Veterans Court: Make No Judgment With the Absence of Compassion

Every now and then, I receive letters from veterans serving time in prison. One imprisoned soldier whom I will never forget is serving time for robbery in Washington State. A sergeant and nurse during the early days of the Iraq war, his troubles began when he became addicted to the prescription drugs he started taking to help him mentally escape from the horrifying images he faced while treating our wounded soldiers. The catastrophic injuries were so gruesome that for a long time he was unable to eat because the smell of cooked food reminded him of burning flesh. He was desperate for more and more mind numbing drugs by the time he landed in prison for trying to steal the money to purchase drugs.

I doubt there are many of us who can relate to that type of trauma much less judge the poor decision making with any degree of true understanding. While we are all sitting in our comfortable homes or going shopping these soldiers are seeing, smelling, and touching the very definition of hell. A type of hell the Bible does not even describe.

One question I always ask veteran prisoners who write to me is whether there are other veterans in prison with them. The answer is "Yes, more than I can count."

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts a periodic survey to get a count on the number of veterans serving in prisons across the country. The last published survey was conducted in 2004 and at the time, there were 140,000 veterans incarcerated. That was six long years ago. During this time we have learned the horrifying statistics of suicide and the astonishing rise in prescription drug use -- not to mention the reports of criminal gangs joining the military and bringing their war tactics into American streets for woefully unprepared police departments to contend with.

However, there are positive steps being made. With the knowledge that most of the crimes committed by veterans are related to PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, The National Drug Court Institute (NDCI) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) has created the Veterans Treatment Court Planning Initiative (VTCPI). The first training program will take place October 2010 in Buffalo, New York. The Buffalo court system led by Judge Robert Russell has already started the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court and it serves as a training model for judicial systems across the country:

We believe our court will be the model for all future veterans' treatment courts. The program is designed by the Buffalo City Court to keep veterans who are non-violent offenders out of jail. This program requires no additional costs. The court expenses already exist and there are volunteers from the local veteran's community.

What this means, is that veterans who find themselves in trouble will have the opportunity to be judged in a court of law whose members have been trained in the unique problems facing our soldiers. With case approval, they can choose to complete a mental health program tailored to their individual needs including the guidance of a veteran mentor; or they can go to jail. At least seven other cities are in the early stages of implementing Veteran's Courts. Among them are Las Vegas, Tulsa, and Pittsburgh.

A Veterans Court is also being implemented in Columbus, Georgia near Ft. Benning. Since Ft. Benning is the largest infantry-training center in the world, Columbus bears a special responsibility to create innovative approaches in dealing with the needs of our troubled veterans. Whether by accident or design, Columbus may have hit upon a method to get closer to an accurate judgment process. Judge John Allen, a Vietnam veteran himself, leads their veteran's court.

Working with Judge Allen is Dr. Cynthia Patillo, a Columbus psychologist. Dr. Patillo is optimistic about the program's success in Columbus. She also feels that as a veteran, Judge Allen is a perfect fit to preside over these types of cases. However, she warns that Veteran's Court is not an automatic "get out of jail free card. " The veteran must adhere to the program and make every effort to change the course of his or her life. In the past, that may have proven difficult if the veteran feels judgment coming from individuals who have no idea what they have sacrificed. But having a veteran serve as judge may garner respect from the defendants and translate into positive change and healing.

Defense attorneys will no doubt find veteran's court a great opportunity to help their clients. It must be difficult to try and defend a soldier in civilian court where few if any of the people deciding their fate has knowledge of what war trauma does to the human psyche. Columbus Attorney Mark Shelnutt has defended soldiers in court and knows this first hand:

Having been involved in numerous cases with Veterans who suffer from PTSD, I believe this excellent idea will produce immediate positive results in our community. I have sat across from soldiers who have described experiences that I could never imagine and I have seen the look in their eyes as they have recounted those events to me. I can't think of a better person to help such a worthy project succeed than Judge Allen and I hope to see it implemented in the near future.

The soldier in Washington State Prison included a piece of literature with his letter that I regularly share. It was written by a Nez Perce Warrior Indian Elder, circa 1865 and reads in part:

They said I would be wounded in my thoughts. I would forget how to trust, and I would think that others were trying to hurt me. I would see dangers in the kindness and concern of my relatives and others. Most of all, I would not be able to think in a reasonable manner, and it would seem that everyone else was crazy.

No matter what kind of educational degree we have, whether it is in law, medicine, or psychiatry, it is an insult to utter the words "I understand" to our soldiers unless we have experienced the same type of events. Nevertheless, even when they struggle and make mistakes, we still have to attempt to judge them with compassion and respect, while humbly admitting that no, we really DO NOT understand.

But please let us try.