COURTROOM COMPASSION: Mentors Are Key to Healing Troubled Vets

COURTROOM COMPASSION: Mentors Are Key to Healing Troubled Vets

COURTROOM COMPASSION: Mentors Are Key to Healing Troubled Vets
July 24, 2015

Aaron Cox is always in battle mode.

The 28-year-old Army veteran returned in 2010 after combat posts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Now, it’s five years later,” he said. “It’s a bit easier to mimic what’s going on around you. But I know that’s not really me.”

He pauses for several seconds, thinking back on his time at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. He guarded the gate there, always wondering if the next approaching truck would be carrying a bomb.

“You never know if today is your last day,” he said.

Like so many others, the wars still haunt him at home.

Thousands of troops are returning from their posts in combat zones this year, with five battalions returning to the New York City area alone. Many will bring back mental scars that can lead some into conflict with the criminal justice system.

The best-known of these is post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition afflicts one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—or nearly 300,000.

Cox is one of them. Five years after he returned from a war zone, the untreated psychological wounds of his service were catching up with him.

Shortly after New Year’s, Cox was having a drink with some old high school friends at a Brooklyn bar. When his friends started criticizing him, he suddenly attacked.

“I fought everybody,” Cox said, remembering the fistfight he started in the bar. “No one could control me.”

He said if the men he assaulted weren’t his childhood friends, “I would’ve been in jail by now.”

Many veterans are.

One in 10 prison inmates once served their country in uniform. They are three times more likely to have PTSD if they served in Iraq. Experts say that isn’t a coincidence. While those with PTSD are not necessarily dangerous, the diagnosis has been linked with violent and self-destructive behavior, including suicide, in post-9/11 veterans.

“The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen,” Dr. Jonathan Shay writes in “The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court.” “War itself smoothes the way into criminal careers after return to civilian life.”

Shay is a pre-eminent psychiatrist in the field of combat stress injuries. He treated soldiers for over two decades in a VA hospital, specializing in PTSD and a broader swath of psychological wounds of war that he calls “moral injury.”

“War is bad for people, in every way you can think of,” Shay said. Classic PTSD can lead to chronic sleep loss, which can lead to the deterioration of good character. “When you’re out of gas in your frontal lobes you become a moral moron,” Shay said. “And that’s physiology.”

This is “a prolific source of bad behavior that leads to the involvement of the police,” Shay said, whether it’s a car wreck, domestic violence, or even armed robbery.

Moreover, PTSD sufferers who are desperate for sleep may turn to any readily available sedative—most commonly alcohol—to knock themselves out, Shay explains. And this can lead to addiction or other behavioral problems.

New York state has had drug treatment courts for more than two decades designed to rehabilitate instead of incarcerate drug users. But it wasn’t until 2008 that a veterans treatment court was established to cater to the unique needs of New York’s traumatized veterans. 

Judge Robert Russell created the country’s first veterans treatment court in Buffalo when he saw the impact that camaraderie between veterans could have in reversing damaging behavior. Other courts that have sprung up around the country have emulated the structure he developed.

There are now 220 veterans treatment courts nationwide, and hundreds more being planned, according to Justice for Vets, a nonprofit group that promotes the courts. In New York state, there are more than two dozen veterans courts, with more in the planning stages. New York City has three—in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, with one on the way in Staten Island. If a veteran is arrested and convicted in any jurisdiction without a treatment court, he or she is far more likely to go to jail.

“We modeled our court after Judge Russell’s court,” said Joseph Madonia, director of the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court. “When we had the veterans in the regular drug court, there was no mentorship component. That is really the key to the success of a vets court.”

Judge Jo Ann Ferdinand, who presides over the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court, explains that “veterans have a tendency to look at the rest of us and say, ‘You don’t understand what I’ve been through. 

“So if you have all the veterans together in court, they can’t say nobody understands, because everybody in the audience understands and has had their own trauma or combat experience,” she said.

But more important than the veterans that show up for court proceedings are those who stick around afterward.

Veterans Rebuilding Life, a nonprofit run by volunteer veterans, supplies the Queens and Brooklyn veterans courts with former service members who personally assist the veterans undergoing the court-mandated treatment over a six-month period. The group pairs volunteers with veterans facing jail time for crimes that may have been committed as a result of their mental battle wounds. The recovery program includes counseling, drug testing, skills training, job placement and humanitarian and community service.

The nonprofit tackles the persistent paperwork and maddening bureaucracy endemic to the Department of Veterans Affairs, assisting veterans in those unglamorous and tedious procedures that form the cracks many trauma-burdened troops slip through.

“We would say, let’s fill those basic needs,” said Dre Popow, executive director of Veterans Rebuilding Life and a Marine Corps veteran. “Let’s assist them in getting back on their feet. But let’s do it thoroughly, like a full-scope strategy.” If a veteran wants to go back to school, a mentor would help them find the right one, help them apply, get them registered, follow them through graduation and help them find a job. “So, you walk with them every step of the way,” Popow said.

The approach is working.

Veterans Rebuilding Life has only been working with the courts since April 2014, but 212 veterans have graduated the organization’s recovery program with a “100 percent success rate.”

“But the issue that we’re having—and it’s slowing us down now—it’s the support,” Popow said.

No one at Popow’s organization receives a salary. It’s a completely volunteer team, and the volunteers pay out of pocket for expenses like office supplies. Any donations they receive go directly toward their services.

But the work is worth it, Popow says, to give their fellow veterans a second chance.

“It’s a clean slate,” Popow said of the veterans who go through his program. “If, however, you don’t want to go through the treatment program, you’re going to jail.”

And so are the veterans who fail out of the treatment court program. But those who successfully complete the program will have their record sealed and destroyed.

“This is not, veterans get away with crimes that other people don’t,” Judge Ferdinand explained. “Veterans court is about veterans who wind up in the criminal justice system as the result of an underlying behavioral problem” that is most likely linked to their military service.

And the early statistics appear to show that the approach is making everyone safer. According to the most recent statistics, only 10 percent of the veterans who graduated from the Brooklyn Veterans Treatment Court programs reoffend.

While the research shows that that the lynchpin to these courts is veteran mentoring, that’s not where funding is going.

In his experience, Shay says that government authorities, like the VA, tend to overpay doctors with impressive credentials—like himself—while the real work of recovery is done veteran-to-veteran. “I cannot even remotely do for a veteran what someone who’s been there and done that can do,” Shay said. “It’s just not possible.”

While medical experts and nonprofits remain unsure whether traumatized soldiers will require these veteran-to-veteran recovery groups for the rest of their lives, Cox says he knows he will.

“Without a shadow of doubt,” he said. “Regardless if it’s today, tomorrow, a year from now, 50 years from now, I will always be dealing with this,” Cox said.

He’s less certain about where he would be if the veterans group hadn’t helped him.

“Down the line, I don’t know,” he said. “I’d probably be in jail or dead.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the Bronx also has a veterans court that has been in operation since 2013. 

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.