When the war comes back home

When veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring their troubles home, police and judges often are the first to deal with them.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Legal aid: William Keating, Norfolk County district attorney in Massachusetts, works with police departments, veterans groups, and clergy finding ways to help war vets experiencing traumatic stress.
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During 21 years in the Marine Corps, Jeff Johnson saw young adults walk into his recruiting office and newly minted marines walk out of boot camp just a few months later. Now working at the other end of that pipeline at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, he sees far different, troubling changes in those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The changes were dramatic. I'd never seen these kinds of changes in people," says Mr. Johnson of those wrestling with the mental and physical trauma of war.

The once upstanding service members were getting arrested for domestic violence and bar fights, and being pursued by police as they raced along streets at 100 miles per hour – often with drugs or alcohol involved – seeking to replicate the adrenaline rush of combat or to commit suicide by motorcycle or police bullets.

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He was moved to action, creating a presentation about the mental injuries of war for police and other first responders, usually the ones called when a veteran hits bottom.

A year later, he's delivered his message more times than he can count and he's been in demand from police departments across the country, hungry to prepare for what they worry is a coming surge of mentally injured veterans.

"A lot of them were getting in trouble with police. If [the police] know what resources are out there then they can funnel them into that," says Johnson, who has one son who is an Iraq veteran and another entering the service.

Police departments, veterans groups, and individuals from California to Colorado to Massachusetts are taking similar steps. At the other end of the criminal justice system, a "treatment court" in Buffalo, N.Y., dedicated to veterans opened this year.

The flurry of action is spurred by numbers like these: Some 40,000 cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were diagnosed by the military among troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2007. The Rand Corp. estimates 300,000 troops are suffering from PTSD from those wars. Many mental-health experts expect those trends to continue, or even worsen, as the wars go on.

Police Sgt. George Masson in Riverside, Calif. – home to many military families and near several bases – shares those concerns. When he began his career in 1980, he encountered many troubled Vietnam War veterans. Almost 30 years later, those early experiences weigh on him.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Sergeant Masson. "We're going to be paying for this for a while."

He helped organize a large, multi-agency training session this year focused on handling troubled veterans. Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton role-played such scenarios as hostage taking and suicide attempts. They invited mental health experts and combat veterans who suffered from traumatic stress to lecture.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department's crisis intervention team has added a segment on veterans to its training, says public information officer Sgt. Wilfred Williams.

Updated statistics are few, but a 2004 US Department of Justice report found 10 percent of all state and federal prisoners had served in the military, mainly during the Vietnam era. But about 4 percent were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

In Colorado Springs, which neighbors the Army's Fort Carson, police have attended town hall meetings with military and community members to discuss how to help returning soldiers. The urgency was underscored last year when a suicidal soldier led police on a manhunt.

Police pursued the man in a long car chase after he violated a restraining order, tracking him by his cellphone as he fled, says community relations officer Sgt. Creighton Brandt. Finally, a police detective called the man's cellphone and convinced him to pull over and surrender.

"The suspect admitted he was suicidal and had contemplated suicide by cop several times that day and suffered from PTSD from serving in Iraq," said Sergeant Brandt reading from an incident report.

Across the country, Norfolk County Massachusetts District Attorney William Keating held a 2005 summit with police departments, veterans groups, and clergy to discuss support for returning veterans. The result was a video for first responders, describing traumatic stress and how it might affect veterans in their communities. In the three years since, it has racked up some 8,500 hits on YouTube, and Mr. Keating's office has had requests for copies from across the country.

Presiding over "treatment courts" in Buffalo for mental illness and drug addiction, Judge Robert Russell began seeing lots of veterans recently – some 300 last year. So he created a treatment court just for them that opened this year, the first of its kind.

Treatment courts first appeared in 1989 to address causes of crime rather than just punishing a particular incident. The courts have a therapeutic feel and the focus is on keeping defendants on track with treatments and medication.

Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of prisoners will end up back in jail, according to Judge Russell. But defendants in drug abuse treatment courts have a recidivism rate ranging from 13 to 25 percent nationally, says Russell. Of the over 40 cases he has seen since the veterans court began in January, he struggled to think of one that has returned to crime.

Most of the veterans that come before him are charged with nonviolent offenses or, occasionally, domestic violence or a bar fight. As his court gains more attention, Russell says he's gotten calls from judges across the country.

The goal is to avoid cases like Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Travis Twiggs, deployed to Iraq four times. He was already unusually irritable and unable to sleep after his second deployment, according to an article he wrote of his struggles with PTSD in a January issue of the Marine Corps Gazette.

After losing two marines from his platoon during his third deployment, his symptoms worsened and he began a long battle to get better. The article detailed his struggle to heal, overcoming fears he was a "weak Marine," imploring others to seek help as he had. But just five months later, police were chasing him and his brother as they sped through the Arizona desert in a stolen car. He finally halted the car then killed his brother and himself.

In his article he had written: "We have got to make our Marines and sailors more aware of PTSD before they end up like me and others."

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