Ex-soldiers with PTSD receive different care after felony charges
Heroes when they came home in 2009, Mike Jones and James Sosh dealt with difficult returns to civilian life through bleak hazes of drugs and alcohol.
Both were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within a year of hanging up their uniforms, each faced felony charges: Jones accused of threatening to kill a friend, Sosh of selling prescription painkillers to feed his pill habit. Jones went into therapy and is engaged to be married. Sosh is in prison, getting divorced.
Jones, 30, who’d been an Army Ranger, had the fortune to be arrested in Orange County, Calif., which has a treatment court for veterans that sentences them to counseling rather than cells. Sosh, 26, a former Indiana National Guardsman, was prosecuted in state superior court.
Their diverging fates show how some states’ justice systems struggle to accommodate damaged troops. After more than a decade of war in two theaters, 120 veterans courts operate in 35 states, with 100 in the planning stages, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets in Alexandria, Va. The first was established in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.
“Veterans who have served their country and are not career criminals deserve a therapeutic approach,” said Vance Peterson, a district judge with a veterans docket in Spokane County, Wash., and a former Green Beret who returned in September from a year as an adviser to the Afghan police. “I’m beginning to wonder if all of our courts shouldn’t be therapeutic.”
When troubled soldiers are discharged, they become civilian society’s burden. About 1.2 million veterans are arrested every year, the Justice Department estimates. Many wrestle with substance abuse and mental illness, conditions associated with elevated risks of arrest. Some leave the service addicted; drug and alcohol use in the military is so excessive a Pentagon-commissioned report deemed it a “public health crisis.
Still, it’s not universally accepted that veterans deserve preferential care, with critics citing the “Equal Justice Under Law” principle engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building.
“Courts have to be open to everyone and provide equal opportunity, equal access,” said retired Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Barry Schaller. Rehabilitating ex-soldiers “is not the courts’ primary responsibility,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of political leaders and the military to keep this from spilling over to civilian society.”
Schaller supported expanding pre-trial diversionary programs in Connecticut that allow defendants to be referred to treatment. “The courts can provide special opportunities for veterans without jeopardizing the justice mandate,” he said.
Many so-called problem-solving courts require the accused to plead guilty as a condition of getting help, which the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers denounced in a 2009 report as forcing a waiver of rights.
“The defense bar is hemmed in by the myriad ethical problems of this,” said New York attorney Marvin Schechter, who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report.
Treatment courts are popular anyway. The justice system supports about 4,000 tribunals for drug users, drunken drivers, gamblers, homeless, mentally ill and veterans, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. All are modeled after the first drug court in Miami in 1989.
For a veteran to be eligible, the judge, prosecutor and defense counsel must agree the offense was motivated by substance abuse or mental illness rather than criminal intent. The rehabilitation programs are usually paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, taking advantage of federal rather than local funds. Once treatment is complete, the violation is usually erased from a vet’s record.
Some courts accept only misdemeanor cases, while others handle felonies. “We don’t take rape, murder or child molesters. Short of that, we’ll look at most cases,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley, who runs the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana, Calif.
“We are looking for people who are profoundly changed as a result of their combat experience,” Lindley said. “I feel that we, as a society, have an obligation to restore them to the person they were before they went.”
The judge offers an additional motivation: She said her veterans court spared taxpayers 2,584 jail and prison bed days last year at a savings of $317,605. Only one of the vets she sentenced to therapy has been re-arrested, she said.
Sober and stable
Mike Jones, a self-described C student, went “jumping around from pizza job to pizza job” after graduating from high school in June 2000. He joined the Army in August 2001 and went to Afghanistan in 2002 for the first of nine deployments there and to Iraq.
“I still miss the action, the adrenaline rush of firing out of helicopters and knocking down doors,” he said.
Between deployments, Jones drank to shake off PTSD, which the National Institute of Mental Health describes as an anxiety disorder frequently stemming from exposure to danger that produces a “fight-or-flight” response.
In October 2009, Jones was medically discharged in October 2009 after his right leg was amputated above the knee following a combat injury in Afghanistan. He received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor.
Ten months later, police arrested him at home in Costa Mesa, Calif. Drunk, he’d sent a text message to a high school friend threatening to kill him, and the friend called the police. Jones said he spent days in jail.
“I wanted to stay out of that place,” he said, explaining his decision to plead guilty and enter the Combat Veterans Court program. His lawyer told him, “Dude, this is way better than anything else I can get you.”
Jones, who faced a three-year sentence if convicted in regular court, relapsed four times during the 18-month veterans treatment program, and spent a night in jail each time.
If he doesn’t mess up again, he’ll be done by Thanksgiving, with no criminal record. He said he’s sober and stable.
“This isn’t how I planned it,” he said. “But I can’t imagine my life being any different. I’m happy today.”
‘Different kind of war’
For James Sosh, who couldn’t find a job after his discharge in May 2009, veterans court wasn’t an option. There isn’t one in Huntington County, Ind., where he was arrested in March 2010. He pleaded guilty to selling $600 of oxycodone to an undercover detective, and was sentenced to 20 years, 10 suspended.
Sosh, who grew up in Marion, Ind., in the shadow of shuttered automobile factories, joined the Indiana Army National Guard in April 2006 after his last job prospect crumbled.
Sent to Iraq in 2008, Sosh was stationed at Balad, called “Mortaritaville” because “we got mortared day and night.” A hunter since boyhood, he manned a .50-caliber machine gun on convoy security in the 293rd Infantry’s First Battalion.
“I loved my job but I hated it, too, because you’re the deciding factor whether someone lives or dies,” he said from the Miami Correctional Facility in South Bunker Hill, Ind. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a man, a woman or a child. You feel like you’re losing your humanity, and you kind of have to, to do your job.”
Between missions, he smoked hashish. That and alcohol “helped wonderfully for those few hours that you could just relax and hold onto a little bit of sanity,” he said.
His addiction to painkillers came after machine-gun fire tore into his leg during a raid in Helmand Province. “It was a wall of lead,” he said.
After the amputation, he was compensated with a $100,000 Army disability payment. That, plus a $30,000 re-enlistment bonus he’d banked the day before he was shot, swelled his savings to $150,000. He said he spent it on partying, painkillers and Jack Daniels.
“When I came home I had one leg and a big drug problem,” he said. “I got a taste for drugs from the minute I got hurt.”
Sosh’s return to Indiana was celebrated by a sheriff’s escort into town. The next month, local unemployment peaked at 14.9 percent.
“When we first got back, I felt this sense of honor,” he said. “But then everybody wants me to be the same person, and I can’t. And I have to go out and find a job, and there are no jobs. You begin to feel like a failure.”
After his PTSD diagnosis, he started taking downers to calm anxiety attacks, then turned to painkillers as an escape. He refused to enroll in a six-month substance-abuse treatment program at a VA clinic because didn’t want to be away from his wife and kids for that long again. Still, he said, “I’d set aside money for my drugs before I’d set aside money for my bills or anything else.”
Now he’s in a prison wing for recovering addicts, playing cards and chess, and working out six times a week. He said he takes every class available, including one on being a better parent to the two daughters he hasn’t seen since he was locked up – to ensure he has “tools for when I get out, because that temptation is always going to be there.” He’s eligible for release in September 2014.
“I got out of the combat zone, I got out of Iraq, wanting to take it easy,” he said. “And then through my own actions, I throw myself into a whole different kind of war, in prison.”