When the war
comes back home
When veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring their troubles home, police and judges often are
the first to deal with them.
Jill Carroll | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
the July 11, 2008 edition
Reporter Jill Caroll discusses how police and others in the justice system are dealing with war veterans
who get in trouble with the law.
During 21 years in the Marine Corps,
Jeff Johnson saw young adults walk into his recruiting office and newly minted marines walk out of boot camp just a few months
later. Now working at the other end of that pipeline at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, he sees far different,
troubling changes in those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The changes were dramatic. I'd
never seen these kinds of changes in people," says Mr. Johnson of those wrestling with the mental and physical trauma of war.
The once upstanding service members
were getting arrested for domestic violence and bar fights, and being pursued by police as they raced along streets at 100
miles per hour – often with drugs or alcohol involved – seeking to replicate the adrenaline rush of combat or
to commit suicide by motorcycle or police bullets.
He was moved to action, creating
a presentation about the mental injuries of war for police and other first responders, usually the ones called when a veteran
A year later, he's delivered his
message more times than he can count and he's been in demand from police departments across the country, hungry to prepare
for what they worry is a coming surge of mentally injured veterans.
"A lot of them were getting in trouble
with police. If [the police] know what resources are out there then they can funnel them into that," says Johnson, who has
one son who is an Iraq veteran and another entering the service.
Police departments, veterans groups,
and individuals from California to Colorado to Massachusetts are taking similar steps. At the other end of the criminal justice
system, a "treatment court" in Buffalo, N.Y., dedicated to veterans opened this year.
The flurry of action is spurred
by numbers like these: Some 40,000 cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were diagnosed by the military among troops
deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2007. The Rand Corp. estimates 300,000 troops are suffering from PTSD from those
wars. Many mental-health experts expect those trends to continue, or even worsen, as the wars go on.
Police Sgt. George Masson in Riverside,
Calif. – home to many military families and near several bases – shares those concerns. When he began his career
in 1980, he encountered many troubled Vietnam War veterans. Almost 30 years later, those early experiences weigh on him.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg,"
says Sergeant Masson. "We're going to be paying for this for a while."
He helped organize a large, multi-agency
training session this year focused on handling troubled veterans. Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton role-played such scenarios
as hostage taking and suicide attempts. They invited mental health experts and combat veterans who suffered from traumatic
stress to lecture.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police
Department's crisis intervention team has added a segment on veterans to its training, says public information officer Sgt.
Updated statistics are few, but
a 2004 US Department of Justice report found 10 percent of all state and federal prisoners had served in the military, mainly
during the Vietnam era. But about 4 percent were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
In Colorado Springs, which neighbors
the Army's Fort Carson, police have attended town hall meetings with military and community members to discuss how to help
returning soldiers. The urgency was underscored last year when a suicidal soldier led police on a manhunt.
Police pursued the man in a long
car chase after he violated a restraining order, tracking him by his cellphone as he fled, says community relations officer
Sgt. Creighton Brandt. Finally, a police detective called the man's cellphone and convinced him to pull over and surrender.
"The suspect admitted he was suicidal
and had contemplated suicide by cop several times that day and suffered from PTSD from serving in Iraq," said Sergeant Brandt
reading from an incident report.
Across the country, Norfolk County
Massachusetts District Attorney William Keating held a 2005 summit with police departments, veterans groups, and clergy to
discuss support for returning veterans. The result was a video for first responders, describing traumatic stress and how it
might affect veterans in their communities. In the three years since, it has racked up some 8,500 hits on YouTube, and Mr.
Keating's office has had requests for copies from across the country.
Presiding over "treatment courts"
in Buffalo for mental illness and drug addiction, Judge Robert Russell began seeing lots of veterans recently – some
300 last year. So he created a treatment court just for them that opened this year, the first of its kind.
Treatment courts first appeared
in 1989 to address causes of crime rather than just punishing a particular incident. The courts have a therapeutic feel and
the focus is on keeping defendants on track with treatments and medication.
Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of
prisoners will end up back in jail, according to Judge Russell. But defendants in drug abuse treatment courts have a recidivism
rate ranging from 13 to 25 percent nationally, says Russell. Of the over 40 cases he has seen since the veterans court began
in January, he struggled to think of one that has returned to crime.
Most of the veterans that come before
him are charged with nonviolent offenses or, occasionally, domestic violence or a bar fight. As his court gains more attention,
Russell says he's gotten calls from judges across the country.
The goal is to avoid cases like
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Travis Twiggs, deployed to Iraq four times. He was already unusually irritable and unable to sleep
after his second deployment, according to an article he wrote of his struggles with PTSD in a January issue of the Marine
After losing two marines from his
platoon during his third deployment, his symptoms worsened and he began a long battle to get better. The article detailed
his struggle to heal, overcoming fears he was a "weak Marine," imploring others to seek help as he had. But just five months
later, police were chasing him and his brother as they sped through the Arizona desert in a stolen car. He finally halted
the car then killed his brother and himself.
In his article he had
written: "We have got to make our Marines and sailors more aware of PTSD before they end up like me and others."
Copyright © 2008 The
Christian Science Monitor