Written by Phil Cerroni
By Phil Cerroni
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a force in contemporary America that is still not completely understood, but it is a condition that the criminal justice systems in North Texas are addressing and attacking with all the firepower at their disposal.
The Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) is an association of military officers both current and retired that concerns itself with the rights of veterans long after many people in America have all but forgotten about their service. At the North DFW Military Officer Chapter's dinner at the DFW Airport Marriott Hotel on Nov.14, they invited Denton Assistant District Attorney Forrest Beadle to speak about Denton County's new Veterans Diversionary Court. Already in place in other North Texas Counties, the new court assists combat veterans in the criminal justice system.
After studying successful courts around Texas, Beadle decided that Denton needed one as well, but problems arose when he tried to transport the program to his county.
“The law, as you read it if you strictly interpret it, talked about a material causal connection between the crime and PTSD,” Beadle explained. “That means there is a very tight connection.”
Unfortunately, a strict reading of the laws meant that there were no participants in Denton County's court, and when he looked at other jurisdictions including Dallas and Tarrant counties, Beadle discovered they had up to 25 veterans participating in their programs.
“If you kind of liberally interpret that causal connection, you cast a wider net, and once you do, you start to catch these service members who may be are upset the Cowboys lost – that's why they got a DWI – but maybe they're drinking so much because of their experiences overseas,” Beadle said.
It is better to get struggling veterans, most of whom suffer from self-medication by means of alcohol and drugs, into the deferral program where they can receive counseling and medical help.
“If you kind of start stretching that causal connection, you realize you cast a wider net and start picking up guys and gals that need the help, and that's why they're involved with the criminal justice system,” Beadle said.
He also recounted something that Judge Carr, an advocate of a similar court in Harris County, had told him. “You have go to bat for these guys and gals to get this program to work because when they first get into the program, they're resentful of the fact they've been arrested. They kind of have to be shown – a little of the drill sergeant way – that you need to do this.”
One example Beadle gave of the court's effectiveness was the case of a former Navy SEAL who was put into the Dallas criminal justice system because of heroin abuse. After four strenuous combat tours in the Middle East, this man received an honorable discharge, but he could not leave his memories behind with his uniform. He began self-medicating and eventually progressed to heroin. He was admitted into the Veterans Court, and after three difficult years, he beat his addiction and was able to continue with his life without a criminal record.
Being accepted into the court is no easy matter, however. There are many crimes including murder, aggravated assault or robbery, sexual assault and crimes against children that will disqualify one from being eligible for diversionary court.
“Those offenses by their own right are so violent that the criminal justice system needs to handle them the way we usually do,” Beadle said.
Although the many veterans coming through the court system have been brought up on drug charges, no drug dealers will be eligible for the court.
The question becomes who is the right candidate.
“Because this is a voluntary process, we are looking for the veteran who wants to be helped,” Beadle continued. “What we've developed is a screening process that protects their rights and ensures that the right person is in the court.”
The court's positive criteria include combat or hazardous duty and an honorable discharge or general discharge under honorable conditions. This last specification may seem specific but, as Beadle pointed out, it is extremely important.
“We have to keep in mind that a lot of these guys have re-upped several times, and maybe their addiction started while they were in the service,” he said. “They get caught, and the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] moves is, and they get chaptered out of the service.”
Diagnosis of combat related mental illness: PTSD or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) is also key. Beadle stressed that the effects that TBI, which includes gunshot wounds to the head and IED explosions, have on the brain are not completely understood by either the military or medical communities.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the veteran must admit responsibility for their offense by pleading guilty. A dismissal of prejudice form is written up by the district attorney's office upon completion of the program, and the offense is expunged from the veteran's record.
“Not only will he get the treatment he entered the program for, but at the end of it, he'll get a dismissal of his criminal charges,” Beadle said proudly.
To show just how selective Veterans Courts are, Beadle shared the numbers for Tarrant County's two year old program. Of the 1,850 veterans who had been screened, only 256 were considered for the court. Of this number, only 68 have participated in it so far.
These stringent measures have been paying off, however, as there has only been one instance of recidivism among the court's graduates.
The amazing effect this program has on the lives of veterans around North Texas is summed up by a letter written by a former Marine, residing in Dallas County, to his mentor.
“It's been an amazing journey coming back home,” he wrote. “My family has been rallying behind me for years, and I just didn't see it. The word gratitude is how I've been feeling. My wife and I have been meeting with my family members so as to actively include them in my safety plan. My uncles, who are combat Vietnam vets, have been pulling me aside to show me how they cope.”
Beadle wrapped up his speech by exhorting the assembled veterans that this is an experiment, and the resolution is by no means certain.
“We don't know if this is going to be a trickle or a flood, but we do know that we have a lot of veterans coming back from overseas that are having problems. Time will tell how many people will enter this court program,” he said.