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Too Many U.S. Veterans End Up Behind Bars. It’s Time to Break the Cycle

6 minute read
Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran and two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska, served as the U.S.'s 24th Secretary of Defense. He is Chairman of the Council on Criminal Justice Veterans Justice Commission.

America’s veterans are in trouble—literally. Each year roughly 200,000 service members transition out of the military, and while most reenter civilian life successfully, others struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and homelessness.

For many, this post-service journey leads to a grim destination: the criminal justice system. One in three of the nation’s 19 million veterans report having been arrested and jailed at least once, and more than 181,000 are behind bars. Former service members make up nearly 8% of those in state prisons and 5% of the federal prison population.

I am deeply troubled by such statistics, but not surprised. I served in Vietnam and remember not only the combat experience, but also the painful aftermath that engulfed so many friends and fellow soldiers back home. Fatal overdoses, broken marriages, failed careers, suicides, chronic depression—the legacy of our visible and invisible scars was plain to see.

Research tells us that today’s veterans have it even worse, in part because of the especially challenging nature of their service. The four million Americans who have served since the September 11, 2001, attacks fought lengthy, simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and are about twice as likely as veterans of previous wars to have served in an active combat zone. Many post 9-11 veterans also served multiple deployments, making them three times more likely than those who were not deployed to suffer from PTSD.

One question I’ve wrestled with, as a veteran myself, a former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration (VA) under President Reagan, and later as U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Obama, is what causes some veterans to veer across the threshold into criminal behavior. To answer that question I’ve joined with the Council on Criminal Justice to launch a national commission.

Our goal is to recommend policy changes to better support at-risk veterans and, in turn, better protect public safety. As we undertake this mission, I’m learning that our understanding of the nature and extent of veterans’ involvement in the criminal justice system is poor. For starters, we often don’t know when a veteran comes in contact with the system – knowledge that could, where appropriate, allow for diversion to a program targeting former service members. Few justice agencies participate in VA systems designed to identify veterans, and, when arrested, many veterans choose not to share their status out of shame or fear of losing VA benefits. Such benefits, ranging from disability compensation to pension payments and other support, can be reduced or terminated during incarceration.

In addition, while research can tell us what makes people more or less likely to engage in criminal behavior, it’s unclear whether veterans have a distinctive and unique set of risk factors that elevate their likelihood of offending.

For many veterans, the downward spiral toward incarceration is tied to their transition from military service to the civilian world. Military life is highly regimented. Expectations are clear and service members are supported by rigorous training, a common culture, a unifying mission, and pride in their important work.

Coming home, veterans lose the structure, guiding purpose and unique social bonds of the military. They’re asked to find ways to support themselves, economically and otherwise, in a complex society, and many feel lost. A 2019 survey found that while nine in ten veterans felt their training equipped them well for military service, only about half felt prepared to return to civilian life.

As they work to find a new place in the world, many veterans shoulder nightmarish memories of terrible things experienced overseas. They see friends killed and seriously wounded, and witness other real and “collateral” violence that comes with war. For some veterans, it adds up to a toxic blend of anxiety, loss, anger and pain.

When my brother, Tom, and I returned home from Vietnam in 1968, PTSD was not a recognized mental health diagnosis. Fortunately, that era is behind us, and we are beginning to fully understand the deep harm that this disorder—along with traumatic brain injuries—can inflict. As many as one-third of veterans develop PTSD, and it significantly increases their chance of coming in contact with the justice system.

In some jurisdictions, the impacts of trauma—and the vulnerability of emotionally wounded veterans to substance use disorders—are acknowledged by veterans treatment courts, which divert former service members away from incarceration in suitable cases. Blending drug testing, mandatory treatment and regular appearances before a judge, such courts have a promising track record. But compared to the need, such diversion opportunities are few, and too many veterans are falling through the cracks and winding up behind bars.

One factor that may contribute to that trajectory is the discharge designation departing service members receive. Since World War II, the share of those receiving “other than honorable” discharges has grown fivefold. The impact on veterans who receive such a designation is severe—loss of all VA benefits, including mental health and substance use treatment.

To be clear, these are not “bad conduct” or “dishonorable discharges” that involve court martials, but cases involving less serious misbehavior. Many of these discharges no doubt are merited. But common PTSD symptoms can cause behavior contrary to military standards, such as failure to carry out duties or chronic tardiness. Military commanders may assume such behavior amounts to bad character, and then assign a discharge that bars access to the vital, lifelong benefits to which veterans normally are entitled.

Our commission’s mandate is to sort through this and other thorny problems, and I’m confident we’ve assembled the right group of people for the job. Our backgrounds and perspectives may differ, but we agree on one thing: while our nation excels at honoring veterans with parades, medals, and holidays, we’ve done too little to help our military men and women manage the trauma and other serious challenges they face as they leave the service of our country and embark on a completely new way of life.

We can do better for our veterans. Our country owes them that.

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