201411.10
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Finding a Better Way to Honor Our Veterans

Veterans Day is tomorrow, November 11, and marks the day we recognize and honor the brave men and women of our Armed Forces who have served our country. These individuals devoted themselves to protecting the United States in addition to fighting for others who could not fight for themselves. One of the ways that we can begin to show our appreciation and respect for our Veterans is to start acknowledging the challenges they face even after they have been discharged from the Service.

According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics estimates, there are nearly 22 million Veterans(1) among our 316 million citizens; in other words, one in every 15 citizens is a Veteran. Almost half of our Veterans are 65 years of age or older, and 413 World War II Veterans pass away every day. Frighteningly, 22 Veterans commit suicide daily—that’s one every 65 minutes, more than twice the civilian rate—and approximately 30% of our Veterans have had thoughts of taking their own lives.(2) Half of them state that they know another Veteran who considered or did commit suicide. Nearly 70% of these suicides were Veterans aged 50 and older, mostly Vietnam Vets who returned home to an unsupportive country unaware of or indifferent to the extremely damaging effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

There is also a reasonable fear of a future “tidal wave” of suicides among our younger men and women at arms, those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.(3) Here in Arizona, their struggle to get sufficient medical and psychiatric care received national attention. After the VA scandal that erupted over the summer, former Representative and chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee Harry Mitchell spoke words we would be wise to remember: “everybody probably thought that things were doing OK, but we should have listened to the veterans.”(4) In truth, we need to start listening to our Veterans when they’re acting, not just when they’re talking. According to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide, “[Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] is the most common mental-health diagnosis among Veterans, yet fewer than half of those afflicted seek help.”(5) The root causes of PTSD are widely varied: trauma from service (what they experienced first-hand and what they witnessed done to others), stress from their training and mental states, survivor’s guilt, and difficulty in transitioning and integrating back into the civilian world. These “hidden wounds” often underlie the destructive decisions (commonly, acts of violence and substance abuse) that are in such contrast to the character of these otherwise upstanding citizens.

Recognizing this, there are now numerous courts that specifically handle Veterans’ cases. Tucson established the first Veterans Court in Arizona in 2009, and the City of Phoenix started the first Veterans Court in Maricopa County in 2012. Other jurisdictions that were inspired by Phoenix’s Veterans Court and have also created (or are in the process of creating) Veterans Courts are Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, and Gilbert. These courts focus on the big picture, namely: Why is this formerly law-abiding hero now facing a misdemeanor offense? According to the creators of Phoenix’s Veterans Court: “The goal of Veterans Court is to restore veterans to being successful, contributing members of the community. The court focuses on ensuring that veterans entering the criminal justice system make contact with specific programs to address the root causes of the behavior that resulted in the veteran becoming a defendant in the criminal justice system.”(6) The Veterans Court recognizes that a “cookie cutter” approach to justice with these men and women is folly; it requires the Veterans to willingly and fully participate with their specifically tailored treatment programs. Accountability vis-à-vis therapy and rehabilitation (as opposed to punishment) underlies the motives of the “model” Veteran’s Court.

Focusing on a model of success, the Phoenix Veteran’s Court is the largest in Arizona. Since the inception of Phoenix’s Veteran’s Court, 600 veterans have been treated, and 200 have successfully graduated the program, with a purported 2% recidivism rate. In recognition of this ground breaking program, the Phoenix City Veteran’s Court was awarded an “Outstanding Achievement Award” at the 2013 U.S. Mayor’s Conference. As incredible as this program is, many veterans are not being permitted to participate—and not because of the type of offense or for lack of interest. These veterans were charged in jurisdictions that shockingly do not have a Veterans Court, and some are not willing to transfer the case to a jurisdiction that does have one. Why aren’t those cities on board with such a transformative method of justice? What is the reason for prohibiting this specialty court? The overwhelming answer is funding. But is funding the true reason or is it the most convenient excuse? These questions, and those Veterans charged in such jurisdictions, deserve answers.

If you are fortunate enough to have a relative or friend that is a Vet, you are likely aware that Veterans are not inclined to seek help. For them, our heroes, it is perceived as a sign that they are weak or broken. However, when facing a criminal charge for the first time, they have to face the reality that they need help. Retired Brigadier General Gregg Maxon, the Veterans Court adviser for the Arizona Supreme Court and founder of Tempe’s Veterans Court, reminds us: “These folks were there for us when we needed them. We could stomp on them when they’re down or we could pick them up, brush them off and see if we can get them back on that path.”(7) With Veterans Court, we have a chance to give back to these men and women in a sincerely meaningful way and possibly save their lives. After all they’ve done to protect our freedom, shouldn’t we take that opportunity?

(1) VA Benefits & Health Care Utilization Pocketcard, VA (last updated July 11, 2014), http://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/pocketcards/fy2014q4.pdf
(2) Moni Basu, Why Suicide Rate Among Veterans May Be More than 22 a Day, CNN (Nov. 14, 2013), http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/21/us/22-veteran-suicides-a-day/
(3) Stop Soldier Suicide (2014), http://stopsoldiersuicide.org/
(4) Paul Giblin, VA Alarm Bells Were Constant, but Vets Still Left to Suffer, Arizona Republic A8, June 29, 2014.
(5) Connect, Stop Soldier Suicide (2014), http://stopsoldiersuicide.org/connect/; Greg Jaffe, Criminal or Victim?, Wahington Post (Sept. 20, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/09/20/criminal-or-victim/
(6) Veteran’s Court, City of Phoenix (last visited Nov. 10, 2014), https://www.phoenix.gov/law/specialty-courts/veterans-court
(7) Michelle Mitchell, Chandler, Mesa Might Create Veterans Court, The Arizona Republic (Apr. 15, 2014), http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/chandler/2014/04/15/chandler-mesa-might-create-veterans-court/7731387/