Veteran Treatment Courts Helping Returning Soldiers Overcome Addiction

By McCarton Ackerman 11/13/14

Roughly one out of six veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from drug or alcohol addiction.

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A wave of special treatment courts designed for veterans who have gotten themselves into drug-related troubles have been appearing across the country, addressing the undeniable mental and physical issues many soldiers face when returning from overseas.

The first Veteran Treatment Court was founded in early 2008 by Judge Robert Russell and now the number of courts has increased to 197 across the U.S. that serve more than 10,000 veterans. Many of them would be in jail without the services offered the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

These courts are only available to veterans who have been clinically diagnosed with a substance abuse or mental health disorder. In most cases, the charges against them are dropped and their records expunged if they complete a 12-step program—the length of which is determined based on the crime and medical history.

"It's really about the struggle re-integrating after experiencing the trauma of war," said Melissa Fitzgerald, a former West Wing actress turned 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."

The success rates of these courts have been high because former soldiers who enroll in them do so by choice, indicating they are motivated to get well. "You are here because it’s your choice…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,” said Patrick Dugan, a judge at the Philadelphia Municipal Court and a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves JAG Corps. “You need to be ready to address the underlying issues that cause the criminal behavior."

Data recently released by the RAND organization found that roughly one out of six Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, which is further exacerbated by the nearly 20% of these veterans who also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental health issue. Narcotics prescriptions among patients treated by VA have soared by 259% over the last 11 years.

Many in the Veteran Treatment Court believe that the military could be doing more to address this issue by offering a transitional program for people coming out of the military. "Vets are not going to stop coming to the VA in pain," said Pearson Crosby, who is currently enrolled in a Veteran Court program in Philadelphia, "Between Iraq and Afghanistan, all the IEDs, explosions, the tolls it takes on soldiers' bodies and minds...I think they need to find a better way to handle severe pain."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.