Supervisors show support for proposed Veterans Treatment Court

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 31, 2013 

Choking back tears, the mother told her listeners about how she sent her son off to war whole and he came back “broken.”

“I never thought that I’d have to fear for my life from my own son,” she told the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors this week. But, splintered inside by the violence of war, he attacked her, and he is in jail.

The distraught mother was arguing in favor of a county Veterans Treatment Court, a proposal to help young men and women who go to war one person and come back an altogether different one, cast loose from their old psychological moorings, prone to violence, and sliding toward crime.

The supervisors, prodded by their veterans services officer, Dana Cummings, are thinking of introducing such a court here.

VTCs began in Buffalo five years ago and spread across the country. There are already at least a dozen in California.

Veterans courts help local agencies provide treatment and rehabilitation by having Veterans Affairs-provided staff in courts, providing specialized treatment and using trained volunteer mentors.

Cummings rattled off statistics about those coming back home from combat:

There are, he said, 2.1 million post-9/11 veterans in America, of whom 65 percent have some level of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. There is also a high level of sexual trauma, he said.

There are tens of thousands of veterans in San Luis Obispo County, hundreds of them among the homeless, he said.

“It’s our duty to do everything we can to help them,” he said.

What gripped the audience more than numbers, however, was Cummings’ testimony — and that of more than a dozen others — explaining stresses on soldiers and the way those tensions change behavior.

Speaker after speaker used the word “broken” to describe these returning warriors, who left for the front in one piece psychologically and spiritually and returned so different.

Their challenges are many, and fierce, speakers said.

Men and women at war face artillery fire, Cummings said, they see friends killed, they sometimes kill others.

When they come home, they have to deal with those demons and others as well — they miss the adrenaline rush of battle, for example.

“The scars of the battle are real; they’re deep,” said a veteran of combat in Iraq.

To deal with it all, they “self-medicate through alcohol and drug abuse, and that’s how they start getting in trouble,” Cummings said.

“They served their country, something happened to them and now they’re facing a challenge,” said another speaker. “These people are broken, for whatever reason; they can be fixed, and we need to do it.”

“Vets aren’t just something you discard,” said another.

Nobody dwelled on it, but there were passing references to current returning veterans being generally neglected — through lack of jobs, to cite one example — and there were scattered allusions to veterans of earlier wars being ignored.

Cummings, whose goal was to inform the supervisors and start efforts on a local Veterans Treatment Court, said questions remain that have been answered differently at different VTC locales. Should veterans of all wars be covered, for example, and how do you draw the line between a veteran who deserves this help and one who should not receive it.

The speakers were preaching to an enthusiastic choir. All five members of the generally fractious Board of Supervisors threw their support behind the concept. “I think this is terrific,” said Adam Hill. “I wholeheartedly support it,” agreed Frank Mecham, himself a veteran.

Cummings will report back with a more detailed plan for how the VTC would take shape in San Luis Obispo County. Supervisors did not set a date.

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