By Jake Rossen
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In 2000, four years after graduating high school in Shoreview, Tony Klecker enlisted in the United States Marine Corps as an engineer. After 9/11, his unit was put on high alert. Soon enough, Klecker found himself on tours throughout Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Deployed to Iraq in 2003 during the invasion, Klecker fired on a civilian vehicle that didn't slow down as it approached a checkpoint. Unsure if anyone died, Klecker was haunted by the incident, even after he came back.
Klecker also remembers the time when a massive sandstorm brought the entire invasion to a standstill. In the midst of battle, soldiers could see no more than a few feet in front of them. Once the storm lifted, he was horrified by the carnage around him.
After finishig his six-month stint in combat, Klecker completed his tour in Japan, where he began to self-medicate. He drank heavily, with the purpose of passing out to block nightmares.
The drinking intensified when Klecker came home. His relationship with his girlfriend—his daughter's mother—was falling apart. After getting into fights at local bars, Klecker was charged with assault and disorderly conduct.
In September 2006, Klecker sought help for his alcoholism from the VA, but was told he'd have to wait several weeks to begin treatment, his lawyer, Brockton Hunter, says.
The next month, he was drunk behind the wheel when he caused a multi-car collision on Highway 494 in South St. Paul.
The accident killed a 16-year-old girl.
Klecker was sentenced to 10 years probation and one year in jail contingent on the completion of alcoholism and PTSD treatment. While incarcerated, Klecker wrote several letters to the victim's family expressing his sorrow, telling them he wished he could replace their daughter's lost life with his own.
By all accounts, he was a model patient while undergoing treatment at the St. Cloud VA; he was eager to get better and help other veterans dealing with PTSD. Upon completion of his sentence, Klecker planned to volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving as well as veteran advocacy groups.
However, while waiting to be admitted into the hospital's PTSD program, Klecker got kicked out of the St. Cloud VA's residential treatment program after getting into an argument with another patient.
Klecker was waiting for a spot in a 10-bed, 48-day program, Sarah Meisinger, manager of the Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom Program in St. Cloud, testified during his trial. She was one of three nervous VA officials called to the stand in Dakota County District Judge David Knutson's courtroom one day last month during Klecker's probation violation hearing.
"A big part of Tony's problem was that there was too much time on his hands to sit around and think about the accident," says Hunter. "The VA is the first to say that they are pouring all this money into the programs and all this is stuff going on, yet there are still only 10 beds to treat combat PTSD in Minnesota. Why not 20, 30, why not a hundred beds, where is the money, the resources going?"
Eleven percent of the $121 million given to the St. Cloud VA in 2007 was spent on mental health. Within the mental health budget, salary expenditures increased 10 percent from 2006 to nearly $12 million, while non-salary expenditures—which includes computers, desks, file cabinets, and supplies for therapy programs—increased a whopping 309 percent to nearly $368,000. "When you hire more staff, you have more equipment needs," says St. Cloud VA spokeswoman, Joan Vincent.
Because Klecker was removed from the hospital's residential program, he violated his probation. This February, he was sent to prison for four years, with credit for more than 300 days served.
Klecker is not required to seek treatment upon completion of his sentence.
Klecker's story is a perfect example of why veterans need psychological treatment rather than prison time, Hunter says. "Until we get them that help, they continue to present the same problem, the same danger to public safety."
Hunter authored a provision to a Veterans Omnibus bill with the help of activist Guy Gambill that will be debated by the Minnesota House and Senate in coming weeks. On March 13, the PTSD portion of the bill passed unanimously by members present at the House Public Safety Committee.
The legislation would require the courts to determine whether a criminal defendant is a veteran. With military service established, the defense attorney could then order a psychological assessment, says Hunter, who also serves as the legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
If the veteran is diagnosed with a mental illness, the court will be made aware of possible therapy programs available through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and treatment can be considered during sentencing, Hunter says.
Most veterans don't ask for help until they have to, when they've hit rock bottom, found themselves lost in throes of drug and alcohol abuse, often in legal trouble or heading into homelessness, says Hunter. This bill gives the court leverage to insist that they complete treatment.
"When you're talking about PTSD, it only makes sense to look at treatment over incarcerations," he says. "This is not the kind of disease that is just going to go away. Without proper treatment and care, this stuff can linger for decades."