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Veterans and Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System

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Two: Individual suffering, honor and bravery exist in even a misguided, unnecessary war, and it's a grave mistake for anyone to discount or dismiss this kind of recognition.

Three: It's just as much a mistake to focus exclusively on individual honor and bravery and to ignore the larger, often unpleasant history of a war and what it means on that level.

And four: War messes people up in sometimes permanent ways. And civilians who send people to war need to recognize this.

With these lessons in mind, it seems to me we have two fundamental ways we look at wars like Vietnam or Iraq and those sent to fight in them -- one that emphasizes individual Honor and Bravery and one that emphasizes collective History and Morality.

These postures tend sometimes to be hostile to each other. What I mean is, the Honor/Bravery side tends to associate with pro-war politics and the History/Morality side with anti-war politics -- although that may be a little too simplistic.

Parenthetically, let me say, when it comes to Vietnam, I'm afraid many of us will still be arguing over what that war means when we're in our dotage -- like old, cranky men whacking each other with their canes as they fade away into death.

So what does this mean for incarcerated veterans?

I don't have a lot of experience in prisons. But I taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for 12 years. And I've been interested in incarcerated veteran issues for some time now. I'm currently working with a concerned group of veterans called the Pennsylvania Veterans Justice Project that hopes to educate and lobby for legislative change in Harrisburg.
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I've written about Philadelphia Veterans Court as an example of how things are already changing. Yesterday, I attended Montgomery County Veterans Court in Norristown. I've written about specific incarcerated veterans and have regularly attended VVA Chapter 466 events like this one for some years now.

It seems to me that there are two distinctly different sensitivities the criminal justice system assumes toward veterans who run afoul of its laws. These two approaches seem very much in synch with the two approaches to war I just mentioned -- the individual Honor view and the collective History view.

Roughly speaking, the former view rewards a defendant for having served his country -- while the latter view tries to understand how a veteran's crime is related to his service and, thus, whether some degree of mitigation in sentencing is in order.

Consider a hypothetical combat veteran who has committed a crime. In the current climate, following a decade of foreign wars, many returning veterans suffer from some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or physical injury. How does a criminal justice system sensitive to veterans' problems relate to such a veteran? I'm suggesting it does so in one of the two distinct ways I mentioned.

In the Honor/Reward approach, military service to one's country is deemed so important that our courts, in essence, reward the veteran by offering him or her more than a quick trial or plea-bargain and a bus with barred windows to a prison cell. Instead, the defendant is offered an array of social options that comport with the notion of Restorative Justice. This is the current voluntary Veterans Court model. It's a fantastic model.
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The other approach, however -- the History/Moral understanding approach -- is often more difficult for the criminal justice system and officialdom to get its head and heart around. I would go so far as to suggest you could also call this the Corruption/Mitigation approach, since the way we ask very young soldiers to fight our modern wars can affect them in ways that are not always to the good and that arguably can amount to a form of corruption.

Consider our hypothetical combat veteran. I'm going to place this vet in my war, Vietnam. But he -- or she -- could also be from Iraq or Afghanistan.

This hypothetical veteran joins the military as an 18-year-old. He has no police record and is a pretty normal kid with a high school degree. Maybe he played football and undertook the usual adolescent hi-jinks. Maybe he experimented with alcohol or even smoked a little weed. Still, more than anything, what he wants is to be an integral, respected part of his society -- to count for something. So he joins the military.

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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