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Iowa program aims to keep veterans out of jail, regain independence

By TRISH MEHAFFEY | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 3, 2017

CEDAR RAPIDS — Jesse Simmons said he had to learn to cope with the painful memories of his time as a soldier lining up targets near Baghdad — instead of blocking them out by smoking methamphetamine.

Simmons, 34, of Cedar Rapids, struggled for years and ended up facing prison time before accepting help. Now he is one of 15 veterans in Iowa's Linn County being helped by the Veterans Independence Project while on probation.

The veterans are required to meet with the all-volunteer VIP board twice a month. The board helps them set goals, holds them accountable and steers them to the help they need. Four veterans so far have successfully completed the VIP program. The idea is to keep the veterans on probation from reoffending and help them regain their independence. The program is open only to veterans in Linn County.

Both Simmons and Levi Tosh, 25, also of Cedar Rapids, said they feel lucky to be in the program and on probation instead of in jail.

“I’ve messed up a few times, but you know you have people who care about you,” Simmons said. “They know when I lie and call me on it. One board member, Don Tyne (director of Linn County Veterans Affairs), went out of his way to submit paperwork for me.”

“They are the top people who help you succeed if you want it.” Tosh said. “What’s bad is there are no programs to help vets before they get into trouble. But this one has a good group of people.”

The program was able to place both Tosh and Simmons in a rehab clinic for veterans in Minnesota.

STRESSFUL SERVICE

Simmons, a former U.S. Army sergeant, spent 15 hours a day operating howitzers, launching GPS-guided artillery rounds outside of Baghdad during two tours in Iraq in 2005-06 and 2007-08.

“It was stressful,” Simmons said. “We lost some people. I lost one friend. We would train some Iraqis during the day, and then they would go out at night and plant IEDs,” the roadside bombs that killed and injured many U.S. soldiers.

When he came home in 2010, Simmons said, he became an angry person who couldn’t cope with day-to-day issues. He started drinking and doing meth. He lost a good job and his wife. He went into substance abuse treatment in 2015 but relapsed. He ended up facing prison time for stealing to support his meth habit.

Tosh, a former U.S. Army 1st Armored Division specialist who did a tour in Iraq in 2010-11, said it was hard for him to go from the fast pace of convoy operations to the slow life back home in 2013. He started having anxiety and panic attacks.

“I hated the way the (prescribed) meds made me feel — there were no ups and downs. I had no emotions,” Tosh said, resting his arms on the table and exposing a Bob Marley tattoo.

Tosh started self-medicating with booze and “smoking weed” so he could sleep and be less anxious. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he described as a “crack in your brain from what you have seen.”

He was busted more than once for possessing marijuana while driving. Once, he was found passed out in his car with the engine running. Then, last June, he picked up his second drunken driving offense.

GETTING HELP

Ed Haycraft, VIP board member and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veteran Justice Outreach coordinator, the program grew out of a steering committee that was trying to establish a veterans treatment court in Linn County about three years ago.

He noted the Iowa National Guard has deployed one of the largest groups of people per capita in the most recent conflicts, but Iowa is one of only eight states that don’t have a special treatment court for vets.

There is the Woodbury County Veterans Treatment Court in Sioux City, which is a diversionary program that started last year, but it accepts veterans only from that county. There are no plans to expand the specialty court into other judicial districts, as the Iowa judicial branch has put a moratorium on expanding specialty courts due to budget cuts.

Haycraft said a formal veterans treatment court in Linn County didn’t happen because there wasn’t legislative support or money. But he didn’t give up on the idea. He got the 6th Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and other agencies on board, and they started the VIP program in March 2016.

The board includes professionals from community corrections, three veteran organizations and two social service agencies — people who have the expertise, skills and resources to quickly find solutions for the vets, Haycraft said.

The program, he said, didn’t require any “new” money because those on the board are doing their regular jobs by providing existing services for probationers who have substance abuse or mental health and physical issues, or who need help with housing, employment and benefits.

As an example, VIP board member Alicia Foust, a veterans advocate with Operation Home through the Willis Dady Homeless Shelter in Cedar Rapids, said she helps the vets find housing and can also help them with deposits and rent — as she would help any other vet who qualifies for Operation Home.

HAVING THE SAME PROBATION OFFICER

All the veterans in the VIP program have the same 6th Judicial District probation officer — Rod Courtney, a veteran himself.

He said veterans in the program usually are on probation for two or three years. They are required to meet twice a month with the board until they complete probation if they agree to be in the program.

Initially, all the veterans on probation are required to attend the first VIP meeting after their probation starts and are they encouraged to continue. But being in the program isn’t mandatory for their probation. Only one veteran has opted out, Courtney said.

“They are re-entering from a whole different culture, but this gives them a level of accountability and they are part of the process of setting goals to make the changes,” Courtney said. “We help them identify their strengths.”

CHECKING ON GOALS

During one of those VIP board meetings in June, Jason Booher, 30, who served in the U.S. Army from 2006 to 2007, went over goals that had been set previously.

Booher, who played with a fidget spinner during the meeting, told the board he was moving in with a buddy until he could catch up on his electric bill, which is one of his budgeting goals. He was planning to move to another apartment and might do maintenance for the complex to lower his rent.

Courtney told Booher he was doing a good job of hitting his goals, but cautioned him not to take on too much. Booher already has a full-time job.

“You said you’re working up to 80 hours a week, so you need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself,” Courtney said. “Even positive changes can be stressful.”

Booher, on probation for his third drunken driving offense, said afterward he was an alcoholic diagnosed with depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He said he’s been sober since Feb. 11, 2016.

While in the military, he wasn’t deployed because of a leg injury, but said he lives with guilt over losing buddies who went into combat when he didn’t.

In recent years, he also has been coping with the disappearance of his uncle, James Booher, 51, of Marion, who was last seen May 31, 2014. In 2015, police classified his uncle’s death as a homicide; no one has been charged.

The VIP board focuses on the veterans’ personal lives as much as on their employment and other needs.

Booher, grinning, told the board his 7-year-old daughter keeps him going. The daughter’s mother recently agreed to let him spend more time with the girl. He’s grateful for that, he said, even when his daughter drags him to the mall.

UNAWARE OF BENEFITS

Haycraft said some vets who are not eligible for services through the VA may still qualify for help through VIP.

Tyne, the board member and director of Linn County Veterans Affairs, said some don’t think they are eligible for benefits or won’t even check because of their legal troubles, which makes them distrust the system.

“This program has really turned some around,” Tyne said.

Tyne recalled one veteran who had been accidentally injured on a gun range. The vet was wearing a protective vest when he was shot, but his ribs were broken and he then had breathing problems, Tyne noted.

He was never treated until he started the VIP program. Tyne helped him get financial aid for the old injury.

WORKING WITH VETS

David Cmelik, a Cedar Rapids lawyer, said Haycraft and Courtney have helped him better understand what his vet clients are going through, which helps him provide a better defense.

Cmelik understands some might think a vet with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury is no less responsible for his crime and shouldn’t get special treatment. But being able to convey information about a veteran’s service to the prosecutor or the court can sometimes help explain a veteran’s behavior and get him needed help through the VIP.

Bruce Kittle, also a Cedar Rapids lawyer, agreed, saying veterans in the criminal justice system are “woefully unrepresented.” They usually have issues with alcohol and drugs and many have traumatic injuries that have caused mental issues.

“I am a strong proponent for a veterans treatment court in Linn County,” Kittle added. “I would also like to see a program like this expanded for felony cases involving veterans.”

Courtney said a researcher with Mount Mercy University has offered to study the effectiveness of the VIP approach for the Department of Correctional Services.

The department uses evidence-based practices in working with probationers and parolees, so the study will try to compare how VIP has made a difference for veterans on probation with the experiences of those not in the program, Courtney said. Details of the study are being worked out.

“VIP has done really well catching guys who might be spinning out of control,” Haycraft said. “We recognize veterans as a special population. If there’s any way to help them, we should.”

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©2017 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
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