Remembering the Fallen; Lifting up Those Who Stumble
Date:  05-28-2012

Memorial Day should not only be about picnics and parades
“Pray for the Dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Those words were uttered by the fiery union organizer and community activist, Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, to rally people to support miners in their fight for safer conditions and better pay. Today, as Americans celebrate Memorial Day, the words of Mother Jones come to mind, but this time, in reference to our armed forces.

As citizens across the country lay flags on the graves of our fallen heroes, and as parades are held in their honor, with speeches given “lest we forget,” we should pause for a moment before we head off to the beach or a picnic, and consider the following information that is provided by The National Association of Drug Court Professionals in their report on Veterans Treatment Courts.

  • There are now more than 23 million U.S. veterans including 2 million and counting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • One in six veterans from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom suffers from a substance abuse challenge.

  • One in five veterans 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 that are appearing in our courts to face charges stemming directly from these issues.

  • An estimated 60% of the 140,000 veterans in prison have a substance abuse problem.

  • Tonight, roughly 130,000 veterans will be homeless, 70% of whom suffer from a substance abuse and/or mental illness condition.

    Sadly, there are more disturbing statistics. In the article A Call to Help Veterans, Before They Need Veterans Courts or Prison Reentry Services published on November 21, 2011 by Reentry Central, Michael J. Fitzpatrick of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), and Tracy Velazquez, of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), speak on the reasons veterans get involved in criminal behavior, and how those of us concerned with criminal justice reform might step outside the boundaries of our normal reentry activities to give support to veterans organizations that aim to keep veterans from committing crimes in the first place.

    Fitzpatrick and Velazquez offer these sobering facts in their report Collateral Damage: Incarceration of Veterans:

  • Over 200,000 veterans have been seen by the Veterans Administration (VA) for PTSD as of March 31, 2011

  • The Department of Defense reports over 89,000 service members diagnosed with TBI between 2008 and 2010. Many veterans have both PTSD and TBI conditions simultaneously.

  • in 1985, over one in five people in jail or prison were veterans, primarily of the Vietnam War.

    Fitzpatrick and Velazquez acknowledge that Veterans Courts can aid a veteran in getting mental health treatment, but argue that these courts offer are a ”back end approach.” “ Fitzpatrick and Velazquez add, “By the time a veteran is in court, he or she already has a permanent arrest record. And with the natural course of addiction, as well as challenges a mental illness can cause, the possibility of "failing" out of Veterans Court and ending up incarcerated (and with a conviction record) is very real. For a veteran with TBI or PTSD, these failures carry significant, lasting negative consequences, including future reduced employment opportunities, possible loss of access to education and housing, and tremendous pressure on families.”

    So, what are some of the solutions? In their report Fitzpatrick and Velazquez suggest “…expanding access to mental health and substance abuse care; improve screening and assessment; decreasing the stigma that keeps some returning soldiers from seeking help; having culturally competent mental health professionals; and developing partnerships with law enforcement and others who can help reduce justice involvement.”

    America needs to take the words of Mother Jones to heart, and perhaps to paraphrase them. We can pray for the dead, but fight like hell to keep our returning heroes alive (and out of prison.) We must unite to make sure next Memorial Day will be brighter for our veterans. NAMI reports that every 80 minutes a veteran commits suicide. Not only is that statistic highly disturbing, but it is also a national disgrace.
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