Opinion Columns & Blogs

John M. House: More help for our vets

Soldiers and veterans are a reflection of our society. They do good and sometimes bad things just as people do everywhere.

However, some veterans have an added burden. The difficulties they face in war, where every moment could result in death or serious injury, can cause psychological challenges that most citizens never face. Watching friends, innocent people and even enemies die is an emotional strain that the soldier must endure in war. Returning to a peacetime environment requires an adjustment.

Sometimes this adjustment does not go well, and a veteran commits a crime. Jail time may be needed, but that may not address the underlying problem. Columbus now has an additional tool available to cope with veterans who have some sort of mental affliction and find themselves on the wrong side of the law — Veterans Court.

In 2008, the court system in Buffalo, N.Y., began a special court named Veterans Court to help decide the best punishment and/or treatment of veterans who had been accused of a crime. These veterans often were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Muscogee County we have had a special court for people with mental disabilities who were charged with a crime for some time. When Superior Court Judge John Allen and Dr. Cynthia Pattillo of New Horizons learned of this initiative in New York, they planned a similar legal and mental health service for the Columbus area. Our Veterans Court process began in July this year.

The basic premise is that sometimes a veteran who has been accused of a crime is suffering from some sort of mental illness. In such cases, treatment by a mental health professional rather than jail time may be a better way to rehabilitate the individual. This can provide a better path of recovery for the accused, and it reduces the burden on our jails by diverting people from incarceration when that will not truly resolve the problem causing the criminal act.

Since this program has only just begun, the savings are not yet known. However, one outside review of the county mental health court from which Veterans Court grew showed a savings for the county of $5.9 million over the six years it has been in existence.

While a variety of paths can lead a military veteran inmate to the program, most referrals have come from defense attorneys. However, New Horizons will screen any request, including self-referrals. The district attorney’s office and Judge Allen confer and make the final decision. A courtroom hearing brings together the veteran, his attorney, the prosecutor, a New Horizons representative, and a representative from the Veterans Administration.

One other person also participates — a veteran mentor. In order to provide someone who has had similar experiences as the accused, a volunteer veteran mentor joins the treatment team to work with the New Horizons case manager and the veteran who needs treatment. This provides someone with real world, practical experience in military service who can help the case manager and the veteran cope with the basic problems affecting the situation. These mentors undergo special training to help them perform the tasks required (anyone wanting to know more or to volunteer should call Kim Perkins at 706-596-5738).

Veterans Court is another tool that can be used to help people who need special care but not incarceration. However, resources are always needed. Properly trained mentors are necessary. Housing for the veterans themselves is often a concern. Some are able to stay with family, but many cannot. Just finding out that someone needs this special consideration can delay enrollment. Identifying the reason for discharge and whether Veterans Administration benefits apply can be difficult. The people making this program a reality deserve a special thank you as well as community involvement and help whenever possible.

This program is truly a great idea. As a community we have many veterans here, and some of them come home from war needing treatment for a mental illness. Unfortunately these problems sometimes manifest themselves in criminal behavior, yet incarceration will not ensure treatment of the true problem. This Veterans Court now provides another avenue to resolve such challenges.

We owe our returned veterans the best care available. Now, thanks to Veterans Court, those veterans who are most in need have an opportunity to obtain the help that they also need.