From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals
How the system fails them—and the new prison dorms that could help them get back on track.
During the last year of his service contract with the Marine Reserves, Christopher Lee Boyd was sent to Iraq. Boyd was a driver in the Fourth Combat Engineer Battalion, Charlie Company, out of Lynchburg, Virginia. In Iraq, Boyd’s unit escorted convoys and swept for land mines. When Boyd drove, he watched the road for IEDs. The bombs could be disguised as almost anything; his team found them stashed in potholes, trash bags, and, once, in a dead sheep. In November 2004, Charlie Company was transferred to a base near Haditha. At the same time, 100 miles to the southeast, coalition forces were attacking Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold. As the insurgents fled the city, they flocked north.
In late January, Charlie Company received word that insurgent leaders were hiding in a house in a nearby town. A raid team, composed of 11 vehicles carrying 77 Marines, set off just after 3 a.m. on January 26, 2005. Boyd steered a Humvee carrying nine members of his unit. When the soldiers arrived at the house, they found its front door open and no one home. Except for a few pieces of furniture, the building was empty. As the convoy began rolling back to base, Marines dropped flyers reminding Iraqis to vote in the upcoming elections.
Boyd hadn’t moved 100 yards before he heard the explosion. Two bombs had detonated beside the convoy’s lead vehicle. Suddenly, the darkness came alive with muzzle flashes and tracer rounds. The convoy halted and, for the next 20 minutes, the Marines traded fire with their unseen attackers. Finally, the convoy started up again. The gunfire had stopped and the Marines were just clear of town when Boyd felt his vehicle shudder violently. It was later learned that an insurgent had fired off a long-shot RPG from the roof of a mosque, scoring a direct hit on the vehicle’s right rear flank. Miraculously, the Humvee was still running, and Boyd was able to coax it back to base.
Four of the Marines in the Humvee—Sgt. Jesse Strong, 24; Cpl. Jonathan Bowling, 23; Lance Cpl. Karl Linn, 20; and Cpl. Chris Weaver, 24—were killed. Five others were injured. Of the 10 men in his vehicle, only Boyd escaped without injury.
A few months later, Boyd was back in Virginia, working a third shift at a Frito-Lay plant. He had trouble sleeping. When he did sleep, he had nightmares about the raid. Boyd soon discovered that if he drank until he passed out, he didn't dream.
Boyd's twin sister, Crystal, remembers the change in her brother happening gradually. She knew Chris as a cheerful, easygoing family man. Slowly, he grew anxious, irritable, and sullen. He began to distance himself from his girlfriend and their two sons. Before long, he started carrying a gun, a .380 pistol. He explained that he wanted to be able to protect his family.
One Saturday morning in 2008, Boyd finished his shift and began to drink. In the evening, a friend drove him to a party. The last thing Boyd says he remembers is sitting in the front seat of the car outside the party, drinking liquor. When he woke up, he was in a police car, on his way to jail. The police officer told Boyd that he had shot his friend in the chest. The bullet made a clean exit, and the friend lived. Corporal Boyd was sentenced to five years in prison.
Last year Boyd was transferred to Haynesville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison deep in the Virginia boondocks. He lives in Building 5, a white structure whose exterior suggests an airplane hangar. Everyone in Boyd’s dorm is a military veteran. In 2012 Virginia began a pilot program to house vets separately from other inmates. The state believes that re-creating some of the trappings of military life in a prison setting might reduce recidivism.
Boyd is tall and thickly muscled and speaks softly in a Piedmont drawl. He took me on a tour of his dorm, which consists of a single cavernous space where bunk beds are arranged in three long rows. At the head of each bunk is a small plastic sign embossed with the name of the inmate and an insignia indicating his branch of service. The walls are painted with patriotically themed murals. A sign announced that the word of the day was “latent.” (“Definition: present, but not visible or active.”) It was after lunch, and the 80 or so veterans were milling around, chatting, and watching TV.
“Without the barbed-wire fences, it’s like you’re back in bivouac,” Boyd said.
When soldiers come back from war, part of the war comes back with them. For many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the return home is not a postscript to the war so much as another chapter. In these conflicts, mental wounds have outnumbered physical ones. Posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury have been called the wars' signature injuries. In 2008 the RAND Corporation surveyed a group of veterans six months after their return. It found that almost one in five had either PTSD or major depression. In recent years rates of substance abuse and suicide among veterans have also ticked steadily upward.
A certain number of veterans suffering from mental-health issues will, invariably, end up in jail or prison. After Vietnam, the number of inmates with prior military service rose steadily until reaching a peak in 1985, when more than one in five was a veteran. By 1988, more than half of all Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD reported that they had been arrested; more than one third reported they had been arrested multiple times. Today veterans advocates fear that, unless they receive proper support, a similar epidemic may befall soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
No one knows how many veterans are incarcerated, but the most recent survey, compiled by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2004, found that nearly one in 10 inmates in U.S. jails had prior military service. Extrapolated to the total prison population, this means that approximately 200,000 veterans were behind bars. Margaret Noonan, a statistician who co-authored the study, told me that it would likely take years for these numbers to reflect the toll on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Generally, veterans don’t get in trouble immediately,” she said. “There’s usually a big gap between leaving the service and entering the criminal-justice system.”
Since the recession, a mercurial job market has made it difficult for many vets to find steady employment. While prospects for soldiers has improved recently, the employment rate for veterans remains stubbornly lower than the rate for nonveterans.
"Even if they can find a job, the kinds of employment available now don't capture the skills our soldiers have developed," said Dr. Judith Broder, the founder and director of the Soldiers Project, a nonprofit organization based in North Hollywood, California, that provides free psychological services to returning veterans and their families. “They've gone from a situation where they're at the top of their form to where it's hard to find a place that honors them for what they've done."
While a rough transition can be smoothed through mental-health counseling, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed with returning soldiers. The VA’s regional office in Los Angeles, where many of Broder’s clients seek help, takes an average of 568 days to process veterans' disability claims.
Many soldiers, unable or unwilling to get treatment for psychological problems, self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Meanwhile, the VA’s doctors have become increasingly liberal in prescribing powerful drugs. According the National Institute on Drug Abuse, pain-reliever prescriptions issued to members of the military quadrupled between 2001 and 2009. As more drugs are prescribed, more soldiers are developing dependencies. According to a study by the Institute of Medicine, rates of prescription drug abuse among veterans saw a fivefold increase between 2002 and 2008.
"It's just more cost effective and takes fewer man-hours to write a prescription than to sit and talk to a veteran about what they need,” said Broder.
The combination of unemployment, substance abuse, mental-health issues, and a shortage of adequate counseling creates, Broder said, a "perfect storm" for sending vets into the criminal-justice system.
Butler, Pennsylvania, has respect for veterans inscribed in local DNA. A stately mansion that served as a soldiers’ hospital during World War II now houses a VA health-care center. The town square is stuffed with a half dozen bulky war memorials. On the day I visited, the front page of the daily Butler Eagle carried a story about a local couple trying to open a transitional house for veterans in need.
Bryan Gressly grew up in Butler and enlisted in the Army when he was 19, a few months after 9/11. He served with the First Infantry Division in Kosovo and Iraq, making sergeant inside three years. In 2007 he had just started training for the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he informed his staff sergeant that he was addicted to crack cocaine. Drummed out of the service, Gressly moved back to Butler, where he soon became homeless. His addiction gradually worsened until, in 2012, he was arrested with a bag of heroin.
Nine months later, I watched Sergeant Gressly present himself in the courtroom of Judge Timothy McCune. Gressly looked slim and spruce. He wore pressed slacks and a collared shirt, and his hair was cut in a smart fade. When the court came to order, he approached a lectern and stood at attention.
“Veteran Gressly reporting, sir.”
“Hey Bryan,” said the judge. “Another new hairdo?”
“It’s springtime, your honor,” said Gressly, deadpan.
McCune chuckled. For the next several minutes, Gressly brought the judge up to date on his life. The defendant announced, with a blush, that he had just finished up his first semester of college and was awaiting his grades. He wasn't quite sure how he'd be spending his summer, but he was thinking of volunteering for a softball league.
“You’ll have so much time you won’t know what to do with it,” said McCune, nodding in approval. “Good work, Bryan.”
“Thanks, your honor.”
Gressly retook his seat and another young man approached the bench. One by one, nine men, all military veterans, updated the judge on the vicissitudes of their week. One recounted a recent trip to New Jersey to get a mechanic’s certificate. Another talked about a custody issue with his ex-wife. A third vented about a friend who had badmouthed Alcoholics Anonymous. (“It didn’t make me act out,” he said, “but it kind of affected my serenity.”) Occasionally McCune asked questions or offered advice, but mostly he just listened.
Last year Butler County opened a veterans court. Veterans courts are criminal courts for military veterans. Modeled on drug courts and mental-health courts, the courts try to help defendants by mandating treatment and close supervision rather than jail time. The first veterans court opened in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, but as more troops return home, they've been founded in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country. In the last five years, cities in 28 states have opened 166 courts, with over 100 opening in the last year alone. The courts represent the most far-reaching attempt by the civilian world to stem the tide of incarcerated vets.
Among the people in the courtroom watching the proceedings was Brad Schaffer. A social worker for the VA, Schaffer visits local jails and helps arrested vets sign up for benefits. Several years ago Schaffer, himself a retired Marine, started noticing an influx of younger veterans fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, many with substance-abuse problems. He and Judge McCune began talking about setting up a veterans court for Butler, one focused on veterans with combat-related mental-health issues.
Last October the two men approached Sgt. Gressly about being the court's first defendant. In lieu of jail, Gressly agreed to at least a year of close supervision. The level of accountability demanded of a defendant in veterans' court far exceeds that of a normal probationer. In addition to appearing in front of a judge three Thursdays a month, Gressly must see his probation officer at least once a week, attend NA and AA, and meet with the other defendants every Sunday. The court also assigned Gressly two mentors—a professor of criminal justice and a retired state trooper, both of them veterans—who act as big brothers.
Gressly knows his release is provisional. If any of the defendants fail to meet the court's conditions, they can be sent back to regular court and potentially face jail time. The stipulations of their release are sufficiently strict that some veterans eligible for the court prefer to simply serve out their sentences.
“These guys are doing a lot more work than other defendants,” Schaffer said. “A lot people don’t want to do that.”
To supplement its carrot-and-stick approach, the Butler court tries to create a new support network for defendants, something many soldiers lose when they leave the service. One of the philosophies behind veterans' courts is the people best equipped to help a veteran work out his problems is another veteran. Gressly lives in a transitional home with several of the other defendants. If he needs help, he's encouraged to call his mentors, Judge McCune, or Schaeffer or another one of the veterans in the program.
Gressly told me he appreciated both the camaraderie and the program's rigid structure, both of which were reminiscent of his days in the military.
“The courts puts some dignity back in your life,” Gressly said. “It reminds you you’re a soldier, with values.”
After almost a year, Butler has yet to see any of the veterans in its freshman class fail out. While veterans courts are still new enough that there are few studies available to measure their success, most courts are reporting low rates of recidivism. This is due in part to individual attention given the defendants, but also the selectivity of the courts. Many veterans courts, like Butler's, admit only veterans with good service records who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes.
However, many soldiers begin to suffer adjustment difficulties before even leaving the service. If these veterans do break the law while still enlisted, their case will likely in an administrative separation or a court martial. This can lead to an other-than-honorable discharge, a bad-conduct discharge, or a dishonorable discharge. Veterans receiving these discharges face a tough road: they are eligible for few, if any VA benefits and have more limited access to mental-health counseling and additional challenges in finding a job. Some critics have charged the military with being too hasty to discharge vets who engage in criminal conduct linked to adjustment difficulties.
“There’s this idea that when a soldier engages in misconduct, it’s expedient to get him out and let someone else pick up the pieces,” Maj. Evan Seamone, the former chief of military justice at Fort Benning, told me. “It’s the unspoken assumption that civilian programs and the VA will be there to work out all the details of adjustment."
Identifying veterans as a special category of criminal defendant raises its own questions. Some critics of veterans courts, including the ACLU, have objected to enacting a two-track system of justice, in which those with military service receive opportunities not given to others. In addition, some prosecutors worry that defendants will begin to use their military service as a catch-all excuse for crimes.
“On the one hand, we want to be responsive to veterans' needs," said Thomas Hafemeister, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has written about the use of posttraumatic stress disorder in criminal defenses. "On the other hand, we don’t want to absolve them of responsibility for their crimes.”
Butler County's Judge McCune, who spent a decade as a prosecutor, admits that veterans do receive treatment that, in a perfect world, would be available to all defendants. But he sees rehabilitating soldiers afflicted with combat trauma as a special moral imperative.
"If you’re willing to give your life to protect your country, we as a society have an obligation to help you deal with some of the problems attached to that service," he said. "We're trying not to make the same mistakes we made after Vietnam."
In Haynesville, each veteran is assigned a position in the dorm. Recently the other inmates voted Corporal Boyd senior coordinator, making him the dorm's unofficial leader. In previous facilities, Boyd tried to kept his veteran status under wraps—a challenge, as his right shoulder bears a massive tattoo reading “USMC.”
“A lot of guys don’t take kindly to you being in the military,” Boyd said. “A guy might be like, ‘What? You think you’re better than me?’ It's better to keep quiet.”
In the veterans dorm, though, fights are almost nonexistent. If a conflict between inmates arises, there’s an intervention where everyone sits down and hash it out internally. The mood is calm and the dorm orderly. In the morning, racks are made, shoes squared away. Boyd and another group of vets meet for PTSD group on Thursday. The unit holds veterans from five different wars, and the average age of the dorm is a decade or two older than the inmates in gen pop. Boyd told me the level of trust was such that no one bothered to lock their footlockers.
“Everyone’s on the same page,” Boyd said. “We just want to do our time and go home.”