Maine lawmakers have several opportunities this year to stand up for veterans. One bill that I’ve introduced addresses the question: What happens when a veteran comes back from service struggling with post-traumatic stress and commits a serious crime?
When Maine’s veterans come home after their tours have ended, they face the difficult task of readjusting to civilian life. It would be a daunting change for anyone to process, but many service members are exposed to violent and life-threatening events during service that add to the challenges of readjustment.
The stress of their experiences can lead to anger, violence, deep depression and self-medicating through alcohol and other drugs. Jobs are lost and relationships fall apart. It’s not hard to imagine how quickly a veteran could arrive home and sink into a downward spiral that might end in Maine’s criminal justice system.
According to a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, at least 30 percent of U.S. service members who spent time in Iraq or Afghanistan have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress and many more will experience it later in their lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is often a factor whenever veterans turn to drugs or commit crimes. Our justice system should have the proper tools to not only hold these veterans with PTSD accountable for their crimes, but also to help them overcome the disorder and get back on a path to success.
That’s why in 2011 Kennebec County started the first court specifically for any Maine resident who had recently served in the military. This Veterans Court helps a small but growing number of veterans go through treatment and begin to turn around their lives.
The Veterans Court program takes a team approach to dealing with veterans who commit crimes or become addicted to drugs. It is a rigorous program restricted to those who have left the military recently, and it does not go easy on those who are allowed to participate.
Defendants must plead guilty to their crimes. They must follow a court-ordered treatment plan to the letter. They must take multiple drug tests, undergo counseling, file reports and receive mentoring from their fellow veterans. Not every defendant graduates, but without this crucial opportunity to rehabilitate, they are much more likely to become part of the 80 percent of defendants with mental illness who re-offend.
In September, two Iraq war veterans graduated from the program after agreeing to substance abuse treatment, mentoring, continuing education and regular reporting to the court. I was lucky enough to attend that graduation ceremony and witness the joy the veterans and their families felt as they took this important positive step forward.
The Veterans Court program has worked well so far, but not every veteran can come to Kennebec County to seek help. Over the next several years, we need to spread this success to all areas of Maine.
My bill would provide a stable source of funding for Maine’s existing Veterans Court here in Kennebec County, so that it is able to remain open. The bill also would start the process of finding out where in Maine the next veterans courts should go.
Maine’s returning veterans sometimes face obstacles such as poverty and homelessness, physical and mental-health disabilities and substance abuse. If we really want to make a difference in our veterans’ lives, no matter where they live, we have to expand these veterans treatment courts to more Maine counties. Doing so would be an effective and lasting way to help returning veterans and make Maine a safer place to live.
Since joining the Maine Legislature in late 2012, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. One thing I’ve learned over the last year is that there is still so much more we can and should do for Maine veterans. They have sacrificed a lot for us, and we owe them the support they need to lead healthy, successful lives after they come home.
Rep. Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro, is serving her first term in the Legislature, representing Windsor, Vassalboro and part of Augusta. She serves on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.