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Out of the 2.6 million Americans shipped out to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an astounding 1.5 million suffer from physical or mental health problems related to their service. Recent data gathered by the RAND organization estimates that 1 in 6 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are either alcoholics, drug addicts, or a combination. To top it off, a CBS investigation found the number of patients treated by the VA increased by 29 percent over the past 11 years, while narcotics prescriptions skyrocketed by 259 percent.
With those facts in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that an increasing number of vets are facing some serious legal troubles caused by addiction.
With more and more vets flooding the U.S. court system, something has to give. And in 2008, Judge Robert Russell of New York set into motion a program that would eventually become an invaluable resource for the nation’s battle-hardened soldiers. His program, mission, and passion morphed into the country’s very first Veteran Treatment Court.
These specialized courts only accept vets who are facing legal troubles and have been clinically diagnosed with a substance abuse and/or mental health disorder. Once accepted, veterans are required to enroll in a residential program that varies in length and design according to the severity of their medical case and crime. When he or she successfully completes all the requirements, formal charges are dropped and records expunged.
To better understand the very real addiction epidemic facing veterans, consider this: By 2010, 19 Veteran Treatment Courts had been implemented – most at the request of judges. Fast-forward to 2012 and the U.S had 129 Veteran Treatment Courts. At present, a whopping 197 Veteran Treatment Courts are in operation serving more than 10,000 military vets looking at jail time.
“It’s really about the struggle re-integrating after experiencing the trauma of war,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, Senior Director of Justice For Vets, a national non-profit that raises awareness and funds for Veterans Treatment Courts.
“We have more than 23 million vets now,” she added. “These courts ensure that when veterans return home, they have access to the structure, treatment, and mentoring they need to get their lives back on track.”
Patrick Dugan, judge for the Philadelphia Municipal Court and captain in the U.S. Army Reserves JAG Corps, presides over a Veteran Treatment Court.
“When you’re in the military, everything is micro-managed,” said Pearson. “You have someone to rely on, but in the civilian world you’re really all on your own, and people don’t know–they can’t understand what you’ve been through.”
Dugan added how the requirements demanded by veteran courts are much more stringent than a typical criminal defendant experiences. “What I want our veteran defendants to understand is, if you’re coming into my courtroom, you need to be ready to go to treatment. You need to be ready to address the underlying issues that cause the criminal behavior.”
Learn more about treatment options for alcohol and drug addiction.
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