Do you want to know what was — and still is — unbelievably sad? Incredibly wrong? And just plan un-American?
That at one time over 200,000 of our soldiers who had served in the Vietnam War and had come home were in prison, many for problems related either to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) — once called ’combat fatigue’ — or related addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Many of our troops during Vietnam had gotten hooked on drugs or booze just to cope with the agonies of that war or injuries sustained there. Then they came home and were often treated like ‘war criminals,’ as the New Left labeled them in those days.
And then, sure enough, when they ran into problems with the criminal justice system and an unforgiving public attitude toward their problems, they were thrown into jail as if they were part of the criminal element.
This was — and remains — one of the most disgraceful examples of betrayal in American history.
Now, once again, we are faced with hundreds of thousands of returning veterans from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with many of the same severe problems: brain injuries and severe concussions (from IEDs) — often mis- or undiagnosed — and PTSD and addictions to prescription and non-prescription drugs and alcohol.
These vets are now also running into trouble back home trying to re-adjust to life.
Here is a typical example: a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq. He had been trained to never go anywhere in Baghdad without his firearm firmly in his holster. OK. He survives that hellhole and returns home to New York City, where he remains in the Army Reserve. He does not feel safe without that firearm still strapped to his belt; his Army training had kept him alive and he could not and would not abandon its lessons. Sure enough — without doing a thing — he is arrested under the city’s strict new gun laws. Mere possession of a handgun means an automatic one- to three-year prison sentence. And that heroic veteran was sent to state prison.
This is true.
And it is just plain wrong.
Are we going to repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam War era? Are we going to turn our backs on these wonderful men and women who risk life and limb for us?
This week in New York City there was an announcement that someday will be viewed as a turning point in the care of our returning veterans:
Three district attorneys from Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County joined with the chief judge of New York state, Thomas Lippman, and the Veterans Administration and some generous private charities to announce the first Veterans Mental Health Court Initiative.
This program will handle cases that involve veterans who commit non-violent crimes and who should receive treatment for their mental illnesses rather than be incarcerated. This will be the largest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the nation, involving two urban counties (Brooklyn and Queens) and one suburban county (Nassau) with a combined population of 6 million.
The real impetus for this program is to avoid that indifference we showed the Vietnam veterans. They became addicted to the pain medication they received for their wounds. And then when they used or sold drugs to feed their habits, rather than treat them we put them in prison, often for many years.
This Veterans Mental Health Court Initiative will be very popular around the nation when veterans and their families hear about it.
We need every district attorney in every county and municipality in our nation to implement a similar program, with the appropriate training for the judges who will preside over these special courts.
All veterans need to prod their DAs to follow the example this week of these pioneering DAs in New York.
This week’s announcement in New York is a turning point in our history. We are changing from the disgraceful way we used to treat our vets into a smart, flexible system that adjusts to the realities of war.
Please spread the word.
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