Veterans Behind Bars

More Iraq War veterans are landing in jail but most counties don't track soldier inmates

Suicides among soldiers and military veterans have reached epidemic proportions, with 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of 2012, according to the Pentagon.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has uncovered another growing problem among soldiers returning from war — the number of those returning soldiers ending up behind bars. Experts say about one-third of returning military veterans battle mental illness and addiction. Many of them receive little help from the military, leaving them to fight their demons alone.

“I wanted to eat a bullet every single day,” said Marine infantryman and war veteran Anthony Hernandez of San Jose.

Every day since returning home from the Iraq War two years ago Hernandez  fought the urge to kill himself. He says it was a battle more challenging than the two tours he spent dodging bullets in some of the hottest battlegrounds of Iraq.

“I had a really tough time,” Hernandez told Investigative Reporter Stephen Stock. “I didn’t feel normal. I was always hyper-vigilant, I was always on guard. I felt threatened by my own community. I couldn’t sleep.”

The Marine said he returned with a host of problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression, and alcohol addiction. Hernandez said his marriage fell apart and ended in divorce. All because, he said, he couldn’t cope with civilian life.

“It was extremely difficult,” he said. “I isolated a lot. I ruined pretty much every relationship that I had. I didn’t feel comfortable with anybody except my fellow Marines. I had extremely tough time.”

Hernandez said his demons led him to stab his new girlfriend’s father multiple times during an argument and that a combat flashback caused him to snap. He ended up serving 21 months in a local jail on attempted murder charges.

Hernandez is one of a growing number of veterans now finding themselves behind bars. Lawyers, judges and veterans advocates say mental health disorders common among veterans can lead them into the criminal justice system.

“I think people would be surprised to know how many veterans there are in their local jails,” said Duncan MacVicar, a Vietnam War veteran himself and a current veterans rights advocate who works with former service members in the criminal justice system.

“If you ask the county sheriff in almost any county in the state how many people in the county jail are veterans, the answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” MacVicar said.

To check out MacVicar’s claim the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit did its own research and discovered he was mostly correct.

Reporters and producers contacted law enforcement in every Bay Area county and discovered that only Santa Clara and San Francisco counties track the veterans in their jails.

In Santa Clara County The Investigative Unit found as many as 60 veterans a day have been locked up in the last year and a half. That’s compared to a low of 19 veterans a day in jail. In San Francisco County, as many as 97 veterans a day have been behind bars in the same time period, compared to a low of 57.

The Investigative Unit also found that national statistics on veteran incarceration rates are outdated. The most recent US Department of Justice prison data is from 2004—just one year after troops began deploying to Iraq—with 10 percent of state prisoners incarcerated across the country reporting prior military service.

Even the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told the Investigative Unit that it doesn’t have current data on veteran populations in prisons and jails because many local and state agencies don’t keep track of that information. 

“A need has never been seen in the law enforcement community of identifying who veterans are,” MacVicar said. “They have just never thought to do that.”

Because of that, MacVicar and other veteran advocates say the number of former military members behind bars is underreported across the nation. Experts say the fewer veterans who are tracked in the criminal justice system; the fewer can get help that they need.

Local courts have taken notice of the number of veterans in jail and set up specialized courts called Veterans Treatment Courts just to handle the load of cases. An alternative sentencing law in California allows combat veterans diagnosed with a mental illness to get treatment in lieu of jail time. In many instances, cases are handled in a court where veterans are linked to services they need such as drug rehabilitation programs, housing, medical care or services offered by local Veterans Affairs offices.

“I’ve already seen young people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan coming into our system, and the very worst thing you can do is ignore them because these things don’t go away,” said Judge Stephen Manley.

Manley helped start the Santa Clara County Veterans Treatment Court in 2008. He handles around 180 cases right now—the largest veterans court system in the nation. Manley is currently handling Hernandez’s case in Veterans Treatment Court, though the case first went through criminal court because his sentence was so serious.

The Santa Clara Veterans Treatment Court is one of 92 Veterans Treatment Courts across the country and nine in California. San Mateo County just launched a Veterans Treatment Court in the spring, and according to MacVicar, Alameda County is considering beginning its own Veterans Treatment Court. MacVicar and Manley are advocating for the establishment of Veterans Courts in every county Superior Court in California.

While Veterans Treatment Courts offer promise for scores of veterans, both Manley and MacVicar say that the courts are like a safety net for veterans, when more should be done to stop veterans from getting caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

“Veterans, they serve their country, they come back and fill out a lot of papers and leave the military, and there is no follow up,” Manley said. “I think we ought to be more proactive on that end of it. I think we ought to be doing a lot more with veterans as they leave the military service to make sure they know what their rights are, what their benefits are and what services they may need. I don’t think we do enough of that.”

MacVicar said that he regrets that the place he has found some leverage to work with veterans is after they get in trouble with the law.

“That’s the wrong end of the problem,” he said. “Shouldn’t we be identifying them early when they come back, find those who are at risk, get them evaluated, get them into therapy before they get into trouble?”

The Veterans Administration budget has doubled to $140 billion since the Iraq War began, and both Manley and MacVicar say that the government is doing a better job caring for veterans in need compared to those returning from the Vietnam War. But they say more must be done.

A local spokesman with the local Veterans Affairs health care system admitted that the problem of educating returning veterans and catching those who need mental health treatment remains a challenge. Spokesman Michael Hill Jackson with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto said that the system is “doing the best it can” but admitted that the Veterans Administration can do more including improving coordination with the Pentagon about when troops return home.

Hernandez said he wishes he would have received help before he ended up in the legal system.

“The military is in the business of forming a warrior,” he said. “Not in the business of healing that individual.”

Hernandez said that upon leaving the military all he got was a 10-day course on how to fill out a resume and apply for a job. He says he didn’t receive any counseling or treatment.

“Nothing,” Hernandez said. “I dedicated myself and watched numerous friends dedicate their lives to this country for nothing.”

Now six months into Veterans Treatment Court with a year to go, Hernandez said he is healing mentally.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve extinguished all of my problems,” he said. “But I would say that if I was a glass and my problems were the water, I used to run at 90 percent and now I’m 30 percent. I’m okay with that.”

If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit email or call 888-996-8477.

Contact Us