Currently every state in our country is seeing a huge inflow of combat veterans return home from active duty every year. In states like California and New York more than 30,000 veterans return every year. Many of these young veterans are happy to be back and are adjusting well to civilian life by returning to school, taking on a new job or making up for lost time with loved ones. Some of them though are returning home with invisible wounds from trauma they have suffered in combat. The medical term for this trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can manifest in many ways and most commonly in combat veterans it can cause bouts of rage or anger.
PTSD is leading many of our young veterans to the court house where they are held accountable for the actions they may have taken while living with the horrendous problems PTSD can cause. Things like uncontrolled rage, spousal abuse, Driving Under the Influence, drug abuse, or assault as common issues veterans deal with as a result of PTSD. Upon realizing that severity of their actions and the punishment that can await them, many veterans begin to mentally deteriorate due to the stress and the guilt they feel due to the harm they have caused other and themselves. This is why we need to encourage our veterans living with PTSD and facing legal challenges to seek help in the legal system via veterans courts.
Veterans courts are designed to focus on the specialized needs of veterans who may be suffering from service-related disabilities or illnesses. Due to the complexities of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma, men and women who have served their country in a war zone often go for months, or even years, before any trauma manifests itself. A veteran could have re-entered civilian life when something happens and a dormant condition rapidly deteriorates, and the confusion and resulting pain causes him or her to possibly break a law.
This is where programs such as veterans courts come into play by providing veterans with the treatment they desperately need and a path to avoid the pitfalls that so many deal with when committing a crime. We must consider the long-term cost when a veteran’s sudden descent into an uncontrolled condition is missed, leading to incarceration.
It is important to note this program doesn’t give veterans a free legal ride. In fact, this program has stricter requirements than the normal system but many of these veteran courts offer probation in place of imprisonment and the potential to have charges reduced if a veteran completes the program designated for them. Essentially these courts provide a second chance for veterans who suffered for their country and as a result have fallen on hard times.
The recidivism rate in the state of California’s correctional facilities is 65 percent. Veteran courts have a much better rate of success. The first such program, in Buffalo, New York, has had a zero percent recidivism rate (after two years) of the 120 veterans enrolled in its program. Success like this is impossible to ignore and I encourage all veterans who find themselves in this scenario to ask if their county or jurisdiction as a veteran court. Veterans need to seek the help that so many counties and states are trying to provide.
Peter Gravett is the Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs