Safety and Stability for Veterans

Last year, 60 Minutes featured a story on the alarming number of veterans who have come into contact with the criminal justice system through arrest over the past decade.  Many of these men and women belong to our new generation of American vets, those recently home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  While most of these men and women do not have to endure the kinds of alienating indignities that were heaped on Vietnam veterans, it often seems like many of the lessons that were supposedly learned by our American society and government thirty or forty years ago have been forgotten.  What happens when combat veterans are reintegrated into a society that is fundamentally out of touch with their experience?  What happens when those same veterans either cannot access, or are not aware of programs to help them with addiction, depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress?  The answer is that many of them end up in jail.  But with a critically overwhelmed corrections system, a system which may not be equipped to help someone struggling with combat stress, lawmakers and the American people cannot simply continue to lock these people up as a solution.

The 60 Minutes piece focused on a new Veterans Court in Harris County (Houston), Texas.  The new court is similar to many courts that have sprung up around the country in the past few years and is modeled on the drug court system.  There are several qualifications for defendants to have their case heard in this separate docket, but in general, they must be a veteran with no worse than a general discharge under honorable conditions, and must be suffering from an injury or mental illness related to their service which materially affected their criminal conduct.  Serious felonies such as capital murder, drug trafficking, sexual assault, etc. would be automatic disqualifiers.  (To read the qualifications as posted by the Texas Civil Rights Project, click here and scroll to page seven.)  After arraignment and sentencing, program participants go through a kind of criminal court academy for veterans, and hopefully they graduate successfully rehabilitated (they only get to go through this system once).  However, the program is not easy.  Extensive group therapy, addiction treatment (if necessary), and anger management are the norm, and the rules for participation are very strict.  Watch the video and see how the court has been a tremendous success and a godsend for many veterans in Houston who might otherwise be in prison.

The story also featured interviews with two veterans, both Marines, who have successfully graduated from the program and, for the first time, are dealing with their post traumatic stress in a constructive way.  One Marine told the story of his recurring nightmare of a traumatic event that happened in Anbar Province, Iraq in January of 2005.  A helicopter crashed in the western desert outside Rutbah, killing 30 servicemen.  He was sent to assist Mortuary Affairs in the recovery of their remains.  I remember when this happened, because I was sitting in the chow hall back at Camp Taqaddum watching this news as I ate breakfast.  We had a Mortuary Affairs unit at “TQ” and I was praying that my squad did not have to go out there to provide security overwatch.  Seven years later, all I could think of while watching this story on TV was that it could have been me sitting in that jail cell or that courtroom, only I don’t live in Houston or have access to this program.  Some counties in Alabama are piloting new Veterans courts, or drug treatment courts for veterans, but more needs to be done to address this problem nationwide.  We cannot simply lock these folks up and expect them to get better.  If nothing else, the results from similar courts indicate that these programs work by reducing recidivism and unburdening taxpayers.  As this generation gets older, incidents of veterans being arrested for crimes related to combat stress will increase unless we do something about it.

Many of One Roof’s member agencies work with clients or community members who are veterans.  Agencies whose missions are oriented towards this specific population are very much aware of the challenges facing their veteran clients, and our mission at One Roof is to make sure our agencies are aware of the many issues with which an individual client may struggle.  Like other at-risk populations, veterans experiencing homelessness are not so easily placed into a general category.  Like all who face a life without a place to call home, there is no veteran archetype to explain each case.  We at One Roof are constantly striving to help our agencies understand the dynamic and multi-hued nature of homelessness so they may better serve their clients, and so that, collectively, we are able to make lasting and meaningful change.

One Roof is committed to raising awareness of veterans’ issues, and we are dedicated to preventing and ending veteran homelessness through education, advocacy, and coordination of services. We at One Roof believe that veterans, like all people, deserve safety and stability. Veterans don’t ask for a pat on the back, but we owe it to them to help them heal. Please contact us for help finding appropriate services for veterans experiencing homelessness. Click here to support our efforts.


John McGregor is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Communications & Community Outreach Assistant. He served with the Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Bessemer from 2004-2010 and deployed twice to Iraq.

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