Veteran Court: The Beginning of What Should Have Been
The walls of the small and cozy courtroom are illuminated with an orange tint, making you either happy or sick to your stomach. The empty revolving chair in the front is surrounded by flags of Washington and the United States, giving an air of authority and governmental power. At 9:28 on a Wednesday morning, there are only four other people in the courtroom, but no judge, no lawyers, no bailiff. Slowly people trickle in through the double doors in the back of the courtroom and fill the pews, which also reek with the orange tint. In due time, the courtroom becomes quite lively as men and women wait for the court session to start. Some are playing games on their phones; others attending to their children; some are anxious and fidgeting; others seem bored and wanting to leave.
As soon as Judge Swagner walks into the courtroom, everyone springs to their feet as if they were startled by his sudden presence. He is a tall man, with white hair and glasses – a kind face. His quiet voice catches one off guard, as though a more assertive voice were necessary for this job. Nonetheless, the veterans in the courtroom sit up a little straighter and talk less with him in the room.
Welcome to veteran courts in Vancouver, Clark County, Washington. Proceedings are about to begin.
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Veteran courts are new to the criminal justice system. The first was created by Judge Robert Russell in 2008 in Buffalo, New York (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs). Based on the existing model for drug and alcohol courts available to all civilians, these new veteran courts are available only to members of the United States armed forces. They target and treat the root problems of combat trauma, which can lead to criminal behavior.
Since 2008, roughly 100 veteran courts have been created throughout the United States (Buckley, Charles). Most courts address substance abuse, anger management, or domestic violence therapy – or a combination. “Veteran courts were created on the idea of honoring veterans for their service instead of punishing them” (Schaller, Barry R).
Veteran courts are a type of problem-solving courts, which typically include a diversion component that provides an opportunity for the offender to avoid a conviction (Wikipedia). Diversions allow offenders to get their charges dropped or reduced by going through a series of treatments that are targeted to the root cause of their criminal behavior. Judges have their own criteria, but most judges require steady employment, attending treatment and staying clean and sober (Santa Cruz, Nicole).
According to Judge Wendy Lindley of Orange County, California’s Combat Veterans Court diversion and treatment is “all a big plan for them [veterans] to be exposed to the possibility of change. Diversion and treatment is brainwashing in a way. In brainwashing that, there is hope for a better future” (Santa Cruz, Nicole).
CBS News did a segment on 60 Minutes about the veteran court in Harris County, Texas, where they interviewed Judge Mark Carter about this new approach to treating veterans. “They need a program to help them be successful,” Judge Carter stated. “If you put them out there on probation, they’re going to fail. If their probation is tailored to deal with their problems – PTSD, drug use, anger management – then they’ll be successful and won’t have to go to prison” (Coming Home: Justice for Veterans).
War combat is stressful on veterans and the experience can be harmful to their mental wellbeing. Combat can cause trauma leading to horrific and disturbing nightmares that many veterans experience during and after their deployment. This trauma can cause them to lash out at others and land then in the criminal justice systems, a place they never thought they would be.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event (Staff, Mayo Clinic). According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), PTSD can arise when a person is exposed to a traumatic event where they are threatened or confronted with death or serious injury to themselves or others.
PTSD looks different on everyone. There are severe cases like a marine digging a ditch in his front yard in which he could sleep surrounded with his guns because he felt safer than he would in his own home. Some veterans report experiencing reoccurring dreams of stressful and anxious situations, such as being fired upon, not being able to find a gun, or seeing carnage of American soldiers after a bombing. Others report experiences of sleep paralysis, which is waking up mentally by not being able to move the body (Coming Home: Justice for our Vets). Commonly, veterans with PTSD can receive great comfort from their guns; “it’s like a child with a teddy bear” (Gedrose, Gary).
The side-effects of PTSD vary depending on the person but it’s common for a veteran to self-medicate their undiagnosed symptoms of PTSD through heavy drinking or drug use. They are often angry, have the desire to isolate, experience flash backs, and in general seem to be a “royal jerk” (Gedrose, Gary). Its impact has physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral reactions which “affect the spectrum of human activity” – playing, sleeping, thinking, feeling, remembering, and working (Schaller, Barry R).
A more comprehensive understanding of PTSD did not occur until five years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. At first psychology professionals thought the symptoms of PTSD were related to pre-existing mental conditions already present in the veteran and the condition was simply worsened by war experiences (Schaller, Barry R). Psychiatric professionals never assumed that the war caused the PTSD. In prior wars, PTSD was known by different names: “soldier’s heart” after the Civil War (Rees, Rick), “shell shock” after World War I and “post-Vietnam syndrome” after Vietnam (Schaller, Barry R). Officials thought the symptoms were only a problem during the war; they were not concerned with the veteran’s transition back into society.
The Vietnam War veteran experienced more psychological disorders than those of any other war for reasons unique to the Vietnam fighting experience. The war was unpopular and prolonged, many soldiers were drafted rather than volunteers, it was difficult to determine who was a hostile or neutral citizen, and frequent rotations of soldiers made traditional group morale difficult. Starting in the late 1960’s, there was a cultural and media campaign to recognize the unique readjustment problems from this war (Schaller, Barry R). This lead to an understanding that PTSD can be caused by combat trauma, not by a pre-existing mental condition (Schaller, Barry R).
There is a broad spectrum of criminal charges a veteran might face in veterans court, but common are domestic violence assaults, DUI’s and drug possession. Some serious crimes are ineligible such as A or B felonies or any crimes with any serious physical harm to another person (Schaller, Barry R). Additionally if a veteran has a prior criminal conviction they may not be eligible for a diversion (Schaller, Barry R).
The most common charge is intimate domestic violence between two sexually intimate people. It alters the dynamic between the spouses after the veteran returns home. The definition of domestic violence is “an incident resulting in physical harm, bodily injury or assault, or an act of threatened violence that constitutes fear in imminent physical harm, bodily injury, or assault between family or household members” (Wikipedia). PTSD can “set the stage” for troubled relationships which can result in marital discord, domestic violence, divorce, and sometimes lethal violence because PTSD can hamper the veteran’s ability to re-enter the original relationship. Someone living in close proximity with a person suffering from PTSD can experience PTSD symptoms themselves (Schaller, Barry R).
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He stood there in his musty green suit, head bent low, and his glasses at the tip of his nose, standing next to his client. After 31 years of practicing criminal law in the State of Washington, Charles Buckley has perfected the art of being comfortable in a courtroom. A veteran himself, there is no resentment or discomfort between him and his clients as they struggle to get back on their feet.
Once the court proceedings in the Clark County begin, the feeling in the room is supportive rather than “hard on crime”. Buckley does not communicate much with Judge Swagner, except to hand him progress reports. He stands next to his clients with his hands held together in front of his body, head bowed, listening intently.
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When asked to compare how the court system dealt with Vietnam veterans returning home and their PTSD, Buckley replied: “they didn’t”. He noted that the difficulty of transitioning back into society is easier now because of modern technology. Because of the Internet, cell phones, and Skype, soldiers can keep in contact with their families and keep up to date with life in the United States, whereas during Vietnam letters would only arrive every three to four weeks. Buckley noted that society was not receptive to returning Vietnam veterans because the war was so controversial, so much so that civilians would spit upon soldiers deboarding the planes. Buckley states there is a whole generation of Vietnam veterans with PTSD that is untreated.
Because of any prior convictions due to undiagnosed PTSD, Vietnam veterans cannot be employed therefore has difficulty obtaining medical insurance. “Just because they get older, doesn’t mean they get better,” Buckley said about Vietnam veteran’s post-combat conditions. Buckley sees today’s courts successfully treating and dealing with the problems of veterans in a more effective way.
While the veteran courts in Clark County, Washington has been operating for one and half years, there has been delay in starting one in Multnomah County, Oregon. Oregon Senate Bill (SB) 999 was enacted in 2010 to expand for war veterans the number of crimes eligible for diversion. The bill specifically excludes offences that resulted in serious physical injury to another person and placed restrictions on offenses involving repeat instances of domestic violence. The Oregon District Attorneys Association insisted on being the “gate keeper” in determining which cases and which veterans may receive the benefit of diversion, threatening to oppose passage of the bill should the discretion lie with the court (Meyer, Gail).
Notwithstanding passage of SB999 in 2010, only Klamath County in southern Oregon has develops a veteran court as a result of the bill. Why that is so is troublesome to Gary Gedrose.
Gary Gedrose has been a criminal defense lawyer in the state of Oregon for 32 years. A Vietnam veteran himself, his white beard and jolly belly would remind anyone of Santa Claus. His suspenders give off the look of intelligence. Gedrose himself has been a driving force in trying to create veterans court in Multnomah County. In Gedrose’s candid and cynical opinion, district attorneys (DAs) in Oregon would rather have conviction on their track record than a dismissal, believing that if someone commits a crime they should all get the same punishment whether they are a veteran or a civilian.
Despite the fact that there is not a true veterans court in Multnomah County yet, a configuration of a veteran’s docket is in the making and would recognize veterans’ need for peer-support (Gedrose, Gary). Gedrose is on the committee that will determine the mechanics of the veteran docket, the mechanics of which are still being worked out. The idea is to tailor the treatment to help the veteran complete the program in the least amount of time.
Although there is not an operational veteran court in Multnomah County, Gedrose frequently represents veterans in criminal cases. Gedrose observes that it is common for veterans to be agitated because of their lack of understanding of why they cannot transition back into society with ease. When Gedrose first meets his client, “it’s difficult to initially break through. In fact I don’t even try, because these veterans see themselves as tough guys. The stoicism and lack of emotion drilled into our veterans makes the transition back into society difficult,” Gedrose says. “Their unwillingness to complain or let someone help them is the reason their emotions, such as anger, can get them into trouble with the criminal system.” But he always asks his clients, “How do you see things ending for you? Do you want to stay in the Army? Or do you want to get out? If you want to get out, do you want treatment?”
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When called to appear before Judge Swagner each veteran approaches the bench differently – some masculine, some shy and cautious, others embarrassed and regretful. The veteran gives a report of their progress to the judge explaining how treatment is going and how their week has been. If a veteran is not able to attend their scheduled treatment due to the bus schedule or their work hours, they are assigned community service and an essay on the importance of their treatment to recovery. The questions Judge Swanger asked were simple, but the answers have great significance. “Tell me how you think you’re doing in treatment?” “Did you go to any treatment sessions this week?” “What else did you do to prevent relapse?” The courtroom is otherwise silent except for the rustling of papers, the court clerk typing, and the veteran talking to the judge.
The men’s stance is similar to Buckley’s, very stoic and military like, responding “yes sir”, “no sir” to the judge’s questions. They kept their emotions in check, with a straight face and sturdy stance. The only woman defendant in the room responds to the questions with genuine concern all over her face; her eyebrows are raised, and with sincerity all over her face.
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It is too soon to know the success rates of the Clark County because solid data needs to be gathered for a three-year period. But nonetheless Judge Swagner sees a difference in the person who started treatment and the person who ended treatment. At first he sees veterans agreeing to stay sober and clean, but he knows within their heads they are thinking of ways they can keep drinking or using drugs. He sees a shift, but only after a few months of treatment. Although there is not a ‘normal’ amount of time before the change, normally after a couple the veteran realizes their condition and actually applies themselves in therapy. Unfortunately, this change normally happens after the veteran has been caught drinking or using drugs a couple of times. Sometimes Judge Swagner gives the veteran jail time to let them decide if they really want to be in treatment or if they’d rather go to jail. But after treatment and therapy, Swagner sees veterans stay clean and sober, they now have tools to deal with triggers of PTSD, and they’re back on their feet.
Putting aside a desire to honor veterans for their service, are veteran courts fair in a society premised upon equal rights for all? Why should veterans be given preferential treatment over police officers, firefighters, schoolteachers, or other public servants? Should veteran courts only be for veterans who were in an active combat zone, or should it be any enlisted service member? These are important and difficult questions, but thank goodness the conversation has begun.
Buckley, Charles. Personal Phone Interview. 3, Dec. 2012.
Clark County Courthouse. Vancouver, Clark County, Washington. Site visit. 14 November, 2012.
“Coming Home: Justice for our veterans”. 60 Minutes. Narr. Scott Pelley. CBS, 14 Oct. 2012. cbsnews.com. web. 25, Oct. 2012.
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"DSM Criteria for PTSD." DSM-IV-TR Criteria for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 5 July 2007. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.
Gedrose, Gary. Personal Interview. 12, Oct. 2012.
Meyer, Gail. Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Legislative Lobbyist. 6, Dec. 2012.
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