After serving both in Iraq and Afghanistan and winning medals for bravery, Nicholas Stefanovic returned to civilian life in Rochester, N.Y. But being home didn’t bring the Marine peace. In a CNN interview, he explained how he had suffered from panic, insomnia, and depression – haunted by the fact he survived combat while so many others didn’t.
Living out of his car, Stefanovic turned to illegal pain pills bought on the street and then heroin to soothe his pain. Eventually, he was arrested.
Stefanovic’s story is anything but unique. According to the Veterans Administration (VA), about 1 in 10 soldiers who return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Arrests for illegal drugs and crimes to support their habits are not unusual. Plus, as the blockbuster film American Sniper demonstrates, war veterans have an added adjustment of transitioning to civilian life.
But thanks to a growing number of drug courts specializing in helping troubled vets, getting busted can be a catalyst that changes lives for the better. In veterans treatment courts, judges give ultimatums – go to jail or work with a drug rehab program for a year. Most vets, like Stefanovic, choose the latter.
Drug courts, also called treatment courts, aren’t new. They were first established about 25 years ago and number over 2,000 throughout the U.S. Numerous studies have concluded they work far better than jail or probation and treatment alone. Nationwide, 75 percent of drug court graduates remain arrest-free at least 2 years after leaving the program.
What makes drug courts different is a broad team approach to help the addict, including cooperation and collaboration among judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, probation authorities, law enforcement, a variety of local service providers, and the greater community. Although drug courts are designed for nonviolent offenders, exceptions are sometimes made on an individual basis
A standardized treatment program is required, along with weekly drug testing and monitoring. After participants go through initial detox and are assessed for treatment, they move into an intensive treatment phase typically involving individual and group counseling. The final transition phase helps with employment, education, housing, and other needs.
First established in 2008, veterans treatment courts evolved out of the growing need for a treatment court model designed specifically for veterans who were in trouble with the law and who were also diagnosed with substance abuse and mental health issues. The veteran version of drug courts follows the established, successful multidisciplinary approach but also incorporates veteran-to-veteran help. In fact, many judges, attorneys, and court administrators are veterans themselves, and some volunteer for veterans courts before or after normal hours.
Veterans treatment courts work with local law enforcement and prosecutors to ensure that veterans are identified as soon as they are arrested, and the courts partner with local VA medical centers and veterans service organization to connect veterans with the benefits and services they have earned. The VA provides counseling services – a key part of the program since studies have found that as many as 30 percent of veterans have symptoms of a mental health problem or cognitive impairment.
Veterans treatment courts build upon military camaraderie and encourage participants to go through the treatment court process with other veterans who are in similar situations and have common past war experiences. Volunteer veteran mentors are also used for support.
How well does this multi-disciplinary, targeted-to-troubled-vets approach work? Statistics so far show that extremely few graduates of the program have ever been rearrested. And those who have seen the veterans treatment courts in action are passionate advocates for it.
"This court is a testament to the unbreakable spirit of our men and women who have served in the Armed Forces," North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said at a recent celebration for the one-year anniversary of a Raleigh veterans treatment court. "They do not give up and they have our full support as they move forward in life upon graduation from the court program.“
The number of veterans treatment courts has grown steadily over the years and currently numbers around 200. To find out if there is a drug treatment court in your area, visit Justice for Vets.
March 02, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA