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Sacrifices for Our Freedom

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VETERAN HOMELESSNESS
Alamy

On this Veterans Day, as we honor the men and women who have sacrificed for our freedom, we must focus our attention on those veterans whose own freedom has been lost to incarceration due to substance abuse, mental illness, and trauma. Throughout the country, Veterans Treatment Courts have emerged as a front line solution -- keeping veterans out of jail while restoring their health, families and futures.

This morning I woke up to the sound of an incoming text message from a fellow Marine: Call me. I need help. I get a lot of messages from men and women I served with in Iraq; veterans whose struggle to cope with life at home is exacerbated by untreated substance abuse, mental illness and cognitive impairments. By the time I get the call, they are usually in trouble with the law, facing charges stemming directly from these issues.

These individuals were outstanding Marines, with no history of criminal behavior before joining the military. They returned to their families and communities as heroes, but with their minds still locked in combat. Of course they are not the only ones. Since 2004, the number of veterans being treated for mental illness and substance-use disorders has increased 38 percent. It is estimated that out of the over 2.4 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 460,000, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. One in six, or 345,000, has a substance abuse problem. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has become the signature wound of the War on Terror and about 19 percent of troops have reported a probable TBI during deployment. Increasing numbers of untreated veterans are becoming prisoners of war on the homefront; suicidal, homeless, unemployed, and languishing in our nation's jails and prisons. This is unacceptable.

In late 2007 a judge in Buffalo, New York saw an increase in the number of veterans appearing on his dockets suffering from substance abuse, mental health and trauma. Rather than see these veterans sent to jail, Judge Robert Russell called upon the local VA Medical Center, volunteer veterans from the community and an interdisciplinary team of probation officers, law enforcement, defense council, and prosecutor to create a veterans-only court docket. Judge Russell's program became the first Veterans Treatment Court in the United States. The concept immediately caught on around the country as other jurisdictions seeing the same increases sought a cost-effective solution to better serve veterans. To date, none of the nearly 100 veterans who have completed the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court have been rearrested.

Veterans Treatment Courts are a 'one-stop-shop' for services aimed at giving veterans the tools they need to live productive and fulfilling lives. I was working in the Tulsa Mayor's office at the time and when I heard about the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court I immediately set out to create one in Tulsa. One of the first participants in our program was an Army combat veteran diagnosed with alcohol dependency and post-traumatic stress disorder. He came to us unemployed and suicidal. While receiving mental health treatment, we were able to file for disability compensation, which was awarded at 50 percent. As a result, the veteran began receiving over $800 a month to help pay for housing and other living expenses. With his mental health being treated and his finances stabilized, we helped him apply and qualify for the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment which he used to enroll in college. The veteran is now a graduate of Veterans Treatment Court. Instead of sitting in a jail cell he is college-educated, working full-time and reunited with his family.

Today, there are over 100 Veterans Treatment Courts with hundreds more being planned. These programs ensure that veterans have access to the benefits and treatment they have earned, and save critical criminal justice resources. But they also hold the promise of transforming the way the criminal justice system deals with justice-involved veterans, particularly at the crucial intercept point of arrest. By effectively identifying, assessing, and responding to all justice-involved veterans appropriately, we can live up to our responsibility of leaving no veteran behind. They fought for our freedom, shouldn't we fight for theirs?

To learn more about Veterans Treatment Courts and Justice For Vets, visit their website.

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