Justin Carter got out of the Army — and got in trouble

Justin Carter sits in a shabby South Broadway bar, drinking a Budweiser. He knows he's got to be careful with the booze; not too long ago, he was in jail for drunk driving. Still, he's not too worried about it tonight. Soon he'll start his night shift as the bar's security guard, and then he won't be allowed to drink at all.

It's been a long day for the 26-year-old. He's already worked a full shift at his day job, digging graves at Fort Logan National Cemetery down the road. But he needs the money. He needs it to rebuild his life, since he lost what little he had left when he was incarcerated in October 2008.

The whole thing was sort of a fluke. Carter had been cruising through Lakewood when a cop pulled over his tricked-out Mercury Cougar because he didn't use a turn signal. Yes, he then blew hot on a breathalyzer test, but the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office had recommended he just get thirty days of house arrest.

That's not what he got, though. When he went before the judge, no one took much notice of the story behind his case. Nobody asked about his military background, which included joining the Army in 2003 to get away from his father, who'd tried to get him into meth while he was still in high school. There were no questions about what it was like when Carter went to Iraq with his Fort Carson-based unit, so he didn't say anything about how an explosive device had blown him out of a Humvee and knocked him cold. Nor did he tell anyone in the courtroom about all the mind-numbing downtime in Iraq, when there was little to do but drink "Spider," the very powerful whiskey the Iraqi nationals liberally provided.

The drinking continued when Carter returned to Colorado Springs. Nights off-base, he enjoyed the various specials that downtown bars and clubs offered to lure in soldiers. Sundays it was penny pitchers of beer at Rowdy's, Wednesdays it was 25-cent pitchers at Icon, Fridays and Saturdays it was some ridiculous deal or other at Rum Bay. Carter was promoted to corporal on his 21st birthday and demoted the next day, thanks to a DUI. Despite the black mark, he was able to convince his superiors to let him re-deploy to Iraq with his unit — though his bad-tempered sergeant swore that if he had his way, Carter would never make it back home.

He did make it home, though, and soon he was out of the Army. He moved to Denver and got a job, but he kept up the drinking, too. It was one of the few things that the Army had taught him how to do in Iraq. "Over there, there are no rules," Carter says, his knees bouncing under the bar. "You are God, you are the police. And then, when you get back, all the rules you enforced on everybody else, now you have to abide by them and you don't know how."

The Jefferson County judge didn't hear any of this. He took one look at Carter's spotty record and decided to make an example of him. He sentenced him to one year in jail as part of a work-release program, starting immediately.

Luckily for Carter, his case came to the attention of Daniel Warvi, a veterans advocate in Denver. Warvi lined up a work-release gig for him at Fort Logan, got him an appointment at the local VA center and, when the VA diagnosed Carter with PTSD, arranged for him to attend substance-abuse and PTSD treatment programs during the time he was allowed out of jail.

For Warvi, a case like Carter's serves as a reminder that vets are facing problems not just in Colorado Springs, but all over the Denver metro area. "Seeing Justin's case and physically dragging him to the vet clinic and helping him along, I realized people need to know where to go to get help and connect the dots," Warvi says.

So far, though, those dots haven't been connected in metro Denver. Although at least 20 percent of Colorado's 424,000 veterans make their home in the metro area (44 percent live in Colorado Springs), Warvi says, there's a "myth there are no vets in Denver." Warvi and others have been pushing to establish a veterans court program in the city, but preliminary plans for such a program were scrapped in favor of a more modest liaison position that would help identify and track veterans in the local criminal justice system and connect them with support services. And there's no start date for even that project.

"It's been a little frustrating," says Laura Williams, a program manager at the Colorado Department of Human Services, who oversees the federal grant money for the El Paso County veterans court, a portion of which is set aside for Denver. "A little bit more focus would be nice. It's felt a bit like pushing a rock uphill."

Part of the problem is that some city agencies have been reluctant to build a new court when Denver already has specialized judicial programs for drug users, juvenile offenders and domestic-violence cases. "The district attorney supports innovative programs and is waiting to see the specifics of this program," says Denver DA spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough. "There are a lot of things we don't necessarily know about defendants when they come into the system, so we don't always know if one of the defendants is a military veteran or not."

This past summer, Charles Garlick was charged with first-degree murder after he used an assault rifle to gun down a 48-year-old man in a Denver alley. Garlick, who lived in Morrison, had received a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.

If Warvi hadn't stepped in to help him, Carter thinks he might have ended up in more trouble. But since he got out of jail after nine months thanks to good behavior, he's stayed on the straight and narrow. He's working toward his business-management degree and has big plans for the future — and for now, that includes keeping his job at the military cemetery.

"It's kind of a full-circle-type thing," he says between sips of his beer. "I get to honor those who served with me and didn't make it back."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner