COMMENTARY: Past Minnesota VFW Commander says veterans deserve the Veterans Restorative Justice Act
The news reported recently that Gov. Walz was thinking of calling a special session to pass the bill that helps people with diabetes who cannot afford insulin. If a special session happens, there is another bill he should also include that helps veterans in crisis.
Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-Int'l Falls) described The Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) that passed without objection through the Minnesota House this year as an alternative sentencing option for veterans with service-connected trauma, substance abuse or mental health condition who get in trouble with the law. In reality, it recognizes that the young adult soldiers we send overseas to defend the freedoms that are inherent in our systems, come home changed — because of their service — wounded bodies, wounded minds. When those wounds lead to criminal behavior, we all must accept our shared responsibility for that crime and seek compassionate rehabilitation rather than the usual punishment.
We have all read the stories. The suicide rate for veterans is a national tragedy. "For me, it was the bottle or the barrel" is what one central Minnesota Marine who served two tours in Fallujah and Ramadi — and a good candidate for VRJA — said recently.
He is proud of his service, loves the Marines and proud of the fact that "we did not lose one soldier to combat." However, at 33, he is in pain (body and mind) due to his "20 or so" encounters with roadside improvised explosive devices. His balance and eyesight are bad, hearing aids help the tinnitus, and he walks with a cane. He gets searing migraines, needs new knees and hips as well as shoulder and back surgery. He says the nerve abrasion he gets at the VA helps so he does not feel the pain as much. He struggles with PTSD, and one of his symptoms is nervousness in crowds. These are just some of his service-connected symptoms.
Apart from all that, what he said that was "most devastating to me" is the mental anguish of knowing that 40 of the 245 Marines in his company have taken their own lives since leaving the battlefield. He said they keep in pretty good contact "because nobody else understands." He had a relapse after three-and-a-half years of sobriety when his marriage broke up, crashed his car and assaulted the officers who showed up at the scene. He had never been in serious trouble before and does not plan to be in trouble again. He needs the system to understand and give him the second chance he deserves.
We are still trying to figure out why Republicans in the Minnesota Senate would not embrace this thoroughly vetted bill. It is the product of an 18-month collaborative effort by a working group comprised of leading veteran court judges, prosecutors, public defenders, state and federal Departments of Veterans Affairs representatives and veteran legal advocates. It had the formal support of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association — those prosecutors more responsible for protecting public safety than another group.
This bill was supported by all nine congressionally-chartered Veteran Service Organizations in Minnesota, including the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. However, that is water under the bridge. This bill still has strong bi-partisan support from both parties and actually would save the state $1,307,000 in just the first two years after enactment because of the 238 veterans who will not be locked up due to issues caused from the military service they willingly volunteered to provide this country.
We ask a lot of the young people we send to war to defend our freedoms. We owe them effective programming and supportive community relationships to ease the transition to a positive life after service — especially in their first few years home after service.
The VRJA is a step in the right direction. Gov. Walz has already acknowledged the support of the bill, and we thank him for that. We ask now that he include it as a priority for any future special session.