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By MARK NIESSE
The trauma of war lands in Judge Michael Broderick's Honolulu courtroom daily: wives and girlfriends describe soldiers who return from Iraq punching, choking and threatening to kill them.
These war-weary troops often admit their violent behavior and ask for help — not the typical response Broderick hears from someone accused of domestic abuse.
"I hold them accountable for the domestic abuse, but it's hard not to, at the same time, hurt for these guys based on the experience they've had," the Hawai'i Family Court judge said. "The saddest thing is to hear the wife or the girlfriend say, 'I don't recognize my husband, he never acted this way before he went to war. I want my husband back.' I hear that all the time."
Hawai'i is considering setting up a special veterans court that would provide better access to treatment and counseling to war veterans in hopes of keeping them out of jail, an idea that has spread to about two dozen jurisdictions nationwide since the first one started in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.
Hawai'i's program would be unique by setting up treatments targeted for reservists and members of the National Guard who often aren't prepared to return to the civilian life they face immediately after their deployments end.
When Broderick hears these cases in his court, he often issues temporary restraining orders and therapy.
But the courts and veteran service organizations aren't always in close contact, and soldiers don't necessarily follow through. Sometimes, it isn't long before they're back in court again.
"A lot of the military are coming home so traumatized and so troubled. They're suffering from deep depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues, anxiety and panic disorder, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts," said Marya Grambs, executive director for Mental Health America of Hawai'i. "What a waste to have them go to jail instead of get them into treatment."
While active-duty soldiers still report to military bases when they come home, many reservists and members of the National Guard are unprepared to return to the very different pressures of a job and family.
Reservists and the National Guard make up about 30 percent of the United States' 1.7 million armed forces. In Hawai'i, there are about 12,000 members of the National Guard and reserves, compared to 40,000 active-duty troops.
"They're tough, macho folks who think they can handle it," said Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, commander of the Hawai'i National Guard. "A lot of them come back and say, 'I'm OK,' but then circumstances put them in a situation where they experience an adverse reaction."
Besides domestic violence, recently returned soldiers also tend to get in trouble for drunken driving and theft.
The state House of Representatives passed a resolution this month asking the state Judiciary to study forming the veterans court, an idea the court system supported in written testimony.
"Through no fault of their own, our veterans sometimes come back different people," said Rep. K. Mark Takai, an Army Guard major who returned from a deployment to Kuwait last year. "It makes no sense to throw the veterans out to the wolves, which is what the typical system does."
The veterans court would work similarly to existing specialty courts, such as drug court and girls court. It would use a standard courtroom but also bring in Department of Veterans Affairs personnel and another veteran as a mentor for the defendant, Takai said. That way, a judge could order mandatory treatment, schedule it directly with Veterans Affairs and ensure the sentence is carried out.
In most cases, veterans don't get in trouble again once they get counseling. For example, there hasn't been a single repeat offender from Chicago's felony-level veterans court since it started 16 months ago, said Kevin Cavanaugh of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs.
Not everyone is sold on the idea that veterans should get more lenient sentencing just because of their background.
"Every crime has a set of circumstances, and those circumstances should be taken into account by the courts," said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons. "We should be doing that kind of treatment across the board, because prisons and jails are full of nonviolent offenders."
Supporters of the veterans court plan believe it won't cost money. It could redirect veterans already in the criminal justice system to the new veterans court and use existing staff and resources to attract federal money, Takai said. The savings of rehabilitation instead of incarceration are estimated at more than $50,000 a year.
Reservists and members of the National Guard would get extra attention with job placement assistance for those who need it and mentor communication with employers for veterans who have jobs.
There are about 229,000 veterans in local jails and state and federal prisons, according to 2008 estimates.
"The veterans court would save a lot of family relationships, careers and even more lives," said Brian Paisley, an Iraq war veteran who returned to Hawai'i in 2007. "I probably lost more friends to drunk driving accidents, drugs, domestic violence and suicide here after the deployment than I did in Iraq."