ‘Here’s a blank check to Uncle Sam, payable up to and including your life,” said Frank Grillo, a vet who served three combat tours in Iraq in what he called “the worst possible” areas.

“What if you’re support to com­bat? What if you’re the person who’s caretaker to bodies when they come home? What if I’m in a training ex­ercise before I’m deployed and get injured?” asked Russell. Such split­ting hairs could mean investigation of where the vet served, how close to the front, what kind of combat, he said.

“What we do know is that they signed an oath to defend their country.”

That, said O’Connor, “is the vets’ mentality,” both in the Buffalo court and in the rapidly growing number of veterans courts throughout the country: a combination of “leave no soldier behind” and “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” .

Anna Mulrine, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, reports frequently from Iraq and Afghanistan. Her last article for Air Force Magazine, “An Air Force War on Sexual Assault,” appeared in the January 2012 issue.