Forty years after Vietnam, George Kuprian still fights the demons.

Those combat memories of frantic exchanges of gunfire in a faraway country haunt him to this day. They were renewed again last week as he listened to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields describe their difficulty readjusting to civilian life.

The occasion was an announcement by Washington County Attorney Pete Orput about a new program to find help for troubled military veterans in the county.

The initiative will involve attorneys, judges, law enforcement, counselors and volunteers to help divert veterans from smaller offenses before violence escalates.

"Without citizen involvement, like anything else, it doesn't happen," said Orput, a Marine Corps veteran, who spoke to dozens of volunteers last week in the Washington County Government Center. Behind him stood police chiefs, top attorneys from other metro counties and Sheriff Bill Hutton.

Veterans, Orput said, are "unusual people" who bring special challenges to criminal justice because of their military training and combat experiences.

"They just kind of suffer silently," said District Judge Gregory Galler, who has volunteered with fellow judge Richard Ilkka to hear cases involving veterans the first Friday of each month.

The veterans program won't cost taxpayers anything extra, nor will it admit veterans who commit serious crimes. It's aimed at the larger number of returning veterans -- as much as 30 percent, Orput said -- who suffer from combat stress and take out their frustrations with drugs, alcohol and their fists. The intent of the program is to reduce recurring crime, decrease homelessness, improve family relations and put veterans in touch with mental health services and other pathways to better lives.

Kuprian, chief attorney of the county's civil division, will lead the program. And what will veterans gain from it?

"Hopefully, a little peace inside," said Kuprian, an Army veteran. "Otherwise, you kind of live your life alone with your demons."

'Still in the fight'

One of those struggling veterans was Hector Matascastillo, a longtime Army Ranger, who teetered between the combat and civilian worlds until police forced him to the ground one day.

"I wasn't living on my feet, I was living on my belly," said Matascastillo, now a suit-wearing veterans advocate who reversed his bad behavior because people cared. "I was still in the fight. It was the court system that became my hero."

Minnesota law doesn't afford veterans any special privileges. Many veterans accused of crimes come to court without anyone knowing they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions related to disabling military experiences, Galler said.

John Baker of Forest Lake, who left the Marine Corps as a gunnery sergeant after 22 years, said problems with returning veterans start with bar fights, domestic abuse, drunken driving and other misdemeanor crimes.

"It's mostly men who are just having trouble coming back," said Baker, now a Maplewood attorney who represents veterans in court. Problems start with high joblessness among veterans who recently left military service, he said.

Another veteran and criminal defense attorney, Brock Hunter, said it's time to learn from the mistakes of Vietnam, where more than 60,000 Americans died but another 100,000, he said, later committed suicide.

"We know more about combat trauma these days and how to treat it," said Hunter, who blamed repeated deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan for putting many soldiers and Marines in mental peril. "When they start coming home in large numbers, we need to be prepared."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles