A soldier eats, sleeps and works all day surrounded by companions who have promised to protect him, people that soldier would die for, and who he has promised to protect at a moment’s notice.
“Especially being deployed and being with this core group of people that you’re in a hostile situation with, doing everything with them from sleeping, eating, fighting, using the bathroom — everything — your entire day is based upon that kind of community you build with the folks you’re serving with and then you come back, you get off active duty and as you know, it’s not that,” says Greg Ruprecht, an Army infantry veteran who served in Desert Storm and is now a law enforcement officer and veterans liaison with the Longmont Police Department. “You don’t have the 20 people you do everything with, so it’s a shock to the system of the veteran and the veteran tends to feel isolated.”
Veterans may also return with a sense of moral injury — a new term for the sense some soldiers experience of having had their morals constantly torn down by their experiences during combat. That paired with the isolation or flashbacks or blackouts brought on by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can all land a veteran in a place that has easy access to the wrong side of the law.
“All those factors, they tend to create a lot of contacts with the police, whether it’s through issues surrounding PTSD, where they’re inside their apartment screaming, pounding on the walls and alerting neighbors, to hey, something terrible is happening in that environment,” Ruprecht says. “Or domestic violence issues. They come home to their spouse, and the anger and the PTSD and the moral injury create a lot of injury between the spouses because the husband, typically the husband, will not interact, be quiet, and when he does interact it will be in angry outbursts, and that causes folks to call 911.”
Law enforcement has been working to bring about solutions to those issues from all angles, he says, and they’re making veterans awareness programs a part of in-service meetings and yearly training so officers better understand why a veteran might be acting that way and how to deal with them.
“[Veterans are] coming from a world of guns and uniforms and when an officer may come up and be too authoritative, or be a little too aggressive in their interaction with the veteran, it can cause the veteran to regress,” he says.
Community awareness also needs to step up — and that’s where the Veterans Awareness Series forums from Veterans Helping Veterans Now and sponsored by the City of Boulder Community Event Fund comes in.
Soldiers have also been trained to spot a threat and respond to it without taking an extra second to assess whether the threat is real or perceived when those seconds might cost a life.
“You’re not going to take the time to see, you’re going to react,” Ruprecht says. “We train these guys — they trained me, they train us to be that way, but they don’t de-train you when they let you go.”
That can lead to fights in bars and incidences of domestic violence, cops called and criminal charges. None of it helps guys coming home, or the families and friends that surround them.
When Jenn Calaway came home from the Marine Corps, where she worked as a broadcast journalist in Japan covering coalition forces exercises and completed a tour in Afghanistan, making the right decisions after years of not having to make decisions for herself was part of a tough transition.
“We were told how to do everything for so long that all these choices were really overwhelming,” she says. “Shopping at the grocery store, it was so hard, there are so many choices and so many colors and I didn’t even really know how to take care of myself. It was really hard. I remember one day just sitting on my floor, and it was going back to basics from boot camp, like, tie my left shoe, tie my right shoe. … It was really hard, and it was made twice as hard by the amount of alcohol I was drinking.”
Even after she’d started college at the University of Colorado, where she is still a student working toward a degree in public relations, drinking like she had when she was in the Marines continued to be a problem.
“Sometimes when I would be under the influence and be kind of roaming around town, I would feel like I was above the law, I had moments where I was kind of cocky: ‘I’ve deployed, I’ve done my service, I’ve done my time, and these rules don’t apply to me,’” Calaway says.
Eventually, she landed an alcohol related charge.
“The judge gave me a talking to, and I heard it, for the first time in my life,” Calaway says. “[He said,] ‘You’re a marine, you should be contributing to your community rather than being a nuisance to it.’”
Her sentencing called for the kind of oversight and guidance she wasn’t given as she left the military, like alcohol classes and check-ins with a guidance counselor. She joined AA and is still sober and in the program.
“I think that especially when there’s substances involved, veterans can get really misguided and just get astray, so I think it’s important to note that they’re often just astray and there’s so much potential to turn this person around into a contributing member of community,” Calaway says.
At least one district court in Colorado has a veterans court specifically to handle those cases, and the subsidiary issues surrounding veterans, like a drug court takes into account that sending an addict to jail isn’t likely to solve the problem without incorporating methods like drug counseling or community-based programs. Boulder County is not one of those, but Deputy District Attorney J.P. Martin, himself an Air Force veteran, says they do what they can to include a person’s veteran status into the 360-degree review done of every case and particularly to make that a part of the discussion when it comes time for sentencing.
The goal is to try to solve the problem and help the person, and a court can order a veteran to pursue the services many veterans will not seek out on their own, Ruprecht says.
“It’s very similar to restorative justice,” he says. “It shows the person, you did a wrong, we don’t want to punish you, we want to help you to not do that.”
Charging someone labels them as a criminal, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the community, and that can lead to that person continuing to behave as they’ve been seen and see themselves — as a criminal.
“That veteran is going to be sitting in a jail cell thinking, ‘I served my country, I saw terrible things, I did terrible things and this is what I get,’” Ruprecht says.
While it’s tough to name specific patterns in Boulder County because there aren’t huge numbers of veterans in the area, Martin says, there are some general low-level crimes some times tied to that population — alcoholism, homelessness, drug abuse and trespassing among them, as well as mental health issues broadly tied to PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and depression.
“Those issues present a real dilemma, a moral dilemma, as far as how culpable is that person,” Martin says.
When veterans are willing to take responsibility for their actions, they might be given a plea offer that called for mental health treatment, PTSD treatment or alcohol treatment to tackle the problem at its source. When those plea deals aren’t taken and the case goes to jury trial, he says, he sees Boulder County juries being very sympathetic to those who have served. Sentencing isn’t their purview, of course, but jurors will often send emails or letters after the verdict stating that the jury would like to see this individual get treatment, not just jail time.
“Jurors in the same sentence will say, ‘That’s absolutely horrible, I’m so sorry for what you’ve experienced, but you can’t do that to your girlfriend,’” Martin says. “Being a veteran and transitioning from years in the military into a civilian world, it’s not easy and you don’t even have to be a PTSD sufferer to realize that it’s a big, dramatic transition.”
ON THE BILL: Good Guys Behaving Badly, part of the Veterans Awareness Series hosted by Veterans Helping Veterans Now, is a free public event to discuss veterans and the law at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 16, at the Calvary Bible Church, 3245 Kalmia Ave., Boulder. For details call 303-772-9777 or visit www.vhvnow.org.