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Bar News - July 15, 2015

Helping Veterans in Court Starts with the Right Question


Glenn Kazan, care coordinator for Easter Seals NH Military and Veterans Services, speaks at a panel discussion on the challenges of creating and sustaining the Nashua Court’s Veterans Behavioral Health Track. Susan Mead of the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center and far right, Diane Levesque, veterans justice outreach coordinator for the Manchester VA Medical Center.

Nancy Bernardy, associate director for clinical networking at the National Center for PTSD, and Matthew Friedman, former director of the National Center for PTSD, at the Justice Involved Veterans Conference.
Photos by Anne Saunders
Ask the question. If there was one thing organizers wanted attendees at the state’s first conference on justice-involved veterans to leave with, it was this: the importance of asking someone if they have ever served in the military.

The importance became clearer as speakers at the daylong conference held June 12 in Concord discussed how New Hampshire’s criminal justice system could better serve veterans.

New Hampshire is on the forefront of a national movement to work with veterans who fall into the criminal justice system, often because of untreated health needs. There are 113,094 veterans living in New Hampshire, the fifth-highest proportion per capita in the nation, speakers at the conference noted.

The NH Circuit Court Veterans Track that has been operating since last August out of the Nashua District Division under Judge James Leary is an offshoot of the mental health court there and is an example of an alternative sentencing program specifically designed for veterans.

To demonstrate the Veterans Track program for conference attendees, organizers set up a court session in the conference hall, so that the many social workers, law enforcement officials, veterans, lawyers and military personnel who attended the conference could see how the special docket operates.

Veterans who land in trouble with the law — if they are identified as veterans — are offered supports and treatment aimed at their specific needs. Complying with these sentencing alternatives gives them the opportunity to avoid more traditional court sanctions, including incarceration.

It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, several speakers noted. “There’s a carrot and a stick involved,” said Glenn Kazan, care coordinator for Easter Seals NH Military and Veterans Services.

“They gave me the tools I needed to get back on my feet,” said Robert Kirby, who connected with Easter Seals after he got into trouble with the law.

Kirby had served in the US Army in Central and South America shortly after Desert Storm. But back home, after two of his friends committed suicide, he started drinking heavily, blacking out most nights. He lost his job and said he was headed for jail or suicide himself.

His drinking frightened his family, and one night, they called the police. He was fortunate to be identified early as a veteran and was able to access services for veterans through Easter Seals. His wife and children also benefitted from counseling, he said. And he’s been a steady participant in Alcoholics Anonymous ever since then.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said. “I‘m doing the work.”

Since his arrest, Kirby has found work as a general contractor and set up his own contracting business. When he spoke up at the conference, it was to support the Veterans Track program that had made a difference in his life.

One of the breakout sessions during the justice-involved veterans conference highlighted the development and operation of the Veterans Track program. Those who helped establish the new court docket said it wasn’t easy to get community mental health providers, federal Veterans Administration services and the state courts working together.

But reaching out to veterans may be the real challenge. “They’re not ones to ask for help,” said Kazan. That’s what makes it so crucial to ask if someone has served.

Major General William Reddel, adjutant general of the NH National Guard, was one of the guest speakers at the conference and provided some vivid examples of what many veterans deal with when they get home, having faced the death of fellow soldiers or lived in fear for their lives.

What are adaptive behaviors in war zones — heightened vigilance, an emotional wall and pleasure in the adrenaline rush of danger — can cause problems back at home with employers and family members. Veterans can end up driving too fast, be over-sensitive to certain stimuli, shut down emotionally or go on high alert.

“That’s a normal stress response. With PTSD, there’s no off-switch,” said Dr. Matthew Friedman, a researcher and senior adviser to the VA’s National Center on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

There are now several effective treatments for PTSD, including cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization. The field has come a long way since the Vietnam War era, and Friedman shared the results of some recent tests that show these treatments work, even when measured in five-year or 10-year follow-up studies.

Diane Levesque, a liaison with the court and outreach coordinator for the Manchester VA Medical Center, helps veterans navigate the court system. The VA offers a variety of outpatient programs to help people with issues ranging from homelessness, family therapy and substance abuse issues, as well as counseling and treatment for PTSD. The VA also can help veterans and their families to access treatment in the community.

Recently, the Veterans Law Project, led by past NH Bar Association president Larry Vogelman, began assisting New Hampshire veterans with legal issues and discharge upgrades. Those providing services to veterans are committed to eliminating any obstacles to getting help, regardless of a veteran’s finances or eligibility for VA services, conference organizers said.

But it all starts with asking the question. Those who come into contact with veterans in the criminal justice context – whether a police officer at a traffic stop, a lawyer, or a doctor meeting with a patient – need to ask whether a person has served in the military. Otherwise, veterans won’t get the help they need.

“I’m going to harp on it — ask the question,” Gen. Reddel said. “It’s got to be everyone in the state.”

Anne Saunders is a freelance writer based in Concord.

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