Tony Miller killed countless enemy forces during his deployment to Iraq, where his army unit captured so many high-value targets that they received a gallantry award.
“The violence was good,” said Miller, a paratrooper, who was returned to Iraq just 17 days after returning home from his first deployment. “Violence has been rewarded.
But once he left the military in 2008, Miller’s aggression was no longer an asset and he was consumed with anger, exacerbated by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. He was charged with second-degree assault with a firearm in 2014 and soon after convicted of drug possession, the consequences of which threatened to permanently derail any chance he had of returning to a productive life as a civilian.
In an alarming statistic, about a third of American military veterans say they have been arrested and imprisoned at least once in their lifetime, compared to less than a fifth of civilians, a report published last month by the Criminal Justice Council found. The nonpartisan think tank cited service-related trauma, including PTSD, and substance abuse issues as some of the contributing factors.
Now, supporters say, a unique new Minnesota law could turn the tide at a critical time for millions of post-9/11 veterans, as many struggle to put the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan behind them. , the country’s longest war.
Last August, Minnesota became the first state to allow veterans with service-related trauma to avoid serving time for certain crimes, while ensuring that a conviction would not stain their record.
The Restorative Justice for Veterans Act is not a get-out-of-jail card, and the legislation does not lend to serious violent crimes, such as murder and manslaughter. But supporters say it’s a compassionate way to hold veterans accountable for many less serious cases, including theft and drunk driving, while addressing underlying issues, such as PTSD.
“Some of those emotions are really raw,” said Miller, 39, who lives in Farmington, Minnesota, with his wife and dogs.
Miller’s worst memories arise during mundane moments. Startling details of the first man he killed at point-blank range and the body of a young child torn apart by a rocket-propelled grenade sometimes come to mind when he waits at a red light or when he take a shower.
“Some of these things are never going to go away,” he said.
Living with PTSD
Unlike previous generations of veterans, today’s armed forces fought long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, simultaneously and without conscription.
That means many have served multiple deployments, which has resulted in higher rates of post-traumatic stress injuries than service members in the past, said Brock Hunter, an Army veteran and attorney for Criminal Defense for Veterans based in Minneapolis.
“The burden of fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders,” he said.
Veterans with multiple deployments, in particular, are three times more likely to develop PTSD than those who haven’t deployed, the Council on Criminal Justice said. And veterans with PTSD, who report high levels of anger or irritability, are about 60% more likely than those without PTSD to come into contact with the criminal justice system, according to a AV study published in the Traumatic Stress Diary in 2020.
“There’s good reason to believe that more of them will take their war home than ever before,” Hunter said.
Some 107,400 veterans were in state or federal prisons in 2016, the most recent year with data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Those who have served their sentences face ongoing problems with their records which experts say may affect their ability to obtain housing, jobs, education and professional licenses.
“It really is a scarlet letter for modern times,” said Hunter, who co-founded the Veterans Defense Project, a nonprofit group that spearheaded the passage of the Restorative Justice Act for veterans. “Someone is a second-class citizen for the rest of their life.”
In 2014, Miller was charged with second-degree assault with a firearm after he said he lifted his shirt to reveal a gun to avoid a fight with a group of at least five strangers. He argued it was in self-defense and a jury acquitted him.
But less than a year later, authorities found marijuana in his home during a raid. Prosecutors charged him with a fifth-degree controlled substance, and because his legally owned firearms were in close proximity to the drugs, they bolstered the charge.
Rather than fight another trial and risk landing in jail, which would cause him to lose his veterans benefits, Miller pleaded guilty. Instead of being incarcerated, he agreed to undergo a court-supervised treatment program at Hennepin County Veterans Court.
He completed the program, which usually lasts 12 to 18 months, in 2018. But because he still had the conviction on his record, he said, no landlord would rent to him and he could no longer continue his dreams of becoming a social worker.
Shame also followed Berlynn Fleury after the former Navy bulk fuel specialist graduated in 2018 from Ramsey County Veterans Court, where she served time for possession of second-degree controlled substances. and crime of car theft.
“Everyone cared about my record,” said Fleury, 30, of Brownton, Minnesota. “People were still hanging it over my head.”
An alternative to prison
Over the past year, the Veterans Restorative Justice Act has eliminated that stigma in Minnesota, making the state the most progressive in the nation for its treatment of veterans involved in the criminal justice system.
There are more than 600 Veterans Treatment Courts nationwide, including in 48 states and Guam. Many allow a veteran to avoid a criminal conviction, but “enough of them don’t, which creates a serious disparity problem,” Hunter said.
Without uniform sentencing guidelines, discretion over who goes to jail and for how long “varies significantly” from judge to judge, he said.
Minnesota’s new law establishes a consistent set of standards for every criminal court in the state, based on the offender’s criminal history and the severity of the crime. It outlines very violent crimes that are ineligible and crimes that are, including some cases of assault.
To qualify, veterans must also prove that their offense was committed as a result of sexual trauma, brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse, or a mental health issue stemming from their service. And although they have to plead guilty – the first step to accountability – the conviction is never on the record.
“They should all have the same chance to get their lives back on track,” Hunter said.
What else to know about problems with the army
In Minnesota, it is too early for data to indicate whether the new law is helping to reduce incarceration and recidivism for veterans. But Hennepin County Veterans Court has begun to see some of its first impacts. At least 22 veterans have completed its treatment program since the law took effect on August 1, 2021.
On a recent Monday morning, an army veteran stands up to tell the court that he doesn’t recognize who he was a year ago as he emerged from a divorce, depression and… alcoholism and was facing an assault charge for domestic violence.
Since then, Judge Lisa Janzen has told the court that he tackled his depression, stayed sober, started therapy, finished school, found from work and that he had completed the court’s domestic violence program.
Applause fills the courtroom, as the judge dismisses his accusation.
“You turned everything upside down,” she said.
We need to do more
Experts say there is still a lot to study. The lack of data on the issue has led the Criminal Justice Council to launch a national commission to examine over the next two years why so many veterans end up behind bars. A 15-member expert panel will recommend policy changes.
With about 200,000 active-duty service members leaving the armed forces each year, it creates a public safety concern, said Hunter and Army Col. Jim Seward, one of the council’s report authors.
“We do a better job than any country in the world of taking a youngster with no criminal record and turning him into a very lethal, very well-trained killer,” Seward said.
“We ask them to go do their job, and they do their job,” he added. “And then we ask them to go home and be normal, and many people over generations have struggled with that.”