The recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, is just another sad chapter on the challenges our service branches face in identifying and treating service members who are suffering from PTSD or other mental health issues. The call comes out again and again that we need to do something, anything, to help our men and women in uniform deal with the physical and emotional scars they bring home with them from the battlefield.
A recent New York Times article reported the 121 veterans have been linked to recent killings on American streets. That comes as no surprise to the law enforcement and mental health officials, who regularly have to deal with veterans that may have alcohol, substance abuse or mental health issues usually resulting in an arrest for a variety of offenses ranging from public intoxication and DWI, to assaults, domestic violence and murder. Medical experts agree that no one returns after serving in a war zone unchanged. The best estimates are that as many as 25 to 30 percent of returning veterans suffer from mental illness that makes transitioning back to civilian life far more difficult. Sometimes the lingering effects of combat can take months or even years to manifest.
I personally understand this. As a combat aviator, I am part of the forgotten generation of warriors. Many of us who served in Vietnam came home to a country that was for the most part hostile to us and dealing with a government that basically thanked us, shook our hands and then left us to fend for ourselves.
Due to physical and emotional injuries suffered while on active duty, veterans’ reintegration back to civilian life can be extremely challenging. Many veterans return home to lost jobs, terminated leases, foreclosures and severed relationships. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to ease their pain and others act out in violent ways.
We all have a vested interest in this. The criminal justice system needs to take the lead to ensure that every veteran that enters the justice system is evaluated and provided appropriate resources to reduce veterans’ recidivism rates and assist them in returning to a functional place in society.
To this end, we at the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office has started a process to determine how many of our inmates and future detainees are in fact combat veterans and in need of assistance. Once we have the basic information the next step will be to assemble a group of agency representatives and individuals who are committed to addressing these and other related issues. This group, which would include representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, District Courts, District Attorney’s Office, County Health and Human Services, County Probation Office, local Veterans Affairs Office and other interested individuals, would focus on reviewing best practices programs from around the nation, work to establish formal agency links and creatively use resources to pilot the program.
As former Congressman Nick Lampson at a recent Veterans Day ceremony said, “We should do more than sing the praises of the bravery and patriotism that our veterans have embodied in the past. We should take this opportunity to re-evaluate how we are treating our veterans in the present.”
We need to do more. We can do more.
Joe Hoy is Eagle County’s sheriff.