By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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But at his December 17 court hearing, Gray learned that his case was being transferred. He was scheduled to appear in Judge Crowder's courtroom at 1:30 p.m. that day — the very first day of the El Paso County veterans court.
Like any brand-new undertaking, the operation was a bit disorganized. Gray was given the wrong room number for the veterans court and spent more than an hour sitting through divorce proceedings. By the time he finally found his way to Crowder's courtroom, the handful of other cases assigned to veterans court that day — vets allegedly tangled up with drugs, theft and other indiscretions — had already been heard. A woman stepped forward and handed him her card: Sheilagh McAteer. "Now I am your lawyer," she told him.
Since McAteer hadn't yet had a chance to read through Gray's file, Crowder delayed consideration of his case until January. In the meantime, Gray was assigned to meet with Rich Lindsey, a military liaison at Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group who was in court that day.
Watch an interview with Nic Gray here.
Lindsey was well equipped to understand what Gray was going through. A retired command chief master sergeant in the Air Force, he'd helped launch a peer navigator program at Pikes Peak the year before, to help veterans make sense of the various support services and treatments available. "I'm not a clinician or therapist. Those guys see enough of those people," Lindsey says. "But sometimes they get at a stalemate where they don't know what to do. And because of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, some of them have difficulty locating the places they need to go to get help. I know the military system, and I know the civilian system, too."
In the hallway after the hearing, Lindsey sat down with Gray and asked what had happened to him in Iraq. "Were you wounded?"
"Not physically," said Gray.
Lindsey nodded. The two scheduled a meeting at Lindsey's office to go over Gray's background. There would be intake forms to fill out, and Lindsey said he'd like Gray's friends and family to write letters describing what he was like before he went to war compared with what he was like when he got back.
No problem, Gray told him. He was used to following orders. "I feel fortunate," he said.
"You shouldn't," Lindsey replied. "This is what you deserve."
Immediately after the Revolutionary War, a veteran wrote that when he returned to his native South Carolina, he discovered it overrun with highway robbery and "horse stealing so frequent that the legislature made it a crime punishable with death."
After the Civil War, prisons in the North reported that more than half of their inmates were veterans turned criminals; it was enough to launch a nationwide reformatory movement. Reformers pushed judges to pardon soldiers, with one prisoners'-aid society remarking, "These young men from the Army and Navy...had not sunk deep into the mire, and that timely interference might save them."
In the aftermath of World War I, reports of U.S. homicides increased 16 percent, rape 33 percent, robbery 83 percent and drug crimes a whopping 2,000 percent.
But as each of these conflicts — and their veterans — faded into memory, people seemed to forget about the violence and disorder that returning soldiers brought back from the front lines. "Criminologists have neglected to learn an important lesson from war," one historical scholar wrote on the eve of World War II. "Namely, that certain mental states are a result of intense emotional stress."
Those behind the El Paso County veterans court, which has been convening weekly since that first hearing in December, hope to change that. Now prisoners at the local jail are asked about their military service, to determine whether they're eligible for the new court and to develop much-needed data on soldiers in Colorado's criminal justice system. It's estimated that 10 percent of the state's jail inmates, or roughly 3,000 people, are veterans, and that 600 of them suffer from serious mental illness — but the numbers have never been officially tracked.
While the El Paso jail data hasn't been released, Kurt Runge, a probation officer assisting with the vet court, says the figures he's seen suggest there might be fewer incarceratied soldiers than most people believe: "If anything, the initial numbers should put people at ease."
But without statistics to demonstrate the extent of the problem, some skeptics worry that veteran status could just be a get-out-of-jail-free card for the nation's military. "The category 'veteran' is both under-inclusive and over-inclusive," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU. "The experience of an Iraqi or Vietnam combat veteran is far different than a person who trained thirty-some-odd years ago and was then in the National Guard during peacetime. It also may be under-inclusive, because PTSD might be a very real factor in crimes committed by persons with no military experience at all."
As thinking about the court evolves, the El Paso District Attorney's Office has agreed to let violent offenders into the program — though it's drawn the line at extreme cases such as murder, and situations involving strangulations and use of a firearm. "Ideally, we would like to get people who didn't commit violent crimes and prevent them from getting into violent crimes, but that's not the easiest way to do this," says Jeff Lindsey, the senior deputy district attorney who's working with the court. "If we are trying to help these veterans, you can't have adversaries."