Last year I wrote a commentary on pending federal legislation supporting the funding for a national level Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) program. Unfortunately, the VTC legislation got caught up in the “freeze in place” status that I’m sure other pending bills experienced through the turbulent periods of the impeachment hearings and of course the COVID-19 crisis. But if we want to positively impact on the national problem of veteran health and wellness, Congress must take action now to pass and fund the legislation, and the president must sign it into law.
For the record, the VTC bill is non-partisan and has received substantial bipartisan support. It supports a 12-year, metrics-proven program of successful treatment and rehabilitation against veteran suicide (over 20 a day), substance and opioid abuse. It saves millions of dollars in taxes by keeping veteran defendants out of jail and into treatment. And the key ingredient that has played a critical role in the VTC’s sustained success is the volunteer Veteran Mentor Program that supports a majority of the VTCs currently operating throughout our Nation.
If the VTC legislation is funded and signed into law, it will authorize the Department of Justice to nationalize a program that is currently and unevenly established and administered throughout the 50 state judicial systems. One example: there are approximately 460 VTCs operating in counties throughout the U.S. However, there are over 3,000 counties in the United States. State legislatures authorize their respective counties to establish their VTCs. No two VTCs are the same. Another example: Florida, as one of the more “robust” states currently has around 34 operating VTCs. Although this number may sound sufficient, it constitutes only 50 percent coverage for its 67-county state, which is also the second largest veteran populated state in the nation.
Advocates say veterans treatment courts have helped many veterans get back on their feet without the stigma of incarceration.
Here in Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit’s VTC, the docket reached a high of around 225 veteran defendants in 2019. The volunteer Veteran Mentor Corps supported the VTC with a total of over 120 volunteers in its program (55 to 62 mentors provide active, continuous support). These mentors are individually assigned to veterans, and help veterans navigate the VTC program requirements while being out of jail and participating in VA treatments and counselling, medical substance screenings, school, gainful employment, and community service. Last summer, these data points were discussed as part of the National Veterans Court Alliance presentation, led by its chair, Hon. Luis Quinonez, before key White House officials and on Capitol Hill.
As the national debate continues in Congress regarding “who’s in and who’s out" for the second round of the economic stimulus bill, both sides of the aisle will advocate for inclusion of their own respective programs. This is a good time to remind our elected representatives of the promise to our military and veterans, and to underscore the spirit of the Department of Veterans Affairs to “care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”
Helping our veterans, many of whom have returned from multiple combat deployments, deal with a brush with the law due to service-related conditions, is an issue that demands the involvement and support of our fellow Americans. We depend on our brave men and women to answer the call to defend our freedoms. We must also be there to support them by providing the needed resources to get them well again. Let your elected congressman and senator know that you support HR886 passage and funding now.
DJ Reyes is a retired Army colonel with over 33 years of service with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the senior mentor and program coordinator, Veterans Treatment Court in Tampa, Florida.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.