Two Cambrians have joined the vanguard of a national movement to help veterans who became enmeshed in the criminal justice system to again become productive members of society. And they’re looking for volunteers to help.
Considering the number of Cambrians who experienced military service in the post-9/11 era, often in combat zones, it is a near certainty that some will benefit from the program.
American Legion Post No. 432 reports that a total of 40 service members from Cambria, San Simeon and Cayucos currently serve on active duty, of whom 30 have been or are presently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Greg Sanders and Ron Waltman, both Vietnam combat veterans and Legion officers, in June helped San Luis Obispo become the 15th California county to adopt a unique Veterans Treatment Court program that has achieved high success rates nationally.
According to county re-cords, almost 24,000 veterans reside in San Luis Obispo County, including 753 with service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Most VTC courts can brag of a 96 percent success rate,” said Waltman, who works part-time with the county Sheriff’s Office following a 30-year career in law enforcement in Los Angeles. “By that, we mean a participant has not been arrested within three years after being released from the program.”
He served with the 1st Marine Division during the 1968 Tet Offensive when North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong staged a massive attack throughout the former South Vietnam.
To be eligible, the court must determine that the defendant’s criminal act is linked to a mental disorder related to military service. Such conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault, and drug or mental health problems.
Defendants usually are subjected to a psychological evaluation to help determine eligibility. Often, the individual may not have had a criminal record before entering the military.
PTSD typically develops after a terrifying experience. For military members, that usually means being involved in a harrowing combat event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and withdrawal. Those afflicted with PTSD are more likely to use alcohol or drugs that may lead to homelessness, domestic violence, and suicide.
Conditions worsen when soldiers are subject to repeated deployments to combat zones.
According to one Army report, 25 percent to 35 percent of wounded soldiers are addicted to prescription or illegal drugs while they await medical discharge.
Although most program participants served in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans who served in Vietnam or other conflicts can participate.
“What makes VTC different from other diversion courts is that we use veteran volunteers to serve as peer mentors,” Waltman said. “The mentor’s job is to help steer participants into rehabilitative programs sponsored by the Veterans Administration and other government and nonprofit groups and to comply with other aspects of their treatment regimen.”
“Don’t confuse this with a soft on crime approach,” Sanders added. “A veteran can avoid the stigma of jail. But first they must they must voluntarily commit to a rigorous rehabilitative program that often is longer than what their sentence to jail might have been.”
Program enrollment typically involves 18 months of counseling sessions and progress appearances in court after first pleading guilty to charges. Upon successful completion, veterans may apply to have their criminal records sealed as long as they do not re-offend.
Mentors are involved at every step. Court sessions are held twice monthly and are a collaborative effort by probation officers, Veterans Administration counselors, treatment providers, the mentor, family members and the VTC judge. Often, the judge is a military veteran.
Sanders currently is mentoring a recently discharged 24-year-old veteran who resides in a nearby community. His first-time DUI conviction could have resulted in extended probation or even a jail sentence. But he chose the VTC alternative in order to avail himself of treatment for alcohol addiction. He is now participating in an alcohol treatment program as part of his court-supervised probation.
“This is a typical case,” Sanders said. “The veteran had served in the Marine Corps for four years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He has a job. Prior to his DUI, he had a clean record. So society would not gain from exposing him to life in jail or probation without treatment for the underlying cause of his behavior. Rather, he can receive the treatment he needs and return to civilian life as a productive member of society.”
VTC workload is likely to increase as the military’s force structure shrinks and veterans return to a lackluster local economy. Moreover, employers are reluctant to hire National Guard members subject to recall with little advance notice.
According to published reports, post-traumatic stress disorder affects as many as one-third of combat veterans, and symptoms may not fully develop until five to ten years after discharge. An estimated 770,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq probably have PTSD, and as many as one-third of wounded soldiers awaiting medical discharge are addicted to prescription or illegal drugs.
VTC began in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2008. More than 80 courts now operate nationally. The local program started after Waltman learned about one in Santa Maria and formed a working group that involved SLO County Deputy District Attorney and Army Reservist Dan Dow, Veterans Service Officer Dana Cummings, and Sanders, a practicing attorney.
Sanders is former president of the Cambria Community Services District board, former commander and current first vice commander of the Legion post, and a past Cambria Rotary Club president. He served with the Americal Division in Vietnam.
In his capacity as chairman for the county’s Veteran Mentor project, Sanders invites volunteers from veteran service organizations, especially those who served in combat zones. He can be contacted at 927-4765.