New Courts Give Troubled Veterans a Second Chance

The system can better take account of a veteran's physical and emotional condition.

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By the time he was 30, Thomas Zaborowski had spent a decade struggling with the aftermath of his Army stint. An incident at a military base in South Korea—something he still won't talk about—left him with an honorable discharge and a 30 percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Shortly after returning home, he ran into trouble with the law. Arrests for DWI and for marijuana possession were followed by a criminal mischief charge for punching a phone during an argument with his now ex-wife.

After the third arrest, he was given an option: Face a 10-day jail sentence, or go to a special court for veterans that just opened in his hometown of Buffalo. Zaborowski chose veterans court. "I never realized there was so much help out there," he says.

The Buffalo veterans court, started last year by Erie County Court Judge Robert Russell, is the most prominent one in the country. An earlier, less formal version began in Anchorage in 2004. And at least eight veterans courts have opened in the past year or will soon, including ones in Chicago; Tulsa, Okla.; and Orange County, Calif. Some 20 other municipalities are considering launching them. And in Washington, Sen. John Kerry plans to reintroduce a bill from last year that would set up a grant program to help develop such courts nationwide.

As thousands of combat veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers and visibility have helped create a nationwide push for new mechanisms to aid veterans who are having trouble reintegrating into life back home. A few critics are balking at what they see as preferential treatment for veterans. But the courts' backers say that the system, which works much like therapeutic drug courts, is tailored to veterans' specific needs and can better take into account their physical and emotional condition.

One key driver for the courts' popularity has been increased sensitivity toward the prevalence of serious, undertreated ailments, like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, that, according to studies, can produce higher rates of drug abuse, domestic violence, and other criminality. The Pentagon's latest estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered brain injuries. Also, with more soldiers serving multiple combat tours, the incidence of PTSD is getting higher. A 2008 survey found that more than a quarter of soldiers who have served three or four tours in Iraq show symptoms of PTSD, compared with only 12 percent of those who served a single tour.

For example, at Fort Carson, Colo., where many soldiers who have served in Iraq two or three times are stationed, charges against current or former soldiers for domestic violence, sexual assault, and homicide have risen sharply over the past few years. Five killings occurred last year alone.

Although the courts have gained support in part because more and more veterans are returning home from combat, their popularity also reflects the concerns of those who lived through the Vietnam era. In particular, they want today's soldiers to be treated with more understanding. "We won't allow what happened to us to happen to them," says Hank Pirowski, a Vietnam veteran and the Buffalo court's project director. Terry Hubert, another Vietnam veteran, agrees. He recalls the ambivalent reception that he got on his return from war. Without safety nets in place or much understanding of PTSD, it's little wonder that he, along with many of his comrades, had run-ins with the law, says Hubert, who works on incarcerated veterans issues for the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans of America. By 1986, veterans accounted for 20 percent of all state prisoners. The percentage has dropped dramatically since. But, Hubert says, "we expect to see that number start increasing."

Wary of repeating history, judges took notice when the number of veterans coming through their courts appeared to spike. The most recent nationwide statistics show that veterans were half as likely to be incarcerated as civilians in 2004, but judges across the country report that the number seems to have climbed since then.