Veterans Day will be celebrated throughout the country on Nov. 11. For some, it will just be another day at the end of the workweek. For others, it will be a paid holiday. But we hope for many that it will provide an opportunity to, in some way, honor all American veterans, living or dead, in gratitude for their service and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.
There is one group of veterans particularly deserving of our collective attention and action. For as long as veterans have returned from war, some have brought war home with them, bearing invisible wounds in the form of post-traumatic stress and other traumas. Untreated, these scars of war — manifesting in substance and alcohol abuse and addiction, often leading to harmful and self-destructive behavior — inflict pain throughout society, destroying not only the lives of these heroes, but victimizing their families and the communities they fought to protect.
Large numbers of veterans in past generations have fallen into and been left behind in the criminal justice system upon their return home.
Did you know that roughly one-third of U.S. military veterans report that they have been arrested and jailed at least once in their lives?
For far too long our nation failed to honor our millions of veterans who served in Vietnam. We must not allow that grave error to occur again. For the last 18 years, a new generation of veterans has been returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing their wars home with them, creating the risk of an unprecedented public health and safety crisis if left unaddressed.
Unlike prior generations, this group of 3 million veterans, which includes 300,000 women, has fought the two longest wars in our nation's history — mostly simultaneously. Without the draft that we relied on in past wars, the burden of serving and fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders of an all-volunteer force, with many vets of the current generation serving multiple combat tours — translating into much higher rates of mental and psychological injuries than prior generations.
Our nation trained these ordinary citizens to serve our country by fighting and even killing others in distant lands. They bear deep visible and invisible wounds as a result. The suicide rate among veterans remains a national calamity. Every hurting veteran needs and deserves our collective help in the form of therapeutic treatment of their ills. Veterans Day gives us the chance to recognize their needs and our obligation to act on their behalf.
Minnesota already is leading the way. On June 30, 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA). It represents landmark legislation for healing and restoring veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system. It substitutes court-supervised treatment and rehabilitation for purely punitive measures to offer the veteran a path to redemption and restoration.
The Veterans Defense Project (VDP), a Minnesota-based nonprofit veterans advocacy group, was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the VRJA. The VDP now is helping fully implement the VRJA throughout Minnesota and expand all or part of its groundbreaking provisions to other states.
On Veterans Day, the University of St. Thomas School of Law's Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing and the VDP will cosponsor a special event "Honoring Veterans with Restorative Justice" at the school's downtown Minneapolis location from 4 to 6 p.m. The event will be livestreamed throughout the country. The program's purpose is to highlight why so many veterans need restoration and healing from their service-related traumas.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and VDP President Brock Hunter, who both helped draft the VRJA, will describe the role that veterans' treatment courts and Minnesota's new law can play in meeting that need. The audience will hear from legislators of both major parties — Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, and Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville — about how the VRJA became law through dedicated bipartisan efforts, something our country clearly needs more of right now.
Finally, Berlynn Fleury and Tony Miller, two Marine and Army veterans who have graduated from local veterans' treatment courts, will tell their inspiring stories of overcoming substantial challenges to lead meaningful, productive lives. The event is free but registration is necessary.
Our nation will never be able to fully repay the debt that we owe our veterans, but as you contemplate how to spend your time on Veterans Day, we leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, adopted in part as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs motto:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle … ."
Hank Shea is an army veteran, a fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law's Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing, and vice chair of the Veterans Defense Project board of directors. This commentary is also submitted on behalf of VDP co-founders Brock Hunter and Ryan Else, and VDP board members Lindsey Erdmann, David Holewinski, John Kingrey, Keith LeBlanc, Lawton Nuss, Lyndsey Olson, Tom Plunkett, Bruce Richardson, Sara Sommarstrom, Senior Judge Judith Tilsen, Evan Tsai, Sam Verdeja and Ray Wilson.