Veterans' justice: A separate court system pops up for returning vets

Courts offer leniency and treatment for veterans returning home with high PTSD and addiction rates

Iraq veteran Eddie Zorak
Carmen Gentile

PITTSBURGH — Eddie Zorak sips his coffee and recalls the day his buddy was killed in an explosion just west of Baghdad.

Eyes darting side to side, Zorak says his friend and fellow soldier Chad Edmundson died during his deployment in a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED). 

After that day, Zorak was never the same.

"I had a hard time after I lost my friend," he says, recalling his difficulties coping with Edmundson's death while conducting a dangerous yearlong mission as specialist in the National Guard. His unit went on arduous foot patrols — sometimes two or three a day — through streets riddled with IEDs. The patrols consisted of regular raids of suspected insurgent safe houses, he says, where armed men might lie in wait.

"After a patrol, everyone would take their gear off,” including a heavy bulletproof vest and Kevlar helmet, says Zorak. “But I would keep mine on,” he says, referring to the paranoia that plagued him both in Iraq and after his return to the U.S.

Here in his native western Pennsylvania, life proved difficult. Zorak drank heavily and made rash decisions, he says, like getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated. Before long, he was arrested on DUI charges.

But instead of being tried in a conventional court, where he could face several months in prison, Zorak was tried in a court specializing in treating troubled veterans. In veterans’ court he had access to counseling and was given a strict schedule of meetings aimed at teaching him how to cope with haunting memories of war brought home.

Zorak’s experiences mirror those of tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who come home suffering from post-traumatic stress and physical maladies. Often their ailments lead to chronic depression and, in some cases, troubles with the law.

Rising crime rates among veterans — particularly young ones — have helped these special courts for veterans to spread. Had he not been given the opportunities provided by this special court, Zorak believes his story would be much different.

"If it wasn't for the court,” he says bluntly, “I'd be dead." 

PTSD, addiction, court

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 23: Judge Robert Russell, creator of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court, shakes hands with veteran Justin Smith who has succeeded in his court.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

The first veterans’ court was set up in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008 to provide an alternative court for veterans “struggling with addiction and mental illness.” Since then nearly 170 more have been created around the country. In Pennsylvania, from which a large percentage of U.S. servicemen and women hail, there are at least 17 such courts in metropolitan and rural areas.

Across the state from Zorak, in Philadelphia, prosecutor Guy Garant says he's seen a wide spectrum of veterans on the docket during his five years serving the court, from retirement-age Vietnam vets living on the streets to young men and women just recently returned to civilian life.

"It's harder for the older guys to turn it around because they are set in their ways," says Garant, who is a Marine Corps veteran. The younger defendants are usually facing their first charges when they arrive in court.

"Usually the younger guys don't have a record, because they haven't had time to get a record," he says.

Garant says most cases that land in these courts involve substance abuse triggered by PTSD or other emotional or physical war wounds. There has been a notable uptick in drug dependency among veterans in recent years, as military physicians often prescribe injured soldiers opium-based pain relievers like Oxycontin, he says.

When the soldiers return to civilian life, these prescriptions eventually run out. Those who form a dependency on drugs for pain relief and emotional coping sometimes turn to the streets to purchase pills or stronger drugs.

"They start out buying pills on the streets," says Melissa Stango, a public defender in Philadelphia's veterans’ court. "They then find out how expensive it is, and turn to heroin."

Before long, they run afoul of the law, she says, whether by getting caught in possession of an illegal substance or driving under the influence. More serious infractions may include burglaries or domestic assault.

Stango says nine out of 10 veterans who enter the Philadelphia court are brought up on charges linked to some aspect of substance dependency, typically heroin addiction.

To combat dependency and other problems associated with drugs, the courts order veterans to attend meetings and obtain other forms of counseling to treat the root of the problem and reduce recidivism. Those who skip them can be marched back into court. There, if the judge finds the veteran is shirking efforts to overcome problems that landed him in court in the first place, he could face incarceration.

It can take several relapses before a veteran addicted to drugs stays on track and completes treatment. Garant recalls several veterans who arrived in court obviously intoxicated following a relapse after several months of progress.

"Sometimes it's a slow process," he says. 

Leniency yields a kidnapping

If a veteran commits a crime against another person, such as assault or robbery, then the victim must give his or her approval for the accused to be tried in the veterans’ court.

Garant says the Philadelphia court takes cases that perhaps other veterans’ courts throughout the country wouldn't, namely felony charges such as home burglary.

"We're taking chances on high-risk guys," he says.

One veteran receiving help in the Pittsburgh-area court made national headlines in September 2012, when, armed with a kitchen knife and hammer, he held a man hostage for several hours in a downtown Pittsburgh office building. Klein Michael Thaxton had already been through the veterans’ court and was receiving treatment and help with housing after carjacking charges in 2011, for which he avoided serving time. In the September 2012 incident, he was eventually arrested without harming his captive, and is now serving up to 15 years in state prison on kidnapping charges.

The sad truth is there are always going to be veterans that slip through the cracks.

Chris Deutsch

Justice for Vets

The Thaxton case raised questions about the standards used by judges and lawyers to determine who qualifies for the court. For now, each court determines which veterans they'll admit and what crimes they are willing to try. Some accept serious felony cases; others don't. Like Garant, Pittsburgh Veterans’ Court judge John Zottola says his court accepts cases "that are more serious" than others will accept.

He says that the Thaxton case was an anomaly for his court, which has tried around 30 veterans since its inception in 2009.

"We try to put in place as many precautions as possible. But nobody anticipated (anything like) that, obviously,” Zottola says of the kidnapping.

Garant was optimistic regarding the court’s success. Just 14 percent of veterans who go through the program there relapsed in 2012, says Garant.

Chris Deutsch, director of communications for Justice for Vets, or JFV, a nonprofit veterans advocacy group, says it will take some time to see whether recent graduates of the program commit new crimes after their treatment.

Adjustments like the kind of study that Deutsch advocates could help the courts improve. But they will never be perfect.

"The sad truth,” says Deutsch, “is there are always going to be veterans that slip through the cracks." 

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