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When U.S. service members return home from war zones, many suffer from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries as well as anxiety and depression. They often need professional help, but too many turn to alcohol and drugs to cope. Increasing numbers of veterans have found themselves on the wrong side of the law after a downward spiral fueled by substance abuse. But there’s hope. Across the country, more judges are putting offenders through veterans treatment courts instead of handing out prison sentences. Diane and her guests discuss how these new court programs are changing the lives of returning soldiers and their families.
- Nicholas Stefanovic judicial assessment specialist who works with veterans treatment courts in Rochester, N.Y.; he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Christopher Deutsch communications director, Justice for Vets, a division of The National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
- General Barry McCaffrey (U.S. Army-Ret.) retired U.S. army four-star general, and former director of the office of National Drug Control Policy
- Barbara Van Dahlen founder and president of "Give an Hour," a non-profit organization that provides free mental health care services to veterans and their families affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; PhD., clinical psychologist.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. There's a growing movement to help veterans who commit crimes as a result of drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD or traumatic brain injury. The idea is to get veterans the help they need instead of just throwing them in jail. Joining me in the studio to talk about veterans' treatment courts, Christopher Deutsch of Justice for Vets and Barbara Van Dahlen of "Give an Hour".
MS. DIANE REHMThat's a nonprofit that offers free mental health services to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. On this Veterans Day, I'm sure many of you will want to join in. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you both for being here.
MR. CHRISTOPHER DEUTSCHThanks so much.
MS. BARBARA VAN DAHLENThank you.
REHMChristopher Deutsch, I'm so glad to learn about these courts which I certainly hadn't known about previously. Explain how they work, how they came into being.
DEUTSCHSure. I think it's important to start off by saying the vast majority of men and women who serve in the military come home strengthened by that service and instilled with honor, duty, leadership, respect, and really become heroes of their community. But we know that some veterans are struggling on the home front. Mental health disorders, traumatic brain injury, compounded by substance abuse, is leading veterans into contact with the criminal justice system.
DEUTSCHAbout five years ago, a judge in Buffalo, N.Y. named Robert Russell created what is now known as Veterans Treatment Court. He was presiding over a drug court and a mental health court, and he saw increasing numbers of veterans coming through. Usually, they had never been arrested before, but they were diagnosed with substance abuse or mental health disorders. And he set about to really do something different with them.
DEUTSCHHe started scheduling them all under the same docket, so all veterans on a criminal court docket. He brought in representatives from the local VA medical center, from veterans benefits. He brought veterans from the community in to serve as mentors. And he created an environment where the veterans felt comfortable talking about their issues, accepting the help that was being offered.
DEUTSCHIn doing so, he was able to connect them with the benefits and treatment that they've earned, supervise them closely, reward them when they do well, sanction them when they needed sanctioning, but ultimately restore them to where they were before these issues took place.
REHMAll instead of putting them in jail.
DEUTSCHAll instead of putting them in the jail where, you know, not only are they going to be, in many cases, lost to the system, but also they're going to cost the community a tremendous amount of money. That spark that he lit has ignited all across the country, communities that are stepping up to create these programs to really say, we are no longer going to accept sending out veterans to jail or prison when we know that treatment works and that we can get them back on track.
REHMSo how many courts are in existence now?
DEUTSCHWe're up to about 130 operational veterans treatment courts...
DEUTSCH...with hundreds being planned. The interest is widespread. In fact, just last week, the governor of North Carolina helped open that state's first veterans treatment court and pledged at the time that he was going to expand them statewide. So there is a huge amount of momentum for this program.
REHMNow, what about the criticism of Judge Russell that, in effect, this could be excusing bad behavior?
DEUTSCHYou know, that comes up from time to time. And I think anyone who really looks at what these courts are doing would have a change of heart. We have to hold people accountable when they commit a crime, certainly, but we also have to ask ourselves, is justice always best served by putting someone in jail? Or do the men and women who voluntarily serve in our military, who had never had a problem with the law before they served, do they deserve an opportunity to get help? And it is not an easy ride. You are asking people to confront their demons.
DEUTSCHConfront themselves, confront deep substance issues or mental health issues, and really do the work to get back on track and...
REHMAnd how are these programs funded?
DEUTSCHVeterans treatment courts can receive funding in a couple of ways. A lot of times, the city or the county they're in will provide some funding. States are now passing legislation to support these programs, and there is some federal funding available. We are really working for a dedicated federal funding stream to help these communities get the training they need and the resource they need to be sustainable in the long term.
REHMChristopher Deutsch, he's with Justice for Vets, and that's a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Turning to you, Barbara Van Dahlen, roughly what percentage of vets coming back find themselves in trouble?
DAHLENWell, it's a complicated issue because, looking across studies, you'll see anything from 18 percent -- some studies suggest as high as 35 percent. And the reason that we can't exactly answer that question is because different studies look at different issues. They are taking a look at different points in time. But what we do know is it is a substantial number of individuals come home with understandable issues, as Christopher said.
DAHLENThe vast majority of men and women who serve come home, and they continue to lead great lives in their communities. They go on. But we know that, of the 2.6 million who have been in theater since these wars began, even if it's the lowest number, even if it's 12, 18 percent and you look at the ripple effects of that on their family members, on society in general, it's a huge number of people who are affected. And these are people who stepped up to serve so we would not assume that they all had some kind of mental health issue before they joined the service.
REHMHmm. Is it mostly drug and alcohol?
DAHLENIt's a range in terms of what gets them into trouble with the law. I mean, we also know that there's an increase in domestic violence, and sometimes alcohol plays a part, obviously, in domestic violence as well. But it isn't always alcohol and drugs. Sometimes it's the agitation, anxiety, distress, rage that can come up, be triggered by events in the person's life once they get home.
DAHLENAnd one thing that's really important for people to understand -- and Christopher and I were actually talking about this outside -- is that most of the men and women who come home, when these issues start to affect them, they have no idea what's going on. It's not like they say, oh, gee, I think I have post-traumatic stress, or I think I'm anxious. I'm going to go out and get into trouble.
DAHLENThey don't realize, and so they feel guilt, shame. They want to avoid because it's uncomfortable, and that is not unique to men and women in the military. That's what we all, as a society, have to do a better job of with mental health in general. But for these men and women coming home with these issues, it then can get them into significant trouble, and that's why we need programs like this.
REHMOf course, there may be people listening who say, well, aren't these people simply criminals, and shouldn't they be treated as such?
DAHLENWell, as Christopher pointed out, people do need to be held accountable and responsible for their actions. And, in fact, we know from these programs that that element is a critical piece. It's not just saying, OK, now you get treatment and off you go. These men and women who serve, by and large, are honorable men and women who feel badly about the crimes they've committed.
DAHLENAnd so holding them accountable, allowing them to pay restitution, to do what they need to do to pay their debt to society, but along the way providing critical treatment so that when they're done, they go back into communities and become leaders, employers, volunteers, parents, the way they want to be, is what we should all be looking to do.
REHMBarbara Van Dahlen is a clinical psychologist, founder and president of "Give an Hour", a nonprofit organization offering free mental healthcare services to veterans and their families. Barbara, tell me how that program works.
DAHLENSo we now have over 7,000 mental health professionals throughout the country. We partner with many organizations like Christopher's and others. It's an online clearinghouse, if you will. Service members, veterans, military family members go to our site at GiveAnHour.org, they put in their ZIP code, they're connected with a mental health professional in their community.
REHMIn that area.
DAHLENAbsolutely. And if they can't find one, because we have 7,000, but it's a big country, then they reach us, and we work with our partners and find someone for them to work with. We just, last week, announced a very exciting initiative with Google that we will begin -- we are now in five states and soon across the country able to offer those services through tele-health, through computer-based mental health services because many of our veterans come home, and they live in rural, remote areas.
DAHLENAnd those are the communities that often we see these problems in the jails. No services available. And so the key here is fitting all these pieces together, so we provide that integrative system of care that these men and women deserve.
REHMAnd you're saying that 7,000 professionals have volunteered their services.
DAHLENYes. And collectively, they've now -- we've just passed -- they've given over 100,000 hours, which is over $10 million in free care.
REHMAnd when did this begin?
DAHLENAbout 7 1/2, 8 years ago. And we started offering services probably about 6 years ago.
REHMAnd realizing that this was a great need out there.
DAHLENAbsolutely. I became a psychologist during the Vietnam era, after that. Soon after that, I started working in community mental health centers, and I was surprised in the '80s to see Vietnam veterans who were still suffering with these issues decades later. And so when these wars began, it was very clear to me that we, in the community, needed to step up to do more.
REHMBarbara Van Dahlen, Christopher Deutsch, they're both here to take your questions, answer your tweets, your Facebook postings, your phone calls. Do join us, and stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back on this Veterans' Day. We're talking about a unique and really useful program the court system set up especially for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, veterans and indeed their families. Here in the studio Barbara Van Dahlen. She's founder and president of "Give an Hour". It's a nonprofit organization offering free mental healthcare services. She is a clinical psychologist. Christopher Deutsch is communications director for Justice for Vets. That's a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
REHMHere's an email that says, "Why should veterans receive better treatment than the general population? How is it traumatic brain injuries suffered in an industrial accident any different than traumatic brain injuries suffered in war? And why should veterans receive clemency for their addiction when the rest of us don't?" Christopher.
DEUTSCHWell, I think this person raises an interesting point. I mean, we would all agree we have to do better in understanding traumatic brain injury, whether it occurs in the military or outside of the military. When veterans volunteer to serve, they earn treatment and benefits by nature of their service. What veterans treatment courts do is streamline access to what they've earned.
DEUTSCHThese are still criminal courts. These were individuals who would otherwise be served in a drug court or in a mental health court. But by scheduling them onto a single docket, by bringing in volunteer veterans mentors and representatives from the VA and VBA, we can serve them better. It's more about economizing resources than giving them any sort of special treatment.
DAHLENAnd also the caller raises an interesting point. There are -- Christopher just made reference to them -- mental health-treatment-facility-focused courts, meaning that popping up all over the country there are programs where if you have a mental health issue and that that issue is part of what got you into trouble, those courts provide recommendations, referrals, connections with treatment.
DAHLENSo the emailer is absolutely right. We, as a nation, need to be looking at these issues rather than just punishing because it costs money. And many of these people, whether it's an industrial accident or through their service, if we provide treatment, they will continue to be able to be of service to our communities and not a drain.
REHMAnd joining us now by phone from Rochester, N.Y., Nicholas Stefanovic. He's a judicial assessment specialist who works with veterans treatment courts. Hello, Nick, thanks for joining us.
MR. NICHOLAS STEFANOVICOh, thank you.
REHMAfter serving in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, I gather you came home. You found yourself in trouble with the law. Tell us how you got to that low point.
STEFANOVICSo, you know, before going into my story, the most important thing that I -- you know, the reason why I retell this story is because of how typical it is. The veterans that come home that go through everything before vet court and after vet court all have a lot in common. My story begins around 2006. I came home from my third deployment, and my third deployment happened to be the worst one. We experienced the most loss. We were at a very volatile area of Afghanistan.
STEFANOVICAnd so I returned and knew immediately when I had returned home that something was wrong with me. The people that were around me were saying things like, I don't -- it seems like I don't even know you anymore and that I had changed dramatically. And then, just like a lot of other veterans do, I found something that would help me cope in the outside world, that would numb me.
STEFANOVICYou know, substance abuse runs rampant in the veteran population and in veterans court just because substances, alcohol, and drugs are so effective at immediately annihilating the symptoms of PTSD. And when the substance abuse begins, it's just a matter of time before we find ourselves -- before I found myself in the criminal justice system. So from between 2006 and 2009, I had been a part of a downward spiral that eventually led to me living out of my car. I had nothing. My life was worth nothing. I had no future.
REHMWhat about your family? Where were they in the process?
STEFANOVICMy family had no idea what was going on or what to do about it. They tried everything from finding rehabs to finding other counselors for me and eventually got to the point where my family had to admit that they did not have the power to do anything for me, which was...
REHMSo they actually told you to stay away?
STEFANOVICEventually it got to the point where my -- especially my parents had to make this decision that it -- he may do better if we separate ourselves from the situation.
REHMAnd then, Nick, I gather you were arrested with possession of forged documents, checks being cashed?
STEFANOVICYes. Yep, that was how I was surviving at that time. That was how I was getting money at that time. So, you know, I was charged with that which led directly to -- it was actually my parents then that found the veterans treatment court. And I ended up in veterans treatment court on May 1 of 2009.
REHMAnd this was after you were arrested.
REHMTell us why you think the program worked for you.
STEFANOVICI think there's very, very good clear, even sometimes scientific reasons why this program works, and specifically for veterans. So in the military we -- any veteran could tell you -- or active duty military member could tell you that the way that they respond to officers is something that they learn when they get into the military. So an officer is somebody who has authority over you automatically. And there's really good officers, and there's bad officers. But a good officer is somebody who deeply cares about you but has the authority to make sure you do what is right.
STEFANOVICSince 2006 -- between 2006 and 2009, I had lost that relationship. In 2009 when I was introduced to Judge Patty Marks at veterans treatment court, for the first time again, I had met an authority figure which I had been taught and trained to respect who I could tell by the tone of her voice and the way that she spoke to me, deeply cared about me. So that relationship was reinstated at that point, which led to me wanting to make her proud. It led to me not wanting to disappoint her, which had -- it was a huge part of my success.
REHMSo now, after you got into a veterans court, I gather you got there, and you were financially flat. You had no money. Is that correct?
STEFANOVICThat's correct. And that's -- you know, that's one of the things that the veterans treatment courts -- you know, among many other things that, you know, one of the priorities for the court is to get all of the benefits and services that are owed to veterans that many veterans don't even know about or how to take advantage of. So one of the main services that we always check on is, is your compensation where it should be at this point? And for many veterans, it's not. So you reapply for an increase in compensation.
STEFANOVICAnd, you know, the vast majority of people who wind up in veterans treatment courts are financially destroyed just because of that's what criminal activity and drug use brings with it. And for a veteran to then have his compensation upgraded or reinstated, or if he hadn't been receiving any compensation at all, that financial peace is a foundation for their success.
REHMOne aspect of this veterans treatment court I find so interesting is that you got back into school, and you're not allowed to graduate unless you're in school or you have a job. And you did go back to school. You got your bachelors. And now tell us what you're doing.
STEFANOVICYes, I went back to school. I got my bachelors. I'm now in grad school working on my graduate degree in public administration. And, you know, because I had found this solution to a problem that I thought there were no solutions to, I had dedicated my life to being a part of that solution. So I came back to the veterans treatment court.
STEFANOVICAnd I was hired a few months ago as a judicial assessment specialist. So now I go into the jails, I go out into the community, and I find veterans who are -- who would qualify for veterans treatment court. I evaluate them. I give recommendations to the judge. And I try -- my job is to try to speed up the process of finding a veteran who's in trouble and getting them treatment.
REHMWhere do you think you'd be now if you hadn't been given the choice of going through a veterans treatment court program?
STEFANOVICI would be dead. I have no doubt. I was near death at the time that the veterans treatment court had found me.
REHMWhen you say you'd be dead, do you think you might have taken your own life? Or what do you mean, you'd be dead?
STEFANOVICYou know, like I said, when -- you know, I was involved in very dangerous behavior. You know, you can -- and, you know, being involved with crime and drug use can only go on for so long before something bad happens to you. You know, if I wasn't dead at this point, I would be -- I would have nothing. Veterans court was responsible for making me a productive member of society again. And it was only veterans court that was responsible for that.
REHMNicholas Stefanovic, e's a judicial assessment specialist who works with veterans in treatment courts. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Joining us now by phone from West Virginia, Gen. Barry McCaffrey. He's a retired U.S. Army four-star general, former director of the office of National Drug Control Policy. General, welcome.
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREYGood to be with you again, Diane.
REHMThank you. General, do veterans returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan face different challenges from those of veterans of previous wars in your view?
MCCAFFREYWell, undoubtedly. They're a different generation -- and, by the way, just sort of a comment in passing, having watched -- you know, my dad was a World War II veteran, Korean War, Vietnam, right through my son and daughter, who both served in uniform. This is absolutely the most competent fighting force we ever put in the field. And, by the way, they've taken a lot of casualties. You know, we're pushing 59,000 killed and wounded.
MCCAFFREYSo they come home, many of them on multiple combat tours. Some of them that are injured, particularly by the so-called IEDs...
MCCAFFREY...have suffered really devastating injuries, potentially traumatic brain injury. And all of them, like other generations, come home, and there are some adjustment challenge to go through. So, you know, we find substantial -- probably a quarter of them have excessive alcohol abuse, which leads to other problems, traffic accidents, assault and battery charges. It's a transition.
MCCAFFREYThe majority of them do extremely well. They're proud of their service. They're grateful to God they're still alive. They're home in a law-based society. But there are challenges. And, by the way, I think one of the other challenges, not since World War II have we put these combat troops through so many repetitive combat deployments.
REHMIndeed. Now tell me, are you a supporter of the veterans treatment courts?
MCCAFFREYOh, absolutely. Diane, I'm on the board of directors of National Association of Drug Courts. Now, as you know, I think Chris Deutsch is on the program. Several thousand -- the model proved itself sort of unsurprisingly. And then Judge Russell up in upper state New York a very short time ago started the first veterans treatment court.
MCCAFFREYAnd we're now pushing 150. The model's the same as the drug court. You essentially take a person at the moment of greatest despair. They're under arrest. You know, in many cases they're devastated -- as Nicholas said -- financially. They're HIV-positive. You know, their eyeglasses are broken. They're unemployed. They've lost their children.
MCCAFFREYAnd you put them in a volunteer status, and, as Nicholas very nicely put it -- but this also applies to the drug court system in general -- for many of these folks, it's the -- the judge is the first person they've ever encountered who has both extreme authority and who also cares about them.
REHMIndeed. And I do gather however that you are somewhat skeptical about these statistics on post-traumatic stress and the suicide rates among veterans. Explain.
MCCAFFREYWell, you know, part of the problem is -- I want to make sure that this generation of superb combat troops are accurately objectively characterized. They're not damaged goods. You know, service in a combat zone does not turn you into a danger to society. What is true though, you know, if you're badly, physically damaged or have PTSD and come home, and if you then have an alcohol or drug problem, you're really in trouble.
MCCAFFREYBut backing off the larger issue, sometimes I think we lose context on this. The suicide rate, which is terrible in U.S. society -- it's gone up dramatically in the last decade -- also has gone up in the armed forces. But, you know, basically the suicide rate among troops returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is barely higher than their own age group in civil society.
REHMGen. McCaffrey, we've got to take a short break here. And I hope you'll stay on with us, as well as having Nicholas Stefanovic stay with us as we take phone calls and read email. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back on this Veterans Day as we talk about these veteran courts that have been established for veterans of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Christopher Deutsch is here. He's with Justice for Vets. Barbara Van Dahlen is a clinical psychologist, founder and president of "Give an Hour." Nicholas Stefanovic is a judicial assessment specialist who works with veterans treatment courts in Rochester, N.Y.
REHMHe served in the Marine Corps in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And Gen. Barry McCaffrey, retired U.S. Army four-star general, former director of the office of National Drug Control Policy. Here is a tweet just to help us all remember. Holly says, "I'm sitting here overwhelmed with pain for our poor soldiers and our country that constantly goes to war.
REHM"And from the drshow website, makes me wonder why the older vets of World War II, the Korean War, or even the Vietnam War did not seem to suffer from PTSD, commit crimes or commit suicides as much as today's vets, especially when medical treatments are much better and much more available for them than for other vets." Barbara?
DAHLENWell, actually the prior generations of service members and veterans have suffered as well. We know, as far back as we have looked at wars, the Civil War and forward, that we called it different things. We didn't call it post-traumatic stress. We called it soldier's heart. We called it shell-shock.
REHMShell-shock. I remember that from World War II.
REHMYes. And my father served in World War II. And that generation of service members, the way that they handled it often was to internalize more and suffer internally. Their families would tell you that their families suffered. Vietnam veterans, we know huge numbers of those men and -- men, primarily, then -- who came back, were not able to get their lives back in order. So one of the things that we've done well with this war, is we've drawn attention to -- we're raising awareness about -- but this is nothing new.
DAHLENThe one thing that maybe is a new element that we haven't touched on, but in a recent documentary that folks should look for called "A Matter of Duty, The Continuing War Against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," it also showcases a female veteran. And the reason she's in jail is consequences, drug abuse, because she was sexually abused -- military sexual trauma.
DAHLENThat is a different element in this generation because, why, we have more women serving. So these issues -- war is a trauma for those who are in combat, those who experienced that level of intensity. That is very similar to prior generations.
REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones now. First to Heather in Houston, Texas.
MCCAFFREYDiane could I...
REHMHold on, just a moment, General. Let's take a caller here. Heather, you're on the air.
HEATHERHi. Thank you for having me.
HEATHERMy father was in the Air Force. He was EOD, which is basically the bomb squad. And he was in the Iraq war and the Gulf War in the early '90s. And he was there for over a year. And he saw some really, really disturbing things when he was there. And when he came back, he suffered some very severe depression. And one day he decided that, to deal with that, he was going to go and try to purchase some drugs and had an arrest because of that.
HEATHERHe was honorably discharged from the Army, but he was forced into a discharge because of the criminal conviction. And because of his very specific job skill set, he wasn't really able to find employment after that. He suffered severe depression. He attempted suicide several times, was in and out of VA hospitals. And about seven months ago, he passed away from an overdose of meth.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
HEATHERAnd, you know, that was 20 years later. It was still affecting his life.
REHMHeather, I'm so, so sorry for your loss. Gen. McCaffrey, you wanted to say something.
MCCAFFREYWell, I just wanted to add to the point, which I think really was just made by Barbara. When you look at the VA admission statistics, overwhelmingly, it's the Vietnam generation right now that's the preponderance of the PTSD cases. So I think, you know, to underscore all wars put a lot of stress on these young men and women who fight them.
MCCAFFREYBut the Vietnam generation, I think when you get older, particularly if you haven't addressed it, that's when it starts popping up. The current Iraq/Afghanistan vets, again, are the healthiest, strongest, most confident fighting force we've ever had in our history.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Dwight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Hi, there.
DWIGHTHi, Diane. First off, I'd like to say that you, like all of our veterans, past and present, are a national treasure.
DWIGHTAnd also a nice hello to all my three-ID veterans out there. Thank you. I'm one of you. My grandfather, who raised me, was a World War II veteran, a double purple heart, Angio Dupichets (sp?) and all through the liberation of Rome, where he met my grandmother and got married over the telephone. And basically they lived together for 60 years until he ended up passing away in 2010. He said something very prophetic to me as he watched the current wars.
DWIGHTHe passed away in 2010, so he was watching the current wars. And he told me -- he says, you know, you guys can really fight a war, but you can't win a war. And it's not your fault, you know? And so I really thought about that. And I want to say that, at least with my experience, you know, I went through basic and AIT. I didn't see any civilians or even a female until after about a year into my service, OK, 'cause I was in a combat MOS or a combat job description.
DWIGHTSo -- but when it came time to get out, it was like they couldn't get rid of me fast enough. And if anyone -- I'm sure any vet will tell you, when you're doing your out-processing, you basically just have a big packet of paper that people have to sign off on that you don't owe us money over here, that, you know, you sign this document over there.
DWIGHTAnd that was nothing. You were basically just dropped off. I can almost equate it to an inmate just getting released from prison. Hey, your time's up. There's the door. So with all the money -- and, believe me, we got plenty of it. We can't even print fast enough. With all the money that we have and that's being thrown around in this industrial complex, I would imagine that they could have at least a voluntarily joinable, you know, vocational training and say, hey, look, you're in a combat MOS. Not many rockets out here in the civilian world. But do you like trucks? Do you like computers?
DWIGHTYou know, maybe we could teach you how to do a computer. You know what, we're sending all these jobs overseas, but, you know, nothing's over here. So anyway...
REHMAll right. All right. Dwight, I want to thank you so much for your service. Chris?
DEUTSCHYeah, you know, the world I live in is the Veterans Treatment Court world. It's really a back-end solution. We get veterans after all the other systems in place have failed. And while we need these programs expanded dramatically throughout the country, our focus also must be on the front end. Before these men and women even leave the Department of Defense and become veterans, we have got to make sure that they are equipped with the skills to go find jobs.
DEUTSCHWe've got to make sure that it's a smooth transition from Department of Defense into Veterans Affairs where their medical records are being transferred. And it's seamless, and there's no long waits. I think the caller underscored a really dark spot in our -- in the way we handle veterans.
REHMNicholas, do you want to comment?
NICHOLAS STEFANOVICSure. Like Chris had just said, it's one of the travesties about the court process now is we can't help these guys until they've already destroyed their lives. And, you know, there's been a few different ideas about how we can get to them quicker. You know, one of the ideas is one of the new judges coming in wants to see everybody, even if they're charged with something, that wouldn't be worth putting them on a docket of Vet Court. Even if they're, you know, anything that can get them into our court, and maybe we won't take them into the program, but we can find services for them.
NICHOLAS STEFANOVICThe other huge part to it is the VA. The VA -- Gen. Shinseki at the VA has been making leaps and bounds as to what the VA can provide. And the VA should be the very first stop that a veteran goes to when they get out of the military. And I don't think that's emphasized enough in the military. There should be appointments that are set up at the VA for these veterans. And, you know, they're -- I agree that there is more that we can do as a preventative solution instead of trying to scramble to put back together the lives of veterans who have already experienced their downfall.
DAHLENWell, I just want to underscore what Nicholas is saying about the importance of the VA and the importance of our communities. That's where the Veterans Court lives, that we all need to take more personal responsibility where we can step up. Find out about the veteran in your neighborhood. Ask about, "Oh, I know you're back. How's the employment search going? I've heard that, you know, your kids are in my school with my kids."
DAHLENWe, as a society, we maintain what Mark Thompson from "Time Magazine," you know, referenced the civilian/military divide. And until we each start to look where we can step in, connect those dots, we won't have the system that we all would be proud of.
REHMSo, instead of simply saying, "Thank you for your service," inquire as to how your life is going.
DAHLENHow are you doing? Yes.
REHMHere's a really good email from Brandon, who is in Kanawha County, W.Va. He is the defense attorney member of his county's drug-court team. He says, "We are the largest county in the state that has the most veterans per capita, but we do not have a Veterans Court or a mental health court. Where should someone begin to help bring this much-needed specialty court to a community in need?" Christopher?
DEUTSCHWell, the good news is that there's a drug court there. And a lot of these programs are growing out of existing drug courts, where the concept of a treatment court, of community collaboration within criminal justice is already alive and well. And I've been to that program, and I know that it's an excellent one.
DEUTSCHThe next step is to really build that coalition of support -- to get prosecutors and defense attorneys, law-enforcement, probation, veterans service organizations, local VA medical center -- get everyone together to begin talking about the steps that are needed to implement one of these programs.
DEUTSCHA lot of times these programs are able to start up without additional funding. Because treatment is provided through the VA, there's not that community expense to be had. That's not necessarily sustainable, but it's a first step. And once the program is up and running and they can start having veterans come through the doors, that's when the county or the city or the state can step in to support them.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to...
MCCAFFREYDiane, may I offer from an...
MCCAFFREYI think the other thing to take into account, when you look at veterans as a group -- and again to just put it in context -- the unemployment rate on veterans as a group is lower than the national average. It runs 6.5 percent compared to the national average of 7.2 percent.
MCCAFFREYSo I think a good bit of the problem is the Gulf War, Iraq-Afghanistan veterans coming home, adjusting to civilian life, their unemployment rate is higher than the national average--around 10.1 percent. So the general situation is pretty good. Employers do want veterans for their discipline, their teamwork, the skills they've acquired. We've got to focus on the long term.
REHMBut then why should -- why should the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan vets be higher, Gen. McCaffrey? I don't quite get that.
MCCAFFREYWell, they're younger. I mean, they've -- they'd be an average age in their lower twenties. They wouldn't have a civilian career. When you take veterans as a group, the largest group of living veterans right now are the Vietnam generation. And most of them, indeed, a lot of them are now retiring. But, again, I think it's the front end -- when you get the kids out of uniform, and they're Iraq/Afghan veterans, we've got to focus in on. And the VA does -- has tremendous programs, as Nicholas points out.
REHMNow, Barbara, tell me what happens when the war winds down.
DAHLENThat's a critical point, Diane. You know, our nation believes the war is winding down. And most people, I think, assume that therefore the men and women who have been serving are going to be home, back with their families and everything will be fine. But, in fact, we know that these kinds of -- first of all, wars have a very long tail. The consequences, the long-term effects, the ripples for families can often last years.
DAHLENWe know that from all generations of war, tracking family members and service members, we know that sometimes those who come home go through several months or years of trying to find their way. They keep at it, and yet they're not able to fit in. They're not able to find the job. We know that there are struggles that can take months, years: the mental health issues, the substance-abuse issues. This is not a short-term fix. We need to have a long-range perspective. This is a marathon if we truly want to welcome these men and women home.
REHMNow, we have a number of callers and emailers wanting to know how they can be of service if they are, too, mental professionals, mental healthcare professionals. What do you suggest, Christopher?
DEUTSCHWell, one thing that veterans can do is volunteer as mentors in their local Veterans Treatment Court. And if there isn't a local Veterans Treatment Court, they can start that conversation to create one.
DEUTSCHOne of the unique aspects of these programs is putting veterans in the community back into service of their fellow veterans, where they're there to provide peer support for veterans going through the program. And, often, Veterans Treatment Courts are looking to their community for those veteran volunteers. And I'm sure Barbara can talk about mental health professionals getting involved to offer their time to support these veterans.
DAHLENMost organizations like ours and others, if you want to help, you reach out to us, and we will plug you in in our community and the community where you live, doing what makes sense for you to step up to serve.
REHMBarbara Van Dahlen, she's founder and president of "Give an Hour." And you can, I'm sure you've got a website with exactly that, "Give an Hour."
REHMChristopher Deutsch is with Justice for Vets. Nicholas Stefanovic is a judicial assessment specialist in Rochester. And, of course, finally, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Retired U.S. Army four-star general. To all of you who have served this country, we all send our thanks, our appreciation. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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