Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in trouble with the law

Experts see more soldiers facing criminal time

National statistics on veterans committing crimes are hard to come by, but the few studies that have been done produced startling results. A year ago, a survey in Travis County, Texas, found that 82 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were booked into county jail over a three month period. In Colorado Springs, a recent study found 300 veterans had cycled through jail in a single month.

A 2008 report by the New York Times identified 121 homicides committed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but the majority of crimes are far less dramatic. Many of the infractions are related to drugs and alcohol. In 2006, one in four veterans between the ages of 18 and 25 met the standards for a substance-abuse disorder.

"DWIs and drug offenses make up a big chunk of the crimes we're seeing committed by veterans," Tarantino says. "A lot of that starts on deployment, where they hand out painkillers and Ambien like it's frickin' candy."

Hector Matascastillo’s post-traumatic stress led him into an armed stand-off with police. Now he’s a social worker trying to help other veterans.
Dave Fick
Hector Matascastillo’s post-traumatic stress led him into an armed stand-off with police. Now he’s a social worker trying to help other veterans.
Defense lawyer Brock Hunter helped establish the new veteran’s court in Hennepin County
Dave Fick
Defense lawyer Brock Hunter helped establish the new veteran’s court in Hennepin County

Another reason for the crime surge: untreated psychological trauma. A 2008 study estimated that more than 300,000 veterans of recent wars are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another 320,000 sustained Traumatic Brain Injury, which is like a severe concussion. The study found only half were receiving treatment.

This generation of veterans is also returning to an economy mired in deep recession. Unemployment for veterans in April rose to 15 percent, at a time when the same figure was 10 percent for the general population.

"There are a lot of factors there, but one of them is that HR directors are worried that these guys all have PTSD," says Chaplain John Morris of the Minnesota National Guard.

Compounding the problem is a macho military attitude that makes admitting weakness the toughest thing a soldier can do.

"Veterans often have a real superman thing," says Dr. Ernest Boswell, a clinical psychologist with experience in treating veterans. "They feel like they survived combat, so they should be able to overcome the challenges of civilian life without having to reach out to anyone. They're wrong. That attitude gets them into more trouble."

Military officials are quick to point out that veterans returning from combat and committing crimes are the exception rather than the rule. But an increasing number of local courts are seeing enough of a problem that they are looking into diversion programs.

Following a model pioneered in Buffalo, New York, Hennepin County opened an experimental court this July designed to intercept veterans on their downward spiral. The court lets qualifying veterans avoid jail time if they agree to conditions set by the judge. That often includes treatment through the Veterans' Administration, which has a representative in the court whenever it's in session.

In his courtroom on the 8th floor, Judge Richard Hopper presides over cases involving vets. His job is to drive home that the recommended treatment regimen is not something they can blow off.

"This isn't a design-your-own-treatment court. This isn't optional," he tells one veteran accused of drunk driving. "By taking part in the veteran's court, you're agreeing to follow through on all of the recommendations."

Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis lawyer who specializes in defending veterans in criminal cases, began to see the surge in his practice several years ago. Checking with other colleagues, Hunter came to the conclusion that this is only the tip of the spear.

"I saw a problem that was getting worse," Hunter says. "If we don't do something about this, I'm worried we're going to see a generation of veterans building up criminal records that keep them from ever getting back on their feet."

MIKE DOESN'T WANT to talk about how hard it's been for him to come back from war. At least, not while using his real name. After some abortive efforts to find his place in civilian society, Mike has decided it's easiest for him to stay in the military, and his job there could be jeopardized if they found out about his legal record.

In 2004, Mike was on his first of two Iraqi tours, running patrols with his guard unit. The road from the Baghdad airport to the city's Green Zone was a notoriously dicey run, plagued by improvised explosive devices and snipers. Mike's unit was a first responder—when something blew up or looked like it might, they got the call. The assignment entailed regularly getting shot at and mopping up blown-apart bodies.

"I don't think that stuff actually bothered me that much," Mike says. "I could see how it could for someone else, who wasn't ready for it, but I was ready."

Yet Mike found coming home to Minnesota to be even more difficult.

"It was tough because I'd been gone 22 months, so there was this shock of change," he says. "You feel like you've got to catch up to the world because you've sort of been on pause."

He found he was jumpy, especially in crowds. One night he went to a nightclub with a friend, but found himself feeling uneasy and tense on the busy dance floor. When another patron got too close, Mike violently shoved him out of the way. Then he just kept shoving, pushing a dozen people off the dance floor. Someone called the police, and Mike was soon facing assault charges.

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