Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in harms way

On Bill Moyer’s public TV program constitutional lawyer, Glenn Greenwald, said the United States has the “most merciless criminal justice system in the world”. He pointed to the large number of our citizens incarcerated in support of his comment.

Especially in light of this “mercilessness”, don’t we have a responsibility for a strong and effective system of public defense so that the weak and unfortunate amongst us do not get unjustly caught in the tentacles of the criminal justice system?

Regrettably, it is a responsibility we have been woefully poor in meeting. As the NY Times pointed out in a front page article, “Citing Workload, Public Lawyers Reject New Cases” on November 9, 2008, “Public defenders are notoriously overworked, and their turnover is high and their pay low”. They are pinched to “the breaking point” as the Times graphically points out.

With this as the background, we have a new class of impaired and in need citizens coming up against the criminal justice system. These are the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who return from the harms way of war to the harms way of adjusting to civilian life carrying the baggage of war.

The good news to the extent any good news exists from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the “ratio of survivors to fatalities in the current war operations is greater than in any other war in modern history”. The very bad news is many returning veterans suffer untreated psychological and brain trauma on the battlefield. It has been reported that “of the 1.6 million military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, 38 percent of Army and fully half of National Guard service members have been diagnosed with mental illness”.

Medical care and the health and social safety net for veterans diagnosed with mental illness are notoriously bad from a health system for veterans characterized as “overcrowded, mismanaged, and under funded.

While veterans are supposed to have a health safety net as poor as it may be, I wonder how many of the Blackwater contracted private forces are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Is their mental and other war related health problems covered by Blackwater or will it be added to the social burden and cost of the war for all of us?

It isn’t surprising that veterans become incarcerated. Here are the basic facts: “Justice Department statistics suggest roughly 12 percent of the 7 million people within corrections systems-in prison, jail or on parole-have served in the military. Four in five incarcerated veterans reported drug dependency, and nearly a quarter held in jails were homeless in the year before arrest. A quarter of these veterans were also identified as mentally ill”.

When the public defender service providers are already overburdened, what can they do when they face special needs from the men and women who risk their lives to protect our freedom and have high incidence of substance abuse disorders and represent a disproportionate number of our prison population?

Veteran and defense advocates are trying to get public financial support necessary to train and educate the public defense community on matters like identifying defendants with traumatic brain injury and PTSD and being able to relate it to explaining criminal behavior.

The problems relating to the trauma suffered by returning veterans are very real. Let us not lose sight of the importance of providing these veterans with social equity so they can reintegrate themselves into the life of their home communities.

The state’s financial troubles are no excuse for failing to fully meet our responsibilities to veterans getting trapped by our criminal justice system.

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