Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Vets' Courts: A Win-Win Situation

Helping vets in trouble is morally the right thing to do.

Vets helping vets has always been a powerful force, but now they’re getting support from the legal profession.

Knowing the emotional trauma that many vets bring home from combat, more than 130 communities around the nation have set up special courts to help vets deal with their legal problems. Great Falls, Mont., is one of the latest outposts dedicated to providing help to criminal offenders, rather than just punishment.

It’s the right thing to do for those who have served their country, says District Judge Greg Pinski, and it also makes sense because most vets who graduate from such a program don’t get into trouble again. On average round the country, 70 percent of the participants complete the vets court program, and three-quarters of its graduates are not arrested in the following two years.    

The Justice Department says there are about 140,000 American vets in jails or prisons today, and 60 percent of them have substance abuse problems. Six years ago, the Rand Corp. surveyed returning Iraqi/Afghan vets and predicted that one in three of the 2.6 million troops deployed there would return home with PTSD, TBI or a major depression. VA figures have borne out that prediction, although its TBI diagnoses have fallen short of the mark.      

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The vets court in Great Falls kicked into operation last Veterans’ Day, and it currently has eight participants who agree to 18 months of intense supervision. The photo at the beginning of this blog shows Col. Robert Stanley, commander of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, speaking during opening ceremonies. To his right is Judge Pinski, while one of the first vets to sign on as a mentor, Rodger McConnell, is at the far left.  

“We designed a program that provides the structure that vets were used to in military service,” says Pinski. “I tell the vets that the easy way out is just to go to jail. This program is very intensive. Many of the participants have alcohol monitors, and they all get random drug tests three times a week.”

They’re also required to attend therapy session to help them stop drinking or control their anger. “If they miss a program, they may be sentenced to eight hours of community service or 30 days of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Pinski says.

The only requirement for entrance into the program is that the county attorney has to approve, and he’s unlikely to agree if it’s a serious offense.

“We’re really interested in working with vets who have committed crimes due to substance abuse or mental illness,” Pinski says. “But our greatest difficulty is identifying the vets in our criminal population as quickly as possible. Our law enforcement tracks various aspects of a person’s life, but military service isn’t one of them.”

Crimes involving weapons and violence can’t be ruled out automatically, however. “Violence and weapons are part of the military culture,” explains Pinski. “The stress of war and then returning home from deployment tend to lead to an increase in family stress levels.”

That pretty much describes Dave Belcher, one of the court’s participants.

Belcher is a medically retired Army platoon sergeant who received the Bronze Star for valor during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Shield. His platoon with the 1st Armored Division was in the first wave to cross into Iraq and make contact with the enemy in February 1990.

"It was total destruction, loss of life and bloody,” he told me several years ago. “Once you go through war, it’s always black and burned. One of my tracks got hit by friendly fire, and we lost one of my drivers.”

When he came home, suffering also from a traumatic brain injury, Belcher turned to alcohol and later to counseling.

“Mr. Belcher’s sleep is sporadic, and he has nightmares on a regular basis of the carnage of the Iraqi bodies he witnessed while in combat,” wrote his counselor, Tony Rizzo. “He has had periods when he feels as though he was actually back in Iraq. All his senses are acute: he smells the death, hears the crying and screaming and the sounds of combat. He feels he is there and loses touch with reality until someone or something brings him back. He continues to be triggered by the sounds of children crying or screaming, even if they are only playing. Loud unexpected noises or the sight of smoke remind him of burning enemy vehicles. The sight or smell of blood or burned flesh, even barbequing, can cause him distress.”

He was also subject to rages triggered by just about everything during which he’d yell, throw things or smash them. His wife Daneil found herself walking on eggshells, and that only made things worse. She kept an overnight bag in her car so she and their daughter Katie could flee and spend the night in a motel. “I remember wishing I could go through one day without him calling me a ‘stupid, fucking bitch,’” she told me several years ago.

The couple separated at that time so Belcher could have a private space to retreat to when he was feeling tense; you can read a fuller account of their story in chapter 5 of my book, Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI. Unfortunately, the Belchers are reportedly in divorce proceedings now and Belcher ended up in vets’ court after a violent altercation with a girlfriend.

“He’s making amazing progress,” said Pinski. “He’s one of those guys who does everything that’s required of him plus a little more.”

Watching over the participants and keeping them on track are a dozen other vets who serve as mentors. For them, helping other vets is part of the therapy.

Few feel it more keenly than Rodger McConnell, who returned home from service in Vietnam with serious PTSD and cognitive damage that he tried in vain to self-medicate away. 

“Seven years of drinking after Vietnam left me in a downward spiral,” McConnell says. “It’s been a long time getting back to normal, to peace and happiness. But I decided to become a helper. I believe that communication, rather than just bullshit, is essential for mental health.”

Now he’s president of the local Vets 4 Vets program and one of the organizers of the Great Falls Stand-Down, which provides services, clothing and gear to homeless vets. He runs a local access radio program for vets, and he was one of the first volunteers at the vet court.

“We couldn’t have gotten this court up and running without Rodger,” says Pinski. “And I think Rodger gets a lot of therapy out of a program like this. Rodger never was able to take advantage of programs like this when he returned after ‘Nam so it’s great that he and the other mentors are able to get a secondary benefit from it.”

It’s such a win-win situation that vets’ courts have been springing up around the country after the concept was pioneered in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell. He remembers that he had been having difficulty motivating a defendant, who was also a ‘Nam vet, so he asked a staff member who was also a vet to talk with him. That made such a positive difference that he decided there should be an institutional way to utilize vets as mentors.

Russell began by studying the nation’s drug courts to see how they worked in addressing various issues facing vets. Then he went to Rochester’s VA hospital seeking volunteers to become mentors.

The court was so successful that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki visited to learn more about it. Impressed, he threw his support behind it, and the VA has hired more than 170 veteran justice outreach specialist to work with vets courts around the country. The VA has announced plans to hire another 80 of the vet specialists this year.      

There are also two federal vets’ courts, and Attorney General Eric Holder is a big proponent of starting more.

Holder recently visited Roanoke, Va., to attend the opening of the nation’s second federal vets court. He was quoted by MSNBC as saying, “The program we’re here to celebrate today provides a lot for preventing recidivism, reducing relapses, and empowering veterans convicted of certain non-violent crimes to join their communities as productive, law-abiding members of society.”

That pleased Judge Russell, who said: “It’s tremendous for the federal government to have the understanding of the needs of our veterans.”

Like Judge Pinski, Holder clearly sees the benefits of a vets’ court. “It’s morally the right thing to do,” he says, noting that these reforms make the criminal justice system fairer and more able to treat each defendant based on his situation and conduct.

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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