Capital News Service
The House of Delegates has unanimously passed a bill that could provide treatment instead of jail for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and run into trouble with the law.
House Bill 1691, introduced by Delegate Christopher P. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, allows localities to establish “policies and procedures for service members who are nonviolent offenders.” The initiative is popularly known as “veterans court,” although no separate court is established. Such programs exist in 18 states.
“It would afford veterans charged in nonviolent crimes the opportunity to be addressed in a separate docket that has access to treatment programs that are specifically designed for veterans that may have post-service disabilities,” Stolle, a medical doctor, stated in an e-mail.
His bill enables localities to coordinate judicial and treatment services to seek prompt identification and placement of eligible participants; intensive offender supervision, counseling and treatment; and prompt response to non-compliance with program requirements.
The measure would direct the Virginia Department of Veterans Services to cooperate with localities in this effort.
The bill would not fund such efforts; localities would be responsible for that.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are considered the “signature injuries” of the Iraq and Afghan wars, according to a recent Virginia Tech report on the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program, a network of community-based services for veterans suffering from stress and brain injuries.
Unlike the visible injuries of earlier conflicts, these afflictions attack a veteran from the inside.
“They can manifest in a lot of ways,” said Jack Hilgers, director of development for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services. “Traumatic brain injury often manifests through drug and alcohol abuse. The veteran attempts to self-medicate.”
Even visible wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan may be more severe than those of previous combats, because improved medical technology and faster battlefield reactions mean that more wounds are survivable now than ever before.
Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, R-Gloucester, a pharmacist and a co-patron of HB 1691, said veterans are surviving with more severe penetrating injuries and corresponding challenges in pain management.
Veterans in pain, reliving their trauma, may fall back on the reactions that kept them alive in a combat situation, said John Clickener of Tappahannock, a retired Marine infantry officer and the state legislative coordinator for the Virginia Council of Chapters of the Military Officers Association of America.
“Those skills don’t work in a civilian situation,” Clickener said. “We have men and women who have served three, four, even five tours of duty. There are no ‘lines’ in this war – nowhere is safe. And the dwell time (time between tours of duty) has been reduced. The normal social filters are not working for many of these folks.”
An estimated 820,000 veterans live in Virginia. About 260,000 of them have served since 2001, meaning they most likely served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Estimates of the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury range from 20 to 40 percent of the returning population, Hilgers said.
“The bill will afford responders from law enforcement officers to magistrates and commonwealth’s attorneys the opportunity to be aware of the exceptional circumstances” affecting some veterans, Clickener said. HB 1691 would cover all veterans, not just those from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Senate is considering similar legislation.
Senate Bill 1063, introduced by Sen. John C. Miller, R-Newport News, is a little broader than Stolle’s bill; it would include “other individuals who are offenders or defendants in the criminal justice system and who need access to proper treatment for mental illness.”
“Under the Virginia Constitution, you can’t have a special class of citizens,” Miller explained in a phone interview.
“The Hampton Roads area has more veterans than any other part of the commonwealth. Judges in my district came to me last year with this idea, and we brought together stakeholders like community service boards and the VA, trying to find a way to get these people the help they deserve.”
That help must provide an alternative to jail, Hilgers said.
“We’ve got enough people in jail,” he said. “These veterans want to do something about their condition. They don’t want to be a burden.”
Many states and localities have modeled their veterans courts after the program in Buffalo, N.Y.
“The Veterans Court in Buffalo has a zero percent recidivism rate,” Hilgers said. “You offer veterans a chance to do something to not be a burden; you put a potentially productive person back into the community.”
Stolle said that by creating veterans courts, Virginia would be demonstrating its support for military personnel in a significant way.
“We often talk about supporting our troops,” Stolle said. “To me, supporting our troops means more than waving the flag when they come home. Supporting our troops means providing the help they need when they most need it. I think this bill is a small step in helping those veterans most in need.”