Time for a Federal Veterans Court

Read for an in-depth look at recent incident with suicidal veteran. VCS quoted. Posted: 02/28/2012 10:45 am

On February 12, the Roanoke Times reported the arrest of Sean Duvall for carrying a firearm — a crude gun he had made himself from steel pipe, a shotgun shell and a nail. The reason the Blacksburg, Virginia police became aware that Mr. Duvall was carrying a gun was because he had called the toll-free crisis hotline for veterans contemplating suicide. A veteran of the Navy, Duvall was homeless and increasingly despairing. He had dialed the hotline for help.

He did receive help. The counselor who answered his call called in the local police who took Duvall to a psychiatric hospital. After several days he was transferred to the care of New River Valley Community Services. Counseling and medication improved his mental state, and afterwards, he even found a new job.

But then he was arrested and charged in federal court with possession of a destructive device and three related felonies. He is facing a possible prison term of 40 years. His lawyer argues that the response of the criminal justice system in rural Virginia is “dishonorable,” not to mention “unfair.” “It shocks the conscience.” The federal prosecutor’s response: “Confidentiality is not absolute.”

Duvall served two tours as a member of the Navy — one tour during and one after the Gulf War. He was honorably discharged. Last spring of last year, he maxed out on the number of hours his part-time job allowed, and soon, he became homeless. Like so many of our close to 70,000 homeless veterans, his pride prevented him from applying for benefits or going to a shelter. In June, he made a gun out of a steel pipe and nail to kill himself.

The Roanoke Times lays out the details of the now public conversation Duvall had with the crisis hotline counselor, a conversation he expected to be confidential. He told the counselor — a person in upper New York state — that he had lost everything, that he had been walking the streets for days, that he intended to commit suicide, that he was ready to give up. He described the crude gun.

“The counselor promised to send help and asked Duvall for his location. Looking around, Duvall spotted a blue light from a Virginia Tech police phone in the parking lot of the school’s international student center on Clay Street. He waited there for a police officer to arrive.” The federal prosecutor has argued that because Duvall agreed to wait for the police, he gave up any expectation of privacy for what he told the counselor.

Mr. Duvall’s lawyer asserts that the federal government has broken a fundamental promise to a veteran. “It is wrong to tell a man that what he says will be kept in confidence and then use statements and evidence given in reliance of that promise to charge the man.” While counselors for the hotline are trained to rely on options other than the police, federal law stipulates that in cases of “serious and imminent threats to the safety of the veteran or others,” the hotline can disclose information. The prosecutor argued that the implications of Duvall’s argument are that police could not file charges if they responded to a veteran’s plea for help and found he had killed his wife and children.

This case raises critical issues for our veterans and our responsibility to them. The most glaring is the impact this case might have on other veterans in despair. The crisis hotline has, according to Veterans for Common Sense received over 240,000 calls since it was created in 2007. It has saved the lives of 19,823 veterans. The suicide rate among our veterans has been skyrocketing in the last few years, now reaching 18 a day. It takes tremendous trust on the part of a veteran to call the crisis hotline. The veteran must believe that the person answering the call has the veteran’s best interest at heart and has training and expertise to handle their crisis in a way that will protect the veteran from harm.

It will be difficult for many veterans to look past the impression of this situation to the specifics. We all need to be concerned that this case will have a terrible effect of dissuading veterans in need to call the hotline. We face the possibility that more veterans might end up taking their lives.

When we look at the case’s specifics, many questions present themselves. Was the counselor calling the police rather than an ambulance or the fire department the best way to get Duvall to a psychiatric hospital? Once Duvall readily agreed to wait for the police, did that indicate anything significant to the counselor about how dangerous Duvall might be?

What did the counselor know about the gun Duvall described? Such a gun cannot be used to easily kill someone. What did the person answering Duvall’s call know about Blacksburg, Virginia and the police there? Did they remember that Blacksburg is the location of Virginia Tech where a gunman killed 32 people in 2007? Did the counselor anticipate that the police there might have a severe reaction to a man on the street with a gun, no matter what type of gun it was?

Duvall’s horrible predicament underscores the necessity of training our police force, our counselors, our first aid workers to the unique characteristics and needs of our veterans. Rather than seeing them as intending to perpetrate violent acts, we must understand that what might look like criminal behavior are manifestations of trauma and cries for help.

What good, what justice will be served by locking Mr. Duvall in prison? What he needs is treatment. Over the last five years many states have recognized the injustice of prosecuting veterans for behavior that results from trauma they suffered serving their country. These states have created veterans courts, a specialty court that, rather than taking the traditional adversarial approach of convicting and incarcerating veterans when their criminal actions resulted from PTSD, creates a rigorous program of rehabilitation and training, enabling them to lead a productive life.

As of 2004, the last time the U.S. Department of Justice reported, an estimated 140,000 veterans were held in state and federal prisons. State prisons held 127,500 of these veterans; federal prisons held 12,500. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Department, as of October, 2011, Texas — the state most notorious for incarceration– had 11,567 incarcerated veterans. According to Brian McGivern of the Texas Civil Rights Project, many of these prisoners are veterans of Vietnam, who have been imprisoned for over 20 years. There are indications some have never received mental health care. Such care is not easily available in the prison system..

The good news is that the number of incarcerated veterans seems to be dropping. In 1986 the percentage of federal prisoners reporting military service was 24.9 percent. In 1997 it was 14.5 percent. In 2004 it was 10 percent. But considering only one percent of the country serves in our military, it is disgraceful that even 10 percent are veterans.

While the emergence of veterans courts is an invaluable reform, no state mandates them. It is up to the individual county whether to create a veterans court. This creates a terrible roll of the dice for the veteran. Here in Texas, a veteran can languish in prison in one county where in another the court would be connecting her or him to critical services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and facilitating her or his healing. If Mr. Duvall had walked out onto a street in Houston with his gun rather than Blacksburg, Va, he would not be in prison today.

The fact that it is the federal government prosecuting him makes his situation all the more horrifying, as the federal government can create a policy of rehabilitating our veterans rather than destroying them. It is time for a federal veterans court. Time to model for the states how we treat our veterans.

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