Cape police learn what makes veterans tick
Cape Cod Times
WEST YARMOUTH — In Iraq, Kevin Lambert and his fellow soldiers drove fast, zigzagged across traffic lanes, straddled middle lines and would not allow anyone to drive within 50 yards of their military vehicles.
In a war zone, this seemingly erratic driving increased their chances of survival. So did keeping a loaded gun at the ready 24 hours a day.
Not the sort of skills or behavior that translate well into civilian life, Lambert told a group of police officers, firefighters and hospital security officers Wednesday during a training session at the Yarmouth police station.
"What kept us alive in Iraq and Afghanistan can get us killed at home," said Lambert, director of the state Department of Veterans Services outreach program and a veteran of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, who was twice wounded in Iraq.
Lambert, along with fellow outreach workers Marckendy Barthelemy and Robert Harrington, spent two hours Wednesday giving their perspective on some of the issues veterans face when making the transition from military life to civilian life. Lambert likened military training to a switch that "does not automatically get flipped off when you leave the military."
The aim of the session, said Yarmouth Deputy Police Chief Steven Xiarhos, was to provide first responders with more information and a better understanding of some behaviors they might encounter in crisis situations involving veterans. The goal in any crisis is to "de-escalate the potential for violence," he said.
Yarmouth and Eastham police officers, along with Yarmouth firefighters and Cape Cod Hospital security officers, participated in the veterans session, part of a daylong training for police that included legal updates and refresher courses in first aid and use of force. Three similar trainings, also involving the veterans outreach workers, are scheduled in future weeks, Xiarhos said.
"We don't come to explain to police how to deal with veterans," Lambert said. "We explain how we get trained for battle and how the transition back to civilian life can cause problems for some of us."
"We don't advocate for police officers to change their responses to situations," said Harrington, a former Winchendon police chief who was wounded by an explosion while serving as an Army National Guard medic in Iraq. "The first issue for a police officer is safety. We can provide perspective that might help them better understand a situation."
Barthelemy, a Marine combat veteran, was greeted with laughter twice Wednesday, first when he admitted: "I was a little nervous about coming today. The last time I was in a police station, it was in handcuffs, charged with (drunken driving)." The second time was when he moved to the rear of the room, hastily admitting he is originally from New York and a Yankees fan.
Numbers concerning police crisis interactions with military veterans are hard to come by. The FBI began compiling statistics in 1995. As of July 2009 — the most recent statistics available — a total of 5,477 incidents with military veterans had been reported by law enforcement agencies across the country. These covered a range of situations, including domestic violence, homicides, robberies and "suicide by cop."
But no one can say whether these numbers accurately reflect the number of police-veteran interactions.
"I don't think many departments — I can't think of any — that separate out incidents involving veterans from those kind of incidents in general," Xiarhos said.
"Generally speaking, the number of police interactions involving people with emotional and mental health problems is on the rise. Within that group are interactions with veterans," he said.