On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a couple of people I know. These particular folks not only served their country — in some cases with much distinction — but in a twist that’s become all too familiar, they also served time in prison or jail.
Sadly, the longer America has been at war, the more common this scenario has become. So common, in fact, that the prevalence of combat veterans who get in trouble with the law after they return has been well-documented — In stories like this one from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Or in the “The Wounded Platoon” , a television documentary airing earlier this month, which opened with a tale of how three army combat buddies had killed a fourth after a night of drinking in Colorado Springs.
As these reports note, it’s difficult to find hard statistics on incarcerated veterans, let alone the whys behind their offenses. This oft-cited special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at the ex-military population in prisons and jails in 1998 and found a preponderance of Vietnam War vets, higher-levels of education and people who were more likely to be addicted to alcohol than drugs.
But new wars have brought changes. A review of “The Wounded Platoon,” describes how the need for troops prompted the military to accept recruits with criminal and juvenile records who might have been rejected in the past. When more people began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder during IED-laden guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military began to allow soldiers in combat to take prescription drugs, among them antidepressants and Ambien, which some believe may account for higher incidences of post-war drug and alcohol abuse.
Given the difficulties of readjusting to life outside a war zone — and the little support available – it’s not a big leap to imagine how a combination of substance abuse and psychological disorders could lead a veteran to cross the line. Granted, many in the service had problems before they ever set foot in a uniform, and as one commenter noted on the story in the Salt Lake City Tribune, “would have committed a crime regardless.” But even the 2000 BOJ report found that veterans were more likely to be serving a sentence for a violent offense than those who had never served. They were also more likely to be older and first-time offenders.
It’s not that I think people who have broken the law should be exempt from punishment because of their military service. It just seems that perhaps military service needs to be factored in more. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I met an offender whose profile didn’t make sense to me. This individual had spent nearly a decade in the service, fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and received commendations and assignments that required a high level of security. The incident that got this person in trouble was alcohol-fueled and happened shortly after his return to the U.S. Obviously, I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t there, but the idea that the crime warranted time in jail as opposed to some other sort of psychological or substance abuse treatment seemed bizarre.
This is not just an issue in the U.S., by the way. Veterans in Prison, an organization founded by a group of British ex-soldiers tracks similar problems in the UK. In 2008, for example, a report found that 1 in 11 people serving time in British jails was a former member of the armed forces.
What can we do? That’s a good question. Fortunately, as more soldiers reenter civilian life, I do think more people are becoming aware of the challenges they face. This was reflected in a California ruling last year, where a former Army Ranger Sargent, who faced 12 years in prison for breaking into two pharmacies to fuel his prescription drug addiction, was given treatment as opposed to jail upon appeal.
I’m hoping to see more of this. How about you?
On an administrative note: Alas, today is the official end of the WordCount Blogathon 2010. Yesterday, I reflected on what a long, often challenging, but rewarding trip it’s been. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, for those of you who were tired of me nattering on) this means that I’ll no longer be posting daily. But thanks to some new followers, some great ideas and lots of inspiration, I”m hoping to be able to use the longer lead time between posts to tackle some stories I’ve been meaning to get to — like ban the box and other pressing issues.
So thanks again for sticking with me for a month’s worth of posts and blog-discovery. And a final shout-out to Michelle Rafter, who made this whole event not just possible, but loads of fun.
I hope you’ll stay tuned…..