Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
Brockton D. Hunter, Criminal Defense Attorney, Brockton D. Hunter P.A., Minneapolis
In addition to his work as a criminal defense attorney, Brockton Hunter also serves as the Legislative Chair for the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL). In 2007 and 2008 he drafted and led passage of Minnesota's pioneering legislation to encourage treatment over incarceration of veterans whose service-related psychological injuries played a role in their criminal offense.
Comments from Brockton D. Hunter
Question: How did you and your law firm become involved with veterans issues?
I'm a veteran myself, not a combat veteran, but I served as a scout in the DMZ in Korea in the late 80s during the fall of the Berlin wall. It was a pretty tense time there on the border, and I saw at least a certain level of psychological issues going on among the troops up on the DMZ, myself included. We were just constantly spun up, constantly ready to go to war. And even after I got out and came home and started college, I think it took me two or three years to really fully re-integrate back into the civilian world, and figure out ways to find a constructive outlet for my need for excitement, risk and challenge.
So when I started practicing law and doing criminal defense, it didn't take me long to recognize how many Vietnam veterans, even 30-plus years after their war, were still cycling through the criminal justice system, dealing with psychological issues from their service and the war. I found myself gravitating toward them and empathizing with them. And when 9/11 happened, one of the first things I thought about was the fact that we were going to have another generation of young people sent off to fight and sacrifice.
I don't think I realized how long this thing was going to be drawn out, how much sacrifice was really going to be involved. And so just like the Vietnam vets before them, I found myself gravitating toward representing these folks and getting involved. And I had a couple of high profile cases — one of them was Anthony Klecker, a young Marine who had been involved in the initial invasion in Iraq in 2003, and came home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic alcoholism. He ultimately was involved in the drunk driving car accident down in Inver Grove Heights, Dakota County, in 2006, in which he killed a 16-year-old high school girl. And in that case, we had an initial success — I was able to convince the judge to not send Anthony to prison and instead to send him up to the St. Cloud VA hospital for inpatient treatment, and then ultimately on to 10 years of intensive probation and all of that.
The bottom line is, that case was extremely emotional for all involved. It spurred me to do more then just be involved in representing veterans in the courts, to get involved in advocacy. I got involved with some other veterans from Minnesota that were interested in getting some legislation passed to encourage treatment over incarceration of veterans who come into the court system because of service related psychological issues.
In the 2008 legislative session we got a law passed that does just that, Minnesota statute § 609.115, subd. 10, which is a subdivision of the pre-sentence investigation statute. It provides a safety net to ensure that the courts are communicating with the VA, and that a veteran's psychological issues are taken into account at least in the sentencing portion of a case. It doesn't force a judge to do anything, but is just meant to ensure that a judge has all of the relevant information available, including the specific treatment options available through the VA, when making a decision on what the appropriate sentence should be for a particular veteran.
Question: There is a proposal to set up veterans courts in Minnesota. How would they work?
We've already got drug courts and mental health courts in Minnesota, and you're familiar with how drug court works, the veteran's court is very similar. It just takes an individual defendant who has an underlying problem and it focuses on that underlying problem, above and beyond the criminal offense they committed. It requires that they take part in a fairly structured and a supervised program where they are coming back to court and appearing before the judge on a regular basis, and giving the judge feedback on how their recovery is going. If they complete the program successfully, they can avoid jail time and in many cases even the conviction that would typically be attached to their criminal offense. These folks are struggling as it is to really integrate back into society and a criminal conviction can often be an additional barrier that significantly further impedes their ability to do that. So in all but the most serious cases, I'm really trying to advocate for my veteran clients that they not be convicted of the crime, at least so long as they do what they need to do to address their underlying issue and get the help that they need.
There is a lot of understanding about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that we did not have before this current conflict, and there are actually some pretty good effective treatments out there for these folks — but we have to make sure that they're getting it. If they don't get the treatment they need, they don't get better. That's another thing that's clearly emerging from the research: PTSD doesn't just fade away. If they don't get the help that they need, it's quite possible that they'll continue to struggle and continue to pose a threat to public safety for decades to come.
Question: Are there any reliable numbers about the percentage of people coming back from military service who have some degree of post traumatic stress?
The study that I usually cite the most is a study that was published two years ago by the RAND Corporation. At the time there were about 1.7 million Americans who had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Of those 1.7 million, about 300,000, they estimated, were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and another 320,000 from traumatic brain injury. And experts seem to be in agreement that those numbers are destined to rise.
Question: Why are those numbers so high and expected to go higher?
Because our troops are still serving over there. But even more importantly, in Vietnam when we had a draft, our troops were required to serve one combat tour and then they were done. We've got troops in this current conflict who are serving two, three, four, five, even six or seven combat tours, and the stresses and strains of each additional combat tour compound themselves. The Army itself recently did a study that, not surprisingly, confirmed that levels of PTSD rise within troops with each additional combat tour.
We see the highest levels of PTSD among combat troops — the infantry, special forces, Marines who are actually out there taking the fight to the insurgents and engaging in regular direct combat. But of course, this is an insurgency, and there are no front lines. So even our support personnel are targets to insurgents' attacks and can experience pretty intense direct combat themselves; it's not just the combat troops.
Question: How many Minnesotans are we talking about who may be dealing with PTSD?
I can tell you that Minnesota per capita has one of the highest rates of service in this conflict of any state. We've got the Minnesota Guard 34th Infantry Division, the Red Bulls, which are one of the premier National Guard infantry divisions in the U.S. military. They have been heavily, heavily deployed. In fact, one brigade from that division has served the longest continuous tour in combat in Iraq of any U.S. military unit, period, with 17 months. They were part of George Bush's surge, where they were just getting ready to pack up and go home, and then were notified that they were going to be staying for several more months — some of them ended up staying for an additional six months.
So yes, we've got a lot of folks who have seen a lot of traumatic combat action, who are coming home to Minnesota and trying to get on with their lives. A lot of them are doing all right, but a lot of them aren't. What we need to really do is take advantage of all this newfound information that we have about combat trauma and learn from the mistakes of the past.
We really did a disservice to the generation of veterans who served in Vietnam. They came home from that war, and a lot of members of the public blamed them for what was happening over in Vietnam. When they came into the criminal court system, I think in many cases they were treated more harshly because of their veteran status, than had they just been regular civilians.
A Department of Justice study showed that even 30 years after the Vietnam war, there are still hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans in jails and prisons across the United States. The homeless population is also very heavily represented by veterans; in 2006, a Minnesota Wilder Foundation study found that 28 percent of Minnesota's male homeless population were veterans, mostly of the Vietnam conflict. So it's a problem that will linger for decades to come unless we do something to address it, and get these folks the help they need.
Question: What other proposals are being advanced to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life and improve their chances?
We are also looking at the idea of a certificate of good conduct, or certificate of rehabilitation as they are sometimes called, for veterans who may have some kind of criminal record that predates their military service. We've got a lot of folks who may have had some level of criminal offense — it obviously wouldn't have been anything too serious, or the military wouldn't have accepted them — but they're going off and serving and they're coming back. They are honorably discharged, and in many cases they are decorated for their service, but their criminal convictions that predate their military service are preventing them from getting a job. So we'd like to see a presumption of rehabilitation if they are honorably discharged — that is, something that they could show to an employer to say that the courts have taken a look at this and signed off on me. Presumably that certificate would also provide the employer with a shield against liability from a wrongful hiring lawsuit.
We got a bill passed at the Legislature last year, totally unrelated to veterans, that says that if a person has received an expungement, then an employer is essentially shielded from liability for hiring them if they are later sued. And presumably this certificate of rehabilitation would provide a similar kind of protection for employers and their insurance companies, on giving a veteran a chance.
Question: How do you see the chances that these proposals will pass?
We've got a lot of support already. The sentencing statute that we passed two years ago was frankly quite easy to pass. It had a lot of support, we did a lot of work laying the groundwork for it in the first place. But ultimately the governor, the leaders from both parties in the Legislature, the Minnesota Guard, the VFW, everybody was on board with that statute and have been very happy with its passage. I think there is probably even more interest now in doing something more for veterans.