Veterans face different challenges than civilians and the justice system is paying attention. Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11 every year. It marks the day we recognize and honor the brave men and women of our Armed Forces who have served our country. We honor the individuals who devoted themselves to protecting the United States. And they not only defended our freedoms but also the freedoms of others who could not fight for themselves. 

History of Veterans Day

Veterans Day was first established, more than one hundred years ago in 1918. It celebrated the armistice—the agreement for peace—ending World War I.  Although our world experiences continual hostilities, for at least one day each year, we need to focus on peace and those who stood on the front lines for it.

We need to thank them for the sacrifices that they have made. We should acknowledge what they have endured—sacrifices that many civilians are unwilling or unable to make. They bravely took orders to go to the most frightening situations on earth and fought for our country and its beliefs. Even when civilians debated whether those beliefs were in everyone’s best interests, these men and women served and held their heads high.

Showing Appreciation

One of the ways that we can show our appreciation and respect for our veterans is to start acknowledging the challenges they face. They experience difficulties even after they have been discharged from the Service. We need to establish new ways to help them through emotional, physical, and sometimes legal challenges.

According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, in 2017 there were 18.6 million veterans among our 325 million citizens. In other words, one in every 18 citizens is a veteran.

The median age of our male veterans is 65 years, while female veterans have a median age of around 51 years. Less than 250,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive today. But the largest percentage of living U.S. veterans served in the Vietnam era.

The Emotional Toll of Service

Sadly, more than 17 veterans commit suicide each day. While this number is tragic, it has declined from 2013 when 22 Veterans committed suicide daily. At present, when adjusted for age and gender, veterans still take their own lives at a much-increased rate of nearly 27 per 100,000. This is compared to the similarly situated non-veteran population, about 18 per 100,000. 

One bright spot in this data is that there were nearly 400 fewer veteran suicides in 2019 than in 2018. A surprisingly sharp decline after year-over-year increases of nearly 50 for more than thirteen years. Still, approximately 30 percent of our veterans reported having had thoughts of taking their own lives. Half of them state that they know another veteran who considered or did commit suicide.

There is also a reasonable fear of a future “tidal wave” of suicides among our younger men and women at arms, those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nearly 70% of these suicides were veterans aged 50 and older, many Vietnam vets who returned home to an unsupportive country unaware of or indifferent to the extremely damaging effects of untreated mental and physical health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury. 

Seeking Help and Support for Suicidal Veterans

In addition, these men and women served and returned home during a time period where seeking treatment was considered a sign of weakness. Thankfully, the military has made great strides in recent years to upend that type of thinking.

An estimated 25% of veterans receiving care in a Veterans Health Administration facility were treated for both physical and mental illnesses. The most common among them are depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder.  But these are the ones who seek help and are forthcoming about their struggles. 

Read about how a North Carolina Judge helped a Gulf War veteran struggling with PTSD and substance abuse.  

Here in Arizona, their struggle to get sufficient medical and psychiatric care received national attention. After the VA scandal that erupted in 2014, former Representative and chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee Harry Mitchell spoke words we would be wise to remember: “everybody probably thought that things were doing OK, but we should have listened to the veterans.”  In truth, we need to start listening to our veterans when they’re acting, not just when they’re talking.  

According to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide, “87% of veterans were potentially exposed to traumatic events during their service, regardless of their combat experience.” An estimated 30% or more of veterans have PTSD. The root causes of PTSD are widely varied: trauma from service (what they experienced first-hand and what they witnessed done to others), stress from their training and mental states, survivor’s guilt, and difficulty in transitioning and integrating back into the civilian world.

Help for Hidden Mental Health Wounds

These “hidden wounds” often underlie the destructive decisions (acts of violence and substance abuse-derived conduct) that are in such contrast to the character of these otherwise upstanding citizens. 

These decisions often result in criminal charges which compound the issues. These charges include misdemeanors and felonies, for these already struggling vets.  

Also, when you consider that self-medication is one of the most prevalent coping mechanisms to address psychological illnesses, it should come as no surprise that “over 50 percent of veterans involved in the justice system live with mental health or substance abuse issues.”  

So what can we do for these veterans who have been arrested and are now facing criminal charges?

Veterans Courts a Community Response

Veterans treatment courts began popping up across the country in 2008, and here in Arizona, there are now numerous courts that specifically handle veterans’ cases. Tucson established the first Veterans Court in Arizona in 2009, and the City of Phoenix started the first Veterans Court in Maricopa County in 2012.  Other local jurisdictions that were inspired after seeing the great results were Mesa, the East Valley Veterans Court (Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler, and Gilbert), Maricopa, Pima and Coconino Counties, and most recently in 2021, Glendale.  

These courts focus on the big picture, namely: Why is this formerly law-abiding hero now facing criminal offenses? According to the creators of Phoenix’s Veterans Court: “The goal of Veterans Court is to restore veterans to be successful, contributing members of the community. The court focuses on ensuring that veterans entering the criminal justice system make contact with specific programs to address the root causes of the behavior that resulted in the veteran becoming a defendant in the criminal justice system.”  

The Veterans Court recognizes that a “cookie-cutter” approach to justice with these men and women will not help them in the long term; instead, it requires the veterans to willingly and fully participate with their individually tailored treatment programs that are handled through the Veterans Administration.  Rather than send the veterans through the standard programs that other defendants go through, the VA tries to take a more holistic treatment approach, while reducing expenses for these veterans.  Accountability vis-à-vis therapy and rehabilitation (as opposed to punishment) underlies the motives of the “model” Veteran’s Court.

In addition, we have personally witnessed the myriad ways that the Veterans Courts aim to help veterans, whether it be with addressing healthcare, education, housing, or employment, all of which can play a part in reducing reoffending. 

Employment Opportunities

Employment opportunities for returning veterans may not be as lucrative as one might think—particularly for post 911 vets.  According to a 2015 University of Southern California study, despite national efforts to hire more veterans and educate employers, veterans still struggle to find and keep jobs in part because civilian employers fail to understand them.  

Many vets without a college degree but with highly specialized combat and military skills find it difficult to translate these specialized skills into the civilian workforce.  The local veterans courts partner with Veterans Upward Bound at ASU to provide additional resources to help these vets reach their full potential in their civilian lives.

Legal Assistance and Representation

As criminal defense attorneys who regularly handle DUI, domestic violence, and drug possession charges, we are honored to work with our veterans and try to find the best possible resolutions for their cases, and the Veterans Courts are one mechanism for that.  Over the past decade, we’ve watched the successes at the Phoenix Veterans Court and brought attention to the need for a Veterans Court in Scottsdale. 

We were thrilled to see that happen in late 2016 and for what it meant for veterans facing misdemeanor cases there: that just because their criminal conduct took place in a different city didn’t mean they would be treated differently or that their service-related challenges would be ignored.  Likewise, we’re excited to see additional Veterans Courts starting up in the West Valley and hope that the justice courts will soon be on board.

Too Proud to Seek Help?

If you are fortunate enough to have a relative or friend that is a Vet, you are likely aware that Veterans are not inclined to seek help. For many of them, our heroes, it is perceived as a sign that they are weak or broken. However, when facing a criminal charge for the first time, they have to face the reality that they need help.

Retired Brigadier General Gregg Maxon, the Veterans Court adviser for the Arizona Supreme Court and founder of Tempe’s Veterans Court, reminds us: “These folks were there for us when we needed them. We could stomp on them when they’re down or we could pick them up, brush them off, and see if we can get them back on that path.” At Veterans Court, we have a chance to give back to these men and women in a sincerely meaningful way and possibly save their lives. After all they’ve done to protect our freedom, shouldn’t we take that opportunity?