War Heroes Gone Bad Divided by Courts Favoring Prison or Healing
Heroes when they came home in 2009, Mike Jones and James Sosh dealt with difficult returns to civilian life through bleak hazes of drugs and alcohol.
Both were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within a year of hanging up their uniforms, each faced felony charges, Jones accused of threatening to kill a friend, Sosh of selling prescription painkillers to feed his pill habit. Jones went into therapy and is engaged to be married. Sosh is in prison, getting divorced.
Jones, 30, who’d been an Army Ranger, had the fortune to be arrested in Orange County, California, which has a treatment court for veterans that sentences them to counseling rather than cells. Sosh, 26, a former Indiana National Guardsman, was prosecuted in state superior court.
Their diverging fates show how some states’ justice systems struggle to accommodate damaged troops. After more than a decade of war in two theaters, 120 veterans courts operate in 35 states, with 100 in the planning stages, according to the nonprofit Justice for Vets in Alexandria, Virginia. The first was established in Buffalo, New York, in 2008.
“Veterans who have served their country and are not career criminals deserve a therapeutic approach,” said Vance Peterson, a district judge with a veterans docket in Spokane County, Washington, and a former Green Beret who returned in September from a year as an adviser to Afghan police. “I’m beginning to wonder if all of our courts shouldn’t be therapeutic.”
When troubled soldiers are discharged, they become civilian society’s burden. About 1.2 million veterans are arrested every year, the Justice Department estimates. Many wrestle with substance abuse and mental illness, conditions associated with elevated risks of arrest. Some leave the service addicted; drug and alcohol use in the military is so excessive a Pentagon- commissioned report deemed it a “public health crisis.
Still, it’s not universally accepted that veterans deserve preferential care, with critics citing the “Equal Justice Under Law” principle engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building.
“Courts have to be open to everyone and provide equal opportunity, equal access,” said retired Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Barry Schaller. Rehabilitating ex-soldiers “is not the courts’ primary responsibility,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of political leaders and the military to keep this from spilling over to civilian society.”
Schaller supported expanding pre-trial diversionary programs in Connecticut that allow defendants to be referred to treatment. “The courts can provide special opportunities for veterans without jeopardizing the justice mandate,” he said.
Many so-called problem-solving courts require the accused to plead guilty as a condition of getting help, which the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers denounced in a 2009 report as forcing a waiver of rights.
“The defense bar is hemmed in by the myriad ethical problems of this,” said New York attorney Marvin Schechter, who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report.
Treatment courts are popular anyway. The justice system supports about 4,000 tribunals for drug users, drunk drivers, gamblers, homeless, mentally ill and veterans, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. All are modeled after the first drug court in Miami in 1989.
For a veteran to be eligible, the judge, prosecutor and defense counsel must agree the offense was motivated by substance abuse or mental illness rather than criminal intent. The rehabilitation programs are usually paid for by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, taking advantage of federal rather than local funds. Once treatment is complete, the violation is usually erased from a vet’s record.
Some courts accept only misdemeanor cases, while others handle felonies. “We don’t take rape, murder or child molesters. Short of that, we’ll look at most cases,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Wendy Lindley, who runs the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana, California.
“We are looking for people who are profoundly changed as a result of their combat experience,” Lindley said. “I feel that we, as a society, have an obligation to restore them to the person they were before they went.”
The judge offers an additional motivation: She said her veterans court spared taxpayers 2,584 jail and prison bed days last year at a savings of $317,605. Only one of the vets she sentenced to therapy has been rearrested, she said.
Robert Russell, a municipal judge in Buffalo, is credited with creating the first civilian veterans docket. Russell said he got the idea after seeing how well a Vietnam veteran charged with a petty crime responded to a court employee and a visiting county official who’d also served in the military.
The defendant, suffering from mental illness, had barely acknowledged him, Russell said. After the three vets went out for a walk, the man came back and addressed him like a soldier.
“His head was upraised. He stood erect. And he said that he was going to try, and try harder,” the judge said. “That totally amazed me, how he responded to them in a way that tapped into part of his military culture.”
Mike Jones, decorated with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for Valor, was medically discharged in October 2009 after his right leg was amputated above the knee following a combat injury in Afghanistan. Ten months later, police arrested him at his home in Costa Mesa, California. Drunk, he’d sent a text message to a high school friend threatening to kill him, and the friend called police. Jones said he spent days in jail.
“I wanted to stay out of that place,” he said, explaining his decision to plead guilty and enter the Combat Veterans Court program. He said his lawyer told him, “Dude, this is way better than anything else I can get you.”
For James Sosh, who couldn’t find a job after his discharge in May 2009, veterans court wasn’t an option; there isn’t one in Huntington County, Indiana, where he was arrested in March 2010. He pleaded guilty to selling $600 of oxycodone to an undercover detective, and was sentenced to 20 years, 10 suspended.
Prosecuting Attorney Amy Richison said the punishment was appropriate because police officers deemed Sosh a dealer, not an addict. Sosh’s lawyer, Ryan Painter, said the outcome, and the evaluation of the former solider, might have been different if the county had a problem-solving court.
That’s the contention of treatment court advocates -- that men who saw combat can’t always be fairly assessed in the conventional justice system. A onetime soldier is different from other civilians, said Hector Matascastillo, a former Army noncommissioned officer who is a Minnesota Department of Human Services social worker treating the mentally ill.
“You’ve lost your mission, you’ve lost your sense of purpose,” he said. “We’re being asked to reintegrate into civilian life. But the truth is, we gave that up.”
Matascastillo, 39, was arrested on a domestic assault charge during a January 2004 flashback that had him mistaking falling snow for desert sand and a suburban cop for an armed enemy. He said court-ordered therapy helped him recover, and he completed an Iraq tour before retiring.
Jones, a self-described C student, went “jumping around from pizza job to pizza job” after graduating from high school in June 2000. He joined the Army in August 2001 and went to Afghanistan in 2002 for the first of nine deployments to that country and Iraq.
“I still miss the action, the adrenaline rush of firing out of helicopters and knocking down doors,” he said. The flip side was “my friends kept getting shot.”
Between deployments, Jones said he drank to shake off PTSD, which the National Institute of Mental Health describes as an anxiety disorder frequently stemming from exposure to danger that produces a “fight-or-flight” response.
Sosh, who grew up in Marion, Indiana, in the shadow of shuttered automobile factories, joined the Indiana Army National Guard in April 2006 after his last job prospect crumbled. He was so down on his luck he was living in his truck in a park.
Sent to Iraq in 2008, Sosh was stationed at Balad, called “Mortaritaville” because “we got mortared day and night.” A hunter since boyhood, he manned a .50 caliber machine gun on convoy security in the 293rd Infantry’s First Battalion.
“I loved my job but I hated it, too, because you’re the deciding factor whether someone lives or dies,” he said in a telephone interview from the Miami Correctional Facility in South Bunker Hill, Indiana. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a man, a woman or a child. You feel like you’re losing your humanity, and you kind of have to, to do your job.”
Between missions, he said, he smoked hashish. That and alcohol “helped wonderfully for those few hours that you could just relax and hold onto a little bit of sanity,” he said.
Jones said he relied on booze. His addiction to painkillers came after he was shot during a raid in Helmand Province where his crew engaged enemy fighters in a cornfield. “It was a wall of lead,” he said. Machine gunfire tore into his leg.
After the amputation, Jones said, he was compensated with a $100,000 Army disability payment. That, plus a $30,000 re- enlistment bonus he’d banked the day before he was shot, swelled his savings to $150,000. He said he spent it on partying, painkillers and Jack Daniels.
“When I came home I had one leg and a big drug problem,” he said. “I got a taste for drugs from the minute I got hurt.”
Sosh’s return to Indiana was celebrated by a sheriff’s escort into town, and crowds cheering as his National Guard unit passed the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War. Local unemployment peaked at 14.9 percent the next month.
“When we first got back, I felt this sense of honor,” he said. “But then everybody wants me to be the same person, and I can’t. And I have to go out and find a job, and there are no jobs. You begin to feel like a failure.”
After his PTSD diagnosis, he said, he started taking downers to calm anxiety attacks. Then he turned to painkillers as an escape. He refused to enroll in a six-month substance- abuse treatment program at a VA clinic, because didn’t want to be away from his wife and kids for that long again. Still, he said, “I’d set aside money for my drugs before I’d set aside money for my bills or anything else.”
Now he’s in a prison wing for recovering addicts, playing cards and chess and working out six times a week. He said he takes every class available, including one on being a better parent to the two daughters he hasn’t seen since he was locked up. He wants to ensure he has “tools for when I get out, because that temptation is always going to be there,” he said. He’s eligible for release in September 2014.
“I got out of the combat zone, I got out of Iraq, wanting to take it easy,” he said. “And then through my own actions, I throw myself into a whole different kind of war, in prison.”
Jones, who faced a three-year sentence if convicted in regular court, relapsed four times during the 18-month veterans treatment program, and spent a night in jail each time.
If he doesn’t mess up again, he’ll be done by Thanksgiving, with no criminal record. He said he’s sober and stable.
“This isn’t how I planned it,” he said. “But I can’t imagine my life being any different. I’m happy today.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Elliot Blair Smith in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gary Putka at email@example.com