By TIMOTHY LOGUE
The congressman wants Veterans Administration doctors to communicate and share records with physicians at local, state and federal prisons who are charged with the care of veterans who were disabled as a result of their military service.
“I am not defending criminal behavior of any kind,” Sestak, D-7, of Edgmont, said in an open letter to Gen. Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs. “I do believe that those who volunteer to defend our nation and become disabled in our service, particularly with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) need to be provided with the care appropriate to their injuries. At present, we have a seam in the administration of care for those veterans should they be incarcerated.”
Sestak said many incarcerated vets are receiving improper medical treatment that makes them more likely to reoffend upon release.
“PTSD is the signature issue of this war,” said Sestak, a retired Navy admiral. “Many of our young men and women are coming home, not getting the care they need, and then seeking comfort in drugs and alcohol. Once they become hooked, they are committing crimes to support their habit. It’s a trail we want to stop.”
Sestak met with members of Shinseki’s staff about his proposal last week and said the response was positive.
“The general has already stated his goal of eradicating homelessness among veterans in the next five years and I think what we’re trying to accomplish goes hand in hand,” he said.
Vietnam veteran Thomas Clay of Media, who spent 21 months in the hospital recovering from machine gun wounds he suffered during the Tet Offensive in 1968, said Sestak’s proposal makes sense.
“As long as you have the person’s consent, I think those records should follow them wherever they go,” Clay said. “A lot of people who returned from Vietnam in the late ’60s and early ’70s came back with drug problems and medical problems that went untreated.”
Clay said advances in body armor are saving the lives of soldiers and Marines who would have been killed in previous wars. The trade-off for those that survive, however, is often some type of brain injury.
“People don’t realize the long-term effects of concussions,” he said. “These are injuries that can last for months and months and never really heal.”
Sestak said he also supports special courts for wayward veterans who commit nonviolent crimes.
“I think it can be combined with the mental health court,” he said. “We know that 20 percent of our active force and 32 percent of our National Guard force are coming home with PTSD,” he said. “It makes sense that we have a (system) in place that takes into account what they have been through.”
Joseph Rogers, president of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said a veterans court could cut down on recidivism and save money.
“Different communities have been using mental health courts for some time,” he said. “Most of the crimes are nonviolent and the largest percentage of cases are drug-related. With the high cost of incarceration, if you can divert these people effectively and show the diversion works, it can be an useful alternative.”
Sestak said 46 percent of veterans in federal prison and 15 percent of veterans in state prison are incarcerated for drug violations.
Of that population, 61 percent meet the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for substance dependence or abuse.
“Simply stated, we must do more to help ensure that those who specialize in treating service-related illnesses can help rehabilitate our veterans who suffer from these illnesses before they are incarcerated,” Sestak said.