Helping, not punishing vets who lose their way
November 9, 2012
KRIV-TV Ch. 26 (Fox)
Helping, not punishing vets who lose their way
HOUSTON (FOX 26) - The 288th District Court looks like any typical criminal court but when you go back into Judge Marc Carter's chambers, you quickly see why it's not.
There are photos of men in uniform everywhere. One photo shows Carter and another man who looks a lot like him.
"Those are of my dad fighting in Vietnam," he said proudly.
Born in Germany, his dad was career military.
"Those experiences will live with me for the rest of my life," he said. "They are part of my fabric and part of who I am and makes me do what I do."
Every other Wednesday, he presides over a special docket of cases dealing with veterans. The focus is more on helping veterans, not punishing them. They have a choice: get treatment or go to jail.
"We've been doing this for three years and it started with just one veteran," he said.
Marine Sergeant Marty Gonzalez was that veteran. Gonzalez fought in Fallujah, Iraq. Along the way, he was shot twice and blown up twice, picking up three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury and a broken back.
One night, with too many painkillers in his system and his child in the car, he had a wreck. He ended up in front of Carter.
"At that time I was suicidal," Gonzalez said. "I was giving up on myself. I didn't see a purpose in my life. I was going to kill myself, but I didn't care if I died."
He told Carter his story and it struck a chord.
"That upset me because I knew there was no justice for this young man if I let his story get written that was if there was a way to re-write that outcome," Carter said.
He had mercy on Gonzalez and got him help instead of a prison sentence.
Gonzalez bore down and did it. He said he would have been dead or in prison without Carter. When Carter asked him to go to Austin and testify to help get a bill passed to establish the first veteran's court in the land, he couldn't say no. He knew the judge had stuck his neck out for him. It was time to return the favor.
The court coordinates with Veterans Affairs. The feds pick up the tab for their treatment. Most of the cases involve PTSD and drug or alcohol issues. The veterans docket is every other Wednesday, and the probation period lasts about 18 months. It depends on the progress.
We were there to see Navy veteran Preston Hargrove on probation for a drug possession charge move from phase three to phase four.
"It was scary at first, but it's a good program," Hargrove said.
Gonzalez and his wife help counsel veterans who are struggling with the program and their families.
"I tell them you are not alone, keep fighting. You are not alone," he said.
The court has a very good track record so far with only about a 15 percent failure rate, well below a typical criminal court. That mean fewer people who gave so much, being thrown away by the country they swore to protect.
"It's really rewarding for me as a human being to be able to contribute in that way," Carter said.
Coming Home: Justice for our Veterans
Two and a half million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; many of them, more than once. The VA tells us about 20 percent come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. So, that comes to about 500,000. For some, returning is harder than they imagined. The suicide rate for the Army is up 15 percent over last year. For the Marines its up 28 percent. A few of our troops return to become something they never thought they could be: criminals, for the first time in their lives.
Around Houston, in Harris County, Texas, 400 veterans are locked up every month. We met a judge there who saw them coming before the bench, fresh out of the warzone and he thought a lot of them were worth saving. Judge for yourself once you meet some of our troops, coming home.
Scott Pelley: How long in the Marine Corps?
Arthur Davis: Almost 22 years, sir.
Scott Pelley: Number of combat deployments?
Arthur Davis: Four altogether.
Scott Pelley: And you made first sergeant.
Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.
Scott Pelley: Leader of Marines.
Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.
Scott Pelley: It was a good life.
Arthur Davis: Yes, sir.
Let us show you two pictures of Arthur Davis. This one, with the president, was taken in 2006, in Afghanistan, when Davis was in charge of our embassy security there. This is a mug shot they took a couple of years later in the Harris County jail -- one year after his retirement from the Corps.
Arthur Davis: One of the things I swore that I'd never do was go to jail. And for seven days I was in the county jail, trying to figure out what was I going to do, thinking about all the things that I screwed up on, all the hard work that I've put myself through to get to this point in my life where I could say, you know, I did a good job. And I screwed it all up. I thought my life was over.
It could have been over. He faced up to 20 years for assault with a deadly weapon. Davis, drunk and in a rage, took a gun and a knife into a fight with a neighbor.
Arthur Davis: It was just too much for me to deal with. You know, I thought I was the toughest person I knew, I could handle anything. But I couldn't deal with my own demons.
The demons came in Iraq. When Davis was leading 200 Marines. One day his Marines were in a convoy. There was a bomb. Two were killed in this Humvee. As first sergeant, Davis was the old man, the father figure who gave advice, courage, order and discipline. He'd promised to bring them all home. He promised.
Arthur Davis: These guys, they're gone. You know, you kind of feel responsible. You know-- you know, you kind of say why not me? Why didn't it happen to me?
Symptoms of PTSD followed him home. Anger, anxiety. Civilians didn't seem to get it. He thought the world was dangerous, threats everywhere. Crowds were menacing, noises startling. Davis medicated himself.
Arthur Davis: I realized, you know, some things were happening differently. You know, I didn't want to go around crowded areas. I didn't want to go around people. I found myself getting up in the morning, drinking. Going to sleep at night, drinking. During the day, drinking. I wouldn't even go to work. You know, taking responsibility for those two guys that we lost, I mean, I just felt responsible more and more so. And now my whole support group, my brothers, Marines, they were gone.
It turned out another military brother was also in the criminal justice system. An Army veteran named Marc Carter.
Texas State District Judge Marc Carter.
Marc Carter: I will give you some options, and you will tell me whether or not you want to be here or whether or not you just don't want to deal with it. And if that's the case, then I know where to send you. Prison.
Carter was watching fellow veterans, broken before the bench. Afghanistan. Iraq. Post-traumatic stress, addictions, pretty much the same story a few hundred times a month. Carter also knew that the VA hospital a few miles away had plenty of empty seats in programs for PTSD and addiction.
Marc Carter: You have to put them in a program that's going to help them, that's going to make them be successful. If you just put them out there on probation they are going to fail. If you put them on probation that is tailored to deal with their problems, PTSD and drug use, then they'll be successful. They won't have to go to prison.
Scott Pelley: Do some of these veterans not want to believe they have PTSD or not want to admit that they have that kind of problem?
Marc Carter: There is an interest-- a vested interest in them not to admit that they have PTSD while they're serving. There's a lot of self-destruction in that because you know you need the help and you're not getting it. And you have others that are just in denial, "Everybody else is wrong, not me. The whole world is wrong, I'm right." That's denial.
In 2009, Carter and other volunteers opened a court just for vets who've committed first time felonies, things like assault, robbery, drunk driving, spousal abuse. After arrest, vets have a choice, go through the regular system or come to this court with its mandatory two years of treatment and supervision. About 40 vets a year chose Judge Carter.
Marc Carter: They do more programs on this probation than they would ever do on any other probation in the state.
Marc Carter: It's tougher for them. They make a commitment to me and that is, "I'm going to do what it takes. I'm going to go to all the programs and treatment programs." And my promise to them is, "I will be patient and I will give you time to change back to that person you were."
The road back is in court-ordered therapy, three or four times a week for addiction and post-traumatic stress. They meet in groups and individually with psychiatrists. The VA is getting a lot of credit these days for developing innovative PTSD therapies.
Harris: My reoccurring' dream was the fact that no matter how hard I tried to protect the people that were behind me, the guys that were coming, I couldn't kill. And their intention is to hurt everybody behind me and there's nothing I can do to stop it. So I wake up screaming not because I'm gonna get hurt, but because I wasn't able to stop everyone else from getting hurt.
John: Anybody have sleep paralysis?
Harris: Oh where you can't move?
John: You wake up-- you wake up and you open your eyes but you can't move your body. And you feel like somebody's about to get you? Oh it's the most terrifying experience of my life.
Kevin Thomas: There's two flashbacks that have occurred for the last seven years. I mean, I get up out of bed, I'm there. Our Hummer gets hit. And this event never even happened in Iraq. And everybody on my team in my Hummer is hurt. And I'm reaching for my M16-- my weapon. And I'm patting on the ground and I can't find it. I can't find it, over and over again.
Kevin Thomas: It was January 26, 2005. Our unit was out at nighttime doing security. And we got the call over the radio that there was a helicopter that was down. Everybody in that perished.
Scott Pelley: What did you see?
Kevin Thomas: Wreckage, carnage, bodies.
Scott Pelley: How many?
Kevin Thomas: Twenty-five to 30 Marines, brothers, family.
Six months later, Thomas returned to his own family in Houston.
Kevin Thomas: I started drinking heavily and certain symptoms of PTSD kicked in. I didn't know what was going wrong with me. I started isolating a lot, avoidance. And little, but slowly, the things that I acquired, I lost after I came back from Iraq.
Kevin Thomas: I was angry about unfinished business in Iraq. I wanted to go back in. I was angry of the way I viewed the world now. I was angry of people taking for granted the liberty of freedom. We give too many civilians the benefit of the doubt that they should understand and they should know, but they don't know what the world is really like and how Iraq really was.
Marc Carter: Kevin Thomas. Another Marine. How are you, sir?
Kevin Thomas: Outstanding, sir.
Marc Carter: I just want to tell you, it takes a lot of courage to go back in there and face those monsters.
Kevin Thomas:Yes, sir.
Marc Carter: Good job, sir.
Every two weeks, the vet reports to the judge. Troublemakers are kicked out and sent to the regular probation system. But there haven't been many of those, only nine out of 100 vets so far.
Because of that, veterans' courts like this have sprung up in 27 states. There are 100 already with another 100 planned.
Marc Carter: I've heard that you've made some very smart choices lately, some very smart choices. That shows me that you understand the slippery slope that you stand on.
Marc Carter to Arthur Davis: How are you? You're looking good as always!
Arthur Davis, looking at 20 years for assault was one of the first vets in Carter's program. He hasn't had a drink in two years. And his arrest is gone from his record.
Arthur Davis to new vet: You got your whole support system here, you got your therapist you got your probation officer...
Arthur Davis: It put me back in a leadership position. The veterans' court, they prescribed a nice detailed pattern of what you needed to do in order to get on board. And it works.
Scott Pelley: You had structure again.
Arthur Davis: I had structure again.
Scott Pelley: Just like you had in the Marine Corps.
Arthur Davis: Yes, sir. I have to live this life. I can live it angry, locked up in prison, in jail or dead. Or, I can get myself together and be a positive role model for those other veterans coming home from this war.
Kevin Thomas, facing ten years in jail, instead, is set to graduate from the vet program this spring. The court even helped him get into college. Now he's rebuilding the trust of his ex-wife and his sons.
In the Marines, Thomas swore to defend the country from all enemies. It appears he's made good on that oath including the enemy within.
Scott Pelley: What was it that scared you enough to become involved in the veterans' court program?
Kevin Thomas: I didn't like the person I was.
Scott Pelley: Were you afraid you were going to lose the boys?
Kevin Thomas: Yes.
Scott Pelley: You know, we were with you when you took the boys out for ice cream the other day. And one of them asked you, "What was it like in the Marines?" When he's a little bit older, what are you going tell him about your experience?
Kevin Thomas: I'm going to tell him that my experience and my career in the Marines was great. It's the best thing I ever did in my life. Sorry. It's the best thing I ever did in my life.
Will Iraq and Afghanistan be the wars that teach us how to take better care of our returning warriors?
As I write this, stories about Major Malik Nadal Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood have begun to vanish from the front pages of newspapers and the TV news, displaced by health care, the holidays, and Tiger Woods. It has not even been a month, but already the worst mass shooting at an Army base in U.S. history is old news. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Civilians in America have been all too willing to let the wars in those two countries be something that happens to other people. Until tragedy strikes, most people avoid news about the military altogether, while a small number of Americans continue to put their lives on the line in desolate foreign lands for reasons that seem to have lost their meaning several years ago.
We still sing “God Bless America” at public events, but supporting the troops is mostly lip service. We learned from Vietnam to hate the war, not the warrior, but we have not learned any better than the Vietnam generation how to assimilate the returning troops into our midst. And though the casualties are far fewer than in Vietnam, the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has inflicted many soldiers with injuries that are not as obvious as, say, a missing limb. Multiple deployments have become a huge factor in the rise in the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another factor is that the wars in the Middle East have no front lines: The enemy can be anywhere. The impact of improvised explosive devices—IEDs—can cause traumatic brain injuries that might not show up for years. Meanwhile, technology has made it easier to stay in touch, which means that a soldier can be stressed out in real time by a spouse’s inability to pay the bills or a child’s failing grades, all while he’s trying to remain vigilant at a market outside Baghdad or Kabul. Is it any wonder that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown an incredible spike in the number of veterans who commit suicide?
Even so, returning soldiers are still left mostly to fend for themselves, a fact that is doubly disturbing when you consider that some may have signed up to escape poverty or problems at home and may lack the emotional strength to survive battle stress and its aftermath. Uncared for, many of these veterans simply end up in prison; 10 percent of all adults arrested last year, according to the Department of Justice, had served in the military. Three hundred veterans are booked into the Harris County jail every month.
During the 2009 legislative session, Houston state senator Rodney Ellis began looking at ways to lower that number. Ellis knew that overseas, soldiers learned to carry weapons with them at all times and to barrel through traffic intersections to avoid potential sniper fire—not exactly skills that are advantageous in civilian life. What had been adaptive was now maladaptive, and veterans were being arrested and jailed for behavior that, in another setting, had kept them alive. Ellis also knew that nearly 20 percent of the soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from PTSD or major depression but only slightly more than half were getting treatment. Since PTSD or a brain injury often makes it difficult to follow the intricate terms of probated sentences, veterans could stumble into stiffer punishments for relatively minor crimes by missing appointments or failing to report a change of address. And the number of vets in Ellis’s district was growing: Harris County now has the second-largest number of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans in the country, second only to Los Angeles County.
Marty Gonzalez is one such veteran who nearly lost his way. At 29 he looks every inch the accomplished former Marine: He stands ramrod straight and answers questions with a level gaze and a crisp “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am.” He joined the Marines at 19, guarded nuclear weapons sites before serving in combat, and ultimately earned a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal, three Purple Hearts, and two Bronze Stars. When he wears his uniform in public, strangers thank him for his service. But he could easily be sitting in prison right now, serving time for a felony.
Gonzalez fought in Iraq. On a cold, gloomy December day in 2004 in Fallujah, his platoon came under fire. With another soldier, Gonzalez stormed a house to retrieve the body of one of his men. An insurgent threw a grenade down the stairwell as Gonzalez was ascending. Caught in the explosion, Gonzalez still managed to retrieve the dead Marine and pull his buddy out of the wreckage, all while having suffered a concussion and other brain injuries. The fighting continued through the night, and the next day Gonzalez was shot in the elbow at close range. He barely survived and, after being seen at several hospitals in Europe and the U.S., was shipped home to the veterans hospital in Harris County, where his father, a Vietnam veteran who worked in housekeeping, looked out for him. Over the next few years, Gonzalez endured nine or ten surgeries and almost lost his right arm. But that was nothing compared with his emotional injuries. “When Marty came back, he was different,” his father, Tomas, says. He was angry, distracted, and felt that he couldn’t talk about his experience with anyone. Gonzalez couldn’t adjust to civilian life, which meant that he couldn’t hold down a job. His marriage collapsed. In severe, constant pain, he began taking medications for relief. Gonzalez was suffering from PTSD, but he didn’t recognize the symptoms. Then, in April 2007, he was arrested for driving under the influence; he was loaded up on painkillers. Because his infant son was in the backseat at the time, he was charged with endangering the life of a child, a felony.
Facing a prison sentence of two to ten years, Gonzalez got his first lucky break. His defense attorney, Darryl Spiller, looked over his military record and concluded that Gonzalez’s condition—and his crime—was a result of what had happened to him overseas. At first, the judge on his case saw nothing more than an irresponsible 27-year-old. “I thought, ‘Good luck,’ the day his package was presented to me,” says Judge Marc Carter, of the 228th Criminal District Court. But the more he read of Gonzalez’s file, the more he softened. He was also a veteran, from a family of veterans, and he had seen too many soldiers like Gonzalez end up in prison. Gonzalez was asking for a two-year pretrial diversion. “I realized that because of one bad decision, one bad day, Marty could be a felon,” he says. He agreed to Gonzalez’s request.
The case prompted Carter to look for concrete ways to smooth the way home for other veterans. He soon teamed up with Ellis, who was then proposing a jail diversion program in the Legislature. Only a handful of such programs exist in the U.S., and most of them simply provide mental health services and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Ellis wanted more: a program that would not only keep veterans out of the criminal justice system but also help them get job training and claim their benefits (simple as it sounds, some veterans, especially young ones, don’t do this). He and Carter, along with a number of local veterans, including Patrick F. McCann, the former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, put their heads together, enlisted still more allies, and finally, after some eleventh-hour negotiating, got a bill passed that established the first veterans’ courts in Texas: courts specifically designed to pull military personnel with combat-related PTSD and other injuries out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.
The logical place to house such a program was at Houston’s Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the largest health-care facility in Texas and one of the largest in the nation. At the same time that Ellis was working the Legislature, forensic psychiatrist Andrea Stolar and her colleagues had begun to develop a rehabilitation program that could offer not just drug and alcohol treatment but care for medical problems like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. The program was also designed to provide help with military benefits and, for the growing number of homeless vets, assistance with finding a place to live. In other words, the goal was to truly bring soldiers home again. “A successful jail diversion program has coordinated care,” Stolar explained. “The VA is the only system we have that provides that. All you have to do is get them in the door.”
Several more months of negotiations followed. The Harris County district attorney’s office would have to approve all transfers from the criminal court to the veterans’ court; in most instances, those with violent histories would not be eligible. Soldiers charged with misdemeanors or felonies would have to have a diagnosis of a brain injury or mental illness from the VA. On Veterans Day the last hurdle was cleared for the establishment of a six-month pilot program, the first in the state with VA services. Depending on the case and their plea, vets who successfully complete the two-year program can have all charges expunged from their records.
The first session of the veterans’ court took place on December 9—the same month Marty Gonzalez completed his probation—with a docket of five people and Judge Carter presiding. (Competition for the slots was intense; just about every day a criminal lawyer lobbied Carter for a slot on the docket for his client.) Those who worked to make the court a reality express a relentless optimism. “We will save lives,” Adam Walmus, the director of the VA hospital, promises.