Virginia judge has a plan to help veterans who end up in court

 

Every month or so, in the parade of offenders coming before her in court, she’d spot a veteran.

Usually it was for a misdemeanor, a squabble, assault and battery, something petty.

Then Penney Azcarate, chief judge of the Fairfax County General District Court, would see the same guy in court again. For something more serious.

And in each of her six years on the bench, Azcarate saw more and more veterans unravel before her in just this way.

“It’s probably up to a few every week now,” said Azcarate, 48, a former Marine who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War before going to law school and becoming a county prosecutor.

In a county that has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of military veterans — about 85,000, according to George Mason University law professor Laurie Neff — the cost of war is on gut-wrenching display in the courthouse every day.

Azcarate and the nine other judges in her court see the patterns. They’re getting a stream of veterans who had no criminal record before they went into the military rack up rap sheets as they battle post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or the fallout from sexual assault.

The spiral often ends in one of two ways:

First is serious prison time. There are so many vets at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake that the Virginia Department of Corrections has created two special dorms for them decorated with murals of the Navy’s Blue Angels and other military logos and insignia.

In Fairfax, 76 veterans are jailed, said Neff, a former Marine and director of the law school’s Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers and Veterans. About 10 percent of the nation’s prisoners once served in the military.

Second is suicide. Every day, about 22 veterans kill themselves. That’s one almost every hour.

Seth Masterson, 29, was on a fast path to one of those outcomes.

He served in Iraq during the bloodiest year, 2006-07. In a photo with 15 of his friends, five are circled in red. All of them have severe PTSD, most have been locked up, one killed himself.

Masterson came home after seeing his best friend die and had a difficult time slipping back into the life that the other 99 percent of Americans were living — shopping, rush-hour traffic, child care.

As a Fairfax police officer, he was getting written up a lot. He lashed out at co-workers, and on the day he was denied treatment for PTSD, he threatened to kill his wife.

He was relieved of his duties and divorced by his wife. He lost custody of his son.

All of it could have been avoided if his PTSD had been caught and treated early, he said at a meeting last month with judges, fellow vets, social workers, advocates and court officials.

The damage — psychological and physical — we’re seeing in our nation’s veterans is historic.

“With only 1 percent of our population wearing the uniform, you have a system of military personnel going out on deployment four or six times,” Azcarate said. “This has an amazing impact on your mental health, and it’s unprecedented in our history — 22 suicides a day. We have to learn how to deal with this epidemic.”

Azcarate thinks she knows one way to begin. At the meeting, she outlined her plan to create a veteran’s treatment docket in Fairfax, much like the veteran’s treatment courts already operating around the country. The way the system works right now, there’s no way to know who is a veteran.

“Sometimes, if they’re at parade rest, I see it,” Azcarate said. Or they'll throw out some jargon. But unless they identify as a veteran or an attorney points it out, it’s not so easy for a judge to consider the possibility that combat-related syndromes could have been a factor.

“And maybe we can address those issues before they escalate, prevent recidivism,” she said.

Once a defendant is identified as a veteran and is placed on the special docket, the court would connect the offender with the kind of services or treatment he should be getting.

Sometimes, the guy who just got locked up for a bar fight needs to be in a psychiatrist’s office, talking about the wartime trauma he witnessed rather than cooling his heels in a jail cell.

Azcarate’s plan is to get this up and running by January. “I just want to catch them early enough before it turns deadly,” she said.

These kinds of courts are becoming increasingly popular, with at least one in nearly half the nation’s states.

And it’s about time Virginia begins acknowledging the special needs of its huge veteran population with more than monuments, memorials and meal deals.

The state is the nation’s 12th-most populated, but it has the sixth-largest veteran population, with nearly 850,000 who’ve served, and it’s the only state with a growing military population, Neff said.

Azcarate doesn’t like to quote Hillary Rodham Clinton much, but said it takes a village to return a military veteran to society.

A court that catches veterans when they begin to fall is an important step.

We’ve lost enough people in battle on foreign turf. The least we can do is end the battle they face at home.

© 2014, The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • There’s a better way to rescue Malaysia Airlines

    On Friday, Khazanah Nasional, the parent company of Malaysian Airline System, announced the airline’s fourth and most radical restructuring since its founding in 1972. This one, too, is likely to fail. The real challenge, though, isn’t overcoming the twin tragedies of MH370 and MH17 and the loss of passenger confidence (and ticket revenue) that followed. Rather, the problem is the spectacular growth of Southeast Asian discount airlines, which have wreaked havoc on state-subsidized flag carriers such as Malaysia Airlines that used to have the region all to themselves.

  • Between Godliness and Godlessness

    Almost midway through Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.

  • There is no free pass for a free press

    New York Times reporter James Risen may soon have to decide whether to testify in a criminal trial or go to jail for contempt of court.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category