Friday, February 24, 2017

Defending crime: Veterans suffer from combat-related mental health disorders

Minnesota Attorney Brock Hunter has developed a specialty in representing veterans charged with crimes outside the military justice system, reported the ABA Journal. He and his colleagues in this area offer a version of the brain defense, an approach that considers the possible influence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury caused by their military experience on their clients’ criminal behavior. They seek understanding and treatment instead of prison and, in some cases, mercy instead of execution.
Hunter is a veteran himself, having served four years in the Army, mostly as a sniper scout in the tension-filled demilitarized zone of Korea during the late 1980s.
In 2007, Hunter helped draft a Minnesota law that permits judges to consider the option of sending veterans to treatment programs if they suffer from combat-related mental health disorders. The law requires courts to ask whether a criminal defendant is a veteran and allows their lawyers to order psychological evaluations. If a defendant is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the court can work with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a treatment plan as part of the sentencing.
Hunter started getting national press attention for his work; the New York Times quoted him in a series about veterans charged with murder. Demand for his services grew. In hometowns across the country, veterans were getting arrested for domestic violence, drunk driving, fights and other crimes.
High-profile cases drew even more attention. In Fort Carson, Colorado, returning soldiers were arrested for fighting, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping and murder. The violence prompted the Army to commission a study called the epidemiologic consultation to examine why veteran violence was increasing. It found that the murder rate at the base had doubled, and the number of rape arrests tripled. From 2005 to 2008, 13 soldiers at Fort Carson were charged with homicide.
Soldiers from one particular unit, known as the Lethal Warriors, were charged with most of the murders. Members of that unit, which by reputation had served in the most violent battlefields in Iraq, also had a rate of PTSD three times that of other units.
The report found “a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes.” However, it also cited other risk factors, such as criminal histories and experiences of drug and alcohol abuse. The report was careful to note that “overall, most soldiers are doing well.” Many, it pointed out, had seen heavy combat and had risk factors for violence yet committed no crimes.
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