Supporting troubled vets

Feb. 02, 2014 @ 08:22 PM

Americans love to emphasize our gratitude to those who have served us in the military, in peace and especially in war.

Parades, free meals on Veteran’s Day, politicians waxing patriotic on the stump, civic leaders saluting on Memorial Day – in word and pageantry, we’re quick to thank our veterans for their sacrifices.

Sadly, when it comes to truly meeting their needs with public programs and budget commitments, we do less well. An overloaded Veterans Administration struggles to cope with the aftereffects of wars in Iran and Afghanistan – just as it did a generation ago with the returning vets from Vietnam.  And in North Carolina, a mental health system that has been in flux for years can barely help handle the load.

Couple that with the difficult employment picture many veterans face, difficulties exacerbated by the recession into which many have been discharged. "Even if they can find a job, the kinds of employment available now don't capture the skills our soldiers have developed," Dr. Judith Broder, the founder and director of the Soldiers Project, told The Daily Beast’s Matthew Wolfe last July. The nonprofit Soldiers Project based in North Hollywood, Calif., provides free psychological services to returning veterans and their families.

 Widespread unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues and too few counseling resources create, Broder told Wolfe, a “perfect storm” for sending vets into the criminal-justice system.

The problem is nationwide. On a local level, Durham County District Court Judge Nancy Gordon is launching a novel way of ensuring that veterans who end up in the courts get the help they desperately need.

Since July, Gordon has been with working with a committee of veterans to devise a court that will focus just on veterans.  The separate docket would hold defendants accountable for their crimes, but it would also connect them with a mentor and with services to address the mental health or substance abuse issues they face.

While we think the humanitarian reasons for such an approach are in themselves compelling, Gordon points out another important result in lean budgetary times.

“We pay an enormous amount to jail people,” she told The Herald-Sun’s Keith Upchurch. “It makes more sense to help them lead productive lives, so they’re not committing crimes and our taxes will be better used.”

The special veterans’ court would follow procedures designed to make the defendants more comfortable. “There are judges who will call them to attention, and they stand at parade rest in court,” Gordon said. “So you’re tapping into part of what brings them there, and part of what can be used to help them.”

Gordon also casts the program as one of fairness – as part of what so many say we owe our veterans but that too often is empty rhetoric.

“We have a lot of untethered veterans in Durham,” she said. “They’ve done for us, and we need to do for them.”

Her veterans’ court will truly show our gratitude for their sacrifices.