We must heal the wounds of war we cannot see

For too long, America has been in denial about the true cost of war. We have honored our veterans with our lips but we have refused to acknowledge the wounds we don’t see, the deep, painful psychological scars borne by so many of our veterans. Thankfully, we are at last beginning to recognize the depth of this problem. We are beginning to reach out a helping hand to those men and women who have borne the heat of battle and come home forever changed.

In his State of the State speech, Gov.  Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke eloquently and frankly about these wounded warriors and our obligation to make them whole again:  “Too often our soldiers bring back the enemy with them in their heads. We are seeing and hearing all about a lot of post-traumatic stress syndrome . . . Those men and women need help.”

California’s concerted effort to help these veterans, however, dates back nearly three years, when the Armed Force Retirees Association, the Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans groups won Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature on AB 2586, a groundbreaking law designed to give our most traumatized soldiers a chance to confront and overcome the psychological wounds of war. Under this alternative sentencing law, a judge first determines if a defendant is suffering from combat-caused post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If he is, the judge can steer the defendant into a psychological treatment program rather than jail. Without treatment, many of our fallen heroes would find themselves trapped in an unending cycle of crime and punishment as they struggle with their inner demons.

Eight months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court faced this issue and came down on the side of California’s law in a landmark ruling on the impact of combat stress on veterans. In that case, the high court reduced the death sentence of Korean War veteran George Porter to life in prison. The Florida jury that sentenced Porter to death in a murder case did not know he had fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He came back a “changed and traumatized man,” the high court said. The sentencing jury would likely have spared Porter from the death penalty if it had known of his “horrifying” battlefield experiences, the justices said.

AB 2586 was the first bill in the United States that offered alternative sentencing to combat veterans of all wars.  AB 2586 was cited by the Supreme Court in its ruling as evidence that changes concerning veterans with PTSD were being made by the judicial system.

This ruling is of major importance because it is the first time the first Supreme Court has recognized the long-term, traumatic impact of combat on our veterans. It will undoubtedly be cited in many cases throughout the nation. But the goal of California’s law is not to spare veterans from the death penalty but to offer them the treatment that prevents their trauma from escalating out of control as it did for George Porter.

Perhaps if such a law was on the books when George Porter returned from Korea, he would have gotten treatment the first time he committed a minor crime, and not only his life but those of his victims would have been spared.

California has made a good start but the battle is not won. This year, a coalition of veterans groups, led by the Vietnam Veterans of America, is supporting AB 1925 by Assemblywoman Mary Salas.  AB 1925 is a bill that would allow counties to establish courts for veterans, just as there are other special courts.  Several counties, such as Orange, Santa Clara and San Bernardino, have already established veterans’ courts.  AB 1925 would provide a framework for those counties that wish to avoid the mistakes made by the legal system during and after the Vietnam War and are still being made today.

These are Americans who have volunteered to go in harm’s way in defense of freedom. They may not have shed their blood in battle but they carry within them wounds we cannot see, wounds that we must help them heal.

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