"We don’t need another generation of veterans in prison"
by Pam Zubeck
An Air Force interrogator watched his marriage go sour after returning to Colorado Springs from the prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
He pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges for slapping his wife, which cost him his security clearance. The airman, who has no memory of the incident and has been diagnosed with mental problems stemming from his Gitmo assignment, soon will be discharged from the service.
An Army combat medic at Fort Carson later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder got drunk and decided to commit suicide. The Iraq vet choked his wife as they struggled over a shotgun. He now faces an attempted-murder charge.
Alvarez said the airman and medic cases might have turned out differently if they’d been afforded treatment rather than being charged with crimes.
"We don’t need another generation of veterans in prison," Alvarez said. "The Korean War did it. The Vietnam War did it. We want to break the cycle."
Alvarez said convicted service members stand to lose security clearances or the right to carry a firearm, which often leads to their being discharged. The military loses good people, and the veterans don’t get the help they need.
That’s why Alvarez and other local officials are working to set up a veterans court in Colorado Springs, a concept that’s gaining steam as communities search for alternative legal avenues for war-veteran offenders.
Such courts have been set up in Buffalo, N.Y.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Orange County, Calif., according to The National Law Journal.
Locals have been kicking around the veterans court concept for months, but the idea recently got traction when the state received a $2 million grant to be used for veterans issues. The local group made a pitch for part of it and was approved, Alvarez said, but doesn’t know how much it will get.
The money would be used to set up a five-year pilot project that could lead to permanent funding, Alvarez said.
"We said, ‘We’ve got 600 soldiers getting arrested here each year from Fort Carson alone,’" Alvarez said. "That’s the 600 the Army knows about."
Part of the project involves tracking how many military members are jailed. Until about two months ago, El Paso County jail staff didn’t ask suspects whether they were war vets.
Now, that’s being tracked.
Veterans court is just what it implies: a place where veterans suffering from brain injuries, PTSD or some other issue arising from duty in a war zone can get help and avoid the traditional court system and prison.
A coordinator would assemble medical records to document a veteran suffers problems stemming from war service. An oversight committee would review the case. If found eligible and if the District Attorney’s Office agrees, the veteran would be paired with a mentor and submit to a treatment program. If the soldier successfully completed the program, he might have his record wiped clean or get a lighter sentence.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May, whose office would decide whether a soldier would be prosecuted or placed in the program, is on board.
"I’m very interested in it," May said. "We think a lot of good things can come out of this.
Are there common issues we’re seeing with veterans? Is the traditional way of handling that appropriate, or can we bring other methods to stop recidivism, impose an appropriate sentence and deal with the underlying issues?"
Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Ronald Crowder, an Army veteran who serves on the committee, also supports the program, saying the potential number of cases could reach 1,200 a year if misdemeanors and traffic offenses are included.
Although Sheriff Terry Maketa said removing soldiers from his jail won’t solve the crowding problem, he supports the effort.
"The whole concept is to focus on treatment, not just the court system," Maketa said.
"People between the ages of 18 and 25 are most likely to be involved in some criminal act. They’re what the Army is full of, so let’s look at these individuals and try not to ruin their lives and careers. It’s all about getting these soldiers to treatment."
Alvarez said the program also could prevent suicide, a growing problem.
But he said the program, which he hopes to have up and running by August, isn’t a "get-out-of-jail free pass."
"They’ve got to earn their exemption," he said, adding, "These kids volunteered to serve their country, and now we owe them."
Call Pam Zubeck at (303) 636-0238
Fort Carson Cases
Source: Fort Carson; includes all traffic, misdemeanor and felony cases in civilian courts and all military infractions, such as absent without leave.