Feb. 2021 Report, Part 1

Echoes of War:  Combat Trauma, Criminal Behavior, and how we can do a better job, this time around. 

Brockton Hunter served as an Army Recon. Scout and sniper in the Gulf War, 30 years ago.   When he returned to civilian life, he initially found he had trouble fitting back in.  He graduated from college and then Law School, and has been practicing law in Minneapolis ever since, primarily in criminal defense.  He devotes a large part of his practice to working with veterans, and works as counsel for a non-profit, The Veterans’ Defense Project,  which focuses on policy, education, and advocacy,  to ensure that the courts in Minnesota, and across the country do a better job than they did for Gulf War veterans, and better help our current crop of veterans return to productive life in our communities.
In 2008, he helped pass the original Veterans Sentencing legislation and helped found the Hennepin County Veterans’ Court in 2010.   We now have about a dozen courts around the state.   Mr. Hunter is now revising the Minnesota statutes, and hopes that will be passed by this Legislature. 

In his presentation, Mr. Hunter explained why we see so many veterans come into the courts; what combat trauma looks like from the perspective of the veteran; how the courts are now doing a better job for our veterans than they have in the past; how they can do even better.

To improve the way the Minnesota justice system deals with troubled veterans,
by increasing understanding of the nature of combat trauma, its ties to criminal behavior,
and how criminal charges can serve as intervention opportunities to leverage
veteran offenders into needed treatment and help them become assets,
rather than ongoing liabilities,
to the communities they once risked their lives to protect. 

The Coming Storm:  Escalating numbers of veterans are entering the criminal courts in Minnesota, and across the country.   History tells us this will continue for the foreseeable future, creating  an increasing public health and public safety threat.Looking back to our recent history:

Lessons from Vietnam:   Of the 3 million  Americans who served in Vietnam, 1 to 1.5 million suffered psychological  injuries.  A decade later, followup revealed that, of those treated for psychological trauma, half had contact with the criminal justice system and been arrested at least one time;  over a third had been arrested 2 or more times; nearly 12% had been convicted of felonies.

Vietnam veterans faced more hostility when they came home.  They were actually blamed for fighting in an unpopular war.  They were called “baby killers” and worse.   The attitude was even more apparent when they encountered the justice system.   Veterans were actually treated more harshly than people who had not served but had committed the same crimes.  40 years later, hundreds of thousands are still incarcerated, chronically homeless, or addicted.  Some 58,000  Americans died in Vietnam, but at least that many or more committed suicide after the war.   Not all suicides are apparent, and experts suggest that as many as 150,000 contributed to their own deaths, when you include drug overdoses and other self-destructive behavior — that’s half of those who served.

Who gave service in Iraq and Afghanistan: so far, over 3,000,000 Americans have served there.  In 2012 the Institute of Medicine issued a report,  “Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in military and veteran population: initial assessment.”(1)   The report first suggested that returning veterans revealed a similar profile.  As of 2012, over 500,000 were displaying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   Another 500,000 have traumatic brain injury (TBI)  Less than half of those have reported or requested treatment.   Experts are certain that these numbers are low, not accurate.
Additionally, over 300,000 women have served  in Iraq or Afghanistan.  They are now serving in combat roles, and are in the pipeline to become Navy Seals, Green Berets, and other frontline missions.  Right now, 20% have been diagnosed with PTSD, no doubt more have not received a diagnosis.   Women face additional stress:   they also are targets of military sexual trauma, committed by a peer or a superior — someone they are supposed to entrust with their lives.  Many of the women who come through the courts report sexual trauma, whether they’ve seen combat service or not.

How our current veterans are different from those 40 years ago.    The   Vietnam war was fought by draftees, who served one 12-month combat tour.  After that single tour, 90% went home.
In contrast, our current army is made up of volunteers and is much smaller.  To make up for the smaller army, the current army serves in multiple deployments.  Many have now served 2 or 3 combat tours, some have served as many as 8 full, year-long deployments.   Special Operations, Navy Seals, Rangers, and special teams will serve even more.  These will be shorter deployments but much more intense, since they are the “tip of the spear.”  Some Special Ops have had even 20 deployments.  

Experts agree these multiple deployments will lead to the highest rates of PTSD that we’ve ever seen.   PTSD is now referred to as  “exposure injury”.  

Civilians need to understand:  this is a warrior culture.  Focused service and self-sacrifice training doesn’t have a parallel in civilian life.  Warrior culture teaches that a soldier’s goal is completing the mission and taking care of the team, with little regard for self.   Mr. Hunter suggested the culture of selflessness is a barrier to accepting help when it’s needed.

Post-Vietnam Paradigm Shift:

Citizens no longer “Blame the Troops” as they did.  Today, we support our troops, whether or not we support the wars they fought.  Citizens accept that “we the people” elect the people who create the national policy to wage war.  

The goal of  the Veterans Defense Court is to turn the “Support the Troops” mentality into real, effective support for the troops who come home but struggle to reintegrate themselves into our communities.  Troops are aware they are not coming home to the hostility that ‘Nam veterans faced.   They are frustrated, however, that they are coming home to a public that does not know or much care about their sacrifice and courage, and isn’t interested in learning.   News stories are sanitized, if they’re printed at all. No one looks further. 

A piece of graffiti appeared on a wall at a base in Iraq:
America is not at war. 
The U.S. Marine Corps is at War. America is at the Mall.

When returning  troops meet indifference, they shut down, adding to their isolation.   Many turn to self-medication, or acting out, which finally leads to behavior that ends up in the justice system. 

People believe that since the U.S. has “only” lost 7,000 troops,  compared with other wars, this is a minor conflict.   Our low casualty numbers have a lot to do with high tech body armor, vehicle armor, battlefield medical advances which treat injuries that would have killed in earlier wars.  The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is brutal, close and very personal.  The following statistics were gathered by the US Army from troops returning from their 1st deployment to Iraq.    

94% of troops “received incoming small arms fire” — someone intended to kill them.86% knew someone seriously injured or killed.68% of troops had seen seriously injured or dead Americans.51% had personally handled human remains.48% had personally killed an enemy combatant.28% were responsible for the death of a noncombatant. 

The last group is particularly vulnerable.   Perhaps a child was caught in a crossfire or mistaken for an enemy combatant.  Enemy troops do attack our troops in heavily populated urban areas where civilians are likely to be “martyred”. Urban areas are also where the enemy uses suicide bombings as a weapon of choice to overcome our technical superiority.  Our troops must be on high alert:  friend/foe? friend/foe?   Miss a foe and your squad will die. Mistake a foe and an innocent person dies.  Military psychologists have a special term: Moral Injury — a special kind of trauma which occurs when someone believes they have done something morally wrong. 

It’s disturbing for us to think about these numbers or look at the pictures [which are in the youtube recording], and more difficult to put ourselves in these troop’s places.   But it’s very easy to understand why,  if this has happened in a person’s life, they’ll find it easy to turn to self-medication to find a temporary peace or perhaps dreamless sleep.

Combat experience can lead to criminal behavior:
Some self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.  Some engage in self-destructive, or reckless or violent behavior against the communities they risked their lives to protect.
Some have dissociative episodes or “flashbacks” in which they are reliving combat — this leads to armed confrontations with police who are perceived as “enemy.”
All have military training which can condition them to perceive an innocent event as a threat: Friend/Foe?”  Their training triggers violent response.
Mr. Hunter pointed to historical research which documents that this kind of trauma has been around as long as we have written history.  Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, some 3000 years old, depict a classic case of combat trauma, exactly as it manifests in today’s returning warriors.  Scholarship has clearly revealed veteran-caused crime waves after every major conflict as veterans return.   After the Civil War, U.S. prisons were filled with returning veterans who had brought their war home with them, and had ended up “at war” with the community they’d fought to protect. This actually led to the first prison reform movements as families of the prisoners petitioned for better treatment and consideration of the veterans’ war service.  World Wars I and II led veterans to the rogue motorcycle culture across the U.S.  As the older veterans disappeared, they were replaced in the 1960s and 70s by returning Vietnam veterans and that pattern may repeat with today’s returning veterans.
A modern treatise on veteran criminal behavior comes from the Military:  the 2009 Fort Carson EPICON Study.   EPICON is “Epidemiological Consultation”.   The study concludes that “Post-deployment violence is most often tied to a combination of pressures of multiple  deployments and exposure to combat,   that is, it’s the number and intensity of deployments. From the report, “Survey data from this investigation suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk of negative behavioral outcomes.”  This study was launched after a significant rise in incidents by returning troops: one returning brigade (2000 individuals) was responsible for over a dozen homicides and hundreds of violent assaults in their first year after returning from their second deployment. 

The rising numbers of homeless people in the U.S. is another link to combat-related trauma.  A 2006 Wilder report on homelessness in Minnesota uncovered that 24% of Minnesota’s homeless males were veterans and more than half of those had “serious mental illness.” (2)   A further study explains how PTSD and TBI link to criminal behavior.   For further reading, see the Baker and Alfonsi study linked below.(3)  

Solutions, so far:  Changes are happening in legal response on the federal, state, and local government levels.    The federal government has made service a cause for sentencing departure.(4)   California and Minnesota started in 2007 and 2008 by passing legislation that permits a judge to take military service into consideration and permitting a closely monitored probationary treatment — much more likely to result in a change of behavior than a jail term with no treatment.  [See MN Statutes, 2006 revision, footnoted below (5)]   The bill opened the door to prosecutors and judges growing awareness that military veterans’ war experiences were life changing.   The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Porter v. McCullom war experience should be considered a mitigating factor in decisions.(6)

In their ruling, the Justices cited the Minnesota and California laws.   This is where the Veterans’ Defense Project got its real start.   People from other states began contacting resources in the two states to find out how they could add this defense in their states.  Volunteers formalized their policy, and started writing “Defending Veterans”(7)   

Over the last 10 years, one of the responses across the country has been the development of Specialty Courts — Drug Courts,  DWI Courts, Mental Health Courts — based on the understanding that drug use or trauma is driving repetitive criminal behavior.  If you address the issues driving substance abuse and root those issues out, the clients won’t keep coming back to the court.   The Project got started in Hennepin County, and now includes over a dozen of the 87 Minnsota counties, but all counties do not offer uniform response, and, of course, most counties have no program in place.  The outcomes of the different programs are very different. 

Most court programs offer the client a legal incentive to get into the program and see it through. These programs are not a “Get Out of Jail, Free” card.  The Client is offered a “legal incentive”.  While in the process, the client will be subject to intense monitoring and accountability and the requirement to  cooperate with treatment.  In turn, the client will avoid jail time and this conviction, whenever possible.  This is not yet true in all Veterans Courts, and where it is NOT true, veteran participation declines. 

As time passed, Mr. Hunter and others became aware that some MN veterans courts were starting to fail.   With help of a MN grant, they organized a working group that included Chief County Attorneys of Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington Counties, the MN Public Defender, leaders from the VA and the MN Dept. of Veterans Affairs.  This group had monthly meetings at the State Supreme Court discussing/arguing over what could be seen to work and what was not working for these people.  Findings were distilled into a list of best practices, The Disposition Issue.  The client will be given an opportunity to earn their way out of a conviction, especially, a felony conviction — something that will stop them from improving their lives in many significant ways.  In summary:
Pre-Conviction Ajudication

  • Recognizes the service and sacrifice of the veterans on behalf of their communities.
  • Helps re-establish the broken trust between veterans and their government and communities.
  • Incentivizes commitment to complete traumatic treatment.
  • Offers hope of redemption  and the ability to once again become an asset, not an on-going liability.
  • Better protects the public in the short and long term.

These best practices are embodied in a piece of legislation now pending in the MN Legislature:The Veterans Restorative Justice Act

  • Presumptive stay of adjudication under certain conditions:
    • There is a connection between offense and military service-related condition
      • unless agreed to by both parties, a hearing must determine that connection exists.
    • Limited to Level 7 offenses (which come with a presumptive probation charge) and below unless agreed to by both parties. Level 8 and above come with a presumptive prison charge
    • A guilty plea is entered as a safeguard
      • ensures acceptance of responsibility as a first step toward rehabilitation
      • ensures swift sanctions if the veteran fails to comply
  • Transfer of Supervision
    • this provision standardizes and formally authorizes the best practices of most Veterans Treatment Courts.
    • enables the transfer of supervision from the county where the offense occurred to the county where the veteran resides, if they are different, without concerns for continuity.
  • End of Supervision Hearing
    • Dismissal of the charges is not guaranteed
    • A public hearing is required at the end of supervision
      • there is an opportunity for the prosecutor and the victim to challenge the dismissa
    • To justify dismissal, the court must find:
      • the Veteran has successfully completed conditions of probation and treatment;
      • the Veteran is no longer a danger to the public;
      • the court must consider the level of harm the veteran’s offense caused.

In summary, the VRJA addresses three major issues:  1) eligibility  for admission to Veterans Treatment Courts; 2) who will decide if a veteran meets the eligibility; 3) what will the legal benefit be for a veteran who volunteers for and completes the requirements imposed by a VTC.
The good news is that Hennepin County has a strong, well-functioning Veterans’ Court. 

(1) https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13364/treatment-for-posttraumatic-stress-disorder-in-military-and-veteran-populations (2) https://www.wilder.org/sites/default/files/imports/Homelessoverview2006_3-07.pdf(3) Baker, Claudia, MSW, MPH, and Cessie Alfonso, LCSW. PTSD and Criminal Behavior, A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet. US Department of Veterans  Affairs. Retrieved 11 August 2007 from URL: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/fact_shts/fs_legal.html?opm=1&rr=rr91&srt=d&echorr=true (4) https://guidelines.ussc.gov/gl/%C2%A75H1.11 (5) https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/cite/609.115  Scroll down to  Subd. 10.Military veterans. (6)  https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/1756/porter-v-mccollum/ (7) Hunter, Brockton,  and Else, Ryan.  The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court.  Veterans Defense Project: 2014  ISBN  978-1932021813
QUESTIONS: QQ: Is there any way for individuals or groups to throw support behind the Veterans Defense Project?ANSWER:  The website address is http://veteransdefenseproject.org/    The dashboard includes ABOUT, the “Minnesota Initiative” and a DONATE button, and more.
QQ: In past wars, the whole country was impacted and involved.   This eroded with the media coverage of the war in Vietnam, but again, that was staffed by the draft. Anyone’s kid could be drafted.ANSWER: Today, 1% of the population are in uniform, and only half of those are deployed, so 0.5%.   Compare that with about 16% who were deployed in World War II.  Most Americans don’t know anything about the wars in Afghanistan, and don’t know anyone who served.  This war is distanced from Americans who are thus detached from this war, and returning veterans can sense that. 
QQ: What can Americans do to help veterans reintegrate before they commit crimes. 
ANSWER: Americans need to come up with plans to re-engage the veterans.    They return with significant, demanding adult-life experience.  They have training in leadership and team building, superior technical training, and other skills that can be put to use in our communities at a time when we need those skills.   Unless they get the help they need, to get up and move down a good path, they are never going to fulfill that potential.QQ: When kids sign up, what is the picture that is presented to them, starting with recruiters? What do recruiters really tell them about what they’re walking into?
ANSWER:  Through history, the recruiting ages are about 18-22, and that is an age when you are almost physically mature, but still think you’re invulnerable.  He related his own experience: he saw enlistment as a big adventure, an exciting  way to get out and see the world.   He’d seen the movies that glamorize war, and wanted to go out and live that movie. One advantage:  kids signing up today can know they’re signing up for war because we’ve been at war for 10 years.  Some do know that.  Others are “blissfully unaware.”    We know that recruiters are under pressure to  sign up enough to fill those uniforms.   Be aware that the level of service people will face varies from service to service and from job to job.  Not everyone is going to be out there kicking down doors and getting shot at.
There is one point he finds himself addressing often.    People don’t understand why in this time of voluntary service there are unprecedented numbers of re-deployments.   Why do they keep signing up?   Why did they want to go back? This belief leads people to be “dismissive” of the veterans sacrifice and damage.  The answer is that after a person has gone through heavy deployment, it changes you.  Veterans have told him that when they came back, they realized they didn’t fit here, anymore.   The only place where they felt valued and worthwhile and the only place they could contribute was back on the battlefield.   That’s where people understand them and that is where they feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.  They have had life and death responsibility and been in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, on their own, 7,000 miles away.  Back here, some can only find work behind the counter of a convenience store.  
QQ:   Someone who has traveled extensively and spent time in Spain would like to know how we can rebuild the image of America?   When we travel, people ask why America was even in Vietnam.   Why didn’t we do things differently then and now?ANSWER: He has had the same kinds of questions from people around the world.   There’s no question that our image has suffered.QQ:  She was asked  in college to get up and help make returning veterans feel comfortable.   When she asked how, the answer was by talking to people.   How often do people do that, and who are these people?ANSWER: There is a program called The Yellow Ribbon Initiative.  They ask people to get out and get involved in a variety of ways, doing outreach to veterans.   They have been great partners in helping start Veterans Courts.   [FFI: https://www.yellowribbon.mil/cms/about-us/   NB: This is for enlisted people and their families; support and reintegration are the stated goals of this organization, which depends on volunteers for much of the work.]

Minnesota also has a non-profit “Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans”.   They provide assistance with housing, employment and legal services.  They created the “Vet-Law” program, which attracts attorneys to come to the VA to participate in legal clinics for vets.  They also have a Stand-Down event at Fort Snelling once a year.  (A stand down is where many organizations come to a single spot to offer assistance and counseling to vets at one big day-long affair. The Hennepin County event can have 2000-3000 vets attend during the run of a long day.) [FFI: https://www.mac-v.org/ ]  

The Youtube recording: https://youtu.be/xO_A76aorQc

Emilie Quast, board member
MPD Second Precinct Council
Minneapolis MN 55418


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