For Vets, a New Version of Justice

rd360x300Joseph Thrower still remembers the battlefields of Vietnam in the present tense. “I’m a target automatically: I’m 6’6”. You don’t have to shoot the legs; just shoot the head and I’m gone. That’s why I was blessed to be back here. The day I got back I kissed the ground.”

Thrower, 64, is one of one of nearly one million veterans living in New York State. Like many of his peers, he has long coped with having fought an unpopular war. He began to drink in the 1970s and then escalated into drugs. By the time he was arrested in October 2011, Thrower had a cocaine habit. But what got him into trouble was being caught with a bag of weed.

Instead of facing charges in a criminal court, Thrower appeared before the Queens Veterans’ Court, which trades treatment and rehabilitation for jail time. The court opened at the end of 2010 and is one of nearly 100 across the country that aim to help veterans who are coping with the past. Using the same model as drug and mental health courts, staff say the intention is to treat veterans, not punish them.

Judge Robert T. Russell, Jr. founded the first veterans’ court in Buffalo in January 2008, after he noticed an increase of veterans appearing before his drug and mental health court. Now there are more than 95 similar courts in the United States, and more are expected to begin serving the country’s 23 million veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Using the same model as drug and mental health courts, staff say the intention is to treat veterans, not punish them.

Russell sees the program as a solution for veterans whose traumatic war experiences disrupt their civilian lives. “Those who have served in the military may have experienced trauma — not just physical trauma but physiological, those invisible wounds of war such as PTSD, anxiety and depression,” he says. “Veterans may self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which can lead to a behavior that lands them in court.”

Denise Lukowski is the veterans’ justice outreach coordinator at one of the Queens courts partners, the New York Harbor Health Care System-St. Alban’s Campus. Lukowski, a former police officer, has worked with veterans with PTSD and brain injuries sustained during combat. That trauma affects their transition to civilian life. The program helps make that transition a little easier. At the court, “veterans get a chance,” she says. “This is an opportunity to work on themselves, get treatment and also work on other things that may be going on in their lives.”

A New York native who enjoys fishing and has kids and grandchildren, Thrower is a year into his work with the court, and grateful for its model.

“It was time to get away from it because I was tired of it anyway,” Thrower says of his substance use. “The court got me away from it.”

The Queens court is presided over by Justice Marcia P. Hirsch of the State Supreme Court. Hirsch says most of the offenses she sees involve drug possession and sales, driving under the influence, weapons possessions and assault. Hers is a felony court; misdemeanor cases are seen elsewhere.  Hirsch sometimes sees cases of violence, which not a lot of veterans’ courts handle.

More than 60 vets have been through the court and its treatment programs in the nearly two years since it was debuted. The program’s main focus is to strengthen veterans and their families with psychological treatment and tangible tools that ease civilian life. That life is a challenge: Suicide rates are high among veterans — 18 a day, according to the VA — and effects of combat experience such as PTSD and substance use come up daily in the court’s treatment programs. But after the dust settles, veterans also need assistance with problems like homelessness and unemployment. The court connects vets to shelters, subsidies and assistance programs for both needs.

More than 80 percent of them have graduated from the courts’ programs — 12 months of intervention separated into three phases. Veterans receive counseling and other tools to help them cope with the root of the problems that landed them in court. Some veterans attend group therapy; others spend time at residential treatment facilities. Veterans are also connected with education benefits through the GI Bill or other vocational training programs.

“Veterans get a chance. This is an opportunity to work on themselves, get treatment and also work on other things that may be going on in their lives.”–Denise Lukowski

“Some people are under the misconception that we’re giving these veterans special treatment, and how do we answer that?” Hirsch says. “I think after 9/11, we realized that people who essentially answered the call and signed up to protect our freedoms here may deserve a little bit of special treatment.”

Another factor she considers is the multiple deployments. “In Vietnam you did your one year and you came back. Now we have people on their third tour of duty. [This] is taking a toll on them and on their families.”

Lukowski points out the court’s mentorship model. Each vet works with multiple volunteers, according to his or her needs at the time. “[The mentorship] removes the stigma,” says Lukowski. “I think that’s what really makes this effective. To be in that court and to watch other veterans go through it,” she says, makes them realize “we’re not alone in this.”

What made the most difference for Thrower, a disabled vet of the Army’s 25th Infantry, was breaking through the military culture of stoicism. Many military men and women bypass psychological help for fear of being seen as weak. A report by the CMHS National GAINS Center’s Forum on Combat Veterans, Trauma, and the Justice System from August 2008 pinpointed barriers to care from a sample of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Nearly 65 percent responded they would be seen as weak if they sought treatment; 63 percent said their unit leadership would treat him or her differently, and 59 percent thought members of their unit might have less confidence in them.

But Thrower sees it in another light now. “When you show your weakness, there is help for you,” he says sternly. “You speak on it, then you have no problem.”

Thanks to the court, Thrower is also on Compensation Work Therapy or CWT. He works at the VA hospital in housekeeping. Before the storm that hit New York at the end of October, Thrower would leave his Far Rockaway apartment every day at 4:30 a.m. and ride the A train an hour and a half to Manhattan. He expects to become a permanent employee. As he approached 11 months in the VA court system he said, “I’m not tired of [the program] because of the judge. I look forward to seeing her. She always got a smile on her face and I try to have a smile on mine.”