New Services for Jailed Vets

New Services for Jailed Veterans Help Them Return to Their Communities

There’s a reason Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.” Several reasons, in fact.

As human beings, our psychological ability to process battle and its aftermath — courage, violence, fear, rage, blood, hate, grief, and hope — hasn’t changed much for thousands of years.  

Across the ages
“Most veterans, fortunately, come home and are able to take up their lives again,” says Michael Tausek, programming director for Volunteers of America’s Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, Maine. “But a darker thread in their story can be traced back a long way in history.”

During the Peloponnesian War, for example, around 415 BC, the Greek philosopher Gorgias was already writing of men disabled physically and psychically by war. Playwrights Euripides and Sophocles — both veterans —wrote of veterans’ violence against strangers and loved ones, survivor’s guilt, shame, love or hate of battle, and suicide. More recently historian Lawrence Tritle, in speaking of wars across the ages, wrote, “The smell of death and the sense of loss are the same. The shame and confusion are the same.”

The walking wounded
On top of this, unfortunately, today’s veterans have been fighting a new kind of war that in some ways is worse, according to numerous observers. Thanks to body armored vehicles, sophisticated lifesaving techniques, and reductions in all-out combat, we have had relatively few American dead — roughly one in 15 (versus the one in three of earlier wars). 

“But we’ve produced tens of thousands of walking wounded,” says Michael. “By 2009, believe it or not, more American soldiers had died from suicide, drugs, and alcohol than had died at the hands of our enemies. And disturbing numbers of veterans have ended up in prison. Ironically, some of them weren’t eligible for VA healthcare if they had a dishonorable discharge, even though their troubles — and the discharge — might have been caused by their military experiences in the first place.”

According to Matt Kelley on the website, some 140,000 U.S. veterans were in state or federal prisons as of 2009. 

The Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast concerns itself directly with the issues of those in the criminal justice system as they prepare to reenter their lives in society. “The Center is a residential program,” Michael explains. “Its goal is to give incarcerated men the skills and experience they’ll need to lead successful lives as positive citizens and employees once they’re back home.” The Center provides 40 hours a week of treatment as well as educational and vocational opportunities designed to help residents learn and practice new living skills and to reduce recidivism. Its programs are evidence-based and prescriptive in nature. 

“Awareness of veteran experiences helps us craft service plans that meet their needs,” says Michael. “In my view, the issues veterans face is illustrative of the broader problems that offenders face when they try to reenter the community — being stigmatized, not always having the resources available to them that they need, and so forth.”

A concerted effort
Fortunately, further progress is being made on numerous fronts. 

In 2010, PBS news correspondent Tom Bearden reported on the fact that more than 20 “veterans courts” have now been created across the country. “The first was started in Buffalo, New York, two years ago,” he said. “Like drug courts that began in the 1980s, they're based on the idea of treating defendants for underlying problems in order to prevent future criminal activity.” 

Bearden explained that defendants in these experimental courts plead guilty to their crimes and agree to a strict probation, which includes mental health counseling, addiction treatment, if needed, and monthly court appearances. “There is no data yet to tell whether this kind of court will achieve the overall goal of preventing future crimes,” he concluded. “But the court in Buffalo has had 22 veterans graduate from its program, and, so far, none have committed new crimes.”

All the Way Home™
Alongside a spectrum of much-needed, valuable veterans’ programs led by the VA (such as the Healthcare for Reentry Veterans [HCRV] program) and other veterans’ groups, Volunteers of America has created an innovative All the Way Home™ program that is distinctively poised to deliver effective, compassionate help where it’s needed most.

“Today’s returning veterans are falling into homelessness — and prison — in unacceptably high numbers,” says June Koegel, President and Chief Executive Officer of Volunteers of America Northern New England. “We estimate that in Maine alone, nearly a thousand veterans — our sons and daughters — are living in shelters, under bridges, in encampments, or in cars on any given night. After all that they’ve done for us, they deserve better!”

Compassion and expertise
All the Way Home™ integrates case management, housing, and transition services to help veterans in major life areas — employment, mental health, substance abuse, life skills training, and more — as they rebuild their lives and hopefully come “all the way home” into everyday society.
Working on the front lines
Volunteers of America has been on the job for veterans since 2001 and is a recognized leader in veterans’ services. The organization’s programs are integrated, meaning they offer interrelated services to give clients custom-tailored help in a wide range of areas in their lives. They are scientifically proven to work. And they are cost-effective. 

“Best of all,” June emphasizes, “our broad-based experience in other client areas makes us uniquely qualified for the role. These days, a homeless veteran could very well have been diagnosed with and be suffering from mental illness, be an offender or a senior citizen — or any combination of these. This means that our longstanding, successful programs for these client groups — people with mental illness, offenders, senior citizens — can be of genuine value to veterans, too.”

“When it comes to today’s veterans,” she adds, “Volunteers of America has one of the country’s great stories to tell. Thanks to All the Way Home™, we can do an even better job as we ‘go wherever we are needed’ — our mission for more than a century.”
Good news on the horizon?

According to historian Tritle, there are broader grounds for hope as well. After the Civil War, veterans went west and helped create a lifestyle of violence and mayhem whose echoes are still with us today. In the 20th century, veterans sometimes came home to a black hole of silence, as enforcers of a “no-talk rule” who could seem like emotionally distant “icemen” to their wives and children. “But if there is one giant difference between those veterans and those of today,” says Tritle, “it is that the homecoming is warmer, that the level of understanding is greater than at any time before.” 

Want to help America’s heroes?
Your gift to Volunteers of America can provide basic amenities like towels, kitchenware, personal hygiene products, and books; help subsidize a kitchen to prepare warm meals; and give someone not just shelter but a home — often the first step to helping him or her find a pathway forward. Please contact us at 207-373-1140. Change a veteran’s life — and change the world!