The psychological toll of two lengthy wars has begun to show its wounded face in Washington County as more veterans appear in court on criminal charges.
In the past year, 26 referrals have been made to the county's new Veterans Court, with 13 of those applicants accepted and two successful completions, Steve Despiegelaere of the county attorney's office said during a recent seminar in Stillwater.
"These people didn't go into the services as a criminal," County Attorney Pete Orput told about 50 attorneys, judges, peace officers, social workers and community corrections officials. "What we're seeing now is significant numbers of them, and there's no secret why."
The Veterans Court doesn't relieve veterans of responsibility for their crimes, but it takes a collaborative approach to helping them adjust to a law-abiding civilian life rather than throwing them in jail.
For many veterans, crime is a natural sequel to repeated combat deployments where they witnessed unspeakable horrors on the battlefield. The Veterans Court brings understanding, counseling and mentoring to correct unlawful behavior.
"There's a gulf between our returning troops and our society that is dangerous if we don't bridge it," said Brock Hunter, once an Army sniper in the demilitarized zone in South Korea. Now an attorney who represents veterans, Hunter described the legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in stark terms of survivor guilt, shame over mistakenly killing civilians and often homefront violence:
• Of American troops in World War II who participated in D-Day and fought for 60 days afterward, 98 percent were considered psychiatric casualties because of their relentless exposure to fighting and killing.
• More than a third of the 3 million Vietnam War veterans suffer from long-term psychological injuries. Hundreds of thousands struggle with chemical addiction, homelessness and jail. Suicide has killed at least 58,000 Vietnam veterans — the same number killed in combat in the war.
• Half a million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury, a phenomenon caused by homemade bombs. Meanwhile, suicides of veterans from those wars soon will exceed combat deaths. More and more of these veterans find themselves in trouble with the law, often for reasons traceable to their military service.
Hunter said the psychological wreckage of war is nothing new — in the Civil War it was known as "soldiers' heart" — but recent wars are noteworthy because a relatively small fighting force was recycled on combat deployments many times. The result for many men and women was intensified exposure to conflict, killing and destruction.
One soldier who knows how war haunts veterans is George Kuprian, who heads the civil division in Orput's office. Kuprian's combat tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969 left horrifying mental images, and he knows instinctively why many veterans act out their anger and bewilderment by breaking laws.
He spoke last week of the importance of troubled veterans having "military buddies," mentors who help them through Veterans Court. "It's somebody to talk to, somebody to share experiences with," he said.
One day a month
Veterans Court is held in Washington County, at the courthouse in Stillwater, the first Friday of each month. District Judges Richard Ilkka and Greg Galler volunteered to preside.
Not every veteran accused of committing a crime will be eligible for Veterans Court. Murder, gang crimes and other violence against other people will lead to prosecution in regular court. Veterans Court will see crimes such as terroristic threats, criminal damage to property and domestic abuse, but a screening panel first must approve a veteran's participation.
"We do take chances and some risks with this program," said Brent Wartner, Orput's deputy county attorney.
Orput said that post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD and sometimes "moral injuries," has left untold numbers of Americans in psychological distress, and sending them to jail without intervention to help return them to normal lives isn't the answer.
"Let's start by doing the right thing to the right person," he said.