One day he was standing next to the first lady in the VIP box at the president’s State of the Union Address. The next, he was in front of a judge facing a DUI conviction.
For former Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman, recipient of the Silver Star for valor, who even had an action figure fashioned in his image, there was only one way, and it was up. Killing himself didn’t work—the night he was cited for DUI he purposefully rammed his car into a tree. So he was forced to live his demons: self-medicating his PTSD with booze and bills, and slowly alienating everyone around him.
He found redemption in the most unlikeliest of places: a courtroom.
But it wasn’t any courtroom, it was a Veterans Treatment Court set up in Harnett County, N.C. It is now one of 264 such courts across the country that gives veterans a chance to avoid jail and the stigma of a criminal conviction. These courts, established in 2008 and based on the Drug Court model, are being hailed today for their compassion and their commitment to vets who have lost their way. They are also part of a growing civic movement that embraces treatment over incarceration, in hopes of draining the prisons of people who do not belong there, not just veterans.
“I believe in the program whole-heartedly,” said Rieman, who graduated from the VTC in November 2014. He spent more than a year in the intensive regime that included weekly visits to a judge three hours away from his home. There was also therapy, AA meetings, and work with a veteran-mentor, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross named “George,” who he fully credits for keeping him “on point.”
“I didn’t want to let him down,” Rieman told TAC in an interview. Like other vets in the program, he appreciated the structure of setting goals, and frankly, following orders.
As a war hero who had been feted by President Bush in 2007, and spent years after his multiple deployments traveling across the country and talking about his experiences, he didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves anymore.
“I’ve gotten away with things,” he said, because of his medals. “I needed someone to be hard on me. I didn’t need a pass. I needed structure and guidance, and they provided that.” Unlike other vets who can get their charges wiped or reduced when they graduate, Rieman’s DUI conviction stuck. But that’s okay, because his sobriety and second chance at life did too.
“I don’t think I’m going to be in that same situation any time soon,” said Rieman, now the head of a nonprofit and ambassador for Justice for Vets.
Today, when the media want to highlight the sacrifices made by recent Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, more often than not they show the wounded warrior, the individual with such severe physical injuries that he or she is fitted with an advanced prosthetic, or whose face bears the scars of a crippling bomb blast.
Less visible are those with psychological wounds, brought on by combat stress and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is estimated that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent or more of recent combat veterans suffer from PTSD symptoms, which can include night terrors, flashbacks, irritability, paranoia, and anxiety. In the most recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members, 44 percent said they had been diagnosed with PTSD. In that same survey, 18 percent said they have a mild to severe TBI from the war. That’s a big number, thanks in part to the rise of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) attacks in the recent conflicts. Symptoms of TBI can range from chronic headaches, aggressive mood swings, and changes in personality, all the way to crippling cognitive disabilities and memory loss.
Left on their own, many veterans suffering from these mentally debilitating symptoms self-medicate, or depend solely on psychotropic drugs doled out by the VA. Many sustained physical injuries in the war, too, and have been on pain medications since they were overseas. It’s hard to keep a job in this spiral, and family relationships suffer. Some eventually steal and deal to feed their habits. They get into fights, carry weapons, or drive drunk.
“The vast majority of veterans are strengthened by their military service, but not everyone’s journey is the same,” says Melissa Fitzgerald, whose own journey from Hollywood (“The West Wing”), eventually took her to Justice for Vets, the leading advocate for the Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC).
Given the odds, it’s not difficult to comprehend how veterans like Rieman end up on the wrong end of the judge’s bench, how they went from heroes to menaces to society, within years or even months of their return. While it’s difficult to ascertain how many recent vets are behind bars today, we know there were about 700,000 veterans in the correctional system in 2007, with about 230,000 of those incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Vets accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total arrests (about 1.2 million) that year.
“All those transitions and all those traumatic experiences and we expect (soldiers) to come home and police themselves—I don’t think so,” said Rieman, who was recognized for using himself as a human shield after an attack on his convoy in Iraq in 2003. Despite getting shot twice and enduring 11 shrapnel hits, he continued to defend his position, rout the attackers, and set up a medical evacuation, according to the DoD.
The VTC formula has been deemed so successful that there are now 264 such programs operating in 37 states and Guam, helping upwards of 13,200 vets. The key: matching the vet up with another veteran, as a mentor and confidant, someone who understands the horrors of combat and the difficulties of adjusting in the civilian milieu back home. Behind them is a phalanx of representatives from the VA and veterans service organizations providing on the spot access to the panoply of services the veteran is entitled to, particularly healthcare. Beyond that, the vet is connected with any education, housing, and employment assistance they are entitled to.
“Putting them in jail won’t help their situation, it just exacerbates it,” said Gary Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) whose members across the country serve as mentors for veterans in the courts. “We do this for other segments of society—juveniles and drug offenders—why not veterans? They are going in the right direction.”
The courts are open to all vets who qualify, even those with less than honorable discharges, and in many states, unlike the drug courts, eligibility is not limited to non-violent offenses. Each vet is considered on case-by-case basis. The program can be as long as 18 months and is intense. There will always be those who backslide, but unlike regular court, the penalties are less severe. The goal, after all, is to keep these vets out of jail. One recent study found that not only did 86 percent of the veterans in a particular program stay arrest-free before graduation, they experienced “significant” improvement with their mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Not recognizing (these veterans’) actions as a result of military service-connected problems, and not treating them accordingly will only lead to more problems for the veteran, his/her family, and for society,” says veterans’ advocate Matthew Hoh, who has had his own struggle with combat stress and substance abuse since serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is also much cheaper to treat veterans than to incarcerate them and throw them into the cycle of suffering and recidivism our justice and prison system is world renowned for.”
News reports across the country since the first VTC was established have been hailing their benefits. And why not? The success of these courts show that the legal system can martial itself with the help of non-profits (and yes, government entities like the VA) for the greater good. It’s also a plain old feel-good story.
Buffalo Judge Robert Russell helped to start the first drug courts in 1995. When a vet “turned completely around” after Russell paired him with another vet as a mentor, he knew he was onto something. He started the first VTC in 2008 and according to the most recent reports, 98 percent of the graduates in his program stay out of trouble after they graduate.
Hoh says this is the kind of compassion that is missing from the American criminal justice system.
“It is compassionate because we claim to be a moral and values based nation. To treat veterans, who we have trained and conditioned to kill and be killed, and then do nothing to accommodate them back into society, is a savage and heartless expression of a shallow and mean society,” he told TAC.
Further, the success of Veterans Treatment Courts should be utilized as a model for reformation of our criminal justice system. I don’t know, however, if our society has the minds and the hearts to implement such smart and compassionate change.
Change can start with giving vets the tools for readjustment before they get home from war. Rieman now runs the nonprofit Independence Fund, which supports veterans with catastrophic injuries. He says the military doesn’t do nearly enough.
“We spent a year training for war and what, two weeks training to reintegrate into society? There has to be cleaner hand-offs,” he said. “There needs to be a receiver, almost a sponsor, when they get back. You have sponsors when you go into the military. The whole system, it makes no sense to me and it’s so frustrating.”
Supporting the special courts is the first step, he said, noting there is no way to tell how many vets out there out of the 2.4 million who served in the recent wars are going to find themselves in court tomorrow. “These issues are not going to go away. If anything, they are going to get worse.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.