YourABA December 2011 Masthead

Help, understanding critical as troops return, say ABA panelists

In the wake of the U.S. Army announcing it will reduce the armed forces by 80,000 soldiers in the next year to cut costs as the war in Iraq winds down, the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and the Coordinating Committee on Veterans Benefits and Services convened a roundtable discussion at the ABA Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.

The roundtable panelists, consisting of leading advocates, judges, lawyers and service providers for veteran needs, discussed the problems associated with reintegration of veterans into the community, citing problems stemming from physical or psychological traumas suffered while on duty. The panelists also explored ways the legal profession and communities can address the problems.

“The war in Iraq isn’t over, it’s coming home,” warned Dorothy Thomas, a network homeless coordinator of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, during the discussion.

Panelists detailed their concerns about returning veterans who are recovering from physical and emotional traumas. The reoccurring sentiment was that for this war, in particular, cash-strapped communities will have to be innovative and think of new ways to address the complex issues facing veterans.

Brock Hunter—a lawyer from Minnesota who dedicates a portion of his practice to defending military veterans in criminal court—noted that one-third of veterans came home with psychological injuries after the Vietnam War. “Forty years later, there are still veterans cycling through the criminal justice system and who are homeless across the nation.”

Today’s returning military will likely face even greater struggle in reintegration than veterans of years past.

“The war in Iraq isn’t over, it’s coming home,” warned Dorothy Thomas of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Hunter explained that the likelihood of coming back with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological disorders increases with tours of duty, and that this is the first time in U.S. history when veterans have served multiple tours. Hunter noted it is common for Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans to have served three or four tours, and said that the U.S. Department of Defense has even documented soldiers with eight tours of duty under their belts. He expressed concern on how communities will assist veterans with PTSD, and said, “When these folks start coming home, buckle in, because it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Reintegration problems become more acute when veterans do not acknowledge or disclose their psychological difficulties. Panelists shared that there is a stigma in the armed forces against psychological injuries, preventing many veterans from getting the help they need. Too often, the criminal justice system is where veterans suffering from mental disorders are first identified as needing help, said Hunter.

When veterans’ psychological difficulties are noted, veterans courts and advocacy groups are able to help many get treatment, but too many veterans with underlying issues go unnoticed and untreated.

Arthur Hunter, a Veterans Treatment Court judge in Louisiana, echoed Brock Hunter’s concern that America’s communities are ill equipped to manage the issues related to returning military personnel.

One of these issues is crime. A. Hunter explained that there is always a crime wave when veterans come back home, and that “we should be proactive rather than reactive,” when establishing programs to assist them.

“There needs to be somewhere for veterans to turn when they’re caught in red tape, and they need assistance in navigating these waters,” said A. Hunter, advocating veterans courts as critical resources.

While many Americans demonstrated their support of military personnel active overseas, “real support comes now when the troops come home,” said B. Hunter, emphasizing that communities should be sympathetic to the unique psychological issues that many veterans face.

A lack of sympathy and understanding are what cause many veterans to cycle through the criminal justice system without receiving the proper treatment for underlying problems, said Paul Freese, chair of the Coordinating Committee of Veterans Affairs and Benefits.

Many veterans dealing with trauma, especially those who deny or are unaware of their psychological disorders, act out as expressions of their illness or because of self medication, and end up in the criminal justice system. “These veterans are criminalized because they served our country, and now are considered criminals as a direct result of their service—that’s the fundamental injustice.

Freese warned that ignoring the problems of veterans may result in a threat to public safety.

“If prosecutors are going to take public safety seriously, it behooves them to get veterans help as early as possible and to treat the underlying problems associated with antisocial or dangerous behavior,” Freese said.

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