Veterans Court Gives Addicted Military Members A Second Chance

By McCarton Ackerman 12/09/13

Soldiers suffering from addiction can benefit from a strict, but highly successful program that includes treatment therapy, meditation, and mandatory drug testing.

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Roughly 22 vets commit suicide every day
Photo via Shutterstock

Because of the growing number of veterans dealing with mental illness and substance abuse, the U.S. legal system is seeing a surge in veterans court programs that are designed to give military veterans suffering with addiction a chance at redemption through treatment instead of prison time. The first special court for veterans was launched in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2008, and has since expanded to 130 similar courts in 40 states. Veterans court programs are modeled on drug courts that encourage support programs instead of incarceration based on the significantly reduced recidivism rates.

Former Marine Cpl. Eric Gonzalez, who served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, faced a nine-year prison sentence for leading police on a high-speed chase that resulted in charges of DUI, evading arrest, and assault of a police officer. But his depression and PTSD after serving in the war-torn country led Judge Wendy Lindley to recommend Gonzalez for her veterans court program in Orange County Calif; he graduated from the program last September.

“This guy was sent someplace no one should ever be sent, but that’s what we do to our kids because we’re good at it,” said Bert Eitner, Gonzalez’ former drug court parole officer. “And you can’t strap a gun on every day and not have it affect you.” The trauma of war is precisely why the veterans court program only deals with men and women no longer serving on active duty; Eitner believes “there’s no point giving them all these services and letting them go back to deployment.”

Gonzalez said the veterans court program consisted of living in a residential recovery center while undergoing treatment which included cognitive and exposure therapies, as well as meditation and exercise classes. Frequent and mandatory drug testing also took place; Gonzalez said he was tested six times each week by Eitner despite “already peeing for four other people.”

Because of this rigid program, veteran courts have a tremendous track record of success and a recidivism rate of only three percent. “We’ve got this battle force that kept us safe since 9/11,” said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. “Now we’ve got to stay behind them.”

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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.