After the Parade: Courts Ease Homecoming for Troubled Vets

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Photos by Jen Reel
Arthur Davis said the Harris County Veterans Court gave him "the chance to live again."

By the time he was deployed to Iraq, Arthur Davis had been a Marine for 20 years.He thought nothing could faze him. In 1990 he fought in Operation Desert Shield. In 1996 he helped evacuate the American embassy in Liberia when it became the target of warring factions. After 9/11 he spent 14 months in Afghanistan.

Then, in 2007, he led 600 Marines against insurgents in Iraq. After months of dealing with the aftermath of suicide bombings, his nightmare occurred: a roadside bomb hit his unit, killing two men. “I had had enough,” Davis said.

When he was discharged, a screening revealed that Davis, whose wife had divorced him in 1992, had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And, somewhere along the way, he had become an alcoholic.

Retirement did not bring peace. The Veterans Administration gave him a cocktail of medications for his PTSD. He began to use cocaine and continued to drink. “Anything I could put in my mouth, I did,” he said. “I didn’t care.”

In early 2010, simmering hostility with a neighbor at Davis’ home in Houston exploded into a fight. Ten police cars pulled into his front yard; officers pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him. “I wouldn’t have cared if they had shot me,” he recently said. “There was nothing left for me.”

He spent a week in the Harris County jail with no meds or alcohol. He was charged with assault and placed on probation. He hated his probation officer. “But you know, that man saved my life,” Davis said.

The officer told Davis about the Harris County Veterans Court, the first specialty court of its kind in Texas, which opened on Veterans Day 2009. Veterans convicted of felonies cannot receive benefits, not even health care from the VA. The veterans court helped Davis avoid a loss of benefits, while also connecting him to therapeutic treatment for his PTSD and alcoholism.

In May 2009 the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 1940, which permits counties to create veterans courts. If defendants successfully complete a court-mandated treatment and rehabilitation program—it typically takes a year—the case is expunged from his or her record.

“We spend more taxpayer dollars than any other state on prisons, when we know that alternatives, like veterans courts, are more effective at reducing crime, increasing public safety, and saving taxpayer dollars,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the bill’s author.

The co-sponsors were then-state Rep. Allen Vaught, D-Dallas, a Purple Heart veteran of Iraq, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

Today, the state has veterans courts in eight counties—Harris, Tarrant, Travis, El Paso, Dallas, Denton, Guadalupe and Bexar—connecting veterans like Davis to the help they need. The number of participants in each court varies based on staff capacity, how long the court has existed, and other factors. In Harris, the oldest court, there are 43 active cases; in Bexar, the newest court and home to several military bases, there are 48, with another 45 pending acceptance. So far, the statewide recidivism rate for the three dozen veterans who have completed court programs is zero.

The soldiers who returned home from Iraq at the end of 2011 will join the ranks of the state’s veterans, putting more pressure on services for vets. The veterans courts help people who have served in the nation’s wars and make an argument for more funding for effective diversion programs in Texas’ bloated criminal justice system.

Texas’ veterans courts are modeled after the Veterans Treatment Court in Buffalo, N.Y., which was established in January 2008 by judge and veteran Robert Russell. The courts are pre-trial diversion programs. Veterans who take their case to these specialty courts are assessed for PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and mental illness. Most courts rely on the VA to do the assessment. If trauma exists as a result of the defendant’s military service and was a contributing factor in the crime, the prosecutor decides whether to allow the veteran into the program. If accepted, the veteran pleads guilty to the charge, reports to the court every other week, and completes a program that includes substance abuse and PTSD counseling and treatment, anger management, and regular support group meetings. Upon graduation from the program, the charges are dismissed.

The veterans courts were inspired by the drug and mental health specialty courts that sprang up in the late 1980s when many prosecutors decided that incarcerating people whose offenses could be linked to mental illnesses didn’t address the underlying causes of their crimes, or necessarily make communities safer. These courts demonstrated that proper assessment and treatment, in conjunction with frequent interaction with a judge, work. A study published in the February 2003 American Bar Association Journal found that such courts result in reduced incarceration rates and more productive and independent members of society.

The veterans courts build on this approach. There’s a strong correlation between combat-related trauma and criminal behavior, according to research. A 2008 study by the School of Advanced Military Studies found that 40 percent of veterans with PTSD commit violent crimes after their service. In Harris County, 350 to 400 veterans are booked into the jail every month, and 25 percent of the veterans in the jail have mental illnesses, compared to 15 percent of the general inmate population.

When Ellis approached Pat McCann, defense attorney and then-president of the Harris County Bar, and Judge Marc Carter of the 228th Harris County Criminal District Court, himself a veteran, about creating a veterans court, they quickly embraced the idea. The law requires counties to choose whether the veterans court will be within the district court, which hears felonies, or the county court, which hears misdemeanors. Dallas and Harris counties placed their veterans courts in district courts, but also accept misdemeanors, though Dallas does not accept DWIs. Only Harris County accepts violent felony cases, such as Davis’. McCann said Harris County made the risky decision to focus on felonies because court officials recognized that “the skills that kept [veterans] alive in combat got them in trouble back home.”

At meetings, court staffers sound more like teachers than lawyers as they review cases and discuss how to respond in the courtroom. Each court consists of a team including a judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, court manager, sometimes an assistant, and a Veteran’s Justice Outreach specialist from the VA. (In 2009, the VA created the Veterans Justice Outreach program to help veterans, particularly those with mental illness, avoid unnecessary criminalization and incarceration.)

A session of veterans court isn’t like the adversarial courtroom on television programs like “Law and Order” or “The Good Wife.” It’s not like the judicial system taught at law schools, either. In veterans courts, the defense attorney and the prosecutor co-operate. The courts exist to rehabilitate and heal defendants so they can create new, productive lives as civilians.

Judge Mike Denton of the Travis County Veterans Court encouraged veterans at a court session in November. A newcomer to the program introduced himself to the roomful of defendants. He was applauded as he approached the judge.

“You’re going to do great. You just stay connected to the team, go to your appointments and meetings, and you will do fine,” Denton told him.

In an interview, Denton said, “What I see as most important about this court isn’t the law. It’s hooking these vets up to the services they desperately need. Those services make all the difference in the world to a veteran getting his or her civilian life on track.”

Many of the court staffers are veterans themselves, like Judge Mike Snipes of Dallas County, a retired U.S. Army colonel and veteran of Iraq. When his court began last year, he said, “As a veteran, it means a lot to me to be judge of this court, because I’ve seen firsthand the terrible sacrifices these young men and women make.”

Judge Denton, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Gulf War, helped start the Travis County court. After noticing an increase in the number of veterans appearing before his criminal court, in September 2007 he initiated the Veteran Intervention Project (VIP) in Travis County and asked Precinct 4 Constable Maria Canchola and Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant to investigate the needs of veterans. They found that 150 veterans were being arrested in Travis County every month, about a third of them two or more times.

Canchola had her own connection to combat’s legacy. Her husband, a Vietnam veteran, never received care for his PTSD, she said. His self-medication with alcohol destroyed his first marriage. Marriage to Canchola gave him a second chance, as she helped him quit drinking and get mental health care. “We owe our veterans the opportunity to heal,” she said.

Jackson Glass, the program manager for the Travis County Veterans Court, believes the courts’ non-adversarial atmosphere makes them effective. “It is imperative that veterans feel respected for their service. They are embarrassed to be in the situation they are in,” he said. “Though it does put prosecutors in a difficult position. How do they hold the defendants accountable while also demonstrating compassion?

“The real test will be in a couple of years, once we have outcome studies.”

stacibiggarStaci Biggar, defense attorney for the Harris County Veterans Court, said veterans need to know their path through the court won’t be easy, but staff will be there to help them along.

“They need to know excuses are not possible, that one misstep can take them right back into the downward spiral, that their resistance only hurts them,” she said, adding that once veterans recognize that she cares, “they commit to the program.”

Biggar handled Arthur Davis’ case.

“She was tough on me,” Davis said. “I was angry. I had sacrificed for my country and was left with a disorder that no one can really solve. People only wanted to judge me, and I didn’t expect anything different from this court. But then I met Staci, and she said to me, ‘You’re not young anymore. Are you ready to do this program? Because if you’re not, I don’t want you taking someone else’s spot who is ready.’”

Biggar helped him move forward, Davis said, choking back emotion.

“The veterans have difficulty accepting that they’re no longer the person they were before the war,” Biggar said. “They want to go back to that 18-, 19-year-old innocent kid who went to parties and hung out. When they realize that’s not possible, they explode with rage. We help them accept who they are now, and how much they have to offer the rest of us.”

Many people associated with the state’s veterans courts say the military doesn’t offer enough support for returning troops. “One day you’re in Iraq, the next day you’re back in your home with your wife and kids or you’re finding an apartment and trying to find work or go back to school. There’s nothing to help you become a civilian again,” said Paul G., a participant in the Travis County Veterans Court who didn’t want his full name used for fear of being stigmatized.

He served in Iraq as an infantry sergeant through most of his twenties as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. During his two tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2008, he “saw it all.” He spent months clearing roads of IEDs and searching Iraqi homes. And then, out of nowhere, an IED would explode, killing friends. “You never knew where the enemy was, you never could relax,” he explained.

Paul held himself together by focusing on his wife back home and the life they would create when he returned. But on his last tour, he received a letter saying she was divorcing him. “A ‘Dear John’ letter. I couldn’t believe it,” he said, the shock still permeating his voice.

Before Paul was discharged, the military told him he had PTSD. “They handed me some meds and said, ‘Good luck.’ I didn’t think I had PTSD, so I just blew it off. The cocktail of drugs they gave me—the Zoloft, the Ambien, the Xanax—it just messed me up more.”

In the fall of 2009 he came to Austin to major in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas. “A lot of combat vets do that,” he explained. “It’s what we know. It gives us something to do with what we learned over there.”

Single, and an older student who couldn’t quite relate to his younger classmates, Paul G. gravitated to bars, eventually working at one. “Most of the bouncers are vets; I felt comfortable at bars. I felt better when I drank,” he said. But after receiving his second DWI, Paul said he became enmeshed in what felt like a legal morass: “The whole criminal justice system seemed to only be about keeping people stuck in it. It’s an industry.”

He became deeply depressed as he faced the possibility of a lengthy jail sentence. Then he read about the Travis County Veterans Court in a newspaper, told his lawyer about it, and signed up.

“Jackson Glass and Jolene Grajczyk [the court’s caseworker and an Air Force veteran] hooked me up with intense treatment and a peer-to-peer group that made all the difference,” he said. “I realized I wasn’t alone; that what I had been going through was typical of so many guys. … Now, I see other guys coming back, living in barely controlled chaos, getting arrested.”

Despite their success, the veterans courts do not receive funds from the state’s general revenue. Their funds come from counties and grants from the Texas Veterans Commission and the Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division. Many counties established veterans courts with the understanding that the programs would not cost them anything. The majority of veterans court judges and lawyers fold their work for the courts into their existing workload and forgo compensation. Mary Covington, who manages the drug court in Harris County, agreed to oversee the veterans court without pay. “Without Mary, there would be no veterans court,” Pat McCann said.

“I understand that our state is suffering through a budget shortfall, but we ought to fund the veterans courts out of general revenue,” said Sen. Ellis. “The courts are the perfect policy model: They save the state money, implement best practices to reduce recidivism, and serve those who have served our country.”

Money for the Texas Veterans Commission grants comes from Veterans Cash lottery $2 scratch-off tickets, which raise about $8 million annually for the Veterans Assistance Fund. The commission distributes $40,000 to $50,000 to each of the veterans courts except those in El Paso, Denton and Guadalupe counties.

The money for the governor’s criminal justice grants comes from the federal government. The amount varies from year to year. Last year, Texas received $18 million; the amount has been as high as $30 million. Veterans courts in Travis, Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant counties receive an average of $175,000 each that they use to pay court managers, assistants, and, in Dallas’ case, a psychologist. (The other courts rely on the VA to assess defendants.)

The number of veterans a court admits depends on the capacity of the staff to handle the caseload. At their current levels of funding, courts in the larger counties won’t be able to meet increased demand for their programs. Most counties would like to either pay their team the compensation they deserve or hire an additional case manager.

Judge Wayne Christian of the Bexar County Veterans Court believes that county officials will allocate necessary funds for the court, given Bexar’s strong military presence, “Though I think that the real responsibility lies with the federal government,” he said. “If the government is going to send our troops off to war, then the government owes them the care they need as the result of fighting in that war.”

Advocates for veterans speak of the “coming tsunami” of returning veterans, referring to the 40,000 non-combat troops who returned from Iraq at the end of 2011. “The war isn’t winding down; it is coming home,” said Chuck Luther, a retired Army sergeant who runs the Killeen-based advocacy group Disposable Warriors.

As Arthur Davis’ experience illustrates, it can be difficult for veterans to get effective mental health care from the VA. Even when they are diagnosed with PTSD, as Davis and Paul G. were, they too often receive only medications, but no therapy. And the number of veterans seeking care is increasing exponentially. According to Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense, every three months this year the number of combat veterans with PTSD asking for care has increased 5 percent nationwide, and 133,595 veterans still await a decision from the VA on their claims. Sullivan estimates that in the next two years almost a million new veterans will file disability claims.

Davis and Paul G. were among the lucky ones; they weren’t incarcerated. “The court gave me what the military or the VA didn’t,” Davis said. “The chance to live again.”

Leila Levinson is the author of the award-winning Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma.