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Veterans can get help instead of jail time

Veterans treatment courts offer a lifeline to returning service members who get in trouble.
U.S. military veterans listen to speeches during a Veterans Day observance for homeless veterans at The Midnight Mission shelter in Los Angeles, Nov. 11, 2013.
U.S. military veterans listen to speeches during a Veterans Day observance for homeless veterans at The Midnight Mission shelter in Los Angeles, Nov. 11, 2013. 

No one said coming home would be easy.

Nick Stefanovic, a Marine combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, had been warned by a Vietnam War veteran who let him know about the combat wounds that never heal.

“You made a sacrifice,” Stefanovic recalls being told. “This is something you have to live with.”

For Nick, that meant living out of his car, homeless and alienated, with a crippling addiction to the painkillers he popped to keep the demons away.

“I’m just going to take these pills until I die,” he remembers thinking. 

Out of cash and pills, the former sergeant E-5 walked into a bank in 2009 with a stolen checkbook. He flashed his own ID and signed his name on the check at the counter.

Nick was busted. It saved his life, he says. “Being arrested is the first way of getting help.”  

Rather than serve time jail, Stefanovic, along with the thousands of other veterans suffering from addiction and mental health problems, was offered a lifeline. Like the civilian drug and mental health courts that pull offenders with documented medical issues out of the traditional criminal court dockets, veterans treatment courts apply the same principles to former service members. Judges across the country are allowing the growing number of ex-military men and women to choose a treatment program instead of serving time. 

“When you come home, what helped you survive on the battlefield doesn’t turn off immediately,” said Col. David Sutherland, co-founder of the Dixon Center and a former special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury are “the signature wounds of these wars,” Sutherland told msnbc. Nearly a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at V.A. hospitals have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and one in six suffers from a substance abuse disorder.

Judge Robert Russell helped craft the national model for drug and mental health courts in his Buffalo, N.Y. courtroom, then developed the nation’s first-ever veterans treatment court in 2008. Where just a handful of these courts existed five years ago, at least 130 are existence now, with the growth rate booming in the past year. As the U.S. prepares to draw down the military operation in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, more returning veterans are expected to rely on them.

On Tuesday afternoons, veterans appear before Judge Russell with their veteran mentors, in the presence of a representative from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a community effort, with representatives from the housing agencies, community colleges and local small businesses present. Some veterans even appear on their own--without any arrest--to take advantage of the resources.

“We redirect the path they’re starting to go down,” Russell said, by creating structure and requiring accountability.

For Stefanovic, it was the difference between spending three years in a state prison and regaining control of his life. 

“If you can find something that’s more important to [the person who’s been arrested] than using drugs, you buy them that window of time,” Stefanovic says. For him, it was simple freedom – the absence of which he keenly felt in the Afghan villages he patrolled. After graduating from the court-mandated rehabilitation program, Stafanovic returned home free of addiction. That was May 1, 2010. He says he's been drug-free since.

Where it can cost $30,000 to $45,000 a year to incarcerate someone, rehabilitation in a drug or veterans treatment court is between $6,000 and $12,000 a year, says Russell, utilizing existing programs and health care offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. There are other pluses: the people who go through his program are less likely to go on unemployment and are quicker to make good on payments like loans and child support. 

“Ask any emergency room doctor or nurse, ask any social worker, ask any police officer with more than five years on the force, ask any municipal or county judge: they see the same people. They get arrested… they’re locked up for 90 days, they’re let go, and 48 hours later they’re locked up,” said General Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army General and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “The endless cycle – short incarceration, release—just doesn’t work.”

As "Drug Czar," McCaffrey visited the nation’s first drug court in Miami, Florida – then wrote a government check for a million dollars every year to keep the program going.

“What I say is, there’s only two miracle things I ran into during five-plus years as a drug policy director,” McCaffrey said. “The first was Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous… and the second was the drug court system,” which McCaffrey says “acts like the American justice system was designed to operate.”

“The Veterans Treatment Courts recognize that these individuals have great potential,” Colonel Sutherland said. Central to their success, he said, is the courts’ mission to “allow [veterans] to feel connected again.”

“What most people believe is that we come home to a grateful nation," Sutherland said. "And the reality is we come home to our families, neighbors, community –and that’s where the connections are.”