Recently, I learned about an innovative approach to help veterans returning home to try to adjust to normal life and stay out of trouble. The Veterans Treatment Court, the first of its kind, is part of a program in Buffalo, New York to help all of its defendants, all military veterans, who have served their country. The program’s genesis stemmed from a distinctive need. Judge Robert Russell, presiding over the vet court, counted 300 veterans in the local courts last year; thus, he decided to tailor the program incorporating protocols from standard drug and mental health courts. The vet court’s Program Director, Hank Pirowski, is a Vietnam veteran, so he can relate to the defendants. Most notably, the court has a waiting list for peer mentors: veterans who want to help their fellow vets in need. What a smart construct: veterans helping veterans when they need it most.

As a substance abuse/criminal justice professional, I think this is a wonderful idea. We all are aware of what causes people to commit crime, and what societal factors contribute to the problem. It is well documented that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have significant issues when they return. “The VA says 70 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan saw some form of combat, either through firefights, rocket attacks, or the most common strikes on troops – roadside bomb attacks on their vehicles (www.cnn.com).”  According to the VA, this rate is three times the rate of combat experienced by Vietnam veterans. With this knowledge comes the unfortunate truth: many more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are suffering from PSTD, TBI, and other ailments than veterans of previous wars. When veterans return home, many of them find the transition back to normal life daunting, and may turn to different things to get them through those times. If veterans don’t have strong family support during the trying times, then they can turn to drugs and alcohol.

Accordingly, many of these veterans dealing with these issues are homeless. “Veterans make up almost a quarter of the homeless population in the United States. The government says there are as many as 200,000 homeless veterans; the majority served in the Vietnam War (www.cnn.com).” Homelessness fosters hopelessness, and some hopeless veterans may turn to drugs and crime to cope.

What we know is that specialized treatment via drug courts is working. The idea of a specialized veteran court is common sense, particularly since the offenses that the court handles usually begin with some type of substance abuse or mental health problem. “It’s just a fantastic idea, instead of punishing them, honoring them for their service,” said C. West Huddleston, CEO of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, a non-profit drug court advocacy organization (www.usatoday.com).  Drug courts and mental health courts that include comprehensive, evidence-based treatment and sanctions are cost effective methods to serve these and other special needs clients. 

The Buffalo, NY Veteran Treatment Court serves defendants who are military veterans or family members. They are required to get mental health or substance abuse counseling, and receive ancillary services to help secure employment. The court convenes weekly or bi-weekly, and the veterans are required to report to the court once per month to provide updates on their progress. The program has been highly praised by the VA and other veteran’s organizations, as the structured program helps the defendants to get their lives back on track. The Veteran Treatment Court is definitely a positive step towards ensuring that our veterans, no matter how troubled, receive the care they need.

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