Can a veterans court help former GIs find justice here at home?
What are you going to do, shoot me?"
It was around ten o'clock at night when Edward Lynch heard the strange shouting. He went to the utility room at the back of his house to investigate and saw a man standing in his neighbor's yard, yelling into the night. Much of what he was saying was gibberish — though there was mention of a gun.
As Lynch watched, the stranger went up to his neighbor's car and rammed his elbow into the driver's side window. When the window didn't break, the man picked something up off the ground and threw it at the car. At that point, Lynch stepped out onto his back deck and asked what the hell he was doing.
Watch an interview with Nic Gray here.
The man turned and headed toward Lynch, scaling the four-foot-high chain-link fence that separated the properties.
Lynch didn't waste any time retreating inside, locking the deadbolt behind him and grabbing the phone. He was dialing 911 when the stranger started beating on the door, trying to get in. As Lynch related the situation to the dispatcher, the door burst open with a crash, the solid-core wood splitting around the deadbolt and down the doorframe.
"Leave the house," instructed the dispatcher. But Lynch wasn't about to do that. He studied the man now standing a few feet from him, a fit-looking guy a few inches shorter and several decades younger than the 57-year-old carpenter whose Colorado Springs home he'd just busted into. Although it was a cool October night, the man was wearing just sweatpants, a long-sleeve knit shirt and well-shined black business shoes.
From the man's physique and short-cropped hair, Lynch figured he might be military. Maybe from Fort Carson, the Army base down the road that lately seemed to be churning out a lot of veterans with screws loose. The papers were full of stories about out-of-control Carson vets killing fellow soldiers, killing their infant children, killing random civilians who got in their way.
Lynch stood his ground. On the deck, he'd instinctively picked up a full bottle of Guinness that had been left outside. He could feel the ridges of its cap bite into his fingers as he tightened his grip around its neck. The commotion had awakened his wife, Caroline, who came up behind him. "What the hell are you doing?" Lynch asked the stranger again. "You just broke my door. Look at that!"
The man didn't answer. Now that he was inside, all the aggression seemed drained from his demeanor. Smiling, he tried making small talk, asking Lynch's wife for her name.
The man smelled faintly of alcohol but his speech wasn't slurred, nor did he have a druggie's telltale jitters. Through the window, Lynch could see the flashing lights of approaching squad cars. He tried to distract the stranger by continuing their surreal conversation, all the while gripping the Guinness bottle.
The man said something about the Army, about how the three of them were on some sort of military installation. He acted like there was something important he had to tell the couple — though he couldn't seem to wrap his mind around exactly what it was.
He never got the chance to share his secret. Police officers, their guns drawn, came through the shattered door frame and ordered the stranger to lie on the ground. As the cops handcuffed him, the man offered a final parting thought to his bewildered hosts. "I have a theory about this," he said calmly. "I think I am going to be arrested."
The murders started in August 2005, when Stephen Sherwood killed his wife and then himself in their Fort Collins home. A soldier at Fort Carson, the Army installation south of Colorado Springs that houses roughly 25,000 GIs, Sherwood had returned from Iraq just a few days earlier.
Several months later, a Fort Carson soldier beat a colleague to death with a fireplace poker. Then another soldier shook his infant daughter to death. A Colorado Springs man was shot dead in his home in a robbery gone bad; a Pueblo taxi driver was shot in the head. Two Springs residents were hanging yard-sale signs when they were gunned down in a drive-by.
The most shocking murders were tied to soldiers Bruce Bastien, Louis Bressler and Kenneth Eastridge, who were found guilty of a crime spree that including drive-by shootings, aggravated robbery, running over a nursing student and stabbing her with a combat knife, and killing two of their fellow soldiers, execution style.
In all, fifteen Fort Carson GIs have been arrested in connection with a dozen murders over the past five years. And these aren't the only crimes linked with soldiers in Colorado Springs. Since 2005, the number of military personnel in the El Paso County jail has increased more than 25 percent, outpacing the population growth of soldiers and veterans in the region.
Besides the sheer number, there's something else striking about the soldiers being arrested. "We are seeing guys who've obviously never been in trouble in their entire lives," says Sheilagh McAteer, a longtime Colorado Springs public defender who represented Eastridge. "For the most part, they were squeaky-clean prom kings. Then they enlist in the military and maybe do multiple combat tours, and they come back and commit violent offenses."
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.
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.
It was impossible to keep track of it all. Gray had to accept the fact that he was living in a world where essentially anything could kill him.
He could tell that these assignments were taking a toll. Sometimes in the middle of a mission, childhood memories would flash through his mind — memories he'd never recalled before. He'd experienced weird mental snapshots in the past, but he'd always written them off. Now, though, the memories were too vivid, too real, to ignore.
He realized what he'd been suppressing: He'd been sexually abused as a child for years.
Gray kept the discovery to himself; this wasn't the time or place to deal with such things. But he couldn't stop the nightmares. One night he watched as an enemy bullet blew through his skull. Another night an assault rifle snaked through the window of his Humvee and rested against his inner thigh, the coldness of its nozzle pressing into his skin.
He returned from Iraq to Fort Riley, Kansas, in September 2007. Two months later, having wrapped up his three-and-a-half-year enlistment, he was out of the Army. Gray received an honorable discharge, just as he'd planned, and a post-combat health screening determined that he was as fit as could be.
He didn't feel that way, however — not even after he moved to Colorado Springs, a place he'd always liked, one where he had friends. He felt numb and disconnected, conditions that weren't helped by the fact that he was afraid to sleep. To distract himself, he plunged into the business he'd launched: a franchise brokerage company called NG Enterprises that specialized in helping veterans.
One day, though, he lost control. Waiting in the checkout line at Walmart, Gray became so annoyed by the customers around him that he screamed "What the fuck?!" and stomped out of the store without buying anything.
"Iraq changed Nic, definitely," says his mother. "There's been a serious, big difference."
Gray scheduled an appointment with the local VA medical clinic, where he learned he was suffering from PTSD, anxiety and depression. Now it all made sense: the repressed childhood memories, the dreams of Iraq, the breakdown. The doctors told him that people who grew up with trauma like sexual abuse were predisposed to develop PTSD later in life after experiencing other kinds of trauma, such as being in a war zone.
The diagnosis spurred Gray to action. He began confronting his childhood memories, keeping a log of his obtrusive thoughts and a journal about his upsetting dreams. He told his friends and family about what had happened to him as a child. And he made the most of his VA therapy sessions — even when, after the first few months, the most the overburdened clinic could offer was a single one-hour session every other month. He'd been a model soldier; now he'd be a model veteran, too.
Gray's efforts seemed to pay off. By this past summer, the bad dreams were dissipating — and NG Enterprises was on a roll. In the fall, he created a new arm of his company: Operation Warrior Entrepreneur, a fundraising venture that would provide thousands of dollars to veterans who wanted to start their own businesses.
On October 15, Gray launched Project OWE at a Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce event at Sky Sox Stadium. Dressed in a suit and tie, he explained to the crowd what it was like to come back from war and re-enter the civilian world. "The transition wasn't easy and was filled with pain, anger and confusion, some of which still exists today," he said. "Personally, I feel lucky, though. Some never got the chance to return home, and the ones that did are left with the mental and physical scars to deal with for life."
A week later, stressed out from work, Gray went home early. Later that night, he called an Army friend he hadn't spoken with in a while. Sipping a glass of wine, Gray reminisced about Iraq, good times and bad — and admitted that he still got jumpy sometimes.
That's the last thing Gray remembers of October 21. The rest of the night is a blank.
Over the past two years, 22 veterans courts have opened across the country, in places ranging from Orange County, California, to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Thirty-nine more are expected to start up in 2010, and still more could be on the way: In 2008, U.S. senators John Kerry and Lisa Murkowski introduced the Services, Education, and Rehabilitation for Veterans (SERV) Act, a proposal that would fund additional veterans courts and similar programs.
While each court is different, the basic principle remains the same: The defendants' military histories and psychological issues are considered alongside the specifics of their crimes, and sentences are tied to personalized treatment programs, not just incarceration.
Last October, Judge John L. Kane, a senior U.S. district judge in Denver, testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission that he'd like to see alternative sentencing options for military personnel. State representative Marsha Looper, a Republican from Calhan, is working on a bill to introduce veterans courts statewide. "It's so we can provide essential services for our service members who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," says Looper of her bill, which is scheduled to be heard by the Colorado House Judiciary Committee on February 8.
"I think it's very fair to say Colorado is taking a lead on the issue," says Chris Deutsch, associate director of communications for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which is advocating the development of veterans courts.
Colorado's involvement began with the effort to get a veterans court up and running in El Paso County. Key agencies there quickly saw the need for such a program. Along with McAteer in the public defender's office, the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office and the district's probation department signed on, as did representatives from Veterans Affairs. They found a critical supporter in 4th Judicial District Judge Ronald Crowder, a major general in the Army National Guard who volunteered to preside over the court. And while the military wasn't getting involved in a civilian program, the court apparently has Fort Carson's blessing. "The El Paso County veterans court is a great example of this community's commitment to veterans," says Lieutenant Colonel Steve Wollman, public affairs officer for the Fort Carson-based 4th Infantry Division.
But questions quickly arose about what type of cases the court would take. The district attorney's office, for example, only wanted to allow non-violent offenses in the program. (The veterans court bills currently being considered in the Colorado legislature and the U.S. Senate also exclude most violent offenders.)
Such prohibitions don't make sense to Alvarez, the Wounded Warrior psychotherapist who chairs the El Paso County veterans court's advisory committee. "The violent offenders need help more than anybody," he says, noting that many of the perpetrators in the Fort Carson murders had previously committed violent offenses such as domestic violence. "The very skills these people are taught to follow in combat are the skills that are a risk at home. They're trained to react instantly to a threat, because if not, people die."
The agencies developing the court struggled to work out their differences and also to meet the federal grant requirements. Although a few test cases involving veterans appeared in Crowder's courtroom this past August, the court was still not officially open.
In November, more than a year after the money had been set aside to start the veterans court, Alvarez sat in his Colorado Springs office and threw up his hands. "In my opinion," he said, "I'm not feeling the love." Cases that seemed perfect for veterans court were falling by the wayside. Alvarez had recently heard about this situation involving a vet named Nic Gray, who was living in a quiet Colorado Springs neighborhood and then, one night, went down the block and kicked in a neighbor's door — as if he were clearing a house of enemy insurgents back in Iraq. Alvarez had repeatedly reached out to the district attorney's office, he said, asking if Gray's case could be considered for the veterans court.
Weeks later, he still hadn't received an answer from the DA.
When Gray came to on October 22, he was wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a holding cell in the El Paso County Jail.
He couldn't remember anything after the phone conversation with his Army buddy. The best he could figure was that something in their conversation had triggered something, another dark secret in his brain he'd learned to suppress.
A jail clerk told him about his strange nocturnal escapades, which had brought him two felonies for criminal trespassing and criminal intent along with a misdemeanor mischief charge. He could be looking at three to five years in prison.
Once he bailed out of jail, he realized the enormity of what he was facing. Business meetings he'd scheduled overseas had to be canceled, since he wasn't allowed to leave the state. He didn't know how far he'd be able to take NG Enterprises if he ended up a convicted felon. As for the potential prison time — he didn't like to think about that.
It was as if someone had taken his all-important plans and torn them to shreds.
When Gray reached out to the VA, his doctors said they couldn't explain what had transpired that night, but noted that similar things had happened to other vets. It turned out that Gray knew one of those vets personally. When he told an Army buddy what he'd done, he was told, "Just don't do what Casey Briggs did."
Gray went online and looked up Briggs, who'd served in his company in Iraq. He discovered that on October 27, just a few days after his own incident, Briggs had experienced an eerily similar chain of events. While drinking in a Maryland bar, Briggs had blacked out, and later came to in the back of a squad car. He was told he'd been rampaging through a quiet neighborhood, firing off his handgun, and had tried to force his way into a stranger's house. While he swore he couldn't remember any of it, he was slapped with a variety of criminal charges.
Two days later, Briggs used a sheet to hang himself in his jail cell. It was the third suicide from Gray's 250-soldier unit.
Gray swore he wouldn't be the fourth. Over the past few years he'd faced down the horrors of Iraq, childhood trauma and PTSD; he could handle this setback, too. In early December, he sat in the headquarters of NG Enterprises, a one-room office on the top floor of one of downtown Colorado Springs's few high-rises, and mapped out contingency plans. "If the DA's office has an agenda to push in this case in order to make a name for themselves, they need to prepare for battle," he declared, looking out over the city. "I am coming out swinging."
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.
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."
In his 1516 book Utopia, Thomas More wrote that post-combat lawlessness made "peace nothing better than war." Machiavelli agreed, noting that "war makes thieves, and peace builds [gallows] for them."
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."
The agencies connected with the court are working not only to hire caseworkers to help veterans navigate treatment services, but also to support the establishment of courts in other jurisdictions, including Denver, where progress has been slow (see story, page 20).
Siddhartha Rathod, an attorney with the Colorado Public Defender's Office, has been working to get the Denver program off the ground. Once the Denver DA and judges realize how many veterans suffering from mental illness are coming through their courts, he says, "It's going to be like everyone up here is wearing green-and-brown uniforms as well."
On January 14, his big day in court, Gray sat in Judge Crowder's courtoom, looking nervous.
"I'm a little apprehensive," he admitted, smoothing the wrinkles from his suit. To change the subject, he started talking about NG Enterprises, describing a major deal he's negotiating in China. He hopes to take a trip there soon — if he's allowed to leave the state.
The judge called the court to order. Public defender McAteer and deputy DA Jeff Lindsey both told him that Gray was an ideal candidate for the program. A VA representative confirmed that Gray is receiving ongoing treatment. And Rich Lindsey, from Pikes Peak Behavioral Health, recounted his session with the defendant and told of the letters he'd received on his behalf. "I am convinced he's on the right track," he concluded.
Then two people stepped forward whom Gray had never seen before — or at least thought he'd never seen before: Edward and Caroline Lynch, owners of the house he'd broken into, neighbors he hadn't met previously. "We do not want a pound of flesh from Mr. Gray," said Caroline.
At the same time, she added, she wanted to be clear: "I would like Mr. Gray to know he scared the hell out of us that night, and it was due to my husband's ability to stay calm that it didn't escalate to something worse."
Gray put forward a formal apology and agreed to plead guilty to trespassing. Instead of incarceration, he received a two-year deferred sentence dependent on his continuing his VA treatment program and completing thirty hours of community service. On top of $525 in court-related costs, he has to pay $300 restitution for the Lynches' door and write them a letter of apology — but he won't be able to deliver it in person. The Lynches have asked the judge for a no-contact order.
Case closed — for a month, at least. Gray is due back in the courtroom in a week or so for one of many follow-up appointments. If everything goes as planned, he can petition the court to seal his criminal record at the end of his deferred sentence. If it doesn't, he could end up behind bars.
Gray knows he's going to be "tested as a guinea pig." He concedes that it was strange pleading guilty to a crime he doesn't remember committing — but he does like the idea of the veterans court. "Every single person here was trying to help, not to punish," he says.
Still, he knows that veterans courts are only a partial solution. "It doesn't really get to the root of the problem," he says. "There's still the problem of coming back from a combat theater and transitioning back into the civilian life. We need to truly make sure soon-to-be veterans aren't just being pushed out, but are being taken care of."
But he thinks he'll be okay. Thanks to veterans court, he can get back to the blueprints he keeps creating for his life. Expanding NG Enterprises. Launching a business college. And continuing to develop Operation Warrior Entrepreneur, because he knows better than anybody that sometimes veterans need a little extra help.
"Everything is moving in the right direction," he says confidently. He loves it when a plan comes together.
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