McAteer and others began to suspect that one cause of the crime wave might be the psychological scars that soldiers had sustained during long and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 14 and 25 percent of all veterans returning from these two combat theaters are dealing with psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. By comparison, 18 to 20 percent of Vietnam vets reportedly suffer from PTSD.

"We are saving the lives of kids who would have died in any other war, and now we are dealing with survivors who are catastrophically damaged," says Robert Alvarez, a former Marine who's now a psychotherapist working with the Army's Wounded Warrior program at Fort Carson.

In response to intense media scrutiny spurred by the Fort Carson murders, the Army released a report last summer that concluded there was a "possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes." It was the closest the military has ever come to acknowledging a link between battlefield trauma and soldier wrongdoing — but it did not suggest any concrete solutions.

Colorado Springs veterans court public defender Sheilagh McAteer.
Jim J. Narcy
Colorado Springs veterans court public defender Sheilagh McAteer.
Colorado Springs veterans court assistant DA Jeff Lindsey.
Jim J. Narcy
Colorado Springs veterans court assistant DA Jeff Lindsey.


Watch an interview with Nic Gray here.

Many of the Colorado Springs soldiers accused of wrongdoing have found themselves boxed in by both the Army and the criminal justice system. Active-duty soldiers convicted of crimes often receive less-than-honorable discharges, which means they can't access PTSD and other behavioral-health programs that the Army's been developing for its troops. Their discharge status also makes them ineligible — or leads them to believe they aren't eligible — for many Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and support programs.

These soldiers often turn to drugs and alcohol and commit additional crimes, according to McAteer. "It's a common theme," she says. "They have one criminal case, and then the next thing you know they have five cases, and their situation would get worse until there was nothing you could do to help them."

While looking for a way out of this Catch-22, McAteer and her colleagues learned of an experiment taking place in Buffalo, New York. In early 2008, a judge there had launched the country's first veterans' treatment court, loosely based on other specialized courts designed for people with drug addictions and mental illness. The court sounded like just what Colorado Springs needed — and there was even money available for it. In September 2008, Colorado received $2 million in federal funding for jail-diversion programs for individuals with trauma-related disorders, with a priority on programs for veterans.

For McAteer, using that money to create an El Paso County veterans court seemed like the perfect way to help soldiers turned criminals to turn around before it was too late. "My personal opinion is if you get involved with these cases early, I think we will see a reduction in recidivism," she says. "Maybe the next Kenny Eastridge never gets to where Kenny got."

Before he wound up kicking in a door, Nic Gray had always lived his life as if he were following a very specific set of blueprints.

Plan A: Become a successful entrepreneur. Growing up in Oregon, Gray launched his first enterprise at the age of ten. He even had his own business card: "Nic's Mowing, Inc. — Be there in the 'Nic' of time!"

Plan B: Join the military. In 2004, watching the country's new wars unfold on television, Gray decided he'd join the military and accomplish three goals: serve in Iraq, make sergeant, and, when it was all over, leave with honors and get back to work on Plan A.

Achieving the first of these goals was relatively easy. When he enlisted later that year, the 24-year-old turned down a cushy intelligence job in order to get a better shot at the front lines, and sure enough, in September 2006, he shipped out for Camp Liberty, Baghdad. The second objective wasn't too tough, either. As a stickler for rules and order, Gray graduated at the top of his class in basic training and was promoted to sergeant at the first opportunity.

But as for returning to this country in one piece and getting back to Plan A? Partway through Gray's deployment in Iraq, at the height of the military's no-holds-barred "surge" campaign, that was looking much trickier.

Gray's unit, an armored battalion, was assigned to a security detail in Iraq, which meant providing protection for the convoys moving nightly through Baghdad as well as guarding outposts being built around the region. But one particular three-week assignment — protecting the construction of Combat Outpost Bushmaster in a particularly dangerous part of town — was so hairy that there was a security detail guarding the security detail. As Gray and his fellow soldiers rolled back and forth across the city, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks rumbled alongside and Apache helicopters hovered overhead.

They weren't enough to secure the situation. Explosive devices turned several vehicles into scrap metal, and a sniper killed one of Gray's fellow soldiers, shooting him through the neck.

Night after night, sitting in the turret of an armored security vehicle as it made its way to and from the construction zone, Gray kept his eyes peeled. Trash cans, guardrails, gravel-filled dump trucks, disturbed patches of dirt on the ground, even animal carcasses — any of them could be hiding explosive devices capable of slicing through his vehicle's armor. He watched out for roofs and overpasses, perfect for snipers. And then there were the razor wires sometimes strung across the road, which were capable of decapitation and usually placed right at neck height for a gunner like him.

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