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Local jailed military vets get an ally

SARASOTA — Sgt. Scott Driscoll knows first hand that coming back from military service in a war zone can be a long, lonely, depressing road.

Driscoll, already an Operation Desert Storm veteran with the U.S. Army, returned in July 2009 from a tour in Afghanistan with the Florida National Guard, where he served as a prison guard.

The sergeant came back to a young daughter and wife, but no job and haunting memories of service in a war zone, where your life is on the line 24 hours a day.

Driscoll has since found a job. And it is a dream job for the decorated veteran with more than 20 years’ experience in the military:

He has been hired to help veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been arrested get their lives back on track.

The Courts Assisting Veterans program — within the 12th Judicial Circuit covering Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — is the result of a $50,000 one-year federal grant that will pay Driscoll’s salary.

“He just had the experience that we were looking for to relate to these veterans who we want to help,” said 12th Circuit Chief Judge Lee Haworth. “He knows what they are going through.”

With troops serving multiple tours in two war zones, American forces face a wide range of stresses. There is heavy combat for some, exhaustion and the constant threat of surprise attacks from roadside bombs — potentially by anyone in the population. And the loss of life of fellow troops is devastating, Driscoll said.

That stress often leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse when veterans return, which many times can lead to criminal behavior, research has proved. In just the three weeks since his program started, Driscoll has identified at least 25 veterans in the Manatee County jail, and 50 in the Sarasota County jail who may be eligible for the program.

“You can never let your guard down, it’s constant stress. Especially in Afghanistan, there is no green zone where you are safe,” Driscoll said. “So when you come back, oh yeah, I know the depression, the sweats in the middle of the night, the nightmares.”

Haworth, a longtime U.S. Army reservist and an Operation Desert Storm veteran, said the circuit sought the funding when President Barack Obama recently announced a draw down of troopers from Iraq.

“We just felt like there was going to be a need as more troopers began coming back,” Haworth said. “We learned a lot of lessons from Vietnam as veterans were coming back with mental health issues and drug issues, and there really wasn’t any assistance for them.”

The new veterans program aims to identify veterans as they are booked into jail after their arrest. Once someone is identified as a veteran in jail, Driscoll will be notified. Then, working through an individual’s attorney, a mentor will be assigned to each veteran.

Veterans who are eligible include those arrested on nonviolent charges such as DUIs, drug charges and driving with a suspended license. Veterans arrested on domestic violence charges may also be eligible depending on the circumstances of the crime, according to Haworth.

Volunteer mentors — who are veterans themselves — will then assist the veterans with often-complex red tape in obtaining veterans services. The mentors will also help the veterans in making sure they make their court dates, doctors appointments, or even just give them someone to talk to, Driscoll said.

“There is a lot of help out there for veterans, but it can be confusing and overwhelming. A lot of them don’t even know about what’s out there,” Driscoll said. The majority of eligible veterans in the 12th Circuit are indigent and will be assigned to public defenders. Public Defender Larry Eger is a proponent of the program and has hired a psychologist to assess veterans’ needs, and help them with access to the court program.

Eger’s office will also be charged with training the mentors in the program, who will be taught how to aid their particular veteran without offering any kind of legal counseling, or engaging in conversations about their criminal cases.

“We believe it is a serious need,” Eger said. “We of course are their legal representation first and foremost, but we will balance that with the social work side of finding them the best opportunities for assistance.”

Eger also hopes that access to the program may lead prosecutors to offer lesser sentences for veterans who agree to take part in the program.

State Attorney Earl Moreland also supports the program, but he doesn’t believe it will be an avenue for defense attorneys to seek lesser sentences — often called downward departures in legal circles — especially in serious crimes where jail and prison time might be involved.

“I think it is a good program. It will give the courts awareness of the many services available to veterans,” Moreland said. “But I think it’s a program for probation cases, and really not a reason for departures, especially if there is a criminal record there, or if it’s a violent crime.”

As the legalities work out in court, the military also has recognized the growing need to address mental health and substance abuse issues for returning troops.

A recent U.S. Army study, released in July 2009, looked at veterans who have been arrested for violent crimes and cited a possible cause as stress from combat, and resulting substance abuse and deficient health care, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.

The study came in the wake of a crime wave there at Fort Carson, in which 12 veterans were arrested in as many as 15 murders. The study found the veterans suffered from mental disorders, and often drug and alcohol problems.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Services reports that as many as 20 percent of returning war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In response, veterans services has been pushing veterans hospitals to send social workers — known as justice outreach clinicians — into jails to provide services to incarcerated veterans.

The Tampa Bay area has a large population of veterans in need of services, according to Jarred Miller, the justice outreach clinician at Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

“It is a huge need. There is a big population here,” Miller said. “Adjustment and integrating back into society can be very difficult.”

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