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MENTAL HEALTH OF VETERANS

 We attended the February 2016 meeting of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, NACDL, in Austin TX. Lawyer Brockton D. Hunter of
  • Minneapolis presented relevant data concerning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans and
    their problems upon return from the war zone.
    Historically, difficulties for war returnees had been recognized for at least 3000
    years — Homer’s Iliad spoke of ancient experiences eerily similar to what happens
    today.
    Some 3 million military served in Vietnam. About half exhibited psychological
    injuries—and half of them were later arrested for offenses in the states. An
    unpopular war, Vietnam demonized the military mission. Returning troops often
    were treated dreadfully.
    PTSD has gone by various names in American history . In the Civil War, it was
    called soldier’s heart. In World War I, shell-shock. In World War II, combat
    fatigue.
    More recently, about 3 million personnel served in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict .
    About 20% have PTSD, another; 20% have TBI. Often, their symptoms are
    delayed. Among this number, 300, 000 women served beside their male
    counterparts in the combat zone; they report significant sexual harassment issues.
    Today, a tragic 22 returning vets commit suicide every day – one every 65 minutes,
    according to Mr. Hunter.

 

  • The speaker predicted huge future problems for returning vets. Unlike Vietnam
    –”serve 12 months, then go home” – today’s warriors have endured multiple
    deployments. Moreover, because of wonderful advances in medicine, many
    (though traumatized) are saved and return to civilian life.
    Two aspects of war fighting are different today. First, the American public does not
    seem to blame these volunteers for obeying orders and going to war. Second,
    citizens are carefully sanitized from negative images, such as returning flag-draped
    coffins. For Mr. Hunter, the supportive stickers and generous “thank you for your
    national service” words are too often superficial. Overall, the public is apathetic
    and has tuned the war out. We who remain back home are not challenged to
    sacrifice– it is a “forgotten war.”
    Of those serving in Iraq/Afghanistan, Mr. Hunter reports that:
    94% received incoming fire
    48% killed enemy combatants
    51% saw and handled friendly human remains
    28% were responsible for injury/death of noncombatants caught in the
    crossfire
    68% viewed fellow troops first-hand being hurt or killed
    86% lost a friend
    Many returnees self-medicate on alcohol or drugs. They have flashbacks and are
    frequently violent or self-destructive. And from that, Mr. Hunter advances a
    troubling prediction–great crime waves have occurred every time US veterans
    return from major battles. One post-Vietnam study reported that 12% of returnees
    committed serious felonies. As for Iraq/Afghanistan, , a 2009 study found that an
    increase in post-war crime tied to the toxic combination of multiple deployments
    and a “dirty” war of IEDs and confusion over friend/foe.
  • How can the defense lawyer help? Attorney Hunter works closely with a veterans’
    nonprofit defense project, advocating and educating for veterans in the criminal
    justice system. He reviewed effective advocacy, along with the special concerns
    and ethical issues confronting returnees, especially those with service-related
    disorders.
    In a legal context, four potential trial defenses are significant:
    Insanity and lessened mental responsibility
    Self-defense
    Automatism – conditioned responses
    Mens rea – with PTSD and TBI suggesting at least a lesser degree of guilt
    Mr. Hunter stresses that defense litigators should call family and friends to show
    how the soldier changed after combat. Military buddies can be extremely useful,
    along with experts on PTSD. Similarly, pictures of life in the war zone, along
    with peers who can report how brutal the war was, will go far in building an
    effective presentation.
    The defense should be prepared to call an expert who can speak to how boot camp/
    basic training seeks to minimize lingering moral misgivings about violating the
    Fifth commandment; the goal, he comments, is for the recruits to learn to take life
    without compunction.
    The defense litigator should work hard on extenuation/mitigation – telling the
    story effectively and winning structured rehabilitation and support for the military
    accused.
  • Veterans’ courts? According to Mr. Hunter, they can be extremely helpful. But it is
    important to first discover whether those opting for the Vets’ Court system
    surrender significant Constitutional rights in that specific forum.
    Effective defense for returning vets? As Mr. Hunter wisely comments, “we owe it
    to our clients, our families, and ourselves….”

 


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