Texas treatment court could ID criminal cases where PTSD is a factor

A veteran could be eligible for a diversion program from the criminal justice system if they are first-time offenders in non-violent cases

By Dan Wallach
The Beaumont Enterprise

BEAUMONT, Texas — An airman at a U.S. base safely inside Germany loaded bombs onto warplanes heading for Vietnam and began to obsess about where those bombs would fall, how many people would be killed.

The consequences of his actions gnawed away at him -- so much so, he began to show signs of what would later be called post-traumatic stress disorder.

"All he thought about was death and destruction," said Tom Hall, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter No. 292, in Beaumont.

Hall and U.S. Army veteran Ray Hardy, who served in the infantry in Vietnam, both volunteer in the Veterans Incarcerated Group, working with veterans who are imprisoned in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Mark W. Stiles Unit in Jefferson County.

Each month, Hardy, Hall and others meet with perhaps 100 or more imprisoned veterans who have honorable or general discharges to help them deal with the consequences of their behavior, which might have roots in service-related PTSD.

"It's definitely real," Hardy said. "Veterans still find it difficult to ask for help."

In their service era, Hardy said he was told, "You're fine. Get over it." Hall said the attitude toward PTSD was "you're just a bunch of whiny babies."

A common thread links a combat veteran's extraordinary experiences in a war zone to later behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse or domestic violence, Hardy and Hall said.

It's because of that exposure that Jefferson County Commissioners Court agreed to create a Veterans Treatment Court to help identify a veteran with the kind of psychological profile that might have contributed to his or her legal difficulties as a civilian.

Fifty-eighth District Court Judge Kent Walston will run the court and county Court at-Law No. 3 Judge Clint Woods will back him up. Walston said the court confers no special treatment for veterans who stand accused of a crime, but noted that a veteran would be made aware of treatment programs that are available for them.

"There are just more treatment options specifically tailored to a veteran," Walston said.

A veteran, like a non-veteran, could be eligible for a diversion program from the criminal justice system if they are first-time offenders in non-violent cases.

The Veterans Treatment Court would not cost taxpayers extra money because all of the resources already are in place.

Walston, a U.S. Navy veteran, former Port Arthur police officer, prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, said he is proud to be associated with the program and that effects of PTSD should be taken very seriously.

Mark Norris, a veterans outreach coordinator at the Dr. Michael DeBakey Medical Center in Houston, told Jefferson County commissioners last week that such a court has succeeded in cities around Harris County in helping divert eligible veterans from the criminal justice system. County records show that between January and June, the Jefferson County Jail processed 159 people who are veterans.

The inmates with whom Hall and Hardy work are already serving sentences for crimes, but organizing them into a veterans unit instills pride in them, they said.

"There is more recognition of PTSD in veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan," Hardy said. "I'm not surprised that the jail had 159 veterans."

He said the volunteers with the Veterans Incarcerated Group are not supposed to ask about the inmate-veteran's offense, but some freely share it with them. Hall said one told him that he wanted drugs, knew where to get the drugs he wanted and was determined to do anything to get them.

He shot and killed two people, Hall said.

The inmates are in prison for excellent reasons; they're guilty of crimes, Hall and Hardy said. But the stress of combat might have sent them into a downward spiral, resulting in criminal behavior and an early intervention could have diverted them from committing a terrible crime.

Hall, who is retired from the U.S. Postal Service, said he worked with a Vietnam veteran who, like others who shared his war background, offered up a heart-breaking account of his time overseas.

"He was in the Army. He drank a lot. Then, he'd weep," said Hall. "He'd say, 'When we'd go out on patrol, we'd almost always bring back a body bag. We thought we'd be next.'"

Hardy said that's something the general public will not ever understand.

"That never goes away. Ever," he said. "I wasn't the same person when I came back,"Hardy said, whose worst night on patrol included a mortar attack with the man next to him withdrawn because of wounds. He crouched in a hole, hoping his M-16 rifle was loaded and that his Claymore mine was facing the right way.

The veterans group at the Stiles unit has a Korean conflict veteran and several Vietnam veterans.

Membership in the Veterans Incarcerated Group is a privilege the inmate must earn. If a corrections officer has to write up an inmate for an infraction, the veteran loses his position in the group and must wait at least six months to reapply for it. The most prestigious position is the color guard. Members are voted in by their peers.

The Vietnam Veterans of America is taking the lead on inmate outreach and said a newer group is beginning to form called Veterans of Modern Warfare, though there is not a Southeast Texas group as of yet.

Those veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are similar to where Vietnam veterans were 30 years ago, Hardy and Hall said.

They have to make a living and don't have time to devote to healing emotional scars.

A Veterans Treatment Court could make a lot of difference, Hall and Hardy said.

"If it keeps one out of the Stiles unit, it's worth it," Hardy said.

Judge Larry Gist, who heads the county's Drug Impact Court, said he thinks specialty courts are necessary because of underlying behavior problems associated with criminal activity, like mental illness.

"It's designed to address a limited group of offenders," Gist said, referring to the drug court.

The same concept likely would translate well to a veterans treatment court, he said.

"It's a bad experience that drives criminal behavior," he said. "It works. Our drug counselors are ex-dopeheads. They know what's driving the (drug users). The purpose of the criminal justice system is to try to stop people from breaking the law. Nobody was stopping the behavior."

Gist said probation revocations in drug court cases are lower than the state average with about 10 percent suffering relapses. That means 90 percent aren't coming back to court for at least three years.

"I suspect you'd see the same ratio in veterans' cases," he said. "I am absolutely in favor of specialty courts. All the laws of criminal procedure apply. In drug court, we can concentrate on the offender instead of over there (traditional criminal courts) where the focus is on the terrible crimes."

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