Chuck Sluzenski served in Iraq, but the return home was his toughest fight. Loud noises startled him. He was anxious and would sit and stand with his back against the wall so he wasn't exposed. In Iraq he conducted most of his missions at night. Nighttime at home was terrible. He often woke up screaming. It got so bad he couldn't get into bed without 20 beers in him. His girlfriend left him, he lost his job, and he got kicked out of his house. One night he walked into a bar and when he woke up he was behind bars.
Chuck's brother followed him to Iraq and when he came home he fell into the same pattern. He had undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was self medicating with drugs and alcohol to cope. Like Chuck, he quickly spiraled out of control. This is where their paths diverge.
For the past year I have had the privilege to travel the country meeting the extraordinary men and women who have served in uniform. You might think this is an unusual undertaking for an actor, but a few years ago I co-executive produced "Halfway Home," a documentary film about the difficulty some veterans face when transitioning back into life on the home front. I learned a great deal during the making of "Halfway Home," but perhaps more than anything I learned about the resiliency of the men and women who serve our nation. I realized that despite the debilitating effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and depression, our veterans thrive when given the opportunity. I wanted to be a part of making sure they were given those opportunities. Last year I took on the role of senior director of Justice For Vets, an organization that fights every day to give veterans the opportunity for treatment and restoration when the invisible wounds of war lead them astray.
Our communities are filled with millions of veterans who have returned home strengthened by their military experience. In fact most returning veterans are leaders in their communities; they are civic assets, living exemplary lives. Everyone's path home is not the same. We cannot ignore the fact that 1 in 5 returning veterans suffers from PTSD and 1 in 6 suffers from a substance abuse disorder. We cannot ignore the debilitating effect of TBI and other trauma-related injuries and the untold damage these issues can cause military families. We cannot ignore that these issues often lead to unemployment, homelessness, arrest, or worse. If we don't intercept these vulnerable veterans at the key moment of crises we may not have another opportunity and we risk losing them forever. It is a national tragedy that every day 22 veterans take their own lives.
It doesn't have to be this way.
At Justice For Vets, it is our mission to put a Veterans Treatment Court within reach of every veteran in need. Veterans Treatment Courts ensure that when our veterans struggle with the transition home and become involved with the criminal justice system, they receive the structure, treatment, and mentoring they need to get their lives back on track. Instead of sending our veterans to jail, Veterans Treatment Courts give them the opportunity to fight for their freedom -- freedom from addiction and mental anguish, freedom from homelessness, and freedom from unemployment. Veterans Treatment Courts recognize that restoring our veterans to being healthy citizens not only honors their sacrifice but makes our communities stronger.
Rather than face traditional sentencing, Chuck Sluzenski was given the opportunity to voluntarily enter a Veterans Treatment Court which had just opened in Montgomery County, Pa., where he had been arrested on arson charges. In Veterans Treatment Court, Chuck was diagnosed with PTSD and referred for treatment. He received counseling where he learned techniques to help him cope. He met often with a volunteer veteran mentor who understood exactly what he was going through and offered support only someone who has worn the uniform can give. Alongside other veterans in the program, Chuck appeared regularly before the judge who often praised him for his hard work. There were so many people supporting him that Chuck told me, "In this courtroom I got my unit back. You have to earn the trust from the judge, probation officer and the rest of the team. There is a strict line to follow and it is up to you to follow it. I have been in the military. I like the structure, the strict schedule, guidelines, and obligations. The judge is an authority figure who I respect but he also cares about me and believes in me."
One day when Chuck was having anxiety, the judge suggested he take a ceramics class at the VA. He told me, "Melissa, do I look like the kind of guy who would take ceramics? But I trusted the judge and you know what? It helped." Chuck pointed out the ceramic eagle sitting on the bench near the judge and proudly told me he made that for the judge. "It represents freedom... including mine," he said.
Today, more than 10,000 veterans who would otherwise languish behind bars are receiving life-saving treatment in a Veterans Treatment Court. They emerge from these programs committed to giving back to their community. They go back to school, find jobs, and reconnect with their families. Veterans are among this nation's greatest and most valuable resources. We need them -- their skills, their experience, their commitment to service -- and all that they have to contribute, at home and in our communities.
Tragically, there are tens of thousands of veterans just like Chuck who are unable to access life-saving treatment because they live in one of over 3,000 counties that do not yet have a Veterans Treatment Court. Left untreated, the issues facing our veterans will have tragic consequences.
Two years ago, while Chuck was working his way through Veterans Treatment Court, Chuck's brother died, by his own hand.
I am haunted by this story because I know that our veterans are capable of living healthy, stable lives if they are given the opportunity for treatment. And I am haunted by this story because I know that there are countless more just like it.
When we use words like "Thank you for your service," and "We are a grateful nation," we must connect those words with actions. For it is not our words but our actions that are the true reflection of our values. If this nation is going to honor its commitment to care for those who defend our freedom then we must ensure that all veterans, including those who struggle, are given the treatment they have earned.
Chuck told me that had it not been for Veterans Treatment Court he is certain he would have suffered the same fate as his brother. The support he received not only saved his life but helped him cope with his brother's passing. He now has gone back to school, has a full-time job, and is a proud father.
Earlier this year, I had the honor of attending Chuck's graduation from Veterans Treatment Court. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Chuck did not mince words. "This program saved my life," he said. He told me he wants to help Justice For Vets expand Veterans Treatment Courts so every veteran can get the same opportunity he had and so that no family has to endure the pain and loss his family has endured.
This Veterans Day, when you think about the sacrifice of our brave men and women who have served, remember that our gratitude must extend to all of our veterans, including those who have struggled to return home. Remember Chuck, and all that these veterans are capable of if given the chance. And remember his brother, and the consequences of our inaction. Veterans fought for our freedom. Shouldn't we fight for theirs?