by Joshua M. Patton
With unprecedented increases in suicides, domestic violence, and other instances of criminality from soldiers and veterans home from war, the powers-that-be were stymied about how to best address these problems legally while being considerate of their struggles. Mental injury, depression, or pure desperation plagued veterans and even still-active members of the military who found themselves facing assault, drug, or any number other of troubling charges. However in the Justice Department spending bill passed by the House of Representatives, federal funding was awarded to Veterans Treatment Courts. These courts cater solely to veterans and servicemembers facing legal trouble in Allegheny County, PA; Denver, CO; and – where it all began – Buffalo, NY.
Jack O’Connor had a front-row seat to the court’s creation. One day when he was talking to Judge Robert T. Russell, they were discussing the increasing number of veterans appearing in court for drug charges, domestic abuse, and other such crimes. Both men are Vietnam Veterans and the stories these veterans were telling in court sounded very familiar. According to O’Connor perhaps one of the best innovations in dealing with troubled vets was born from a casual comment. O’Connor says that Judge Russell said to him, “Why don’t we set a day aside and call it ‘veterans’ court?’” They contacted the current Medical Center Director for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System and former Undersecretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs under George W. Bush, William F. Feeley. With his help and an increasing roster of Judges and activists, the Buffalo Veterans’ Treatment Court became the first of its kind in the nation.
Congressman Pat Meehan, R-PA, spoke with me about the recent funding that was awarded to these courts already in existence and areas where they are being developed. Rep. Meehan became aware of “the tremendous scope of the issue” when General Peter Chiarelli spoke to the Blue Star Mothers of America – a group established in 1942 comprised of mothers of service members. Yet, in a time when even the most minor expenditure is the source of heated debate, how did this initiative pass with little controversy and broad bipartisan support? “The idea that it is for our veterans and people appreciate the responsibility to protect them from harm,” Rep. Meehan said when asked about the support of the measure. Before serving in the House, Rep. Meehan served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney and pointed out that the cost of incarceration is higher than cost of the alternative solutions found in these courts.
The courts focus on treatment options for addiction, myriad forms of counseling, and giving hope to those that have become hopeless. However, the courts do not treat veterans as if they are above the law. O’Connor says, “Why not give them one more chance? It’s a final chance; it’s not a get out of jail free card.” Still, can the treatment options provided by the courts help those who are considering suicide? Says Rep. Meehan, “It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s almost guaranteed to help someone brought into a treatment situation before they chose to take their own life.” Speculation aside, what is certain is that this type of forward-thinking and out-of-the-box approach will help those veterans who’ve brought the battlefield back home with them.
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