70 Million

Veterans Courts Give Soldiers a Way Back

Episode Summary

For veterans, run-ins with the law don’t always have to mean jail time. Thanks to Veterans Court in Boston, which helps in finding treatment for PTSD, getting sober, and finding work. Reporter Heidi Shin talks to an Iraq and Afghanistan vet about his struggles with alcohol and PTSD, and his experience through the Veterans Court program. Heidi also talks to the judges, outreach specialists, and counselors about diverting veterans away from the prison pipeline.

Episode Notes

For veterans, run-ins with the law don’t always have to mean jail time. Thanks to Veterans Court in Boston, which helps in finding treatment for PTSD, getting sober, and finding work. Reporter Heidi Shin talks to an Iraq and Afghanistan vet about his struggles with alcohol and PTSD, and his experience through the Veterans Court program. Heidi also talks to the judges, outreach specialists, and counselors about diverting veterans away from the prison pipeline.

Episode Transcription

Mitzi Miller: 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. I’m Mitzi Miller and this is 70 Million, an open-source podcast about people, and communities, taking on the broken criminal justice system. This season, we'll chronicle how local jails compound the problem, and what residents are doing about it. 

Montage: “Here I am with the judges and attorneys and, you know, police officers...” 

“You can have the most beautiful resume and they’re still going to label you as a felon.”

“I wanted to be able to, to dig in, roll up my sleeves and figure out what could be done about this issue.”

“You’re not letting us be human, like, you’re not letting us just be regular girls.”

“For 20 years all I heard was shut up inmate. And now all of a sudden I have a voice.” 

Short clips from news footage from Iraq

“The headlines. The attack on Iraq has begun. US forces fired cruise missiles on Bagdad.”

“Afghanistan is pounded with bombs and missiles from the air and sea.”

“We're supported by the collective will.”

“The attack in the same province where the US dropped its most powerful…” 

Mitzi: If you were an American soldier deployed in a recent war, these weren’t just headlines. This was your reality. And when you got back home, re-adjusting to life as a civilian was often harder than you expected. In the military, you’d been trained to see everyone in a crowd as the potential enemy. This hypervigilance can be hard to turn off once you’re back in the States.

You survived, but many of your friends didn’t. Their memories haunt you, especially on the anniversaries of their deaths. And that’s when you might become angry, or when you self-medicate. And when you might find yourself breaking the law. 


Currently in the US, there are 700,000 veterans in the criminal justice system, cycling in and out of jail. Often dealing with charges related to trauma, substance abuse, and addiction. Some eventually find themselves homeless and on the streets. There’s a national movement underway to try and change these numbers. It’s an alternative court program, which sends veterans to therapy and rehab rather than jail. Today we’re going to Boston to meet a young veteran who’s on this path, and the team that’s standing behind him.  

Reporter Heidi Shin has our story.

Ron: You’re just gonna feel the blast, but it’s kind of like a (Ron makes “wheeeing” sound). Like that, you know. Real quick, kinda like. Hope I didn’t spit on your microphone. 

Heidi: Ron is full of war stories. By the way, we’re calling him Ron here to preserve his privacy. I ask him to tell me about the time he got the Purple Heart. He was an army ranger, leading a group of men in Iraq. One day, they’re on a rooftop doing surveillance when an RPG -- that’s a rocket propelled grenade -- explodes nearby. Right away, he sees that one of his men has been injured.  

Ron: And I saw a hole in his neck that you could put your fist in. Yeah. And he didn't know. At this point, I don't know how close to any major arteries this thing is. I jack his heart rate up by scaring him, he's going to lose a lot more blood a lot more quickly. So as calmly as I could, without letting him know that he was as messed up as he was, I says to him, I says, McCarthy, you done a good job up there, roll off and take up some security and we're gonna get you replaced.

Heidi: That’s when another guy in the squad notices what’s happened.

Ron: And he goes, “Goooooh, bro, you got a hole in your neck.” And, naturally, he's like, you know, starts freaking out. And, like, here comes the blood, his heart starts pumping a little faster, and the blood and everything, and I just, “Mediiiiiic!” Cat’s out of the bag. “MEDIIIIIC,” I'm screaming for this guy. And next thing you know we're taking fire again. 

Heidi: And that’s when one of the men notices Ron’s leg.

Ron: He says, “Sarge, you're bleeding really bad.” 

Heidi: Ron’s left leg was soaked in blood. He was injured pretty seriously. But he hadn’t noticed. They put both the guys on a medical helicopter and fly them out to Kandahar base. Good news is, both survived. So this story ended well, but not all of Ron’s stories do. There are the ones he doesn’t want to re-tell. He’s seen friends die and had to move their bodies.  

Ron: Nothing comes close to the anguish you feel inside for having, you know, to witness that or whatever. But, uh, there's nothing you could do about it at that point in time. 

Heidi: You’re told to save the grief for when you get home.   

Ron: You know, kind of put it in your kit bag for later. Don’t forget about the person, but now’s not the time to remember them. 

Heidi: He was deployed four times to Afghanistan and Iraq, over the course of 14 years. They saw his potential, and he rose rank quickly. He won lots of awards -- Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, but each time he came home, he was a little bit different.

Ron: It's going to be a challenge the rest of my life because now I have issues that I deal with, um, related to the military and it's always going to be a challenge to be the happiest person I can be.

Heidi: He remembers the day he was discharged. He was in his 30s. And had no idea what would come next. But he felt so free, cruising up the highway, driving for days from Georgia back to Boston alone. Driving and thinking, that’s when he realized.

Ron: I really had no idea where I was going. I hadn’t actually went and interviewed for an apartment or anything, but. I really didn’t have a solid plan.

[musical interlude]

Sharalis: It's very challenging. I think we are not set up appropriately for success for the transition.

Heidi: Sharalis Canales knows Ron from the Boston Veterans Court. She’s an Outreach Specialist there and is a veteran herself, recently discharged. She says this is pretty common for veterans to feel lost when coming home. You go from having everything provided for you – your housing, your clothes. 

Sharalis:  We have our own banks, we have our own barber shops, everything is on the base, the nail salon, everything.

Heidi: Your entire life is on the military base, and for many, it’s the only life you’ve known since you were 18. 

Sharalis: So when you get out of that, you kinda get lost.  

Heidi: In the civilian world, the rules are different. You’re allowed to wear your hair down, put your hands in your pockets, even keep yourself dry in the rain. She remembers waiting for the bus on a recent rainy day when a stranger asked where her umbrella was.  

Sharalis: I, like, automatically said I’m not authorized to use an umbrella. 

Heidi: You said, I'm not authorized? 

Sharalis: And they looked at me very strange. Your brain is so structured to do something for so long that you forget just the small things like that.

Heidi: It’s Sharalis’ job to help veterans navigate this new world, to get back to school, access benefits, or find jobs. She says that job part, it can be particularly hard if you’re coming from the infantry, like Ron.

Sharalis: Infantry are, I would say, the backbone of the army. They’re the ones that are on the frontline of when we deploy to war. And their main duty is to fight and kill the enemy. And so for them, it’s a little bit tricky when they get back, because they only qualify for certain positions, a lot of them end up becoming a cop, if they qualify, or security. And they don’t have a lot of job options.

Heidi: Ron found a job bartending in Boston. He says if you’re a veteran with PTSD and issues with alcohol, bartending is not the way to go.

Ron: Do yourself a favor, man. Try every possible other profession than bartending, because I tell you something, that’s -- it’s bad news to, to work around that much alcohol.

Heidi: They gave a free round of drinks to the staff after closing every night. One of these nights, he was stopped by the police on the way home, and charged with an OUI. That’s “operating under the influence.” That’s how he found himself in Veterans Court. 

Down at the Boston Courthouse, there are a lot of stern looking judges and busy attorneys with furrowed brows. You pass room after room filled with them. But when you get to the end of the hall, to the Veterans Court, things are different.

Sinnott: Is there anything you want to talk to the court about? Is there anything that we can do to keep you strong and going in the right direction? 

Heidi: Judge Eleanor Sinnott sits at the mahogany bench leaning forward on her elbows, and she smiles the widest smile. She seems to know how everyone is doing. She asks Ron about his family.  

Sinnott: So how are you doing? (Ron’s muffled reply) Great, how’s the baby? Oh that’s terrific, really happy to hear that.

Heidi: It’s a court for veterans who have committed a criminal offense. Often it involves alcohol or drugs. But instead of going to jail, they go to rehab. When another participant coyly asks for permission to go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, the judge responds with a look that says: I think you know the answer to that one. 

Court hearing: Be released on...on April 6

Heidi: It’s an intense year-long program, which some say can be even harder than going to trial. There are about a dozen participants in the treatment program at any time. Right now, they’re all young veterans. They’re wearing suits -- some wool, some linen, pin-striped, navy. I learn it’s actually a requirement from the judge.  

Sinnott: Because it not only shows respect for themselves, but they get respect from others. I want you to look like the attorneys, not like defendants. 

Heidi: At the end of the session, the young men gather at the back of the courtroom. I’m not allowed to record the conversations here. But if I had, you’d hear these guys chuckling. They tell jokes that aren’t really fit for radio, gripe about their alcohol screenings, and trade stories from their time in Iraq. 

Most didn’t know each other in combat, but they’ve become battle buddies here in court. They’re pulling for each other, and have become an army unit of sorts. It’s this camaraderie -- a sense of team -- that’s pretty key to getting through the year, I’m told. In fact there’s an even larger team here, sitting in the courtroom each week. Not just the attorneys, but also a social worker and a mentor. If an issue comes up, they figure things out: help decipher paperwork or next steps for a treatment plan, right there in the courtroom.  

Outreach specialist Sharalis remembers Ron’s first day in court. He was there with his fiancee to see if he’d qualify for the program.

Sharalis: He was outside of the courthouse with her. I remember seeing her pregnant and um, he was just anxious, pacing the hallway back and forth. He got there early because he knew he needed to be there early. The military teaches us to be 15 minutes to the 15 minutes of the 15 minutes. 

Heidi: To get accepted into the program, vets have to go through a lot of steps: a referral, an intake interview, an assessment by the DA, a substance abuse and mental health eval, an observation day, and finally approval to join.  

Ron was accepted. But some on the court’s treatment team worried it would be too intense for him. The weekly court appearances, the treatment programs, the counseling, and community service. It can feel like a full-time job. And Ron had just enrolled in school, with a full course-load, at a local college. And he and his fiancee were about to have a baby. That’s a lot of life stresses.

Ron: Getting through this program is really about just, you know, keeping your head down, doing what they tell you to do. You should be out of here in a year. I mean it's, it's, it's what they tell you in the beginning.  

Heidi: A few weeks later Ron went missing. His fiancee called Sharalis.

Sharalis: He didn’t come home the night before, and so she hadn’t seen him. We drove to that area and we just walked up and down, up and down. We found him and he was in front of a church, passed out with small bottles of alcohol.

Heidi: They got him to the emergency room, and eventually into a treatment program for PTSD. When he woke up, Sharalis said there was just one thing he wanted to talk about.

Sharalis: He was disappointed in himself, you know, upset that he disappointed the treatment court. I told him don't worry about that. Like, everybody goes through this. We want you to know we’re here to support you every step of the way. 

Heidi: Sharalis still believed he could do it.

Sharalis: And I had to keep reminding him, no, do you remember what you did in the military? You were a staff sergeant in the army taking care of soldiers for 12 years. You were leading people. Don't forget that, like, don't minimize what you did in the service. 

Heidi: She saw Ron as resilient, as a survivor. And she wished he would see himself that way, too.  

Don:  Relapse is, is part of recovery, and it’s acceptable, if you own it.

Heidi: Don Purrington oversees the mentors in Veterans Court. They’re called the court’s “secret sauce.” Let’s be honest, Don says. It can be hard to tell the truth in court every week. You don’t want to let anyone down – the judge or the other participants. So you’ll always say you’re doing well at court.  

Don: Like really? Come on. Like you expect me to believe that.

Heidi: In reality, you’re not always doing well. Sometimes you’ll want to reach for a drink, and that’s when you’ll call your mentor.  

Don: My mentor’s going to say, Hey, you know, you can go do that, but where is it going to get you. They're going to help talk you through it and say, why don't I meet you for coffee instead? 

Heidi: So each veteran is assigned a mentor, and you’re required to check in 2-3 times a week. Of course you still might relapse, Don says. It’s almost inevitable. There are weddings, there’s cough syrup, and life stresses. But he says, don’t blame it on your cough syrup.

Don: You're going to disrespect the judge who is taking a chance on you and giving you an opportunity.

Heidi: Just fess up, he says. You’ll be given extra community service hours to compensate, and rehab to deal with the issues that got you there in the first place. And you might encourage someone else to do the same. 

Don: So you lead by example. Okay, he did it. He's not getting locked up or thrown in jail. They're working with him. Maybe they'll work with me too. 

Heidi: Like many members of the Veterans Court team, Don is a veteran, too. He’s a former Marine. He wears a suit to court every week, but he rolls his sleeves up, on purpose, he says. He wants the veterans on trial to see his tattoos. They’re conversation starters.

Don: There’s five names on here. Cummings, Pisivio, Martini, Perez, and Fren. They were all KIA in Iraq in 2006 in Anbar Province. 

Heidi: His tattoos are the names of platoon mates. He lost five in Iraq, in a few months’ time. When he came home from the war --

Don: Life was kind of a fog. I was self-medicating with oxycontin, and, uh, I developed a huge addiction. Huge, huge, huge addiction.

Heidi: Now he’s completely drug-free, but the journey from A to B wasn’t so simple. Understanding this is what makes him so good at his job. 

[musical interlude]

Don: I try to show them like, hey, you know what, I've been down and out, but that's a part of my life, that's a past part of my life. I'm not there anymore in my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything now. 

Heidi: In addition to mentors, the court participants also have access to therapists. They can come see one at the Boston Vets Center, which is part of the Veterans Administration. 

A lovable therapy dog greets me at the door. There are cookies, tea, and magazines in the wait room. The floor lamps give a warm glow.

Chris: We try to make vet centers look like, we try to make it look like your living room so that way it's comfortable to come in. You are not sitting in, like, this weird medical environment.

Heidi: That’s Chris Morse, the Vet Center’s director. He’s a social worker and a veteran himself. Veterans come here for all sorts of resources, like getting help with resumes and benefits. And the walls are lined with posters about running groups, movie nights, and support groups for spouses. Another one says free gun locks.

Chris: Oh yes. One of the big things that we're also concerned about is the veteran suicide rate. I mean, it's gone down to 20 a day, but guess what. That's still too many, still way too many. So one of the things that we do is, uh, we have gun locks here. So in case they need it, boom. 

Heidi: Do people take advantage of that? 

Chris: Yes.

Heidi: You hear about how some veterans don’t like the Fourth of July – the fireworks remind them of combat. But Chris explains that it can be a different kind of struggle for some of these younger vets. 

Chris:  For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who did your opponent look like? What did the enemy look like? Uhhhhh, just like everybody else. So you don't know who it is. You don't know what they look like. As far as -- so, the safest way to look at it is: everybody's out to get me.

Heidi: In these recent wars, there was no bunker to retreat to. Improvised bombs known as IEDs were everywhere, in marketplaces and schools. So you were always on guard. And when you get home to the States, it can be hard to turn that hypervigilance off.  

Chris: Go into a restaurant, I can tell you where a lot of veterans sit. They sit with their back to the wall, they're scanning everybody because they don't know these people and experience has shown that people that you don't know can attack you. 

Heidi: When it comes to therapy, Chris has an arsenal of treatment techniques that combine his military experience with his training as a therapist.  

Chris: Like my favorite, diaphragmatic breathing. Everybody, you know, that’s one of our staples, relaxation strategies. They -- military folks already know it. It’s the fundamentals of rifle marksmanship. 

Heidi: Recovery doesn’t happen overnight though, he says. It’s an ongoing process. 

When Ron’s about half way through the Veterans Court program, I meet him back at the courthouse. He looks tall, athletic, and well, pretty sharp in his wool suit. He examines his pant leg.

Ron: I'm trying, I'm just learning what pleats are. This would be a pleat, correct? 

Heidi: Yeah, that would be a pleat. 

Ron: Ok. I'm in pleats right now.

Heidi: The suit actually fit better before Ron says, but he’s lost weight since he stopped drinking. He’s also finished an intensive 30-day PTSD treatment program.  

Ron:  With an amazing doctor and a pretty awesome treatment team there. It was like going to work. You were there every day from nine in the morning until 2:30, 3:00 in the afternoon.

Heidi: Ron says he’s grateful for the treatment court, in part because he knows about the alternative. He knew people growing up who had struggled with anger and alcohol. But they had ended up spending time behind bars.  

Ron: When you check the block, you know, yeah, I'm a convicted felon, good luck, good luck to you. There isn't much available for you anymore.

Heidi: If you have rent to pay and a family to feed:

Ron: What are you going to do when you have to make money but you don’t have opportunities? Sometimes, what I did for money was exactly what got me in jail, you know. But I know that at the end of the week I am going to be able to afford to put groceries, you know, in the pantry or whatever, if I go out and do some of these things.  

Heidi: He sees as it as issue of social class, having options, that is. And it starts early in life. Ron had been in and out of foster care. And when he turned 18, the recruiter showed up in his neighborhood. 

Ron: Uncle Sam tells everybody about the military, especially guys that age. You know what I mean? At least in my class of people.   

Heidi: They came with an offer that was hard to refuse.  

Ron: ll this money going on for college. I think when I signed up, they were offering a $20,000 enlistment bonus. So that right there is, you know, $20,000 for a kid who's never had more than $10 bucks in his back pocket, you know, is pretty enticing, correct?

Heidi: But he does see one way of changing things.  

Ron: Unless somehow or another you get the opportunities that, you know, maybe happen for one out of hundred thousand individuals that are born into that life, and you end up with a ticket to, you know, higher education somewhere.

Heidi: Thanks to education benefits for veterans, Ron did head back to school. He’s taking a full course load at the local college, and he’s getting straight As. 

Probation Officer Gerry Jerzak sits to the right of the judge in the courtroom each week. I ask her what kinds of successes she’s seen in the treatment program. Does she know the court’s recidivism rates, for example?  

Gerry: That recidivism question just always cracks me up. Like, what’s the recidivism rate? How many people re-offend? How many people use substances again? Because, I don’t know, my definition of success is different, I guess, because success for me is based on the individual. Like, did they drink or drug today? No. Then that’s a success. So I don’t know how can you put that in a pie chart or a graph, or a bar graph. 

Heidi: Or if someone’s been on rocky terms with their family --

Gerry: Like a veteran that gets to spend a great day on a picnic with his family at the Charles River, that’s a success. 

Heidi: Sometimes it’s about moving the needle in someone’s life by just a little bit, or maintaining status quo. Still, some argue that treatment courts are a free pass, a card to get out of jail. Prosecutor Tony Rizzo would disagree. I catch him in the courtroom. Tony explains that if a veteran commits a crime:

Tony: My job is to not only make sure they’re receiving the appropriate treatment here. But I’m also responsible as a prosecutor for the safety of community and making sure that that doesn’t happen again.

Heidi: It’s the prosecutor's job to make sure the veterans who could be a “danger to society” don’t qualify for the program and are dealt the consequences. And as a former Marine, Tony Rizzo says he can spot a fraudulent application to the court. He knows all the military terms. So if someone fabricates a story to try and qualify for the court, he knows right away.   

That said, it’s clear that the prosecutors here believe in rehabilitation. They talk passionately about giving veterans a chance at treatment. It’s another way of thinking about how to keep society safe, by preventing vets from recommitting a crime. Plus, the treatment route can actually be a lot of work. Prosecutor Brett Walker shares this.

Brett: So when people ask if this is some form of get out of jail free card, I always tell them, absolutely not. Come and see what these guys are doing. It's more rigorous than any probation's going to be. Twice a week attending NA or AA meetings... 

Heidi: Boston isn’t the only city with a Veterans Court. The country’s first court for veterans was founded in 2008 in Buffalo, New York, by Judge Robert Russell. He had had experience with drug and mental health treatment courts in the past. And when other cities saw the success in Buffalo, they followed suit.  

Now there are over 350 veterans courts in the country. They’ve served over 12,000 veterans in places like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Texas, Montana, Georgia, and Ohio. There aren’t yet national statistics, but in the state of Michigan, Veterans Treatment Courts report over half the participants who were unemployed found jobs. A study published in the Community Mental Health Journal says that veterans court participants experience significant improvement with depression, PTSD, and substance abuse. 

And the Veterans Justice Outreach program found that veterans referred from treatment courts had better housing and employment outcomes, too. And it’s outcomes like these which help keep veterans out of trouble, and out of jail.   

The next time I catch up with Ron, I visit him at home.  

Ron: A Cape-style house, so there's many like these in New England. 

Heidi: Oh yeah, that’s what you call it, Cape style.  

He’s been in the treatment court for over six months, and he’s a full-time dad by day, and a full-time college student by night. He shows me his math textbook and a paper he wrote about Brexit.

Ron: This was my final for English Composition 102.  

Heidi: He’s training to be an EMT and a firefighter, but Sharalis from the Vet Center thinks he’d make a great counselor. She doesn’t want to see him encounter any more trauma, and thinks he would be great at helping others deal with their trauma. He has a few months left before he finishes the treatment program. These days, he’s up at 6:30 in the morning for his alcohol test. 

Ron: This right here, you line your eyeballs up with it. You blow into the tube...

Heidi: You’ve been clean.

Ron: I’ve been clean. And this thing it helps make sure you stay clean.

Heidi: Then he’s off to make breakfast for his family and a bottle for his baby boy, who was born just a few months ago. I ask if he’d ever send his son to the military. He says yes.

Ron: I'm standing here right now today telling you that knowing what I know now and having been through what I went through in the military, I would do it all over again.

Heidi: He says everything he’s experienced in life has made him who he is. Still, he knows he’s changed in irreversible ways.

Ron: Maybe you didn't sign up as a, 18, 17, 18, 19 year old kid knowing that the rest of your life was going to be affected by, you know, your experiences in the military. But you certainly knew, especially in a time of war, that you were signing up for something serious and potentially life changing. But you just, you never know what those changes are going to be until, until you've lived through some of those things. But, um, my family makes it easier to be the person that I want to be for myself and for them.

Heidi: For now, it’s a beautiful day outside and he’s headed to the zoo with his little boy.  He checks to see the diaper bag is packed, with a sunhat and enough snacks. As he loads their things into the car, I notice the bracelets on his arm. One for each of the men he lost in his platoon. And a license plate with a purple heart, to honor this veteran who’s resilient, and who survived.  

In Boston, I’m Heidi Shin for 70 Million.

Mitzi: Thanks for listening. Now we want to hear from you. Have you, a friend, or a loved one experienced the impact of jails? Are you active in local reform? Can we help you recognize someone in your community who’s been an agent of change? Email us at hello@70millionpod.com, or call us at 202-670-4912. For more information, visit 70millionpod.com. We’re an open-source podcast, so we invite you to use our episodes, transcripts, syllabi, and resource guides in your classrooms, organizations, and anywhere they might be useful. You may rebroadcast parts of or entire episodes without permission. Just please drop us a line so we can keep track.

70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

The podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producer is Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our resource guide writer is Amy Alexander. Special thanks to Paola Mardo for production assistance. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I'm Mitzi Miller.

Heidi Shin would like to give special thanks to:  

Professor Ronald Kessler at Harvard Medical School

Elana Newman at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

Scott Swaim and Chris Deutsch at Justice for Vets

Judge Eleanor Sinnott and the Boston Veterans Court Team



Shin, Heidi, reporter. “Veterans Courts Give Soldiers a Way Back,” 70 Million Podcast, Lantigua Williams & Co, September 3, 2018. www.70millionpod.com