Do ask, do tell: an examination of veterans behind Bars.

Author:Moses, Marilyn C.

Author's Note: Findings and conclusions reported in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Both the military and corrections have learned that what they do not know can hurt them. This could not be truer than where the two systems intersect--veterans in the criminal justice system. While the military and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are stepping up efforts to address the medical and mental health needs of past and present military personnel, corrections is doing its part as well. It is critical that criminal justice agencies "ask" whether an offender is a veteran; "tell" veterans that help is available for those involved in the criminal justice system; and collaborate with the VA and other agencies serving veterans to assure maximum access and service availability.

Historically, military personnel, law enforcement, first responders and other professions have been encouraged to "white knuckle" their way through traumatic events, addiction and other difficulties. Service members were not encouraged to ask for help to confront their demons nor offered assistance to do so. It could be argued that the Pentagon's controversial 15-year-old policy regarding sexual orientation known as "don't ask, don't tell" is analogous to the longer standing conspiracy of silence that has surrounded emotional disturbances and mental illness in the military and other professions. This silence among military personnel and veterans--frequently fostered by management and organizational culture--has not served military personnel, veterans, their families, communities, or the military and criminal justice systems well.

The military and the VA, however, have undergone a value change regarding the legitimacy and need to treat trauma and mental illness and are making greater efforts to identify and serve those in need of treatment. This might best be illustrated by the evolution in terminology for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (1): battle fatigue, shell shock, soldier's heart (Civil War), combat fatigue (World War I), gross stress reaction (World War II) and post-Vietnam syndrome. While some might argue the level of success achieved thus far, few would disagree that the armed services and the VA are seeking a paradigm shift. The criminal justice system, and corrections specifically, has a stake in the military and the VA's care and treatment of its current and former personnel because those whose needs are inadequately addressed may ultimately find their way into the criminal justice system.

There have been disturbing stories in the media of men and women returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with substance use issues, PTSD and high rates of suicide (Keteyian, 2007). Given that inmates are disproportionately burdened with substance use disorder and mental illness, and based on the corrections field's post-Vietnam experience, many wonder how soon it will be before the criminal justice system experiences a noticeable uptick in the number of veterans entering.

Criminality Prior to Military Service

The media have brought attention to crimes committed by veterans (Sontag and Alvarez, 2008), suggesting that criminal behavior might be a post-discharge byproduct of military service and war. Put another way, military service may be associated with future criminal behavior. While current research may shed light on the validity of this claim, much of the research to date does not highlight an important confounding factor: Veterans who have committed crimes may have had criminal records prior to their military service.

The number of waivers for criminal conduct granted to new recruits has increased significantly since 2003. The Pentagon reported that nearly one-quarter of military recruits in 2006 were given some form of criminal record waiver and as many as 100,000 people have joined the military with a criminal record from 2003 through 2006 (Associated Press, 2007). Additionally, a study of military personnel from Iowa deployed to the Persian Gulf (Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm) found that 17.7 percent of the troops were incarcerated prior to active duty (Black et al., 2005). Another smaller study of Vietnam veterans also found that a history of anti-social behavior more likely explained later incarceration than did wartime service (Shaw, Churchill and Noyes, 1987).

A study of a small number of incarcerated Vietnam veterans found, among other things, that many came from less supportive family backgrounds and "began as poor prospects in terms of their social, economic, and interpersonal well-being" (Boivan, 1987). In other words, they were at risk for incarceration prior to military service. Furthermore, studies have shown that during the early phase-in of the All-Volunteer Force military, volunteers compared less favorably to civilians in socioeconomic status, intellectual-aptitude test scores, high school graduation and problems with substance abuse (Greenberg, Rosenheck and Desai, 2007).

This knowledge compels the question: Is military service to be blamed for the present criminality, was the individual predisposed to criminal conduct prior to induction into armed services or is it a combination thereof?

A Look at the Numbers

It is important to make clear that veterans constitute a small segment of the correctional population. Historically, it is rare that...

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