Finding a new normal:
Special courts help vets regain discipline, camaraderie by turning to mentors who’ve served
The Military Times Newspapers
February 14, 2011
By William H. McMichael
The road that led John Clum to an Oklahoma courtroom last year began in Iraq in 2005, during his first combat deployment with the 82nd Airborne Division.
The deployment was a tough one, with near-daily rocket and mortar attacks and the loss of 14 troops in his battalion, some of them close friends.
“I was pretty tight with those guys,” the former infantryman said. A second Iraq tour in 2007, after he had spent time back home in Tulsa, Okla., and gotten married, he said, “was far more intense than my first one.” Clum, 37, came home and left the Army without applying for any benefits; he didn’t know he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and mild traumatic brain injury.
He got a job doing construction work at oil refineries that took him away from home a lot, and his marriage fell apart. He had trouble readjusting to civilian life; he “missed the guys” and, knowing they were deployed to Afghanistan, felt he had let them down by stepping away.
He started hitting the bottle.
“I was drinking every day,” Clum said. “Blackout drinking.” He was arrested twice for drunken driving. Just before receiving a one-year suspended sentence last March, Clum tried to hang himself in his jail cell.
Then he read a newspaper article on a special court program for veterans. He called his public defender, and soon he was in Judge Sarah Day Smith’s veterans treatment court in Tulsa.
The court, like more than 50 others created over the past three years across the nation, specializes in working with troubled veterans to get them counseling, link them to government benefits, help them regain the sense of discipline and camaraderie they had in uniform, and steer them onto a more positive course in life.
Four months into the 18-month program, Clum takes stabilizing medication, undergoes counseling, works with a volunteer veteran mentor, auto-tests for sobriety three times a day and regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymonus meetings.
“It’s a very hard program,” Clum said, but added that he has progressed to the point where he now plays a positive role in the lives of his son, 13, and daughter, 10, and has a job that he found himself, installing home generators for a veteran-friendly company.
“Got a future,” he said.
The first specialized veterans treatment court was established by Judge Robert Russell in Buffa-lo, N.Y., in early 2008.
The idea took root when Russell noticed more veterans showing up in his drug and mental health treatment courts, which he set up in 1995 and 2003, respectively.
Russell is not a veteran, but he knew that an estimated one in five veterans of the current wars shows signs of mental health issues. He also saw that veterans coming before his other courts had a noticeably positive reaction to two fellow vets, Medicaid director and former soldier Jack O’Connor, and mental health coordinator and former Marine Hank Pirowski.
“It was, wait a minute, there’s something to this … how a veteran responds to another veteran,” Russell said.
A year of planning followed, including meetings with the local Veterans Affairs Department advisory board, which ended up producing the court’s first veteran mentors and health providers, and veterans advocates in the local community.
The idea has quickly spread; at least 57 veterans treatment courts operate nationwide, with the Buffalo court serving as a model.
The concept is rooted in the approach of the drug treatment courts, such as Russell’s, that now dominate the country’s more than 3,000 so-called “problem-solving” or “collaborative” courts.
In drug courts, defendants get a chance to rehabilitate, submitting to weekly blood tests and reports from teachers or employers over 12 to 18 months. Typically, the courts do not deal with violent defendants, although that varies.
If participants stay clean and on track, they “graduate,” have their charges dismissed and records wiped clean. There are exceptions; in California, for example, convictions for major crimes of violence and driving while intoxicated remain on record after graduation. Most defendants plead guilty to the crime but have the sentence stayed, pending completion of the program, as is the case in Buffalo. Veterans treatment courts run much the same way. And like drug courts, there are no national standards for admission, for the severity of the crimes, or whether a guilty plea is required before a case is accepted.
Combat vets or all vets?
A difference of philosophy also exists among various states and within the veterans court community. One camp feels that all vets should be accepted, including those who never deployed to a war zone. The other camp believes the courts should admit only combat vets with mental health issues associated with their wartime experiences. Judge Wendy Lindley’s combat veterans court in Orange, Calif., is limited to offenses committed as a result of PTSD, substance abuse or psychological problems stemming from combat service. The court has 46 active participants and has seen seven veterans graduate.
The “combat vets only” rule is not Lindley’s — it’s dictated by state law. But she agrees with it; she said the needs of non-combat vets are served in her homeless and mental health courts.
“What unites combat veterans is their combat,” she said. “That experience ... resonates very deeply with them. I think that if they’ve been damaged as a result of their service ... in a combat zone, that ethically and morally, we need to respond by offering them special services to restore them to who they were.” In contrast, the Buffalo court and many others accept all veterans with a clinical diagnosis of serious and persistent mental health disease, or drug or alcohol addiction. Russell said all vets deserve special consideration simply for their willingness to serve and defend their nation.
He said his court is not preferential and does not violate the constitutional concept of equal protection under the law.
“It’s not discriminatory” based based on religion, race or gender, he said. “If you served in the armed forces, you can come into the program.” Another difference among the veterans courts — and a further sign that the concept is still evolving — is the way they treat vets charged with violent crimes. Some courts don’t hear such cases; others do, with caveats.
“These things are so new,” said Matt Stiner, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq in 2003 and is now a resource coordinator and veteran mentor in the Tulsa court. “Everybody’s trying to figure out, how do we treat these charges? They are different. They need to be looked at differently.” One of Russell’s noncombat vets is former Marine Timothy Corby, who was injured in an off-duty motorcycle wreck that left him with a broken back, a spinal disease and severe depression.
He never served overseas, left the Marines in 2004 as a private first class and began abusing legal painkillers and heroin. He is now 90 percent disabled and has been diagnosed with PTSD brought on by the crash.
A breaking-and-entering charge that ended up being reduced to trespassing was his passport to Russell’s domain — which Corby called “a blessing in disguise.” “Without the [treatment] court and without my family and VA, I’d still probably be out there using, or dead or in jail,” he said.
Buffalo defendants also include combat veteran Britten Walker, who deployed in 2003-04 to Afghanistan as a mortarman with the 101st Airborne Division, then to Iraq, where he served as a sniper in a recon platoon that saw a lot of combat.
He injured his back aboard a small boat on the Euphrates — an injury that went untreated as he continued pulling patrols, he said. Later on, he fell and broke his wrist while jumping across a narrow canal.
After leaving the Army, he was awarded a disability rating of 80 percent. But back home, stressed out, separated from his wife and pining to see his three children and three stepchildren, he flew into a rage at a VA center. He was strapped to a chair and sedated, charged with two counts of assault and jailed for 50 days.
He was referred to Russell’s court and is a few months into the program. “So far, it’s pretty good,” he said.
The best argument for veterans courts, advocates said, is that they seem to work: 70 percent of defendants finish the programs and 75 percent are not rearrested for at least two years after, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
None of Russell’s 41 graduates to date has been rearrested. And only 25 of the 181 total veterans admitted to his program have dropped out before graduation. Ten cases were closed or trans-ferred for other legal reasons, leaving 105 on his active roster.
The coming wave
Only about 30 of the veterans enrolled in the Buffalo program served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, they comprise a small portion of all vets in the criminal justice system, according to a 2008 report sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
But advocates and officials fear that may change in a military that has been at war for almost a decade and has seen escalating numbers of veterans seeking VA mental health treatment.
A 2008 study by the Rand Corp. found that almost 19 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets were reporting symptoms of PTSD or major depression.
VA studies have found PTSD victims typically exhibit more aggressive behavior than nonsufferers, and symptoms can lead indirectly to criminal behavior.
All of which, Lindley and Russell said, underscores why veterans treatment courts make sense.
Lindley, writing in Orange County’s 2009 annual report on such “collaborative” courts, said studies in the past 15 years show they enhance public safety, cut recidivism and are more cost effective than the typical manner of processing offenders.
The courts try to cut through the stigma many veterans ascribe to mental health treatment. In Buffallo, that effort involves Russell, court officials, the probation officer, pros¬ecutors, public defenders, VA spe¬cialists and veteran mentors.
Senior case managers Michael Morris and Pam Lamancuso track counseling, treatment and educa¬tional efforts so “the judge is fully aware of the participant’s progress,” Lamancuso said.
If problems arise, the first reaction typically is not punitive but more, “ ‘What can we do to help you out?’ ” Morris said.
VA medical centers increasingly engage with these local courts to provide better, more immediate services to troubled vets.
For example, Nikki Slaughter, a social worker in the Buffalo VA’s substance abuse program, works with Morris and Lamancuso to obtain permission for VA to share information with the court about a veteran’s treatment. She also funnels various reports, such as urinalysis results, to Russell.
She has in-court, online access to a veteran’s VA medical history and can verify whether a vet has had a specific treatment or procedure. Some, she finds, have never signed up for VA treatment.
The veteran connection
In Buffalo, about 18 veteran mentors are at every court session. They range from active-duty troops and younger veterans who work elsewhere in the justice sys¬tem to older, retired vets.
“When they go in front of the judge, they have no real friends,” said VA police detective Jason Jaskula, who served with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq.
But veteran mentors don’t officially represent the court, Jaskula said. “We talk to them ... ‘OK, I was in Fallujah, you were in Fallujah.’ ” That quickly builds trust. “They tell us things they wouldn’t say otherwise,” said Navy submarine veteran Jim Mulderig, who leads one of the Buffalo court’s three mentor teams.
But Jaskula said the mentors want to hear defendants say they’re willing to work to turn themselves around. “I’ll be pretty blunt,” he said. “If you don’t want to do this … I’ve got 20 other guys that need my help.” Danielle Michael, a public defender with Buffalo’s Legal Aid Bureau, said the mentors’ approach works toward getting the veterans to tap into the sense of pride they had in the military.
“There’s something about that pride from the past that they’re able to resurrect, and they’re able to move forward,” she said. “I’ve seen it.” “Structure,” Lindley said. “They respond well to structure.” A good example is Bryan, a Navy information systems technician from 2000 to 2005 and a defen¬dant in the Orange County court who asked that his last name not be published.
He left shipboard duty in 2004 for a mobile communications unit serving with a special operations team in Afghanistan for six months, where he saw “a lot of … ground combat, a lot of caves.” He got out and went home to San Clemente, Calif. Hanging around hard-charging special warfare types, he said, had rubbed off. He started working out like a fiend, taking steroids and pain pills and drinking too much alcohol. His marriage began falling apart.
Looking to recapture that military camaraderie, he fell in with four guys who decided to go vigilante on neighborhood drug pushers.
“We were kicking down doors,” Bryan said. “We had weapons.” Leaving the gym one day, he got pulled over. The police found steroids in his car. He wound up in jail, but his public defender knew of Lindley’s court and got him admitted.
At first, he was resistant. “I didn’t believe I had a problem,” he said. But the court and two stints in rehabilitation programs got him on track, he said.
Now almost halfway through the 18-month program, he gives the mentors in Lindley’s court high marks — and said he hopes to give something back by joining their ranks after he graduates.
In response to the Military Times article, General Barry McCaffrey authored a Letter to the Editor praising Veterans Treatment Courts. Click here to read his powerful response.
After spending 50 days in jail for an assault conviction, Army combat vet Britten Walker is doing well in rehab and holding down a full course load at Erie County Community College in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Judge Robert Russell established the first specialized veterans treatment court in Buffalo, N.Y., in early 2008.
Timothy Corby, a former Marine, talks with his mentor at the court in Buffalo, N.Y.
(Photos courtesy of the Military Times newspapers)