Serving Our Country and then Serving Time
Date:  11-12-2013

Veterans Day is over but let’s make next year’s celebration more meaningful for forgotten veterans
The parades honoring veterans are over, the celebratory confetti swept up and parade watchers gone back to their daily lives.Restaurants have gone back to their 364-day policy of not providing a free cup of coffee or meal to any veteran. The hoopla is over until next November when once again Americans will fall over themselves to prove how much they appreciate our veterans.

And while the media was awash with stories on old vets, new vets, and veterans’ events all over the country one large group of veterans was not mentioned—veterans behind bars. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) writes:

We must not forget that one in six veterans from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance abuse challenge. One in five has symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment. Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat related mental illness and increasing numbers of veterans are appearing in our courts to face charges stemming directly from these issues. Where do many end up? Today, an estimated 60% of the 140,000 veterans in prison have a substance abuse problem. And tonight, roughly 130,000 veterans will be homeless, 70% of whom suffer from a substance abuse and/or mental illness condition. Click here to go to website. Americans who fought in the Viet Nam war also suffer from PTSD, substance abuse and homelessness, and many of them are still being incarcerated long after that war was offer.

The United Kingdom’s Howard League of Penal Reform notes in its report “Leave No Veteran Behind,” “…veterans in both the United States of America and England and Wales are less likely to go prison than their respective civilian populations, but when they do veterans are more likely to be serving sentences for violent and sexual offences.” Click here to go to website.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) provides some statistics on veterans and incarceration in its compelling report “Healing a Broken System: Veterans and the War on Drugs.”

  • Incarcerated veterans are highly vulnerable to death by overdose after release if they do not receive effective treatment.

  • Veterans who are convicted of criminal offenses, particularly drug felonies, or those who have drug use histories – and their families – face a wide range of punitive policies that limit access to social services that are necessary for their reentry to civilian life.

  • Forty-six percent of veterans in federal prison were incarcerated for drug law violations. Fifteen percent of veterans in state prison were incarcerated for drug law violations, including 5.6 percent for simple possession. While available data is limited, research has shown that this figure has remained constant – with roughly 16 percent of incarcerated veterans behind bars for drug law violations.

  • Sixty-one percent of incarcerated veterans met the DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

  • Thirty-eight percent of veterans in state prison received less than an honorable discharge, which may disqualify them for VA benefits.

    The DPA suggests the following actions for federal and state governments:
  • The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) must adopt overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans and service members who misuse alcohol and other drugs, or who take prescription medications, especially opioid analgesics.

  • Veteran treatment programs must greatly expand access to medication-assisted therapies like methadone and buprenorphine, which are the most effective means of treating opioid dependence.

  • State and federal governments must modify sentencing statutes and improve court-ordered drug diversion programs to better treat – rather than criminalize and incarcerate – veterans who commit drug law violations. State and federal governments should expand community-based treatment options and explore pre-arrest diversion programs to helpveterans before they enter the justice system.

  • States and the federal government must expand, not obstruct, research and implementation of innovative treatments for PTSD and other psychological and physical wounds of war, including treatment modalities involving Schedule I substances such as MDMA and marijuana alone.” Click here to go to website.

    Justice Policy Institute adds, “ Veterans should not lose VA treatment while in jail or prison, and barriers to employment, education and housing for those who have an arrest or conviction record should be reduced so people can get their lives back on track. Click here to go to website.

    Individuals can create grass-roots organization to educate the public and legislators about overlooked veterans in prison. Employers who widely promote that they hire veterans should remember that some veterans who served their country also served time in prison, and implement Ban the Box on their job applications. (Reentry Central supports hiring qualified individuals with a criminal record whether or not they are veterans). And we must remember that incarcerated veterans are returning to their communities a second or third time, from military deployment, and also from prison. Supporting funding for prisoner reentry programs will help more agencies reach our veterans. And while there are hundreds of organizations that organize holiday greeting card campaigns for our troops overseas, let’s not forget our veterans who are locked up. Find the name of an incarcerated veteran and send them a card or letter throughout the year thanking them for their service and letting them know that you are campaigning with others to see that they do not slip through the cracks when they are released. Maybe at a Veterans Day parade in the future we will see a contingent of formerly incarcerated veterans marching under their own banner to shed the spotlight on veterans who need our support the most. Until then, we have our work cut out for us. Here’s to all-inclusive Veterans Day celebrations next year.