One of our nation’s most important military credos is leave no man behind. This doctrine is part of the U.S. Soldier’s Creed which powerfully but simply states, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” It is a promise that soldiers make to each other. While the mission is paramount, each soldier is part of a team and knows when someone is injured, captured or killed, everything humanly possible will be done to bring them back.
However when Veterans come back home, all too often their service is ignored as they attempt to make a dramatic and sometimes overwhelming transition into civilian life. Many civilians cannot comprehend what soldiers have endured and unless they see a missing arm or leg, cannot understand the scars our returning vets will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The problems confronting returning veterans have been well documented. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, addiction issues, alcoholism and marital problems are just the tip of the iceberg. A Dept. of Veterans Affairs study reported the number of Veteran deaths by suicide averaged 22 per day. What role can law enforcement play in assisting troubled veterans?
Invariably, some returning Veterans will get in trouble with the law when reintegration into society goes badly. Police respond to a variety of calls for service involving Veterans ranging from a simple wellness check to serious assaults. How these matters are handled reflect upon your office and go well beyond arrest and conviction. As with many decisions prosecutors make, these incidents are an opportunity to engage in restorative justice and provide guidance, services and support for troubled vets who have honorably served our country.
In 2014, the Gloucester County (NJ) Prosecutor’s Office expanded its Veterans program and created the Gloucester County Veterans Initiative (GCVI) to address the challenge of returning Veterans becoming entangled in our criminal justice system. The goals of the GCVI are to reduce Veteran contact with police, reduce the number of incarcerated veterans, increase services and support for Veterans while maintaining public safety.
And, of course, accomplish the above with no additional cost to the taxpayers.
Many players, one team: A collaborative approach
In May 2014, a Memorandum of Agreement was executed between the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office and several public and private agencies establishing the GCVI. Signees include representatives from county corrections, police chiefs association, state parole board, Catholic Charities, county veteran’s affairs in addition to the prosecutor’s office. Other participants in the program are mental health providers, local office of NJ Department of Labor, Human Services, county communications, Volunteers of America, local hospitals, treatment facilities and the Veterans Administration.
Each partner plays an important role in ensuring the goals of the GCVI are met. The GCVI utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to identify and address every veteran’s problems. While the VA provides many services, access to mental health treatment, counseling, addiction services, and housing can be provided in a timely manner through the GCVI. While not all services will be needed, these are reoccurring issues which need to be addressed for the veteran to be successful in completing the program.
Every team needs a leader and under our program it’s the GCVI Coordinator. The Coordinator acts as the liaison between police, prosecutors and service providers. Importantly, many agencies have officers with military backgrounds who are well suited to serve in this capacity. The Coordinator must have excellent communication skills to ensure all partners understand and meet the expectations of the partnership.
In order for the program to be successful, Veterans need to be identified as early as possible in the criminal justice procedure. Before the MOA was signed, six months was spent training the 600 sworn local police officers in the county on the GCVI. These officers from 23 different police agencies have primary patrol responsibilities and have first contact with Veterans. Local officers are on the front lines in referring Veterans to the program.
Training consisted of familiarizing officers with the program including the application process. Veterans do not need to be arrested to be eligible for the program and many were referred simply to assist them in obtaining services or support. The application was downloaded to the MDTs in the police vehicle so the officer could fill out the form and email the application to the GCVI Coordinator. Importantly, officers were also taught de-escalation techniques to avoid physical confrontations with Veterans trained in hand to hand combat. Central communications/dispatchers were also trained and prompted the officers to inquire regarding the veteran status of arrestees.
Vet to Vet
Often times, Veterans have difficulty admitting they need help. They have been trained to be self-sufficient and overcome obstacles. When they are unable to do so, it can result in stress and frustration compounding alcohol, drug or other problems. As a result, community members who served in the military were identified to act as volunteer mentors. Similar to “Cop to Cop” programs, Veterans are more willing to open up to someone of a similar age who has had similar military experiences. Mentors also assist in accompanying Veterans to court, doctor appointments and counseling sessions.
In many cases, a prosecutor has wide discretion as to what is an appropriate plea offer taking into consideration the position of the victim among other factors. An Assistant Prosecutor in our Grand Jury unit is assigned to screen all cases involving GCVI participants. A victim/witness advocate will ascertain the position of the victim and relay the same to the Assistant Prosecutor and GCVI Coordinator. The Assistant Prosecutor will be kept apprised as to any services or treatment they are receiving and where appropriate, make them a condition of the final disposition.
Under our GCVI program, almost one third of the GCVI participants had their charges downgraded, entered a diversionary program or had their charges dismissed. There has been very little recidivism among this population. The balance of GCVI participants were assisted with coordinating services with service providers and provided support as they addressed their issues.
On May 1, 2017, Governor Chris Christie signed into law bipartisan legislation creating the Veterans Diversion Program.  Effective December 1, 2017, this law provides for statewide implementation in each of the 21 counties in New Jersey. The key components: collaboration among federal and state Veterans’ Affairs offices as well as county and local agencies to create a point of entry for treatment; facilitate law enforcement diversion or referral of eligible veterans, and prosecutor oversight.
A District Attorney’s office provides an excellent platform and opportunity to implement a Veterans program within your criminal justice system. An effective diversionary program can be implemented using existing resources and personnel within your office. Police recognize the value and embrace their role in helping Veterans turn around their lives. Service providers are motivated to be part of a program to assist this important segment of our population.
Most importantly, this program will help save lives and strengthen our communities. It reinforces and allows us to honor the promise our soldiers made to each other- to leave no one behind.
As originally appeared in The Prosecutor magazine. Click here – The Prosecutor_October17_Leave-No-Man