Friday, December 24, 2010

Veterans with TBI, PTSD filling San Diego jails

From North County Times:

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Lezlie K. Neusteter sometimes doesn't return calls for days. She's not rude, just hard-pressed as the VA's only justice outreach coordinator for the newest and largest combat veteran population in the country.

"Sorry, I had two veterans call in crisis yesterday and a few more this morning," she said. "It seems like I am getting more of those calls all the time. I'm expecting a client in about 20 minutes."

The Veterans Justice Outreach program started two years ago under the mounting suspicion that San Diego County, home to roughly 30,000 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, was also increasingly home to the highest proportion of jailed and probationary Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans in the country.

Among its population of 3.2 million, 1 in roughly every 106 San Diegans has served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both. By comparison, Los Angeles County, with a population of 10.4 million, has about 14,000 combat veterans, or one in every 743 people.

That population is now spilling into San Diego County jails for what Neusteter called "lots of impulse crimes" such as drunk driving, spouse and child abuse, barroom brawls and resisting arrest.

So many, in fact, that San Diego County will soon pass a dubious mark: Nearly 150 young veterans in the criminal justice system and another 400 of all ages either in jail or facing charges. These numbers are since January 2009.

"Every jail I go to, I find guys from Iraq and Afghanistan sitting there," said Neusteter, who, along with San Diego Sheriff's Department officials, believe the real numbers are higher than reported because active-duty service members are reluctant to reveal their military affiliation when booked.

The Vista jail, the closest to Camp Pendleton, a base that's fed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly a decade, is a microcosm of this wave.

"What I am seeing in Vista and other jails across the county are Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression and substance abuse," Neusteter said. "I would say that at any given time, about 50 prisoners at Vista are military or former military, but the real number is probably two or three times that.

"I'm seeing more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in prison all the time and a growing number of them are 100 percent disabled with PTSD or TBI," she said. "They are 23 (years old), and they think that their lives are done."

Robert Vander Kamp, manager of inmate services for San Diego County, said the county's seven jails began collecting data on booked veterans 18 months ago. While the data are still being collected, Vender Kamp said one trend stands out.

"Many of these vets had no experience with law enforcement before their combat deployments. Now they're involved in driving under the influence, domestic violence and bar fights," Vander Kamp said. "You can tell that the war has changed them, because they had no record before."

After years of study, San Diego County is expected to start early next year a Veterans Treatment Court with longtime San Diego Superior Court Judge and Army veteran Roger Krauel at the helm.

The court's goal is to reintegrate those struggling with the psychological baggage of their military service back into society, instead of sending them to jail for their offenses.

Neusteter said diversion programs can work wonders.

"I've gotten people into the Veterans Village of San Diego, and you see a totally different person in six months. The key for the veterans is to exit the self-destructive cycle before it's too late."